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Southern Women Writers Serve up Some Fantastic Fare!

By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department

Mmm, Mmm…

March is National Women’s History Month, an excellent time to recognize the talents and achievements of the South’s female writers. Through the years, Southern women writers have cooked up some amazing literary works, often focusing attention on relationships and families and advocating for gender, racial and socioeconomic equity.  And of course, southern food is key in Southern life and culture and is often used as an important tool for these writers. Won’t you join me for this literary feast?

Appetizer:

Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty

In Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty examines the complex relationships of the many individuals in the Fairchild family.  The story is set in rural Mississippi during the 1920s, at the family’s plantation, Shellmound.  The novel focuses on a wedding between the family’s 17-year-old daughter, Dabney Fairchild, and Troy, the caretaker for the plantation. From the rehearsal dinner, to the wedding feast, to the post-wedding picnic, Welty gives us Southern cuisine aplenty.  As the Southern women in the story cook together and talk together, we learn much about them, their values, and their commitment to family.

Entrée:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg

From the first three words on the cover of Fannie Flagg’s book, our mouths are watering.  All through the book, food is important.  The novel tells the story of a friendship between the elderly Mrs. Ninny Threadgoode and the middle-aged and discouraged Evelyn Couch.  When Evelyn’s husband visits his mother at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Evelyn instead visits with Mrs. Threadgoode in the lobby.  She returns time after time.

As the two women talk, Mrs. Threadgoode reveals the story of Idgie and Ruth, two women who opened a café together in Whistle Stop, Alabama, back in the 1930s.  In a setting fraught with poverty and racial tension, Idgie makes the café food available to everyone – although she is unfairly required to feed her black friends outside the back door.

The Whistle Stop food was home-cooked, nourishing and comforting, based on recipes from Sipsey, a black woman who had been working in the Threadgoode house since she was a girl.

“Even at eleven they say she could make the most delicious biscuits and gravy, cobbler fried chicken, turnip greens and black-eyed peas,” recalls Mrs. Threadgoode to Evelyn.  “And her dumplings were so light they would float in the air and you’d have to catch ’em to eat ’em.”

A sharp contrast is provided by the pre-packaged snack foods and vending machine fare that Evelyn eats and shares with Mrs. Threadgoode.  We see that Evelyn has an unhealthy relationship with food, gnawing through dozens of candy bars in one sitting and then obsessing about being overweight.

Later in the novel, Flagg depicts a heightened understanding in Evelyn, who prepares a lovely dinner for her friend:

“When Mrs. Threadgoode saw what she had on her plate, she clapped her hands, as excited as a child on Christmas. There before her was a plate of perfectly fried green tomatoes and fresh cream-white corn, six slices of bacon, with a bowl of baby lima beans on the side and four huge light and fluffy buttermilk biscuits.”

Dessert:

Hallelujah!  The Welcome Table, by Maya Angelou

I saved a book by one of my favorite writers, Maya Angelou, for our final course. While best known for her autobiographical memoirs, poems and essays, Angelou has also crafted cookbooks among her “lighter fare.” The subtitle to Hallelujah! The Welcome Table invites the reader to enjoy “A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.”  The Random House book jacket proclaims that the book is “a stunning combination of the two things Angelou loves best: writing and cooking.”

Each section of the book is introduced with personal reflection. In one of these, Angelou recalls the desserts that were shared to cap off local quilting bees:

“Mrs. Sneed, the pastor’s wife, would bring sweet potato pie, warm and a little too sweet for Momma’s taste but perfect to Bailey and me.  Mrs. Miller’s coconut cake and Mrs. Kendrick’s chocolate fudge were what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden just before the Fall.  But the most divine dessert of all was Momma’s Caramel Cake.”

Angelou goes on to share a poignant memory of how her mother baked a caramel cake to lift her spirits after an incident earlier that day.  A teacher had slapped the then-mute Maya and demanded that she talk. Read the rest of this entry

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