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Pork Products in the Work of Harper Lee

March 7, 2014 | by

George_Morland_Vor_dem_Schweinestall_1793

Detail from George Morland’s Vor dem Schweinestall, 1793.

Yesterday, the estimable Margaret Eby sent me something she had run across in The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, a 1961 oddity fiercely beloved by culinary bibliophiles. This book—which featured an introduction by Alice B. Toklas and illustrations by Marcel Duchamp—is a treasure trove of literary arcana, containing as it does entries from contributors as wide-ranging as Man Ray, George Sand, and John Keats. (Maria Popova did a terrific post on TAAWC, if you want to see more.)

One of the more contemporary offerings, and that which Margaret passed along, is Harper Lee’s recipe for cracklin’ cornbread. It reads as follows:

First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:
1 ½ cups water-ground white meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk
Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).
Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

This is noteworthy not merely because of its author’s famous reclusiveness, but also because—in combination with To Kill a Mockingbird—it indicates a certain preoccupation with pork. Scout, as we know, represents a ham—complete with visible fat streaks that shine under the streetlight—in the town pageant.

Mrs Grace Merriweather had composed an original pageant entitled Maycomb County: Ad Astra per Aspera, and I was to be a ham. She thought it would be adorable if some of the children were costumed to represent the county’s agricultural products: Cecil Jacobs would be dressed up to look like a cow; Agnes Boone would make a lovely butter-bean, another child would be a peanut, and on down the line until Mrs Merriweather’s imagination and the supply of children was exhausted … My costume was not much of a problem. Mrs Crenshaw, the local seamstress, had as much imagination as Mrs Merriweather. Mrs Crenshaw took some chicken wire and bent it into the shape of a cured ham. This she covered with brown cloth, and painted it to resemble the original. I could duck under and someone would pull the contraption down over my head. It came almost to my knees. Mrs Crenshaw thoughtfully left two peepholes for me. She did a fine job; [my brother] Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though; it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.

Later, as Scout and Jem are walking home in the dark, they are attacked by a crazed Bob Ewell. As she tells the sheriff,

“Well, after Jem yelled we walked on. Mr. Tate, I was shut up in my costume but I could hear it myself, then. Footsteps, I mean. They walked when we walked and stopped when we stopped. Jem said he could see me because Mrs. Crenshaw put some kind of shiny paint on my costume. I was a ham.”

“How’s that?” asked Mr. Tate, startled. Atticus described my role to Mr. Tate, plus the construction of my garment. “You should have seen her when she came in,” he said, “it was crushed to a pulp.”

Mr. Tate rubbed his chin. “I wondered why he had those marks on him. His sleeves were perforated with little holes. There were one or two little puncture marks on his arms to match the holes. Let me see that thing if you will, sir.”

Atticus fetched the remains of my costume. Mr. Tate turned it over and bent it around to get an idea of its former shape. “This thing probably saved her life,” he said.

“Look.” He pointed with a long forefinger. A shiny clean line stood out on the dull wire. “Bob Ewell meant business,” Mr. Tate muttered.

Pork, then, is both confederate bane and savior in the work of Miss Lee. As to cracklin’ cornbread, those of us who make less than nine thousand a day in royalties can create a decent approximation with a fatty piece of ham. But this may affect the totemic qualities thereof. It does, however, allow you to employ another key quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Pass the damn ham, please.”

 

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