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:
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
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.