In honor (it seems a weird thing to honor a man’s death…in remembrance!) of William Faulkner’s death 50 years ago this week, I dug up this old piece, which is the only time I’ve ever written about the decrepit old brick on my bookcase that people always ask about. It wasn’t always mine. It used to belong to ‘ol Billy.
“Pig Under Glass” (from the Spring 2003 issue of Gastronomica)
By Timothy C. Davis
Pretty fair gig, when you get down to it. Take a vacation. Eat barbecue. Collect a check. Why, it was like one of those ads you see on the back of a tabloid newspaper: “Have Safe Sex – Get Paid!”
You see, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) — part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture — held their annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, last fall, and I was invited to attend. For the uninitiated, the SFA is a splinter organization formed to “celebrate, preserve, promote, and nurture the traditional and developing diverse food cultures of the American South.” And, one imagines, to give everyone a good excuse to pig out every few months or so under the auspices of “research.”
On the surface, it was a symposium like most – speakers, readings, and low-risk,
hands-on activities for the attendees. Coffee. Name tags. Hangers-on and the odd
unwashed purist there for his or her own pleasure.
But it was also different. It was a symposium on barbecue. Smoked meat. Sauce. On little else and everything else, all at the same time.
John T. Edge, the public face of the SFA, had been kind enough to let me attend the festivities for free, on the caveat that I would run the tape recorder for the event. Easy enough, I thought. Press play. Listen to someone’s tiresome exegesis on vinegar sauce. Press stop. Reload. All I had to do was rent a big ‘ol American lead sled and pay for the gas.
John, bless his heart, didn’t mention Sonnie Rock’s House of Fashion. Didn’t say a
word about Wesley’s Boobie Trap, evidently a rather popular nightspot. Didn’t mention there was a place where, should I need it, I could stop for “Quick Tattoos – Guns — Piercings (And Now Tanning!).” Nor did he mention that my car’s Global Positioning System would go out — as if in a vortex — in Pontotoc, Mississippi, making me wonder if I had just driven through some space/time wrinkle into William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.
All of these things might have tempted a lesser man, but I had a job to do. My mission? Soak everything up. Marinate myself in my surroundings.
The Food. Get To The Food!
John did mention the food, however: barbecue. Kansas City style, tomato-based, and with vinegar sauce. Ribs. Pork. Pig. Saint Panchard. Glorious food, prepared by trained chefs and longtime, local-legend pitmasters (who, interestingly enough, are sometimes referred to as pit bosses. It’s an apt analogy, actually — good barbecue is a gamble, and one often loses). I wasn’t sure if it was all you can eat, but being southern, I was ready to raise a considerable, hog-farm-worthy stink of my own if it wasn’t.
The whole shebang began on Thursday night, with something called an “Aberrant
Barbecue Supper.” Included on the menu were shrimp in a rich, buttery barbecue sauce by Amy Crockett of Ajax Diner; barbecued Cornish game hens from Ray Robinson Jr. of Cozy Corner in Memphis, Tennessee, and most, er, aberrantly, smoked — and then fried – ribs by Bart Wood of Little Dooey’s in Columbus, Mississippi. After a few minutes of picking at their plates, most folks realized you can’t eat anything barbecue-related in a dainty fashion, and threw caution and Handi-wipes to the wind. After backing away from the trough, we were ushered outside, where we saw a film in the courthouse square about a man who taught his pigs to pray –- okay, to pause while he prays –- before they eat their day’s slop. I prayed for an Alka-Seltzer.
After a fine Barbecue Benediction from poet Jake Adam York, I spent the next morning taping Lolis Eric Elie of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who waxed eloquent on the geography of Southern barbecue. Towards the end, Mr. Elie opined that barbecue might be our country’s only native food. The estimable R.W. (Johnny) Apple, the roving, rambling scribe for the New York Times, snorted his disgust. “What about gumbo?” he half shrieked. This was to be the preferred manner of discourse throughout my visit -– good-natured disgust. Frankly, getting a group of barbecue fanatics to agree on sauce or historical particulars is like trying to convince NFL fans they all need to pick one team.
Fortunately, it was time for lunch, and the argument was forgotten as folks piled plates high with mustard-based barbecue sandwiches (made with hoecakes), chicken-fried pork sandwiches with a squirt of sauce, coleslaw, and banana pudding thick enough to hold a spoon at attention. I seated myself at a table with Mr. Apple, who proceeded to hold court on the morning’s deliberations – and politics, and the state of journalism, and ice tea — in a fashion Ken Starr would have been proud of.
Mind you, he had nothing bad to say about the food.
Fables of the Reconstruction
At the Friday night catfish supper at the Taylor Grocery in neighboring Taylor,
Mississippi, folks were served steaming plates of flaky, snowflake-white catfish, golden-brown sugar-sweetened hush puppies, French fries, creamy coleslaw, sliced onions, and ice tea or Coca-Cola in a can. And, no doubt eager to reach a new demographic (or perhaps to further confuse those expecting, er, barbecue), the folks from Jack Daniel’s distillery were on hand, with enough bottles of their most excellent product to fill the better part of Oxford’s water tower. Kevin Gordon, the roots musician listed in the symposium participant sheet beside the legend “rocker,” set up in the corner. Within minutes, he launched into a spattering set of greasy roadhouse rock, with a bucket for tips laid atop his amplifier, itself perched on an old RC Cola crate. Ever seen the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard? The inside of Taylor Grocery was something like that show’s Boar’s Nest, the little establishment that would feature musical performances from whoever Boss Hogg and Co. managed to snag in their speed traps.
Speaking of road trips, folks were whisked to Taylor by bus. An Oxford bus. An Oxford, England bus, with two decks and paint as red as tomato ketchup, and a veritable rolling exclamation point in these parts, especially in the midst of a chilly October evening.
Soon after our arrival, Savile Row became Swinging London: the booze began to flow free and easy, greasing the formerly locked knees and jaws of some of the attendees and soon creating the sort of awkward hullabaloo that starts when your Aunt Myrtle brings out the muscadine wine at the family reunion.
Halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniels and hiding another one under the table, I mused. Here were Major Food Writers from Major Magazines, most completely plastered, getting to see the South not under glass, but out in the field, with all the capable guides you could ever want. Here wasn’t a new species to be studied, but real folks. Folks with whiskey! And all-you-can-eat catfish! Talking to you, pouring you more tea!
The next morning, I listened, rapt, as one young New York-based writer described the roadhouse’s graffiti-laden walls as “roll-on kitsch.” Evidently, none of the building’s graffiti was obscene enough to suggest authenticity (like one might find on the subway, say). When I’d left him the night before, he was dancing for his life in front of the stage. Last I heard, he ended up in a graveyard with some Ole Miss graduate students, pouring whiskey on the well-tended plot of a (no doubt grateful) Bill Faulkner.
He just didn’t get it. These people, these fine Mississippi people, don’t all drive pickups strewn with George Strait tapes, and some of them even despise pork rinds. Hell, most of them don’t even smoke. Some of them like avant-garde indie rock; others, French cuisine. Some folks even like their indie rock and their French cuisine.
They were present that night in Taylor, and all throughout my visit. They know this doesn’t make them rednecks, just as it doesn’t make them any sort of new bohemian. Which, it should be noted, doesn’t mean they’re ashamed of celebrating a part of their heritage. They don’t mind eating their catfish on the front porch of a grocery store, or saying grace in public. They like their small towns, and like that people like their small towns. They don’t even mind when people are condescending to them and take to painting them all with the same brush — they know also that another person’s commentary on something usually centers on what they fear about it.
But yeah, that shit made me angry for a hot second. A legendary roadside joint is kitsch, but a longtime New York Deli with ornery eighty-year-old waiters is a landmark?
Confession: I lied to John. I actually arrived Wednesday night, but wanted to acclimate myself before I began my taping duties. After sleeping off the ten-hour drive and a couple of cursory flips through the local cable television, my girlfriend and I decided to head to Rowan Oak, the longtime residence of ‘ol Count No-Count himself, William Faulkner. The house was closed for repairs, which made it seem even more real, somehow. Without (other) tourists, it was just us and the workers, who were nice enough to let us wander the grounds as long as we behaved ourselves.
Exhilarated by the freedom bestowed on us, we wandered everywhere, our
imaginations sepia-toned, our own holographic idea of the legendary author inserted into every mental picture we shot. I set out to find a souvenir, something that I could file away back home and pull out every time I wished to remember my time here. Inexplicably, I settled on a brick.
Yes, a brick. Red, partially covered in moss, and altogether unremarkable. No one
would miss it, I surmised, though I did wonder about the karmic aspect of the whole thing. If any area of the country has a surplus of ghosts, it’s the Deep South.
That night, feeling sort of remorseful (and reading a Faulkner bio I procured from Square Books), I learned two things. I found out that Faulkner hated people stealing “souvenirs” from his house and cursed them every chance he got.
And — as if a gift from the storytelling muse — I also learned that the building behind which I pilfered the offending brick was used as the old man’s smokehouse. Imagine! A brick from Bill Faulkner’s pit. In that one lump of baked Mississippi clay, you had the better part of the cultural history of the state covered: Hard-working folks, and the hard-living writers they inspired. The Sound and the Fury. Yoknapatawpha and pulled pig. In the end, I simply took the damn thing home, along with all the other extra pounds. I’ve decided to keep the brick on my bookshelf until I move out of my current one-bedroom into a house, with the intention of using it as a cornerstone to a little backyard smoker of my very own.
Faulkner? I figure he wouldn’t have minded the theft, really. It’s just a little hunk of Mississippi earth, part of the same Yoknapatawpha he tried to give everybody, if only they’d be quiet and just listen a little.