Monday, February 23, 2009


(The fourth chapter of my memoir.)

You might think, given the multiplicity of regional origins of my friends’ households, that their mothers’ cooking would have represented a panoply of Southern culinary styles. The fact, however, was that for real Southern cooking we had to turn to people’s maids, who were always colored (as we were on pain of a spanking instructed to describe all persons of African descent) and who ate no food but Southern. That was probably why we got more authentic, albeit lousy, food in the school cafeteria: All the cooks were colored. What the white folks ate was certainly Southern in some respects, but more significant was the triumph of processed, frozen, or canned “convenience” foods that had swept across the nation in the wake of World War II. The whites of Whitehaven clung fiercely to some of their Southernness—their casual racism, their home-country accents, high school and college football, mothers as housewives whenever that was economically possible—but cultural homogenization was big in the kitchen, nowhere more so than ours, my mother a Yankee and my father ferocious in his rejection of any food redolent of Depression poverty. He wanted “good old regular American food,” which in his way of thinking included fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried fish, and the cornbread which my mother never could master (it crumbled; he shook his head). In the homes of my friends whose mothers were Southern-born, or the few who had cooks, a great cultural fusion was under way, illustrated vividly in the locally edited cookbooks—of churches, Junior Leagues, ladies’ clubs—that were being published by the thousands all over the country and piling up on Whitehaven’s kitchen shelves.

My mother had over a hundred of these things. Among them:

The Memphis Cook Book, first published by the Junior League in 1952, preserved a few local classics—Okra Pickle, Southern Pecan Pie, Willie’s Bread Crumb Griddle Cakes, Wild Goose (“1st, shoot him”), Corn and Ham Fritters, Cheese Grits—but the like of those were sparsely distributed among the dozens of “convenience” and “fusion” recipes—Seven Can Soup, Fondue de Poulet à la Crème, Indian Curry, Casserole Supreme of Broccoli and Carrots, Frito Dish, Mushrooms Flambé, Hawaiian Delight (lemon Jell-o, canned pineapple, sour cream), Mock Plum Pudding, Mock Pizza Pie.

The Coahoma Cook Book, published by the women’s club of Coahoma, Mississippi—my daddy’s old neck of the woods—proclaimed itself “a book with a background, not the broad, general background of ‘Southern Cooking,’ but one made distinctive by the soupçon of Coahoma flavoring.” Exactly what that flavoring was is hard to glean from such dishes as Stuffed Dill Pickle, Moon Lake Party Punch, Fried Toast, Ham-Oyster Casserole, Shushed Eggs, Chess Pie, and Hebrew Cookies; but the book praises the local bounty of “fruits, nuts, poultry, dairy products, meat, etc., produced on the plantations” and “the game still reasonably plentiful behind the levees and in the cypress breaks.” Southern cooking was still in fashion in rural Mississippi, but even Coahoma wasn’t spared the incursions of Eggplant à la “Palmarissa,” Charlotte “Russee,” Marshmallow Salad, Venetian Apple Pie, and Olive Oil Pickle.

Our Delta Dining, published by The Mothers Club of the County Day School in Marks, Mississippi, preserved some local classics—Grandmother’s Spoon Bread, Lilly Mae’s Hush Puppies, Peach Fritters, Whoopie Pies—while also struggling for a sort of sophistication, of which the saddest example is “Petete ’De Jenue,” which I can translate only as petit déjeuner, meaning breakfast but in fact a casserole dish comprising butter or margarine, ground beef, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, canned mushrooms, noodles, canned ripe olives, and Wisconsin Cheese.

The attempt to convey an impression of worldliness spilled into absurdity in Bayou Cuisine: Its Tradition and Transition, published by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Indianola, Mississippi, which divided its recipes in a “historical panorama” of the influences underlying the regional style—Indian, French, English, Early Settlement, and so forth, even unto International Origin and Space Age. The principal influence on the true old Southern cooking—African American tradition—unsurprisingly did not rate its own chapter. This cookbook’s “Primitive Aborigine, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations”—before Andy Jackson sent them packing along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in the 1830s—allegedlly feasted on Salmon Party Mound, Honey Dew Fruit Salad, Barbecue on Buns, Hasenpfeffer, Duck Nero, and, well, why not, Indian Pudding.

Hernando De Soto and his gold-crazed Spaniards, in the remarkably capacious view of Bayou Cuisine, brought to the region Egg Ring “Cheairs,” Cucumber Freeze in Avocado, Kum-Back Sauce, Thousand Island Dressing, Chicken Tamale Casserole Cuban Style, Chasen’s Chili, and Coctel Après Dinner.

The French, first as hairy voyageurs and later as lace-cuffed New Orleanians, truly did bring French food to the bayou country, though well to the south of Indianola. The trappers’ Boiled Beaver Tail and Squirrel on a Stick aren’t treated of in Bayou Cuisine, but such genuinely Creole delicacies as Pompano en Papillote, Oysters Rockefeller, Oyster Bisque, Jambalaya, Shrimp Remoulade, Beignets, and Pralines all have a legitimate claim in our region’s culinary ancestry (we didn’t invent them, but we cooked them). One wonders, however, about crediting French tradition with Liz’s Frozen Fruit Salad (with marshmallows), Light Opera Fudge, or a String Bean Casserole built on canned mushroom soup and Ritz crackers.

The “Mississippi Territory” chapter covers the period between 1798 and 1817, when the Chickasaw and Choctaw were still officially in charge while throngs of white immigrants, hundreds of mules, and thousands of slaves were slashing and burning tens of thousands of acres of native forest. Here again, as in the French chapter, Bayou Cuisine includes old dishes well worth remembering—Virginia Punch, Ham Pie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Hopping John, Okra Patties, Pecan Cake, and Raisin Pie. But neither Bobette’s Stew, Cheese Balls in Aspic, Ham Loaf, Chicken Salad Soufflé, Mushroom Rice Casserole, nor Shrimp Harpin can be achieved without canned soup, which I believe was unavailable in the early nineteenth century.

I pass lightly over the “Ante Bellum,” “Post Bellum,” “Delta Chefs,” and “Art” chapters in order to rush into the real fun, the dishes devised in my lifetime. From “International Origin”: Bloody Mary Soup, Cracker Ball Soup, Italian Sweet-Sour Slaw, Talarini (= taglierine, presumably), Chinese Cheese Wafers, Jezebel Sauce, and Torch Bananas. And from our own Sputnik-haunted “Space Age”: Hot Cheese Planet Puffs, Apollo Oyster Patties, Instant Russian Tea, Cherry Coke Salad, Curry Rapido, Moon Meat Pies, Pork Chops A-Go-Go, Milky Way Cake, and Twinkie Pie.

Some sort of new Southern cuisine was being born. Luckily, natural selection soon removed most of it from the meme pool.

Twenty years later, my mother and her peers would be traveling to New York, San Francisco, Paris, and Rome, and tasting the dishes that their church cookbooks adumbrated so clumsily. In the meantime, there were treasures to be found amid the marshmallow salads and canned-soup extravaganzas, including one dish I still adore, credited in The Memphis Cook Book to the Old Southern Tea Room of Vicksburg:

Oysters “Johnny Reb”

2 qts. oysters, drained
½ c. finely chopped parsley
½ c. finely chopped shallots or onions
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
½ c. melted butter
2 c. fine cracker crumbs
¾ c. half milk and cream

Place a layer of oysters in bottom of greased shallow two-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with half of parsley, shallots, seasonings, lemon juice, butter, and crumbs. Make another layer of the same. Sprinkle with paprika. Just before baking, pour the milk into evenly spaced holes, being very careful not to moisten crumb topping all over. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until firm. Yield: 12 to 15 portions.

The South had a rich culinary tradition which Whitehaven’s mothers were to a great degree trying to escape. My own mother’s escape was from the sooty industrial and railyard town of her childhood, six hundred miles up the Mississippi from Memphis. Despite much ethnic diversity—eastern Europeans of every stripe, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, New Englanders—the food of Savanna, Illinois, was as grim as its mills. Mama’s collection held only one recipe compendium from there, Savanna’s Own Cook Book. The Cinnamon Apples Salad depended on cinnamon candy and red food coloring. There was Baked Cabbage, baked in white sauce. Casserole Potatoes were sliced, then baked in water and butter or margarine (baked in water?). Hamburger Pie combined meat, bread crumbs, “favorite seasonings,” canned tomato soup, and mustard. Molded Horseradish was made from lemon Jell-O. There was, vividly evoking the Depression, Mock Chicken. Texas Hot Dish brought together an unholy alliance of Spam, canned chicken noodle soup, evaporated milk, and oatmeal. Gumdrop Cookies: sugar, shortening, flour, and gumdrops. And these were Savanna’s fancy food.


Only a generation before, most of our Southern forebears had lived on farms or plantations, where not only the cash crop of cotton was grown but also chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigs, and cows, as well as orchards and vegetable gardens big enough to yield fruits and vegetables for the entire year, fresh in summer and skillfully canned for the fallow months. Few of our grandfathers lacked a shotgun and a rifle, for in those days before the ruthless monocropping of postwar, chemical-based industrial farms there were still extensive forests, canebrakes, and swamps throughout the rural South, in which doves, quail, wild ducks and geese, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, bear, deer, and wild honey were to be had, and the yowl of the panther was still occasionally heard. I sometimes wonder if my father’s longevity—he’s 94 and going strong as I write this—may be due to his early diet of home-grown chicken, milk, and greens.

The cookbooks of my daddy’s parents’ and grandparents’ day were altogether different from my mother’s. Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, published in 1879, offered six recipes for calf’s-head soup, the very sight of which would have set most of Whitehaven’s housewives to shrieking. The quantities to be “put up” were prodigious—“Slice one gallon green tomatoes”; “Boil twelve pounds soft peaches”; “Put three pounds brown sugar to every squeezed gallon of juice”; “Separate 100 oysters from their liquor”—and the recipes were mouth-watering: cold sturgeon “scolloped” with homemade mayonnaise flavored with celery and cayenne; roast wild goose stuffed with celery, hard-boiled eggs, mashed potatoes, pork fat, butter, turnips, onions, and pepper vinegar; chicken fried in lard and served with cornmeal mush (we might call it polenta now); cymling (pattypan squash) fritters; tomato marmalade; dark fig cake; pork sweetbreads stewed in milk and butter. Not a can of soup in sight.

We were far from our history, and far from contemporary life beyond our circumscript horizons. Although corporate affiliations, fraternal organizations, and churches linked our families to the wider world, those ties were not avenues. Nearly everyone was far enough from his European roots to have no old country to visit or even remember. Our name was Irish, and we knew that the first American McNamee—Charles—had arrived in Virginia in 1820 from Newtown Stuart in Ulster, but not much of our blood was Irish, and none of our family culture was. Only my name connected me to him. Whitehaven’s old countries were Mississippi, Arkansas, and rural Tennessee. We vacationed just far enough beyond them to feel a gentle, unthreatening foreignness—the steaminess, gambling, beaches, and spicy shrimp boils of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; the green, German hills and smoky sausages of the Wisconsin Dells; the hillbilly hardscrabble of the Ozarks and southern Appalachians, with their moonshine and air of sullen exclusion, where we could feel privileged and blessed.

My parents and my sister Janie and I went to the Gulf Coast, where gambling and liquor were illegal but nevertheless taxed by the state of Mississippi. Biloxi was little-league louche compared to New Orleans, but the same scents hung in the heavy air, of salt water, beer, fish, magnolias, cheap cigars, cheap perfume. We ate in restaurants! Every day! The Friendship House in Mississippi City with its tall, solemn waiters! The Black Angus, where they cooked thick steaks before your eyes with a little signpost stuck in each to indicate its desired doneness! We had blue crabs boiled in spicy broth, then spilled out on newspaper-covered picnic tables to be smashed with mallets. We licked that luscious juice from our fingers. I ordered a baked red snapper, and, something I’d never seen before, it arrived staring me in the face. You could get a mountain of fried shrimp for a dollar. And oh, my God, I swallowed oysters raw. Somehow my parents got a shrimp boat to take me out, and I brought back a mess of pink shrimp still wriggling in their net bag along with tiny flounders, crabs, shiners, eels, transparent squid.

My family’s sojourn in New York made us just a little exotic. For all her apartness, my mother had unavoidably absorbed a bit of Manhattan. Amid the dreary casseroles and congealed salads of Savanna’s Own Cook Book there were several blank pages headed, “Write Extra Recipes Here,” and on one, in her New York days, my mother had inscribed two of her own, one for broiled or barbecued South African Lobster Tails, the other for Rock Lobster Thermidor—dishes unlikely to have been tasted in Savanna, Illinois.

Recipes, in any case, came into use infrequently—at my mother’s ladies’ luncheons and my parents’ evening bridge club. I remember in particular her Pyrex casseroles of turkey Tetrazzini and her revolting Jello-based congealed salads. Our family dinners were much better: fried chicken, rib steaks cooked on the grill—my mother started the charcoal with lawn-mower gasoline, tossing a match from ten feet away and still having to duck from the stunning whumpf! of the explosion—excellent French fries, a dessert called apple float, comprising equal parts whipped cream and canned applesauce. Every Tuesday evening, my father went to Kiwanis Club, and my mother was then free to cook what she liked and he didn’t, such as chicken livers. My sister and I both detested those, and soon enough my mother gave in and started giving us what we really wanted: Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza, which came, as I recall, entirely out of a box; butter-and-sugar sandwiches (margarine, actually) or cinnamon toast; Swanson’s TV dinners, which we adored. Best of all, we got to set up little folding individual tables in the den and watch television.

Special occasions brought out my mother’s worst cooking. I remember one Thanksgiving when she got up in the middle of the night to start the turkey cooking at two hundred degrees; by dinnertime, it had long since given up its last ounce of fluid. We liked the cranberry sauce that came from a can; she made congealed cranberry salad with orange peel and other horrors in it. In the gravy gray, unspeakable chunks of turkey organs swam. The sweet potatoes were so heavily sugared as to set the teeth on edge. The rolls were store-bought and underbaked. Of the Brussels sprouts, the less said the better.


We were still so far from the great world! Whitehaven fought fluoridation of its water supply on the grounds that it was a Communist plot to damage American’ reproductive capacity. Whitehaven stood idly by as its innocent waterways were raped by the Army Corps of Engineers. Only a few in Whitehaven read books; I know, because I grew up going at least weekly with my mother (president of the local ladies’ book club) to the always almost-empty library. Our political heritage was the Democratic Party—the Republicans were still the party of Lincoln—but in 1960 most of Whitehaven voted for Nixon, to keep that left-wing Catholic snob Kennedy out (at a cost far more dire than anyone could foresee). My mother voted for Kennedy, a mild gesture but one sufficient to drive my father nearly to rage.

Elvis Presley was the idol of Whitehaven’s kids, the devil incarnate to their parents. His grandiose ersatz-plantation manse stood not a mile from our house, and sometimes he would suddenly, shyly appear at one of our pickup football games, astride a pink Harley-Davidson or at the wheel of one of his several pink Cadillac convertibles and usually accompanied by a bubble-haired, gum-snapping girl so utterly wrong in every detail that the gnashing of my mother’s teeth could be heard from every church pulpit in Whitehaven. The seeds of the culture wars had been planted, in our town and in our family.

The undoing of Whitehaven’s isolation was to come in a thousand tiny breaches, most of them at first no more than pinpricks. Through each came a tiny leakage inward of the world beyond; very little of Whitehaven would actually reach out into it until much later (as when I was launched, like an early space probe, into the barely breathable altitudes of Yale).

Among Whitehaven’s strongest defenses against cultural invasion was its all-pervasive racism. Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 had brought an official end to segregation, but the reality took until 1957 to penetrate our perimeter, when television brought us the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, only a hundred and forty miles to our west. We watched transfixed as Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard against those skinny, scared, dark-faced kids. We watched the white students and parents snarling and spitting at them. We watched as the outraged President Eisenhower federalized Faubus’s Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne. At ten years old, I felt the first strange flush of shame in my whiteness. The “white only” water fountains in Lowenstein’s department store (and everywhere else), the separate waiting rooms in our family doctor’s office, the segregation of everything around us, were suddenly visible. Bobby Towery and I stole from the window of the laundromat at the Whitehaven Plaza Shopping Center the wooden sign that read

Or Maid in Uniform

and we burned it.

I had already seen plenty of poverty, among both white and colored, when my mother took me along with her either into our local ghettos or out into the country to bring Thanksgiving turkey and groceries to the reeking shacks of the poor. For the Cancer Society she took sick poor people, smelling even worse, to the hospital and home again, with me cowering miserably in the front seat. Our poor people were very poor, often hungry, and it was worse down in the Mississippi Delta, where my daddy’s kinfolks all still lived, but until the civil rights movement burst in on us poverty seemed yet another fixed property of our world. Beginning to understand disadvantage as political, a function of active discrimination, and therefore ameliorable, tore a hole in my isolation, and through it shone a light almost unbearably bright.

The few colored people I had known were all servants—maids, cooks, country club waiters—and I did not understand their unfailing niceness as professional obligation (and a fragile trap door above the pit of poverty). Like many another quality assumed at first under duress, this niceness, I believe, often became genuine. Modine, my favorite among the succession of maids who served our family, I loved with a purer and more open heart, I swear, than I loved my mother. Sometimes on Saturdays Mama would deliver me to the creaking, unpainted tenement where Modine lived in a one-room apartment, and it would be an afternoon in paradise. Modine cooked neckbone stew and lima beans and collard greens on a wood-burning stove. She smelled of smoke and good food when she took me in her arms and I laid my head on her bosom. My mother and father both had hard edges, hard voices, and the hard duty of disciplining a willful child; Modine was all softness, a voice like a whisper, hands of inexpressible gentleness.

I continued to visit Modine for years after I needed baby-sitting. Photographs of John and Robert Kennedy appeared on the doily on top of her little brown TV, to be followed by one of Martin Luther King. By then I could feel not only the gentleness but the strength of her grip. We didn’t have to talk about Dr. King and the Kennedys; without a word she understood that I understood. I saw in her profile and color some American Indian ancestry—another people I had now begun to recognize as abused and heroic. When I sat on Modine’s sagging, chenille-covered bed and ate her soup from a chipped plate on my lap, I now know, she was feeding me her strength and courage. She had, perhaps wittingly, put me under a grave obligation, to live up to them.

Monday, February 16, 2009


(This is the third chapter of my memoir.)

It took me till I was thirty years old to remember nursing at my mother’s breast. I was under deep hypnosis, with the aim of quitting smoking, and the psychiatrist was taking me back and back by stages, prompting me to recall tastes and smells, any sensation that arrived through the nose or the mouth, and the events and emotions associated with them. I didn’t just remember them; I was there. I smelled hickory smoke and tasted barbecue, which took me to post-barbecue necking with a girl in my mother’s sky-blue Chevy convertible under the moon, our skin peeling stickily away from the naugahyde seats, on my right forefinger my first whiff of pussy-nectar. I smelled griddle-grease and tasted the greatest hamburgers of all time, handed through the foot-square screen door in the little cook shack at the country club pool. I smelled the burnt-insulation stink of the subway in summer—here I would have been somewhere between three and six years old, after we had moved to New York from Memphis and before we moved back—and my mother’s minty breath when she had bought chewing gum from the slot-and-button machine mounted on a peeling-painted steel column. I smelled my first pizza on East Fourteenth Street, “pizza puoy,” the guy all in white called it who brought it, and I burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I remembered sitting punished in the hallway on the rug where I was put when bad—this was earlier yet, I must have been no more than two or three years old—and the maid sweeping me into her arms in secret defiance of my mother, and the scent of her starched cotton uniform and sweet breath. I smelled honeysuckle, magnolias, roses, my orange-blossom-perfumed aunt and grandmother, the Mississippi Delta’s flower-scented pesticides, the cotton compresses smelling like potato chips, the dusty dank of my grandmother’s carpet. I scraped my knees on it; I must have been still crawling. I smelled fresh diapers and the acidic stench of dirty ones in the hamper. I ate applesauce, spinach purée, sweet potatoes from a loop-handled silver spoon in a grownup’s hand, “airplane” (food) sailing into “hangar” (mouth). I reached up and touched my father’s rough late-afternoon beard. It was summer forever, hot all day, hot all night, the hum-pulse of the oscillating fan, the breeze on my belly. And finally I lay crooked in my mother’s arm, sucking down her hot sweet milk, smacking my lips, feeling and tasting the sweat on her breast.

The doctor dredged me back through time as though from the bottom of the sea. The clock told me that I had been under for four hours. I walked unsteadily west on East Seventy-second Street, south through the twin rows of yellowing elms along the park, my nerves raw to the glaring chrome and blaring horns of the traffic down Fifth Avenue. New York was too bright and too loud. I walked all the way home to West Ninth Street and went to sleep.

When I woke, I went out on the little back porch and smoked a cigarette: Take that, doc! Then I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the idiotic hope that Louise wouldn’t smell the truth.


My mother and father were not comfortable in Manhattan; they made friends mostly among Metropolitan’s other expatriates. My sister, Jane, was born in 1952, and our mother withdrew further from the world and into motherhood. I went to kindergarten at Christ Church, at Park Avenue and Sixtieth Street, where I met children of real privilege and worldliness, and brought them home to my parents’ delight. Then I went to first grade at a public school near home, from which I brought home Puerto Rican, black, and God-knows-what-they-were friends, to my parents’ dismay.

We moved back south in 1954, to an apartment in Memphis, a temporary base while our new house was under construction in the unincorporated suburb of Whitehaven (originally White’s Station on the Southern Rail Road; the name had nothing to do with skin color). I began second grade at Whitehaven Grade School that fall.

It was still a country town, with a cotton gin, one bank, one café, a hardware store, a couple of gas stations, a general store on whose unpainted wood porch old men sat whittling and lying through the afternoons. When we moved in, Whitehaven was home to about five thousand people; by the time I graduated from high school, there would be fifty thousand, beneficiaries of the GI Bill and the postwar boom who had poured in from the country and small towns all across the middle South, where agriculture was rapidly automating and opportunities drying up. Our mothers and fathers were children of the Great Depression, and nearly all of them had known some degree of poverty. The scarcity of money in their childhoods had either stymied any travel or prompted the sort that evoked no lyrical memories—grimy buses, boxcars, shoe leather, all destined for soup lines, unemployment lines, degradation, destitution. Many of our parents were now far from their parents and grandparents, whose agrarian and also isolated lives resembled the life of Whitehaven not at all, with its shopping center, new houses, white-collar commuting, ambition, hope, prosperity, propriety, and ungrateful children.

Only a few of my classmates came from Memphis families. My father , Charles Thomas McNamee, Jr., had been born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and raised in the village of Tutwiler, near Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He had met my mother in her also very small home town of Savanna, Illinois, in the midst of World War II; he was an Army ordnance officer, and there was an arms depot there. She was doubtful about living in the frightening South, and my father’s mother, who featured herself a grande dame (while lacking the money usually considered the requisite excuse for such attitudes), could hardly bring herself to speak to his son’s lipsticked, red-nailed bride.

My mother, née Gladys Mae Runyan, had been a child not of the poor but certainly of the lower orders. Her father had run through a string of jobs, many of them as what Illinois called a tavernkeeper, a man who cussed and spat and got in “scraps.” Her mother was an obese, ill-tempered hypochondriac who never laughed and rarely smiled and had a lot of bad things to say about just about anybody or anything in Savanna. My mother had well and truly escaped, the first in her family to graduate from college, the University of Iowa, and to live in a big city, first teaching in Chicago and later working in the physics department at the University of Chicago.

Despite Whitehaven’s rapid growth and nonnative identity, real Northerners like my mother were very few. She became Southern quickly, addressing him as Charles in four or five syllables. (His mother called him Charles Thomas, to differentiate him from his father; his friends all called him Cholly. I, Charles Thomas McNamee, III, was Tom to my mother, Tommy to all other adults and to girls, McNamee to my pals.) Whitehaven was a sprawling social laboratory in which these thousands of newcomers were reinventing themselves as modern commuters and housewives. Hence the country club, golf, tennis, bridge, a saddle club, a library, book groups, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs. Hence the great middle layer of Whitehaven’s social stratigraphy.

Within that layer, especially with the passing of time and the maturation of affinities, there was a good deal of further stratification. College-educated fathers climbing the managerial pyramid, college-educated mothers decreeing piano and dancing lessons and proper ways of speaking, and their heedlessly fortune-favored, whining children formed an upper middle class that managed to be at once bounded and permeable. That is, if you acted “right,” you could get in almost without effort and without any distinction of ancestry; and once you were in, you defended your class’s standards staunchly against impostors. Within that class, there was an additional, sometimes confounding denominational layering: Baptists on the bottom, then Methodists, then Presbyterians, and on top the almighty though few Episcopalians. Below the Baptists you were beyond the middle-class pale, back in ducktails-and-chewing-tobacco land. Which is not to say there weren’t a lot—a lot—of roof-rattling, Bible-hollering, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, raw-floored, tongue-speaking, some said even snake-handling churches in Whitehaven, many of their congregants upwardly ascendant as well but unwilling to let go of that precious link to their heritage. I was taught, by subtly unspoken example, to ignore certain children’s existence.

We went to the Whitehaven Methodist Church every Sunday, Sunday school at nine-thirty, church proper at eleven. We sat near the front, always in the same pew, fourth row right, on the aisle—practically under the preacher’s nose. My mother was always turned out superbly, in suit, hat, pearls, and beautiful shoes, and my father, who insisted that she dress in nothing but the best, himself quietly but just as carefully clad, in dark suit, white shirt, muted tie, black wingtip shoes. Louise and her parents, who lived a short walk from the church, went there, too, less regularly, and I did not yet know any of them.

Both my parents became prominent in the church and in the larger community, as volunteers, as whizzes at bridge, as leaders. My father was elected chairman of the church board. My mother belonged to the fanciest women’s club in Memphis, chaired the Shelby County chapter of the American Cancer Society, and played serious tennis. Both of them spoke perfect English and had impeccable manners. They were paragons of order and respectability. Hence my early attraction to disorder and rebellion.


Those qualities were splendidly embodied in my friend Buzzy. He was fat and mean and funny, and in third grade I worshiped him. I hadn’t yet learned what it was like to behave really badly in school, but Buzzy was an excellent teacher. He also was a person of some privilege within the walls of Whitehaven Grade School—or so, at least, he assumed—because the principal was his uncle.

Although there were black kids living within a five-minute walk, the school was, of course, racially segregated; most of the students were Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a category that had come to include not only the great majority who were of British heritage but also the “Scotch-Irish” and people of German descent. (I was some of each, plus French and Swedish.) There were a few with Italian names. There were a scanter few with names like Cohen and Weinstein, but I don’t think they were actually Jewish, at least not anymore. The Catholics—the other Italians, the non-Ulster Irish, and a few of eastern European ancestry—had their own school. The cooks and janitors were without exception black, and to us they were anonymous bordering on invisible. It was a telling index of the time and place that my classmate Bo Olswanger’s father, Berl Olswanger—the biggest bandleader in Memphis, our Lester Lanin, indispensable at debutante parties and fancy weddings, and a member in good standing of the Whitehaven Presbyterian Church—was denied membership in the not very exclusive Whitehaven Country Club because he was a convert, many years before, from Judaism.

And yet there was a considerable range of diversity in the school’s demography. Across the road from the grade school, Whitehaven High happened to be the home of the machine and woodworking shops for the whole Shelby County school system, and therefore drew young men from all over the county who saw their future as laborers in garages, factories, and construction. Not many of them were going to escape those early-ordained destinies, any more than the janitors and kitchen ladies could have escaped theirs. By the time they were in high school these boys were readily identifiable as a type, by their hair styles (heavily waxed flattops, or grease and ducktails, or a revolting combination of both), their footware (say, black loafers with white lightningbolts down the side), their bad grammar, and their bellicosity. Their distaff counterparts pursued their educations in cosmetology or sometimes “home economics,” and they too, by the age of fourteen or so, were easy to categorize on sight, with their hair “ratted” into giant egg shapes, heavy makeup, open-mouthed gum-chewing, and minimal to zero orthodontic treatment.

When you’re nine years old, however, no kids have ducktails yet, and you don’t give a damn anyway who their parents are or how poor they are or if they say “he don’t.” Nature formed us for an arcadian democracy. But nurture—never more stern than when in hands newly endowed with authority—saw in fine gradations of social class a host of opportunities for the nurtured to rise, even if that meant an increment in social standing so small that only a mother could see it.

There was a top layer above us, thin but apparently impenetrable. There weren’t very many of them, and everybody knew who they were. They were—rich. They traveled abroad. They lived in big houses, often with pillared porticoes, and joined the more important clubs in tony (for Memphis) East Memphis. We knew them—they belonged to our club too—and we played with their kids and those kids went to the public school, but their distinction was never lost on us. It didn’t matter if their fortunes weren’t generations deep; Whitehaven couldn’t afford that Yankee sort of snobbery. One of the great men of the town had been a poor boy from Mississippi who had founded the first television station in Memphis, made a pile of money, built himself a big ol’ white stucco mansion in the California Spanish style, staring down on Highway 51—our equivalent of Main Street, and the artery from Mississippi (two miles to the south) along which his erstwhile peers, driving their trucks and jalopies to town, were obliged to pass in (we believed) disdainful review.

Buzzy was only a cousin of that great man’s family, but he wore a cloak of privilege nevertheless. So when the day came when we passed through the cafeteria line and sat down together and Buzzy lifted a forkful of blackeyed peas to eye level to inspect what was indubitably a caterpillar, he did not hesitate to run full tilt at our august principal shrieking imperiously, “Uncle Benny, Uncle Benny! There’s a worm in my blackeyed peas!”

“Buzzy,” replied Mr. Buford with an affable smile, “where else do you think you can get meat with your black-eyed peas for a nickel?”


Some twenty miles to the south of Whitehaven lay the Mississippi Delta, destination of the early-morning busloads of black children turned out of their schools each spring to chop cotton and each fall to pick it while we white children stayed at our desks. The Delta was my daddy's ancestral home, and his kin all still lived there. When we drove down to see them, Highway 61 would plunge from the wide bright cottonfields into dark bayou bottoms, and the windshield would be so spattered with bugs that we had to stop to scrape them off. Dead deer and snakes and owls and opossums lay sprawled on the bridgesides. Ospreys nested in the cypresstops, and there were alligators in the mud.

To the east rose the scrub‑and‑clay uplands of Fayette County, Tennessee's poorest county, pig country, Klan country, buzzard country. West was the River, too huge and too strong to be quite real to a boy of seven.

What was real was closer to home. A big Hereford bull lived across the road, a chaser of children. Down our side of Oakwood Drive there was a row of seven new houses, and beyond its dead end a deep forest began, with swamps and lakes and mysteries in it. Spring nights, the frog chorus there sang loud. In an abandoned barn pulled half down by honeysuckle vines, mud daubers built their terrible castles, tube on tube of wasp‑brick. Because I was allergic, my mama said, one sting could kill me. I grew to dread all insects--June bugs, yellowjackets, bumblebees, dragonflies alike.

The hedge, the lawn, the big hollow sweetgum in the front yard, the maples and dogwoods and pines, even the scruffy bushes that screened our garbage cans were wildlife habitat. Hundreds of songbirds squabbled at my mother's feeders. A family of rabbits every spring, shuffling quails and burbling doves, and countless reptiles and amphibians all thrived around our house. At lightning-bug time, my friends and I had “toadfrog”-catching contests. You could catch three dozen of those warty, poison-peeing monsters in an hour, some of them fat as a softball. Terrariums, their glass walls slimed with the leavings of mudpuppies, skinks, snails, and prize toads, were my pride. I also tried to keep box tortoises and various snakes, but they always escaped, often inside the house.

Behind our house was a sharecropper's shack, with a friendly old retired workhorse. Later, when the shack had given way to the grounds of a grandiose white-columned pseudo-mansion, there came a fancier horse, who would eat my father's Chesterfield cigarettes from my hand. At the bottom of the pasture, a little creek had its source.

I cannot remember when I first began to follow that creek downstream. It flowed slowly and opaquely along the bottom of a deep winding gouge cut through layers of the wind‑deposited silt called loess. Loess is a very fine and viscid stuff, and it makes one hell of a mud. Where the water backed up, the muck could be waist­-deep on a boy. My mother always said I was the muddiest boy of all when my pals and I came trudging home at suppertime.

Above a pool where the creek slowed to stillness, we would swing on grapevines and do cannonballs into water the color of coffee with cream, where the bottom was a bottomless ooze. Snakes swam there, including the dread cottonmouth. Kingfishers laughed in the willows and tall tuliptrees. Catfish took hooked bits of hot dog we dangled from cane poles on lines bobbered with porcupine quills. Once, a gang of us blundered on a hobo camp so freshly abandoned that a half can of beans was still warm on the coals.

As we grew older, I often went into the swamp by myself. I was a melancholy boy, sometimes lonely even among my friends. My solitary wanderings began, I think, as flights, from games in which I could not excel, from an uncomprehended restlessness, from the sweat and tumble and perplexity of social boyhood; but before long my long after-school afternoons alone in the woods had grown into pilgrimages, my weekends and summers rhapsodic quests: I felt that I was seeking something, and sometimes, I know, I found it, though I still could not tell you what it was.

Beyond the tangled muscadine and honeysuckle jungles, beyond the canebrakes in which whole chattering flocks of birds could hide, beyond the old overgrown fields snarled with blackberries and cocklebur, there came an even, easy, open floor of dead leaves and low, soft plants, pillared with trees of awesome girth and height. The canopy was far above, punctured only intermittently by the sun. I believe that this forest had never been logged, although, like some of these others, that memory may be colored by desire. I remember the air as very humid, very hot, very still. I remember the buzzing of wasps in that air, and, in response, the beating of my fretful heart.

My little creek (did it have a name? I never wondered) fed a larger one that fed Nonconnah Creek, which in turn fed the Mississippi River. Nonconnah was occasionally so audacious as to flood its own flood plain, and the Army Corps of Engineers dealt severely with such impertinence. Their chosen instrument of correction was the dragline, a great toothed scoop on a crane. It could rip out a ton of root‑riddled earth in one bite. The messy, inefficient eccentricities of Nonconnah Creek‑‑the oxbows, the riffles and pools, the braided channels, the islanded swamps, the tupelo bottoms‑‑were chastened into an orderly, straight‑running ditch. The rate of flow was thus increased, and flooding prevented, and development of previously unusable land made possible. That thousands of such acts of discipline would bring on anarchy downstream was not particularly a worry, for quelling the Mississippi's rebellion farther south would mean more contracts for the contractors, one of whom was the father of one of my neighborhood pals. Racing ever faster, full of the sediment that the old flood bottoms and swamps used to retain, the Mississippi today wants to crash through its banks down near Natchez and pour into the Atchafalaya basin‑‑and leave New Orleans sitting on a mudflat. To prevent this will require one of the most expensive public-works projects in the history of the United States.

The dragline first came when the old one‑lane wooden bridge at Mill Branch Road was to be replaced. Growling and grunting, it chewed out the bridge pool and left on the bank two Alps of mud. They were the only steep hills we ever had, and they made a splendid place for dirt‑clod fights--just the kind of thing my friends loved and I hated. In that deeper water the fishing improved, but where once a boy could sit all day undisturbed but by an occasional truckload of cotton banging over the planks toward the gin, now there was constant traffic: workers and materials for the tract-house subdivisions springing up to the south. I took my cane pole farther now, to the lakes.

My prey was mostly smaller here than the catfish of the creek, but better eating‑‑bream, and crappies, and once in a while a largemouth bass. No matter how early I might come or how late stay, the best fishing spots always seemed to be occupied by an elderly black man or woman with little to say to a white child. I wonder now, did they fear that I might be the landowner's son? And who did own that land? The thought never crossed my mind. They would nod, and keep on fishing, catching ten fish to my one. For them, of course, it was not sport.

There was a place on the creek we called the rapids‑‑it was just a gravelly riffle, really‑‑and there, one day, my best friend, Bobby Towery, and I came upon the most stupendous animal we had ever met outside the zoo. I knew at once, from my avid reading in field guides, that this was the mighty Alligator Snapping Turtle--you could tell by the three mountainous keels on his carapace--the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world, sometimes surpassing two hundred pounds. He was very far from his home, which was supposed to be the Mississippi River.

Snappers are swimmers, not walkers, and this one seemed to have run aground. A gingerly probe with a stick elicited only a slight drawing‑in of his huge plated head. We agreed that there was only one thing to be done: we had to capture the turtle. With my trusty Boy Scout hatchet we cut down a small tree and laid the trunk, about two inches thick, across the gravel shallows to block him from escaping into the opaque pool below. While Towery stood guard, I ran home for my green coaster wagon. When I got back, the turtle had not moved a muscle.

We had the idea that if we could get him to bite the pole he would not let go, and then we might haul him to land. How to get him into the wagon we would worry about later. But even with some pretty rowdy poking at his great hooked beak, the snapper could not be tempted to do more than flinch.

We sat on the bank and considered waiting him out. How hideous, how beautiful, how fierce, how still he was! How primitive, how ancient. What was time to a creature like this? Two boys could never outwait such a turtle.

We decided we would try to flip him onto his back. And then what? We'd see. At least he would be immobilized. Prying and pushing and sweating and slipping‑‑and terrified that one slip would tumble us in on top of him‑‑we got our pole beneath him, and the alligator snapping turtle came to life. He whirled‑‑I know, turtles aren't supposed to whirl, but this one did‑‑and bit our two‑inch pole in half, and clawed his way into deep water and was gone.

Monday, February 9, 2009


(This is the second chapter of my memoir, as romantic as the first one was grim.)

The parents of one of my roommates at Yale had a house in Jamaica. For a wedding present he gave Louise and me three weeks there. We were married on June 27, 1970, Louise having graduated from Mary Baldwin College in three years so that we could hurry the great day. She was twenty years old, I twenty-two. The only foreign country I had been to was Canada—I think—that is, I think I had gone about twenty feet into it on a slippery woven-rope gangway beneath the roar of Niagara Falls. Jamaica would be Louise’s first time outside the United States. We rented a car at Montego Bay and crept through the throngs of the city and thence sped into a world all new to us, of jungle, sugarcane fields, pastel shanties, skinny chickens, skinnier dogs, people walking everywhere, who gave very friendly but incomprehensible directions.

When we passed through the gate of the Tryall Club, as that colony of rich foreigners was known, we were in another new world, twenty-two hundred impeccably groomed acres, with platoons of laborers trimming, gardening, scissoring on hands and knees, a guard in fatigues with a heavy rifle over his shoulder, and then the houses, low and gleaming, and beyond them the dazzle of the sea. The staff gathered to greet us at the door: Iris, the short, fat cook, and boss of the place, smiling widely; the tall, reserved housemaid, Hilda; the even shyer second maid, whose name I’ve forgotten; Susan, the laundress, shyest of all; and Duke, the gardener, who fairly glowed with good cheer and entirely lacked the almost military formality of his colleagues.

Duke carried our bags in, and Hilda unpacked our stuff, gently folding each garment and laying it in a drawer, also putting aside for Susan those items which she deemed to be in need of pressing. As we looked on in mute fascination, Iris stuck her head in and commanded, “Gwaan take a swim. It too hot.” (We would soon learn that “too” meant “very” in Jamaican patois.) The staff dissolved out of the room, Hilda closing the door so quietly that all we heard was the soft click of the latchbolt. Louise had a new bikini. Soon we were swirling in the pool, its water perhaps one degree shy of body temperature, as congenial as a womb. Duke approached across the lawn with a bottle in one hand and a machete in the other. Putting down the bottle, kicking off his sandals, and hooking the great knife to his belt, he proceeded to shinny up a coconut palm with practiced ease. Thwack! and down came a fat green coconut, and then another, and another. Duke scrambled down, hacked off one end of the green outer shells, and then with a single stroke opened the hard and hairy inner nut, keeping upmost the hole thus created, so that the precious coconut water would not spill. Into each he poured a generous portion of Jamaican rum. From his pocket he produced three paper straws, and, grinning, the three of us sipped. Rum in the sun—instant booze wooze.

“You want another?”

Clearly he did, but we, dehydrated and travel-weary, were already pie-eyed. Iris was giving Duke her glare of official censure from the porch as she delivered a tray to the glass-topped table, arranged a bowl of hibiscus flowers just so, set two places with linen (starched) and silver (heavy, sterling) and china (thin, enameled and gilded), and said, “Come, children,” not quite laughing at our gee-whiz innocence.

We sat down to the most beautiful plate of food I had ever beheld, a seventeenth-century Dutch still life come to life but tropically transformed: little ruddy pineapples, their interiors scooped out, cubed, and heaped back into their shells; a fan of sliced papaya, for each bright-orange crescent a tiny pale-green lime cut in half; a spray of three-inch-long bananas; orange sections each trimmed of its membrane and cut away from its skin almost but not quite to the base; clusters of guavas; wedges of sweetsop; and best of all, two yellow-pink mangoes whose flesh had been removed in such a way that the shell formed a little barrel with a jack-o’-lantern-like lid—Iris had cut the flesh away from the seed, cut it in cubes and then, evidently having cubed more than these two mangoes, re-filled the skins to the top. We had eaten oranges, pineapples, and bananas before, though none so luscious as these, and the rest of the fruit was entirely new to us.

We were so happy!

Duke taught us to snorkel over the reefs: We stayed on the surface while he dove, sometimes fifteen feet down, through the clear, clear water, wearing a mask and snorkel but no fins and brandishing a terrifying spear gun. The corals, fishes, tubeworms, sea anemones, the whole symphony of the reef was yet another unprecedented composition of sheer beauty. Occasionally Duke would take aim and nail a nice fat fish, which he would stuff into a net bag, which as it filled trailed a dark smoke of blood behind him. Louise wondered if this would draw sharks. If it had, I reasoned, surely they would home in on the fish in the bag, not us. But weren’t we, she asked, bigger, easier prey? No shark came, though the silver barracudas that followed us just below the surface, with their staring eyes and fiendish teeth, were sufficiently scary, despite the assurances we had read that they were quite harmless. Sometimes Duke would pry a lobster by hand out of its hole, and there would be lime-scented lobster salad for lunch.

As Iris discovered how great was our enthusiasm for her cooking, she went to ever-greater lengths to justify it. A fisherman, dressed in virtual rags, would appear with a fish two feet long, weighing probably ten pounds, and Iris would negotiate a price, never cheap, and turn to us for the money. She would roast Mr. Fish—I have no idea what species these creatures may have been—with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers both sweet and hot, and oh! I realized I had never till that moment tasted how good fish could be. The abundant leftovers would make a lovely salad for lunch the next day, and feed the staff as well. The fisherman came one day with a crab I recall as having long, angrily thrashing legs and a spiky black carapace—another perfect salad, just mayonnaise, lime juice, sweet onion, and crab.

We would go with Iris to Mr. Reed’s store just down the road, where she would prod and disapprove nearly everything and shake her chubby forefinger in Mr. Reed’s face, denouncing his prices. The fruit and vegetables she finally, grudgingly settled for were sensationally good. Then we would go with Iris to the big central market in Montego, a jostling, laughing, singing, tout-shout-echoing arena of sweet-natured madness through which Iris made her way like a great ship parting the ocean. Iris had her favored “higglers,” and to them she went without a glance at the inferior stands she drew us sternly past. The farm ladies wore headscarves that could have been West African; some of the little boys running errands were barefoot; grizzled old men puffed on pipes and did nothing. The intensity of color, the density of life, rivaled those of the reef. Even the eggs were all colors. The meat, jaggedly butchered and hanging on hooks, was the color of blood; the butchers languidly brushed the flies away, or didn’t. Chickens here had feet and heads, pink, beady-eyed, sinewy, meant for the pot, not the frying pan. Cho-chos—chayotes—were among Iris’s favorite vegetables, and we too learned to love their pale green, delicate flesh. Louise doled out the cash, quite a lot of it, it seemed to us, but we knew that if we questioned no matter how politely any of Iris’s purchasing decisions, she would fix us with a suddenly cold eye and demand, “You tink me not know? Children, be quiet.”

We tried a few fancy restaurants and nearly crawled out of our skins in impatience. “It will soon come,” a waiter would say before disappearing for half an hour. The food was for the most part unconsciously parodic—a clumsy take on French, a fussification of Jamaican. Expensive, too.

Iris had the ugliest dog I had (or have) ever seen, name of Timmy, a fat, listless, rheumy-eyed door-blocker with a thin off-white pelage flecked here and there with little random spots. He yawned, and farted, and could barely rouse himself to a dutiful bark at the fisherman. Imagine, therefore, our shock when Iris approached us one day at lunch with tears in her eyes, knotting her hands, to announce that Timmy had killed a neighboring farmer’s goat, and, yes, we had to pay him for it. It seemed to me that Iris should be the liable party, but we really had no idea how poor she might be and in any case we were the beneficiaries of so much kindness and generosity—from my roommate and his family, and from the staff—that surely we must oblige. I do not believe that compensation for the dead goat entailed a transfer of ownership and a subsequent currying, though it was certainly possible that Iris would not disturb guests with such news. I believe she had at some point offered us goat—nice young goat from the market, not Timmy’s doubtless elderly victim—and we had drawn the line there. More fools we.

I had heard that the quality of Jamaican marijuana was beyond beyond. But the fellows around the market in town who whispered furtively, “smoke, smoke,” or just “ganja, mon,” frightened me, most particularly because I could make out less than a quarter of anything else they might say. Would it be the pretext for a robbery, maybe also a beating? And the goods, oregano? I had been living in New York, on West Seventy-second Street, for nine months, and in 1970 transactions of that nature, on upper Broadway, were not rare. Finally, one day at the pool, I worked up the nerve to ask Duke if he knew where some of this famous ganja could be obtained. In his grin I think I could see every one of his teeth, and in his laugh I heard, “Naa worry, mon.” It arrived the next day, tightly bound in a twist of brown paper, maybe a quarter of an ounce, five dollars Jamaican.

Ho boy. It was almost all bud, golden-green, hardly a seed, and so resinous it stained the fingers. After we’d taken a couple of puffs judiciously downwind from the house and all other settlement, the only place that seemed safe to go was the pool. This had the effect of mitigating the loss of sense of up versus down that had been among the first signs of the delirium churning through our brains. In water, gravity was defeated, one bobbed up and stayed up, half in the world, technically present, and half in the amniotic past of all mammals. We splashed and paddled and floated and laughed and laughed and laughed. It was broad daylight, mid-afternoon, and by dinner we were still so stoned that we ate at least twice as much as was our custom. Did Iris give us her mistrustful eye? Who knows? We couldn’t look at her.

Oh, love!

Whenever we ventured out, we were instantly sweating. On our return we would find clothes ready to change into, folded just so and still warm from the sun and Susan’s iron. Or we might just lie cooling naked in our privacy as the sweet-scented late-afternoon breeze breathed through the jalousie windows; perhaps too sunburned to touch each other, too hot with love not to. The room in memory white, white, the sea-dazzle softened into air white from within, air softened into caress by the slow white ceiling fan. Through the slats flame trees, hibiscus, orchids, epiphytes, banana birds, banana trees, a darkening sea-horizon beneath a billowing thunderhead. Slow reading, slow walking in the velvet dark, a butterfly slowly closing and opening its wings, slow to wake, slow to sleep. Each taste—buttered toast, poached egg, coffee of the Blue Mountains, banana, fried plantain, coconut chips, tomato, avocado, limeade, cool soup, cool lobster, cool wine, the salt on each other’s lips—each taste a slow blossoming, consciousness becoming memory, the remembering effortless, unconscious, none of this ever to be forgotten, none of this ever to be lost. Each taste, each kiss a certainty.

Monday, February 2, 2009