Food & Drink
Rick Bragg: Eating My Words
Memories fade, but the moments breaking bread (and slurping oysters) with legendary Southern writers still fill the heart
illustration: Joe Ciardiello
Funny, the things you forget.
My memory used to be deep and wide, a fifty-five-gallon drum of a thing that could hold every pretty line and good paragraph I ever read. All I had to do was reach inside, rummage around, and come out with a fistful of Thomas Wolfe, or Eudora Welty, or Twain. Sam the Lion lived in there, with Atticus, Ignatius, Santini, Beloved, Ben Quick, Willie Stark, and a dog named Skip.
I was no scholar, no bon vivant in a seersucker suit and bow tie, quoting Faulkner and searching for the perfect bistro. But I so loved the Southern story, and it was one of the great pleasures of my life to get to know some of the people who wrote them.
Now my mind seems more like a teacup, a thin and brittle thing trembling in the hand of some faded Daughter of the Confederacy as she teeters across an uneven floor, talking to the walls about that time she had to hide in the root cellar because she heard the Yankee cavalry comin’ through the longleaf pines.
A lot of it, I figure, a lot worth remembering, just sloshed out.
It is not that I wobble on the edge of mental illness; I am merely getting old, and I was probably never that sharp to begin with. A man needs a kind of gimmick, a trick, perhaps, to recall. And it seems, more and more, that I find the writers, and their words, beside the food we shared. I find them in a fog of fried catfish and brown-bag whiskey, and across tablecloths scattered with oyster shells, hot sauce, crawfish heads, saltine crackers, and, because they are Southern writers, a bar tab as long as Gone with the Wind.
I find Willie Morris, staring into a cup of black coffee in the wee, sobering hours of the morning, telling me what a reader loves above all things. I find Pat Conroy, tears in his eyes across a white tablecloth, talking about a mother who read to him every night, and why, years later, he sent flowers to mine.
I find others, living or lamented, in an ambrosia of chicken-fried steak, or on picnic tables outside cement-block barbecue joints, or in a hundred other places, over humble and haute cuisine. I guess it should not come as a surprise that the great storytellers are bound up with good food. Southern writing, I have always believed, should be like sausage gravy. It may not always be good for you, but at least it won’t bore you to death.
Then the wind rose and the rain came down in heavy drops, and we paddled to land as quickly as we could and made it to a deserted tenant shack just in time. The drops made little clouds in the dust until the dust itself was wet and muddy, and the rain blew in gusts and rattled hard on the rusty tin roof. We waited there for a long time….Then the sun came out again, and the whole world was wet and cool….Then Daddy said, “We better be gettin’ back. If there’re any fish left, we’ll let ’em alone to grow.”
—Willie Morris, from My Dog Skip
It seemed, as I walked through the door, that whole centuries of grease and smoke had soaked through the walls of the catfish joint north of Jackson on Highway 49. I doubt if the place was that old, but down here, in this part of Mississippi, it is an eternal smell, like magnolia, or mud.
Willie Morris, the pride of Yazoo City, stood in the middle of the restaurant, and just breathed. The waitresses, toting platters of catfish so hot I swear I could hear that grease pop, parted around him like a great river. The world did that with Willie.
It was, to him, the perfect place…or it would have been, if it had only had a liquor license.
He skinned the brown paper bag off the bottle, and it was perfect again.
It was November 15, 1997, and it hit me—hit me like a damn ax handle—how a man like Willie Morris who had agitated all his life for change in his South could be so comfortable in its traditions.
You can be troubled by a place, haunted by its meanness and smallness and refusal to bend and change, and yet still love it so much it seemed like it was the only place on earth you could really breathe.
“This is a good, good place,” Willie said, though I would have bet money that there were people in that crowd who would have shot him on sight three decades ago…or maybe last Tuesday. He had been a crusading writer and editor longer than I had been alive, the youngest editor, at thirty-two, of Harper’s Magazine, for which he held meetings in a Chinese restaurant with the likes of William Styron and Norman Mailer, not because he liked the food but because he loved the cocktails. He is credited with changing the face of magazine journalism; along the way he wrote his heart out in North toward Home and almost two dozen other books, with hardly a stinker among them.
I remember the first time I saw him, standing in line like a regular person with his wife, the editor and writer JoAnne Prichard Morris, at one of my first book signings. He bought a shopping bag of them.
But it was the night in that catfish joint, after the bones were picked clean, that sticks in my heart. He had exited the place by hitting both sides of the doorframe on his way out. I had lived my whole life with staggering men, but I had never seen anyone hit both sides of a doorjamb.
Later, balancing a cup of black coffee, he picked up my first book and began to read aloud. It embarrassed me, but he seemed to have forgotten I was there. Then, after a long time, he snapped it shut.
“See, you say it’s the story that people love,” he said, “but I say it’s the language. It’s the power, and the beauty.”
I supposed, at the time, he was talking about writing in general, a theory. Then, years later, flipping through a book he had sent me, I saw he had written the sentiment down, in a dedication. And he referenced that catfish joint, so I would remember. Like I would forget.
When he died, just a couple years later, I called Pat Conroy to see if he had heard.
“Where do they have him laid out?” he asked. It was important to him that people who had left some good behind in this sorry old world be treated with respect.
“He’s laid out in the capitol rotunda in Jackson,” I said.
“The state of Mississippi knows how to treat a writer,” Pat said.
The line was silent for a moment, then came a sad kind of exhalation, like he was looking into the future.
“The state of South Carolina will probably just throw my body in a Dixie Dumpster,” he said. “And the state of Alabama will drag you behind a Buick.”
I loved the smooth-watered fifties, when I worried about the top-ten tunes and the homecoming queen, when I looked to Elvis for salvation…and when the World Series still was the most critical event of the year. The sixties brought this spindly-legged dream to its knees and the fall of the dream buried the joy of that blue-eyed youth forever.
—Pat Conroy, from The Water Is Wide
It was August 18, 2009, in Birmingham. I was there, in a jammed ballroom, in case the real talent could not go on. Pat had been sick, so the organizers of the event, a benefit for NPR, had lined up Pat’s wife—the acclaimed novelist Cassandra King—and me.
They would have been proud to see Cassandra, I am sure, but I was afraid the air would have gone out of that room with a sad, sad sigh if the emcee had announced that I would be filling in.
I wondered, in the greenroom, if an author had ever actually been killed in a stampede for the exit.
But Pat found his wind, and talked, and talked.
“Don’t believe that stuff Rick Bragg writes about growing up poor in Alabama. His mama was a Tri Delt at Vanderbilt.” He had also, at a previous show, told the crowd I was writing pornography.
I expected a bribe, when it was all over, and I got one.
Pat had written the foreword for the award-winning Birmingham chef Frank Stitt’s cookbook, and later that night we went to his renowned restaurant Highlands Bar & Grill to have supper. There, I finally understood that old cliché about “crumbs from the king’s table.”
It was a meal of genuine opulence. But the most amazing thing was the oysters. They came from all the waters of America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Eastern Seaboard to the Pacific Northwest. The table smelled of salt, and tides.
Pat, tired but happy to have skewered me in front of my home crowd, ate at least a dozen oysters without even catching a good breath. It is hard not to be happy with a mouthful of oysters.
He mostly wanted to talk about my mother, and his. He had gone to visit my mother when my first book came out, possibly to see if she was real.
“I knew to bring something,” Cassandra said, so they arrived with half a German chocolate cake.
“Whatever happened to the other half of that cake?” I asked Pat as he stared down one final oyster.
“Sandra’s people ate it,” he said.
It was the last time I saw him alive. Just before his death, he called me on my cell as I sat down for some fried seafood on a pier in Fairhope, Alabama, as the sun sank into Mobile Bay.
“I like it down there,” he said, so I told him what I was looking at, at the bay the color of mud, and the pelicans. I think we have the roughest-looking pelicans on earth; they all look like they have been shot out of a cannon.
We talked an hour or more, the food congealing on the table, then finally being carried away, to be discarded. Fried seafood is not a staple of leftovers. I would rather eat a pelican.
“I guess your food got cold,” he said.
“Naw,” I said.
And those old ones knew a thing or two and had some truth to tell, Inman said, for you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you are.
—Charles Frazier, from Cold Mountain
One of my first book events was a Texas twin bill in 1997 with Charles Frazier, whose sad, lovely Cold Mountain had been such a monstrous best seller that he was trapped, for a long while, in a kind of orbit of American bookstores and lecture halls.
I listened to him read his tragic tale of the Civil War and its cost, and forgot I was working that night, too. I found, instead of some breezy know-it-all, a quiet, soft-spoken man who still seemed a little puzzled by what his beautiful writing had wrought. As the endless line of his fans finally petered out, I wondered aloud if he could stare down one more late-night room-service supper. At the time, every room-service menu at every hotel in America had a portobello mushroom sandwich. I had eaten a thousand. I would like to find the chef who invented the portobello mushroom sandwich and punch him in the snoot.
We escaped in a rental car to a music hall and restaurant famous for honky-tonk music and chicken-fried steak. The drum sets and Gibson guitars had long been carted away, but I could smell steak frying, and what I believed to be white milk gravy, and pinto beans.
We talked about what a strange trip it was, this book business, and I wondered if everyone I would encounter in this craft would be as unaffected as he. Many years later, at a signing in Asheville, I looked out in the audience and saw him sitting there, grinning. To remember some things, you don’t need any help.
Though surely there were some times that he paused
my grandfather thinking This is my life
and catching himself before he was caught
lost wages or fingers the risk of reflection.
—Ron Rash, from “Eureka”
The menu was a kind of poetry in itself.
Ron Rash has been lauded as far away as Paris for his novels, like Serena, and his poetry, which is so real that it always breaks my heart. But we didn’t talk a lot about craft that day, some two decades ago. We talked about working people, the people of the mills, the ones who fought to breathe in the air thick with cotton dust and dared not stumble as they worked beside the hungry machines.
We talked about the spine in them, and how, if you pour a little pool of corn liquor in a jar lid and light it, it burns blue.
I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it was in Carolina…one of them.
I seem to remember pie.
I ate a fine piece of baked salmon with Richard Ford in New Orleans, and a tasty but stingy bowl of gumbo with Winston Groom in Point Clear, Alabama; we looked at the paltry puddle of gumbo in the bowls laid before us and laughed out loud. I had some pretty good banquet chicken—or was it steak?—with Sandra Brown; Dan Jenkins was there, I believe. I always kind of wanted to share some barbecue with Larry McMurtry, or a ham and onion sandwich with James Lee Burke, or a glass of whiskey with Hank Williams, who wrote better stories on a truck-stop napkin than most people can do with five hundred pages. I would have liked to have had a beignet with Tennessee Williams, or Truman Capote…
Well, maybe not Truman.
He was just such a name-dropper.
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