writings, readings, lootings

On Faulkner, barbecue, and bricks.

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?

Apologia

   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.

Manic (Kinda-sorta) Nirvana(esque)

Recently my boy Crispy Taco and I were watching Nirvana’s “Live at Reading,” and, with the 20-year (gulp) anniversary of Nevermind coming up, we got to dancing in the dark, walking through the park and reminiscing.*

Anyway, this article appeared in Creative Loafing in an extended form after I was fairly certain SPIN magazine wasn’t going to roll up with copyright lawyers in tow. All I can add at this point is this: I’ve spent two weeks in Amsterdam, and have still never seen anything like Kirkwood’s orange, crystallized King Solomon’s Mines-looking weed, which he was toking steady out of a makeshift bong made of a Kodak film canister and a brown, pulp-paper towel insert. Add to that the five mixed drinks which gave me the courage to walk into the band’s bead-bedecked bus in the first place, plus the Coronas Novoselic proffered (replete with fresh lime), and it’s a wonder I hit the tape recorder’s “record” button at all. Here ‘tis:

______________

In April of this year, a relatively unknown little entity calling themselves Eyes Adrift rolled into town. Mind you, the members of said band weren’t unknown. There’s Curt Kirkwood, known for his body of work with the Meat Puppets. There’s Bud Gaugh, the former drummer for Sublime. And then there’s bass player Krist Novoselic, whose bearded face is now plastered everywhere due to the new, long-awaited greatest hits record from his former band, Nirvana. (Krist is especially evident in Rolling Stone, who seems to have no qualms in running a Nirvana-related article every couple of weeks but inexplicably gives the new Eyes record two stars.)

I digress. While the band was in town last time around, I was able to do a same-day, last-second, post-show interview from the band’s stately coach, part of which would appear in a Big National Music Magazine. Only about a quarter of the Q and A ever made it in, mostly because of “space issues.” (Uh-huh.)

Which is a shame, a conclusion you will no doubt concur with after reviewing this page’s savory verbiage.

The band was, um (how to say?), unwinding at the time of the interview, so answers don’t necessarily follow the questions preceding them. As such, the below is more of an “omnibus on the bus” — a snapshot, if you will — of the trio’s state of mind at the time, showcasing a band just starting to get its feet wet in the touring waters while preparing for the inevitable deluge ahead.

Curt Kirkwood, on bands they all agree on: “We all like Poison Idea. We were telling Poison Idea stories earlier. If you’re really about music, there’s not a lot not to like about good music. Liking music’s kind of a given. With good music, the boundaries are pretty few and far between when you get down to it. We don’t have to find common ground to play out. We play our own shit. We don’t pursue ideas with the band. We stay within the realm of our own meager talents, whereas most other musicians are far, far beyond us technically and conceptually. We know that, and we’re on our knees to them.”

Krist Novoselic: "It was just a rock show, didn’t you think? There’s no schtick, really."

Kirkwood, on writing with Novoselic: "You know, it hasn’t (been hard), really. We all three work together, really. From my perception, I usually write about the same thing. A sort of variation on the same thing kind of fits my singing, really. I don’t get outside of that too much. I’m pretty limited. I’m pretty much a one trick pony. Like one of those chickens — you just put a dime in there."

Bud Gaugh, referring to running joke about my actual name: "Tim, since we can’t call you Teddy, do you mind if we dress you up in one? I know you’re not the President, but we have the presidential suite, and that’s close enough for us."

Kirkwood: “Imagine the pain of being called Teddy your whole life. It’s like being called Scooter.”

Novoselic: "I hope you’re recording this! It’s just like grassroots music. The tickets are around $10 to $12. We’re meeting people, people that have a lot of (other) options. They can watch a "major motion picture," or they can stay at home and watch TV. People come out, we play for "em, and try to give them a good quality show. It’s a straight-ahead rock show — no puking blood. We started in the Northwest in like February and went down through the Southwest. People come out and don’t know what to expect. They kind of know what to expect — we’ve all had our own things — but most people are coming out for the curiosity factor. It’s been received really well. No schtick. Rock and roll music.

Kirkwood, sort of laughing: "We don’t have anything to prove, either. The world’s pathetic. It’s a hateful, wretched, fucking pathetic place and I piss on it."

Gaugh: "Hear, hear." (Note: The following is transcribed word for word. I didn’t quite understand it either, but was afraid to ask.) "The audience can feel the implied regret of the tantrum that I pulled last time I was in Charlotte, when I pulled off my own phallus and threw it at the cocktail waitress."

Kirkwood: “We just listened to “Detachable Penis.’ What a funny fucking name.”

Me: “That was King Missile.”

Kirkwood: "King Missile! "Detachable Penis.’ "Penis’ is a funny thing. But not as powerful as "cunt.’"

Me again: "Do you still get requests for songs from your former bands?"

Gaugh: "Twat did you say, I cunt hear you." (general laughter.)

Novoselic: "Nobody’s done that, have you noticed that? Nobody goes "Plateau’ or "Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I think people get it: that what we’re doing is original and new. That would be the worst thing that we could do, to go out there and play "Plateau." We’re not schticking anything like that. That’s our draw — what we’ve done — but when you come to the show, it stands on its own. It’s just real genuine rock and roll music."

Me, warming/sobering up: "Can you tell when the audience ceases to see you as an all-star conglomeration and starts to just feel the music?"

Kirkwood: “About three songs and you can tell we start to bring “em in. We do a little sleight of hand and start playing that Gilberto shit, which kind of gets into the flight thing. We play it about the same time every set. People start to see it. They’re seeing that little girl, disinterred, doing ballet up above the stage. Doing pirouettes in the air above the stage!”

Novoselic, burying face in hands: "Oh, no."

Kirkwood: "What’s the point if it doesn’t get to that? We didn’t ever consider digging into the past. It didn’t dawn on us. It wasn’t us. It’s not like we choke on it or anything, we just don’t do it. It’s not painful or anything. It’s a big thrill to find something you think might be able to fuckin’ distract yourself from the people constantly coming out of the woodwork shouting stuff about what they think you are. It’s so counter-why-you-did-it-in-the-beginning."

Gaugh: "Everything so far has been DIY. We did the recording, we funded the last tour and this tour on our own. This is all done for us, by us, for you guys…and for us. Everything we played tonight we’ve recorded already."

Novoselic, on whether or not the band’s given thought to what the album might do in the marketplace: “You never know. McDonald’s sells a lot of hamburgers, but it’s not the best restaurant in town, you know? You can really set yourself up for disappointment with that sort of thing. We don’t fit in the music world very well. I can’t tell you the last time I went to a mall. I live a really strange existence. People tell me, “Oh, Nirvana’s on TV all the time.’ Which I’m sort of in the dark about. I don’t have a TV, so I can’t watch it. I live this weird life. I live in the woods. I just kind of build my own world.”

Kirkwood, giggling: "That’s so…sublime."

Gaugh: (audibly groans.)

*Little River Band, all rights reserved

Falling On My Sword

Ah, Google alerts. I just received an email which informed me some hale fellow recently quoted from an old review I did of a Damien Jurado record. Says he:

"Almost a decade ago, in No Depression #33, Timothy C. Davis wrote in a review: “See a grain of sand in the world, write about it, approximate the mood, and move on. However, there are millions of grains of sand in the world, and they’re not always that mesmerizing.”

Two things: One, he agreed with me, as regarded Jurado’s oeuvre.

Secondly: I have no idea what the fuck the bit quoted above is supposed to mean.

Yours truly (plotting the revolution with aid from a bad Clairol dye job and hillbilly mustache, the better to hide my real identity) and Noam Chomsky, December 19, 1998. On the day this picture was taken, then-President Clinton was impeached. Noam’s office at MIT was inundated with calls, but he kept his schedule. After my bathetic/pathetic questions about linguistics and language, he visited with a chap from the BBC World Service. (Or wuh-hurled suuuhviss, as he pronounced it.)

Yours truly (plotting the revolution with aid from a bad Clairol dye job and hillbilly mustache, the better to hide my real identity) and Noam Chomsky, December 19, 1998. On the day this picture was taken, then-President Clinton was impeached. Noam’s office at MIT was inundated with calls, but he kept his schedule. After my bathetic/pathetic questions about linguistics and language, he visited with a chap from the BBC World Service. (Or wuh-hurled suuuhviss, as he pronounced it.)

Back before signature sauces, back before anodized cookwear and EVOO and television food shows about people trying to make television food shows, back when butter was too often margarine and not something for a studio audience to hoot and haw about whenst melted on – in the words of the great Todd Rundgren – something/anything, and way before Paula Deen and the Neelys and the subsequent y’allification of said cookery programs, there was a stately old dame by the name of Dinah Shore.

Some people will tell you that Dinah probably wasn’t the greatest cook in the world. No matter, really – her vittles voice had much in common with her singing one. She was able to take the territorial and the traditional, synthesize (and sometimes sanitize) it, and deliver it to a much wider audience than any of her countrified contemporaries, Justin Wilson and Betty Feezor included.

Shore never hurt for an audience, thanks to her Hollywood bonafides. The Winchester, Tennessee native talked up her native Southern cuisine whenever given the chance, most often to the cavalcade of stage-and-screen stars who shared the stage with her on one or more of her many talk shows. Her three cookbooks bend under the weight of celebrity anecdote – usually jibes about the weight she and her pals gained while writing them – and too often dipped into the trendy and tacky in a Junior League-like attempt to stay true to the times in which they were written: “Oriental” shrimp with ginger, scallions and peanut oil, dips with more canned ingredients than a country club potluck. They were excerpted not in Saveur and Gourmet, but tactless tabloids like the Star and National Inquirer. She even put sugar in her damned cornbread, for crying out loud.

What she did have, however, was personality in spades. She was wise enough to take as her unofficial theme song “Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dinah,” a song that has been variously exegized as a verse to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” a late 1800’s Negro work song, or, say some, an utterly salacious ode to infidelity (some versions of the traditional even have the line “Someone’s making love to Dinah.”). She was a shameless flirt who still maintained credibility with women and men, young and old alike. She was as home in an apron as après-skiwear, and that seeming dichotomy was her hook: you could do this too.

So yes, she likely wasn’t any more at home at the range than any other moderately-skilled Southerner at the time. At the same time, to deny her impact would be foolish. To ascribe to a chef any sort of mythical import is, of course a fool’s errand; they simply don’t have the reach. Two hundred tables a night doesn’t mean you’re changing the way we eat. Chefs take from the ground — they don’t sprout from it. They cannot mandate policy like a politician, changing the way we think. Shore, while not a chef – especially because she was not a chef – could. Her gifts were subtle gradations of what it meant to be a woman (a singer, a Southerner, a star) in ever-changing times. That her own star seemed ascendant until her death is a trickier task than it appears. If “In the Kitchen With Dinah” had a message, it might have been this: gals, you don’t have to stand at that stove if you don’t want to.

“When my parents were growing up, every vegetable they ate was ‘heirloom.’ Every vegetable they ate was organic. It wasn’t a choice for them. It wasn’t extraordinary food. It was sustenance. It was necessity. It’s the same with the meat. It was good honest food, but it was also all they had.”

— from a 2009 interview I did with Allan Benton, artisanal ham and bacon maker, for Meatpaper.

Craig Claiborne Sings The Blues or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Stove


Recently, I had the rare chance to visit my parents at their home in North Carolina. They were vaguely aware that I’d written about food for a variety of publications, but were unaware that I’d recently taken a kitchen job at a pretty nice restaurant in my adopted hometown of Nashville.

“You always did love food,” my mother said, upon hearing the news.

I did?

“What kid doesn’t, provided it’s something they like and don’t have to make?”, I asked. (My own biases were towards bananas, cinnamon on anything, peas, chicken livers, and my dad’s habit of putting cornbread in buttermilk, which churned my stomach at the time).

“Mmmhmm,” she continued.  “I remember you watching Chef Tell on the TV one time, way long back, and telling me, ‘wouldn’t that be something if one day there was an entire channel just filled with cooking shows? And then we both laughed at the idea of it, both agreeing you’d never get anyone to run with that idea.”

(Sigh.)(Sample here of cash registers at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Money.”)

“…and you used to come up with recipes, too, when you were like five, six years old.”

I did?

“…hold on a second. I’ll go get them out of the trunk.”

My mother’s cedar trunk was where she kept all the baubles of my brother and I’s childhoods: baby shoes, report cards, awards, that sort of thing. The recipes had made the cut for my mother, at least. But would they make my cut? What delicacies had I dreamed up? Was I ahead of my time yet again, as with my nascent “Cook’s Channel” idea?

“Here they are,” she said. I unfolded them, and began to read. [all punctuation and (mis)spellings are as they appeared on the page. My notes in **]

Soup (by Tim)

Chicken Soup

**Nice genre, subgenre touch there. Thinking like a cookbook author already!**

One pan water, one teaspoon salt, small chopped pieces of chicken, small noodles, cook for 2 hours on top of stove

p.s. Put in a tiny dab of paper

**As you will see, I predated Paula Deen, or at least Paula Deen’s cooking, by a decade or more — I loved me some dabs and pinches. Things I hadn’t learned: the idea of chicken stock. The idea that most people overcook things. The idea of vegetables as a foodstuff.**

**Oh, and what, exactly, are “small noodles?” Onward, yo, to recipe two:**

Ham Salad

First you put in Lettuce, Dab of manaise (then mix), a Dab of salt and pepper, some cabbage, any kind of choped o’ meat, and your faverite Dressing.

Tim C.

**I had some serious Victorianesque Random Capitalization shit going on, it seems. What’s more, my spelling seems to have gone to pot in the 30 seconds it took me to jot down my chicken soup recipe above. “Manaise”? “Choped o’ meat”? “Faverite”? I’d like to think I was anticipating the whole South Won’t Rise Again, But Ain’t They Quaint? Authentic Southern Cuisine/Outsider Art craze here, sort of an autistic kid version of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s “White Trash Cooking” sans all the awesome Walker Evans-y photographs. Or something.**

**Wait, what’s this? Another recipe for Ham Salad? That differs from the, er, recipe for ham salad above? What’s going on here??

(RECIPE)

2 cups chopped ham, 1 cup raw cabbage, ½ of Mayonaise, 1 termater, pinch salt, pinch pep, Half bowl lettuce. MIX.

SERVE. By Tim

Tim’s Tastips.

**Where to begin? I evidently loved the lettuce/ “raw” cabbage combination. And I totes went all Paula Deen again, taking a dab of “manaise” and turning it into a “1/2” (1/2 of what?) of “Mayonaise.” The “termater” is a nice touch, as is the expeditor-like shouting all-caps. (Assume Gordon Ramsay shout here) MIX! SERVE! You donnnkey! I had by this point taken the “Tim C.” down to “Tim,” all Emeril-like, and even coined a kickass catchphrase/corporate banner, “Tim’s Tastips.” Bam, bitch!**

Alas, I took about a 25 year hiatus from recipe and food writing (and preparing, for the most part), stricken either with a titanic case of writer’s block or a serious bout of self-loathing at what might have been: My own TV show, cookbooks, hell, my own channel! I’m the old bluesman eating neckbones and rice at home while the Rolling Stones tour the world. The sun repeatedly missed this dog’s ass, and for a spell.

Then again, maybe it just took a while to develop my chops: writing, cooking, and, perhaps most importantly, O’meat.

Meat Me Halfway

The following is the third in a series of unpublished, uncollected food writings that have found their way into the Davis Vaults (ie, an old forgotten folder on my computer). All should be considered (sic’d) unless the mistake makes it read better or “more authentic,” in which case I meant it that way. (As with the last piece, I should say here that I’m not a vegetarian any longer, although I eat very little meat as a rule. )

My becoming a vegetarian was a transformation that came about rather suddenly, therefore giving it, at least to me, more credibility … more heft. A rash decision, in other words.

However, as with any rash, there were a few itchy details to work out. To wit: As I make at least a portion of my income — not to mention my reputation (such as it is) — from writing about food, would moving to the “veggie”1 lifestyle affect my bottom line, no to mention my waistline? (No.) Would I have to trade in stories about beef brisket for paeans to phyllo and free-range farming? (Well, yes, but not because I was forced to – I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat, not write about it) Would the lack of protein and animal fat make me, I dunno, go mad? 2 (Depends on who you ask.)

And what about my fiancee, who, while not a hardcore carnivore, enjoys a good steak/burger/barbecued chicken sandwich on occasion? I know more than enough restaurants offering vegetarian options to make restaurant dining a breeze, but what about all those nights we make dinner at home? Do we make our meals separately, or do we do his/hers variations on the various dinners we’re already apt to eat?

Here was the salve, as I saw it: What did I have to lose? The study of foodways — the stories food tell us about ourselves, loosely translated — go far beyond barbecue and bacon, two foods that, while undeniably delicious, have been written about so much (and so badly) that there’s not a whole lot more to say (nor suitable entry angles) concerning them anyway.

And there are stories to write, of course, even if they’re not quite the kind of thing most people want to see in their new Bon Appetit. Stories about the stunning waste, and pollution, and general pestilence perpetrated by hog farms. (Alternately, there are stories about small-scale farmers who produce pork the right way, feeding their pigs actual vegetable matter instead of a mix of drug-pumped feedstuffs that often include — see the signs at some barbecue joints, featuring a cannibalistic pig holding a knife and a fork — other pigs. Stories about organic farmers growing sustainable crops without nary a cent ever crossing the palms of a Monsanto or ConAgra or Tyson Foods. Stories about chefs and restaurants, and stories about families and communities bonding over that most intimate and interesting shared characteristic of human existence, food. (Sex with family and community would just be weird.)

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m making things hard on myself, and my family, and most of the people I’ll come into contact with, especially at the dinner table. However, I’m also sure I’m not going to go out of my way to make anyone uncomfortable, or to try and “convert” them, or to demand any sort of special dietary considerations.

That’s not my place. My place is to do what, for me, seems right at this time in my life. To change not the world, but myself, in the only way I know how: by being true to my feelings, as fleeting as they may sometimes be, for as long as those feelings happen to resonate inside of me.

I’m not unaware of my rather fortunate lot in life, however.

Indeed, It’d be a whole hell of a lot easier for people to “go veg” if the food wasn’t so damned expensive. I realize, lacking huge facilities in some cases, truly meat-free food’s going to cost more. (That said, there’s some 15,000,000+ vegetarians in this country, if not more – that excuse ain’t gonna hold water for too much longer.) As it stands, those people pushing the lifestyle, especially on poor folks with bad eating habits, need to realize that they themselves are in a privileged position due in part to their relative proximity to grocery stores same, ready access to transportation, use of nutritional supplements, money to buy from small scale, organic-type farms, the availability of meat substitutes in fancyfied grocery stores, and, above all, the undeniable luxury of being able to set aside a reasonable amount of “free time” in which to plan and prepare such meals. In other words, “giving back to Mother Earth” means a lot more than saving some cows and forgoing pesticides in the process – it also means giving back to its less-fortunate inhabitants.3

1 There’s something about the word “veggie” that gets to me, much in the same way that “foodie” to me conjures images of cooties, roofies, and The Goonies. Something about the double Gs, the ie suffix, and the letter V, which, for some reason, makes me a little sick to my stomach when paired with food. (think Van de Kamp fish sticks, Velveeta Cheese, Vienna sausages.) (Excepted: Vodka, vanilla, vermouth, vichyssoise, and vinaigrette.

2 Mention to folks you don’t eat meat, and they inevitably bust out with the Hitler. “You know, Hitler didn’t eat meat.” Never mind that every other megalomaniacal dictator in the history of mankind did. Never mind that you could just as easily say “Hitler was a failed painter,” and that nobody’s out there proselytizing against starving artist sales. But I digress.

3 I should say here that I’ve been a vegetarian before. It was one of those “vegetarian by girlfriend” situations so aptly described by Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield character in Pulp Fiction. It lasted about four years, this relationship, and I cheated quite often (on the vegetarianism — not on her). In fact, after we broke up, one of the very first things I did was down a big fat cheeseburger.Why? Why not? It felt right at the time.

Satori on Skynyrd

The following is the second in a series of unpublished, uncollected food writings that have found their way into the Davis Vaults (ie, an old forgotten folder on my computer). All should be considered (sic’d) unless the mistake makes it read better or “more authentic,” in which case I meant it that way.

Truth be told, I pretty much stopped eating meat about the same time I became truly committed to the concept of secular humanism. (Catchy opening, no?)

I think there’s more of a connection there than I first realized. When I stopped eating meat, people asked me how I “survived” without meat. What did I center my meals around? The same was true with humanism. “Don’t you feel a hole without God in your life? How do you get on without a moral compass?”

Well, I believe I do have a moral compass, of course (frankly, it’s why I’m writing this in the first place.)

To boot, I believe in the m.o. that’s worked so well for the White Stripes, the whole Oulipo artists’ group and the free jazz-leaning Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, to name but a few examples: not lamenting such so-called “limitations,” but instead luxuriating in them.

Do I miss eating meat?

Sure.

"Sure" in the same way that we relish telling stories about when we whipped someone but good, even as the thought of such violence secretly sickens us now. (We tend to not talk about when we got whipped, of course.)

And he who says he doesn’t miss meat – he who’s tasted it, at least — is probably lying. But righting (and writing) what you feel was probably a wrong in your life isn’t a subtraction, to my way of thinking, but rather the most admirable of additions.

* * * * * * *

My first brush with the concept of vegetarianism came long about 1982, if memory serves me. I’d gone over to a friend’s house, as had often been the case, to listen to records and watch a Showtime broadcast of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. My friend, Gary Helton, was a kid who had grown up fast. He grew up across the two-lane blacktop from my friends and I: a nascent neighborhood wholly apart from our own. There were tales of guys who drank beer and some that sold weed. One guy’d even dropped out of school, and it was said he bought condoms by the box. To our more Levitt-like burg, this land — this “Brookfield”! seemed positively exotic.

Anyway, this friend, he had a ‘stache before the rest of us, drank before the rest of us, smoked before the rest of us, smoked pot before the rest of us. Perhaps predictably, he also dropped out of school before the rest of us.

One day, after dinner at his house – steak (bottle of A1), baked potato (butter, dabs of sour cream), iceberg salad (French dressing), dinner rolls (pre-made) and sweet tea (homemade, as I remember), we retired to his brother’s room to look at his records and to scarf, rather Tom and Huck-like, some stolen brownies.

More specifically, we went to look at his Lynyrd Skynyrd records. I can still name them in order today, as I used to do the planets, the better to impress my parents’ friends: pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd, Second Helping, Nuthin’ Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets, Street Survivors, and Skynyrds’s First…And Last, Gold and Platinum, Best of the Rest. (I don’t count any post-plane-crash stuff excepting the last three cleaning-the-vaults releases.)

So anyway, this friend, belly full of beef and butter and brownies, pulled out the holy grail of Skynyrd records, the out-for-three-days-only, pre-plane crash and too-close-for-comfort “flames cover” of Street Survivors, and, after making me wipe my hands on my jeans, allowed me to hold it. Holy damn. We stared at it for a bit, and I remember he would look at me, and I’d look back at him, and then we’d both look back down at the record, drawn in by the tractor beam that was forbidden music — dirty music, cuss-friendly music, older kid’s music — back in the LP age. Guitarist Allen Collins, on the cover stage left, was wearing a Tom Wolfe-meets-Jimmy Page white linen suit with tails, along with what looks like a T-shirt sporting an iron-on decal of a striated, Japanese-style sun. Guitarist Gary Rossington rocked worn corduroys and a black and blue shirt, befitting the band’s rough-hewn image. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, in a thumbed nose to redneck literalists everywhere (see “Sweet Home Alabama”), sported a Neil Young T-shirt, circa Tonight’s The Night. Steve Gaines (who, along with Van Zant, perished in the crash), had on a plain red shirt tucked into a pair of Okie-befitting plain tan pants (eyes closed, he also boasted a spooky halo of fire). Bassist Leon Wilkeson sported a “My Grass is Blue” T-shirt and a top hat, which, being only ten years old, took me a few years to figure out.

But wildass, feral drummer Artimus Pyle? Ol’ Artie was sporting white-on-white tennis shoes, white blue and gold knee socks pulled high, cut-off jeans shorts, and, the piece de resistance, a blue T-shirt with a semi-circled “VEGETARIAN” written in white “Keep On Truckin’” style iron on letters.

I’m not even sure if I knew what Pyle was trying to get across at this time. What I know of now as a vegetarian was – well, it simply didn’t exist at that time, at least in my neighborhood. The crew I ran with thought of vegetarians as people who ate nothing but raw vegetables. Truly, people did not understand that you might not want to eat meat (or, conversally, you would choose all those raw vegetables). They thought of such folks much in the same way the thought of atheists: Lord have mercy — they know not what they do.

(excerpted from larger work.)

ADDENDUM: Sonofabitch. As is just my luck — and the luck of veg-friendly, Southern folk everywhere — Pyle just got (re)arrested for failing to register as a sex offender, having pled guilty about a dozen years ago for indecent liberties on two young children (Pyle claims he was set up by an ex). File under: bad people wearing good T-shirts.

ADDENDUM II: I totally eat meat these days.

Ramble, Young Man, Ramble

The following is the first in a series of unpublished, uncollected food writings that have found their way into the Davis Vaults (ie, an old forgotten folder on my computer). All should be considered (sic’d) unless the mistake makes it read better or “more authentic,” in which case I meant it that way.

Jim Harrison is the Homer, the Michelangelo, the Lamborghini, the Willie Mays, the Secretariat of words, the peak of perfection in all writing, but achieves Jimi Hendrix solo perfection when he waxes the gristle about our most primordial need and luxury. His words are not the mere musings of an effete intellectual: these are the lust-filled poems of an expert, a hunter, an eater, a stalker, a rabid mongrel, and a drinker not afraid to get excited about the kinds of nuts a particular partridge must have eaten this morning to taste so damned good for lunch. And that the occasional breakfast of sow’s heart needs to be anointed with even an off-vintage Bordeaux is not hidden, nay, celebrated in the deeply starving heart of America’s greatest living writer. It is with total joy that I share my dinner table with a hero so honest, so erudite, so poetic, so huge in stature and genius, and yet so much himself a cook in the chuckwagon on a moose hunt in British Columbia. Most important, Harrison’s words bring me the most guttural, the most thirst quenching, itch scratching, and ultimately satisfying feeling that he really knows and appreciates what makes my job as a cook so filled with joy, the smell and anticipation of a perfect and divine edible and drinkable moment.”

Mario Batali, blurbing Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand

 Not knowing Batali, and not knowing the extent of his reading list – he seems to have something against “effete” intellectuals2, but, in this country, in these days, who doesn’t – I’d be willing to wager that part of what Molto Mario so loves about Jim Harrison is that he is….wait for it…a big, gout-ridden glutton just like himself. A man who, and this phrase is probably no accident — “takes life by the horns.”

It’s no coincidence that some of our most revered, larger-than-life writers were also larger than life in their appetites.

After all, we’re a society that loves a glutton. Many otherwise reasonable males obsess about the weights of college football recruits and know every time their favorite offensive lineman has changed his eating habits. We’re wary about entering a restaurant and finding a rail-thin chef behind the line. Our action heroes almost inevitably are built like brick smokehouses. We’re a land of plenty, and we like to be reminded of that every now and again. Not all of us can afford multiple houses, Escalades or offshore investments, but we can splurge on the occasional night out. It’s a way to live large, if only for a few hours. In tough times, we seek comfort, if not comfort food.  Decades before shows like Man Vs. Food, big-boy eating  held a place in our hearts — see famous Depression-era trenchermen like reporter A.J. Liebling and bon vivant Stan Libnitz — especially in times of want and war. For the man of means, a full stomach, the sturdy trophy of a proud gorge, was something to boast about, something to literally precede you when you entered a room.

But back to Harrison for a second. Getting sent to my room as a kid was no dire sentence; in fact, I probably schemed up some minor infractions from time to time hoping for such a verdict. Holed up in my room, I was free to travel anywhere I pleased through the world of books: everything from old baseball biographies (I once read Phillie first baseman Dick Allen’s bio in one sitting, even though I never once saw him play an inning) to The World Book Encyclopedia and The Guinness Book of World Records (my favorites were the eating — read: gluttony — records) to your many varietals of short and long-form fiction.

My first exposure to a lot of things (hello, sex!) came through reading, but one of the more transforming effects of my bookworming came through reading descriptions of food and eating. As with sex, I would often scan a book for the tasty parts, reveling in the mouth-watering descriptions (great food scenes, as with sex, must be written with hunger).

My own mother was — and is — an amazing down-home style cook, able to whip up a tasty meat-and-three within minutes. However, my first real obsession with gastronomy began with those quiet evenings tucked up in bed, some classic or shoulda-been classic or just-plain-not-classic-at-all (Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, read three times) propped up underneath the covers.

 I read with a trencherman’s relish about James Bond dipping fresh-cracked lobster into melted butter and washing it all down with a few draughts of pink champagne. I felt the sand between my toes as Jack Kerouac’s alter-ego Ray Smith “chomp chomped” wieners and beans while camping underneath the stars on a moonlit California night. I wished for an island of my own as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and their gang of merry pirates whiled away a few days of childhood freedom from bathing and prayers and, to use Huck’s phrase, “all that old truck.” In fact, one particular passage from that book — Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — has stuck with me throughout the years and never fails to get my mouth watering.

 

Huck found a spring of clear cold water close by, and the boys made cups of broad oak or hickory leaves and felt that water, sweetened with such a wildwood charm as that, would be a good enough substitute for coffee. While Joe was slicing bacon for breakfast, Tom and Huck asked him to hold on for a minute. They stepped to a promising nook and threw in their lines; almost immediately, they had reward. Joe had not had time to get impatient before they were back again with some handsome bass, a couple of sun perch and a small catfish… provisions enough for quite a family. They fried the fish with the bacon and were astonished, for no fish had ever seemed so delicious before. They didn’t know that the quicker a freshwater fish is on the fire after he’s caught, the better he is; and they reflected little upon what a sauce open-air sleeping, open-air exercise, bathing and a large ingredient of hunger makes, too.

 Passages like this represent great food writing, sure, but they’re also just plain great writing. I don’t just want the description of a meal, I want the context. I want to feel a writer’s passion come through with his diction, his grammar. I want the joy and pain of life. I want the background. I want to see how the food fits into the Great Knowing. It’s for this reason that “food” writers like Jim Harrison and M.F.K. Fisher hold my attention for years, while the work of most current food scribes — John T. Edge and Jeffrey Steingarten excepting — seems to me the equivalent of fast food: flavorless, generic and aimed at the largest possible demographic.

Great food writing even does that rarest of things: It moves me immediately to the kitchen. I’ve prepared homemade franks and beans while rereading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and I’ve found that Thomas Wolfe’s idea of mint-and-cinnamon-infused butter on a chargrilled steak to be inspiration of the highest order. Wolfe wrote with more energy and sheer hunger than most any novelist this country has ever produced. If the writing thing hadn’t worked out — and, some might argue, it didn’t — he would have made a hell of a chef. The man spends three pages describing a single meal in his underrated The Web and The Rock.

They say a great book leaves you hungry for more. In the right hands, it can leave you hungry, too.

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