Thanksgiving Tradition

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Last year I wrote about our Thanksgiving tradition of reading aloud a passage from a favorite book as we sat down to dinner. As this year The Old Man and I will again be in Mississippi for the holiday, I will go back to one of my most loved book of letters from two of the state’s best writers: The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy edited by Jay Tolson.

While Foote wrote the wonderful novels Love in a Dry Season and Shiloh, he is best remembered today as the author of The Civil War: A Narrative Trilogy. Percy, a physician by training, made a startling fiction debut in 1961 with The Moviegoer which went on to win the National Book award.  The Moviegoer is the novel that not one but two of the people I hold in highest literary regard have excitedly explained to me how reading it changed their lives…a feeling I completely understand.

Foote and Percy grew up together in Greenville, Mississippi, remaining life long friends and literary confidants, often writing of the daily indignities of a literary life.

“But I am in low estate. I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S….Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass… the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys… coming home of an evening with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky, having 4 drinks of good sour mash…” Percy writes to Foote while working on Love in the Ruins.”

And Foote describes a moment while working on his third volume of The Civil War:

“I killed Lincoln last week — Saturday at noon. While I was doing it (he had his chest arched up, holding his last breath to let it out) some halfassed doctor came to the door with vols I and II under his arm, wanting me to autograph them for his sons for Xmas. I was in such a state of shock, I not only let him in; I even signed the goddam books, a thing I seldom do. Then I turned back and killed him and had Stanton say, “Now he belongs to the ages.’…”

Growing up in the Depression era Delta, William Faulkner’s works obviously had great impact on Foote and Percy. So my reading this year will also include Foote’s eulogy to his friend in October of 1990.

“I would state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in time for what he was in simple and solemn fact — a novelist, not merely an explicator of various philosophers and divines, existentialist or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them or even influenced by them, than was Proust, say to Schopenhauer and Bergson. Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors. Like Flannery O’Connor, he found William Faulkner what Henry James called Maupassant, “a lion in the path.” He solved his leonine problem much as Dante did on the outskirts of hell: he took a different path, around him. Their subject, his and Faulkner’s — and all the rest of ours, for that matter — was the same: ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.”

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A Short Visit in Maycomb

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Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square…Scout Finch.

I have never driven through rain quite like that.

It was early June of 2010 and the Old Man, Pookie and I were almost at the end of a weeklong road trip from Pookie’s college in Vermont, to her new school in Mississippi, and finally back home to Florida.

But first we had to make a long-overdue pilgrimage to Monroeville, Alabama, the real-life Maycomb where Harper Lee set her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  Where, as children, she and Truman Capote once lived next door to each other, making up stories and racing down sidewalks and through neighbors yards to the courthouse square.

It had to be a magical place.

On the map the drive from Oxford, Mississippi to Monroeville, Alabama looked easy enough: a few four-lane highways and a couple of two-lane country roads.  It was just after dark when the rain started.  It was somehow foggy and raining at the same time.  The country back roads that were nothing on the map became treacherously curvy and hilly.  Visibility was so bad that the Old Man used the navigation on his phone to tell me how far I had to go before the next twist in the road. There was no place to pull over.

Somehow we made it through the white knuckle drive and the rain began to subside just as we pulled into town. It was a Saturday night but nothing was open and no one was out.  Even David’s Catfish House, where Miss Lee was rumored to be a regular patron, was fixin’ to close. It was no different than any other small town Southern county seat with a courthouse square.

The following morning we found the site of Miss Lee’s childhood home, which had been replaced by a walk-up dairy bar.  The home where Capote spent time with his aunts burned in the 1940s.  All that remains is the stone wall that separated the properties.

And Miss Lee.  She still lives in her hometown.  And today, 55 years after the publication of her only book, she announced that this summer she will publish Go Set A Watchman, a novel she completed in the 1950s which features a grown-up Scout Finch.  I have already signed up for a copy.

So maybe Maycomb, Alabama is a magical place.  Just like Cross Creek was magical for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or Oxford was for Faulkner.  Or maybe even your community.  Even if it appears a little tired.

Cooking for Eudora

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“…like all good visits snatched from the jaws of time…” – Eudora Welty, letter to William and Emily Maxwell, June 10, 1970.

This is how I feel when my friend Cecelia and I meet for lunch—whether it’s a long overdue catch-up like the one we enjoyed today or a brief conversation over a sandwich.

Cecelia is also a world class cook with intuition: the friend who somehow senses that you didn’t quite make it to the grocery or that while the husband is travelling you will probably settle into a giant bowl of cereal for dinner. Without having to say a word, she will appear on the doorstep with a perfect Flow Blue Platter full of her famous “Macho Salad” or pork tenderloin with apples saying “I just made way too much and we’ll never finish it all.”

Cecelia is a gracious Southerner in the tradition of Eudora Welty’s neighbor and the Southern Living cookbook author Winifred Green Cheney, who kept the great writer as well as many other friends and neighbors sustained.

“She cooks to honor the visitor, and also she cooks for a varying but ever-present list of neighbors or friends who are convalescing from illness, who are in trouble of some kind, who are alone or confined to their homes,” Welty wrote in the preface to Cheney’s 1976 cookbook The Southern Hospitality Cookbook.

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707,” Welty wrote. “Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality. In good weather but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.”

In addition to being a world-class neighbor, Cheney was a food columnist for The National Observer and also wrote the Southern Living Cooking for Company as well as the books Singing Heart and Singing His Song. Although her recipes are definitely from the 1970s sour cream loving era, I take some comfort in the fact that Cheney died at the age of 87 in 2000; Welty died the following year at age 91.

My favorite recipe from Cheney’s Southern Hospitality is the Sour Cream Pound Cake which she introduces with little fanfare other than “With no exceptions, this is the best pound cake I have ever tasted.”

Agreed!

Sour Cream Pound Cake

“Let me be confined to my typewriter with a deadline, and, as though it were a fate I didn’t deserve, Winifred appears with something on a tray to sustain me,” Eudora Welty.

Preheat oven to 325

1 ½ cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, lemon or ½ teaspoon vanilla and ½ teaspoon almond)

Cream butter until it has reached the consistency of whipped cream. When you think you have creamed it enough, cream it some more. Slowly dribble in sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with soda and salt, and resift three times. Add flour ½ cup at a time to creamed butter, blending well with mixer on lowest speed. Add flavoring.(Cheney used vanilla and almond along with two tablespoons brandy. I use orange blossom honey moonshine).

Pour batter into one tube pan, greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours or until cake tests done. Cool on rack 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Remove from pan and continue to cool.

Enjoy!

A Thanksgiving Reading

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By The Old Man and Me

Under an opaque sky and the damp cool air you get in the South before the freezes come, the cedars and magnolias of the old Faulkner mansion regarded us with silent suspicion as we unfolded our little wooden table.

It was Thanksgiving and we had the grounds as well as the holiday to ourselves since it was the first time neither of our children could make it home. We spread the cheery tablecloth, popped the wine cork, and let the smell of bakery pumpkin pie, BBQ joint smoked turkey legs, and homemade stuffing made for us by a friend fill the air of Rowan Oak.

Before we ate, we started a new tradition. We each brought a favorite book and read a passage that meant something to us. Since we were on the sacred grounds of Rowen Oak, we read from “Absalom, Absalom” and “As I Lay Dying.” The next year, as we sat in our own Florida backyard, we read from a variety of writers including Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

This year we will again be separated by too many miles when the time comes to sit and give thanks on Thursday. But no matter where we are, whether it is at an extended family gathering in Lake Wales, Florida, a restaurant in Albuquerque, or an Army base in Missouri, we will stop and say a few words. And hopefully some beautifully constructed passages from a favorite book will make each of us feel “at home.”

This year one of the books we will be reading from is Mark Richard’s glorious 2011 memoir “House of Prayer No. 2.” Writing beautifully in the second person, Richard’s memoir is equally funny, heartbreaking and poignant. A good story is definitely something to be thankful for.

Here is a favorite passage:

“You tag along when they go down to Roanoke to pick up Truman Capote at the airport, and the first thing he wants is a drink, and the only place your friend with the limousine knows is the Polynesian restaurant by the airport where they serve birdbath-sized drinks with fruit and parasols, and Mr. Capote says, Perfect! You’re supposed to keep an eye on the time because you still have an hour drive to school, but Mr. Capote keeps ordering scorpions, and you’re all getting drunk listening to him talk about a man who injected rattlesnakes with amphetamines and put them in a car that someone got into and the doors locked once he got in and he was bitten to death, isn’t that something? It’s true, it’s true! He keeps saying in a catlike voice; he says he has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

By the time you get to the school auditorium for the reading, people are leaving, and there are some people really angry with you. Mr. Capote requested a pink spotlight, and even though he’s had as much to drink as you, he goes right to the podium and gives a reading of a Christmas story that makes people cry. Afterward, he signs two books for you; one you give to the father of a girl you are in love with who will die. She will be your first true love. When you would drive out to her gentlemen farmer’s house, you’d take bunches of gardenias cut from your neighbors’ bushes, and while you’d wait for her to get ready, you and her father would sit on the back patio if it wasn’t too buggy; his house was near the river where you could still see trenches from the siege of Suffolk, and the two of you would talk books, Faulkner and Camus. For years after she dies, when you would run into each other, you both try not to cry.”

Louise Shivers

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From the Washington Post obituary of Louise Shivers, a “late-blooming” writer:

“When she discovered writing, she found a voice for herself and for other women who didn’t have a chance to speak up on their own.

‘There are so many stories that women have known,’ she said. ‘Every time I pick up a pot, I think of my mother or my grandmother. So much was going on around them, but they never got out of the kitchen to tell about it’.”

I had never heard of Louise Shivers before she died. But now she’s one of my heroes.

Her book, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, is still available.

Or just check out her obituary…it might be the best thing you read all day!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/louise-shivers-late-blooming-author-of-here-to-get-my-baby-out-of-jail-dies-at-84/2014/07/30/ae909360-17fc-11e4-9349-84d4a85be981_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200

 

 

Chairing

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The text might arrive while I shuttle my children to soccer or struggle with long-forgotten algebra as I help my seventh grader with homework. Or I’ll text as I switch laundry out or leave a PTA meeting. The texts are usually just one word: “Chairs?” That single word boosts my mood and enables me to make it through the day.

Why the word chairs?

Well, our neighborhood has coined the term “chairing” to describe our impromptu cocktail hours in our Adirondack chairs. My neighbors have owned their chairs for years; picking them up in Cedar Key as a reminder of the special hold that island has on them.

Mine came to grace my yard more recently. My husband surprised me with them at Easter-choosing four chairs rather than only two, so that we could always invite the neighbors to join us. To say these chairs have revolutionized the way I live and use my yard is an understatement.

We’ll gather in one yard or the other many evenings. It’s a given that if you see the other couple in their chairs, you’re invited. It’s that Southern Hospitality that you think died with your great-aunt Millie or the kind of Southern Grace places like Celebration try to recreate, but fall just short of capturing.

Bottles of wine, antique stemware and seersucker napkins are expected. Snacks are a must—I find myself keeping pimento cheese or cream cheese and peach pepper jelly on hand at all times for chairing. Cheese straws or fig flat-bread might be featured, or if it’s been a crazy day, we might just pass around a box of Wheat Thins.

We sit and visit, review our days, discuss The Goldfinch or latest Vanity Fair article, theorize on where the missing Malaysian plane might be or discuss the great mysteries of our neighborhood, the current topic being why another neighbor keeps a step ladder in his front yard.

We stay as long as we can until the wine’s all gone or the mosquitoes eat us alive.

Knowing your neighbors and knowing them well is a luxury in these times. We four—five now that Pookie is graduated and home from Ole Miss—benefit from this old Southern way of living. Using fine china, antique wine glasses and linen cocktail napkins during chair time reminds us to cherish and appreciate the lovely perfection of ordinary days. Sharing food and drink to nourish the souls of your neighbors and your spouse is an act of love and serves to build the kind of life-giving relationship that seems intrinsic to the South.

We are the 2014 versions of Atticus and Miss Maudie in Adirondack chairs instead of on porches.

Cecelia is a military brat turned Southerner. She is an avid reader and lover of camellias, blue and white china, gin and tonics and tomato pie.