A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

[amazon_link asins=’B01HCAA6PO’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e0878d7c-9dc8-11e8-bd6a-6b909a316344′]I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick.  One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, “Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration.” In response, Marjorie published “Cross Creek Cookery”, a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable.  For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it.  There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.)  Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.

Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, [amazon_textlink asin=’0385532717′ text=’Recipes of My Life’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’0d018287-9dc9-11e8-aa34-9bd32eba34a1′] describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.[amazon_link asins=’0385532717′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’66ae5b93-9dc9-11e8-a10d-1d686ce27dc3′]
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.

To Breathe the Air of Books

I have a condition I think of as “The Book Bug.”  Whenever I approach a large collection of books  or I get my hands on a new one, my pulse jumps, my heartbeat quickens and I seem to get  a slight fever.  I’ve had the condition for decades.  It hit me as a kid whenever Scholastic Books distributed their lists of new paperbacks and I was allowed to purchase two. (My attempts to increase the order provided early lessons in negotiation and the Bug returned when the books were delivered.)  The air around books is rarefied to me and I’ve been known to get a book rush when I enter a big library, a good book store or a list of new book reviews.  I’ll probably need a defibrillator if I ever visit the Library of Congress.  Up till now, I’ve assumed I’m the only one with this silly malady and I’ve been too embarrassed to admit it. Thanks to My Reading Life, I now know it’s a condition I share with the writer, Pat Conroy.

Conroy is, of course, one of the novelists whose stories are a combination of  imagination and autobiography and he is the first to admit that.  He is also a reader with a world-class addiction to literature. It started with his mother, an autodidact who saw reading as a means of escape as well as self-improvement; she read constantly to her children.  Their family library was started with  a selection of cast-offs, lucky garage-sale finds and the children’s school reading lists but the Conroy kids became readers of note.  Pat described his own head rush when, as a young man, he found a place in Atlanta called “The Old New York Book Shop”. The owner became a friend who sometimes  let Pat mind the store.  Behind the counter, Conroy read the store’s stock, gobbling up all the great books he couldn’t yet afford to buy.
Not all readers feel the need to write but most writers (Conroy included) start out as dedicated readers.  I believe the metamorphosis happens when a reader finds the stories or books that cleave to and over-charge his or her soul.  The charge builds up until the passive reader is ignited into someone who must transmit his or her own tales and follow the writers that outlined the way. Conroy’s conversion began with the novels of Thomas Wolfe and it’s easy to see the attraction.  A lonely, word-loving boy of the South found the story of another lonely Southern boy written in lyrical prose.  The identification was immediate, surrender complete and another reader picked up the pen.
In the end, any writer worthy of ink retains an addiction to reading but their craft brings a new appreciation of the art.  Books can take you anywhere, teach you anything and bring you home for tea but those who have created their own books grasp more of the artistry in the creation.   Maybe that’s why Mr. Conroy appreciates all the stories that sustain his life as a reader.  Or maybe he’s just suffering from The Book Bug.

On a personal note, this is my 100th post.  For those who follow this page, thank you.  My gratitude is deep.