October 31, 2013 | by Margaret Eby
Trick-or-treating is really an exercise in cartography. I wouldn’t be able to give driving directions to the Alabama suburb where I grew up except under duress, but I could draw you a map of my Halloween neighborhood route with unerring precision. Sugar lust, after all, makes tacticians of all of us.
Here is the house that would only offer a few chalky rolls of Smarties for your trek up a steep, Virginia creeper–tangled front walk. There, a woman with a fake witch nose would request that put your hand in a container of peeled grape “eyeballs,” but reward you with a roll of quarters and a full-sized Snickers. Here, you’d find an empty bowl with a plaintive PLEASE JUST TAKE TWO PIECES tacked on the screen door, its contents long ago looted by a mercenary band of eleven-year-olds with pillowcases. That house, home to a diabetic child, gave out glow-in-the-dark slap bracelets, worth up to three packets of M&Ms in the candy bartering session at the end of the night. And here, the crown jewel of the cul-de-sac: the potato chip house.
The potato chip house was home to Major Bashinsky, an estate lawyer and heir to the Golden Flake snack food fortune. Bashinsky’s grandfather founded the company, which produces crackers, chips, popcorn, and ten kinds of flavored pork cracklins. Read More »
July 3, 2012 | by Margaret Eby
The local Junior League cookbook is the culinary bible of the Southern home. Every kitchen of my Alabama childhood had at least one well-worn copy of Magic, the Junior League of Birmingham’s 1983 recipe collection, with an enticing yellow-spiral binding and entries on everything from shrimp salad to banana pudding. Some would also have a copy of Palates, Platters, and Other Such Matters, the JLB’s 1950 edition, notable for its more liberal inclusion of lard and mayonnaise. Like every Junior League cookbook, the recipes were sourced from the community and thus varied wildly both in quality and in method of preparation. Still, the hand-me-down wisdom from Birmingham’s residents on how to properly prepare venison skewers or pimiento-cheese eggs had an authority that no celebrity chef or French instructor could muster. They were part of the trusted pantheon that my parents, whose taste ran more to grilled fish and apple pies than deep-fried catfish and layer cakes, would consult whenever a dish needed some extra flair. When I moved up to New York for college, my mother bequeathed me the most useful items she could think of for the journey: a ceramic teapot, a CD of Thin Lizzy’s greatest hits, and a copy of the newest JLB cookbook, Food for Thought.
It was part homesickness, part tiring of the endless meal-plan tuna melts that caused me to leaf through Food for Thought for more than just the pictures and familiar contributor names. (In scanning the index of recipes, certain contributors jumped out: the mother of a junior high crush, the organizer of the reception of my first and only debutante event, the family for whom my high school auditorium was named.) Sandwiched between essays waxing nostalgic about grits and poking fun at California cuisine were the dishes that taught me how to cook in earnest. After teenage years full of longing for escape from my muggy Southern home, I began, in my little dorm on 116th Street, clumsily making vats of overly spiced gumbo and punch bowls of mint juleps for my bewildered but grateful roommates. Read More »
March 21, 2012 | by Margaret Eby
The Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Charleston is housed in an old Methodist church, a grandly columned Greek Revival building with a rusty front gate and a pipe organ still intact in the back. It's home to a revolving series of manuscripts culled from the private collection of real-estate magnates David and Marsh Karpeles, a couple with very eclectic and expensive taste in papers: in any given season the glass cases wedged around the pews and pulpit contain anything from pages of Roget’s original thesaurus to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s sketched map of the Antarctic. The February afternoon I visited, a gregarious man with a low-country accent and a flair for displaying pamphlets announced the winter exhibit with pride: “The letters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, an odd pair if ever there was one.”
The dozen or so letters and scraps of free-written scrawl were from Conan Doyle and Houdini’s brief but spectacular relationship, one that was founded on and destroyed by a shared interest in the possibility of contacting people in the afterlife. It began, as friendships often do, with a book exchange. Read More »
February 20, 2012 | by Margaret Eby
There are certain towns that are forever linked with the authors who lived there. Oxford, Mississippi, is Faulkner land, parts of New Orleans’s Toulouse Street belong irrevocably to Tennessee Williams, and Monroeville, Alabama, is Harper Lee’s territory as surely as if it had been marked on the state map. If Jackson, Mississippi, had a patron saint, it would be Eudora Welty.
Miss Eudora, as native Jacksonites affectionately call her, was a fixture in the capital city of Mississippi from her childhood until her death in 2001. Her presence is still inescapable. Visit the Mayflower Café, off Capitol Street, and you’ll hear about Miss Eudora’s fondness for plate lunches of fried catfish and butter beans. Dig through the waist-high volumes at Choctaw Books and, with luck, you can come across a volume signed in Welty’s bunched and looping hand. Ask an alumnus of Belhaven University about Welty, and they’ll tell you how she used to keep the window of her bedroom open to listen to the music department practice, her head just visible in the top floor window as she sat at her typewriter
Author’s homes on public display tend to have a stuffy quality, all velvet ropes and militantly made beds. The assiduousness of the preservation drains the life from them, makes them seem impossibly antique. Welty’s house, a Tudor-style revival tucked into a thicket of pines, is almost unbearably welcoming. Visiting feels like an intrusion on her privacy. Read More »
October 3, 2011 | by Margaret Eby
Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a town that barely exists. It is a blip of a place, almost indistinguishable from the endless forest flanking state road 61 in the rambling northeast quarter of the state. There are no hulking ruins—not even a sign that alerts you when the town begins or ends. Though the population of Centralia peaked in the 1960s at more than two thousand people, now fewer than ten live here. After the nineties, road maps and atlases began leaving it off their indexes; the post office revoked its zip code in 2002. The reason is simple: Centralia has been on fire for almost fifty years. Read More »
August 31, 2011 | by Margaret Eby
To grow up in the South is to be fed a steady diet of grits and ghost stories. Ask any household in Alabama, and they’ll tell you about a friend or family member with a rogue phantom that blows out candles or stomps around in the attic. Being haunted is a permanent condition below the Mason-Dixon, one that defines the region as much as the voracious kudzu and the iced tea so sugary it hurts your teeth. William Faulkner, who was known to spin particularly scary fireside stories, described the Deep South in Absalom, Absalom! as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.”
No one knew that better than Kathryn Tucker Windham, an Alabama folklorist who spent much of her life collecting and patiently preserving Southern superstitions, recipes, and, most of all, ghost stories. Before passing away last June at the age of ninety-three, Windham published four cookbooks, eight ghost-story collections, and more than a dozen works of regional mythology, memoir, and fiction, most of them featuring her own household ghost, a Slimer-esque jester whom the Windhams affectionately named Jeffrey. Read More »