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Posts Tagged ‘Alabama’

Southern Holiday, Part 1

January 30, 2013 | by

Maude Callen's clinic in Berkeley County.

On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.

Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”

The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. Read More »

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A League of Their Own

July 3, 2012 | by

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 »

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Southern Gothic

August 31, 2011 | by

Anonymous, 'The Ghost of Bernadette Soubirous,', 1890, black-and-white photograph.

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 »

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Delivering Chinese; Self-Esteem Bingo

August 30, 2011 | by

Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Darin Strauss: I worked freelance at The Aspen Times as a nightlife correspondent: seven hundred words for fifty bucks, an article a month. Then I thought, Hey dummy, you published with The Aspen Times, you should go to New York and write for their Times! It didn’t work out. I lived with my parents on Long Island and delivered Chinese food. To avoid the embarrassment of being seen doing this, I took a gig at a restaurant two towns over. My first day, a girl opens her door to me, and it’s someone I went to summer camp with. “Darin,” she says, somehow unsurprised to find me on her doorstep. “Good timing. Come in, I just ordered Chinese food.” I told her I knew, I knew.

I finally got a job at a financial technology newsletter, where I wrote stories with openings like: “Morgan Stanley is reported to be buying the Telerate trading platform to replace its Thomson real-time, turning from Unix to tcb/ip servers, with four hundred real-time end users.” I never bothered to learn what any of that meant; I wanted to keep my mind free for fiction. I was going to write, write, write. I thought I’d be fired instantly. When my boss said, “Telerate’s TIB is in trouble with its real-time market data platform—find out if data delivery is ... ,” I didn’t know whom to call, what to ask, even what I was supposed to do if I found out. Some kind woman gave me a list of questions to ask, and some numbers to call. Three years I worked there, interviewing people without a clue what I was asking.

Deb Olin Unferth: In Birmingham, Alabama, I taught “self-esteem” in the Department of Family Services waiting room, where four or five hundred people showed up at seven in the morning and waited for hours—sometimes six, seven hours—for their appointments to get food stamps, or to sign up for welfare, or to meet with their caseworker about the children who had been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. My main activity was to get them to play self-esteem bingo. I handed out blank cards, and people were supposed to write adjectives that described them in the spaces. I provided a sample list: “beautiful,” “smart,” “funny.” I’d call out the words and when someone said, “Bingo,” I’d read their card aloud and say, “Now does she have a good self-esteem or a bad self-esteem?” and whoever didn’t completely hate me by that time would chirp, “Good self-esteem!” And I’d give the winner a tiny cheap notebook and say, “Here’s a place for you to write your hopes and dreams.”

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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