Monday, December 15, 2014

On Southern Writers

            “So who’s your favorite Southern writer?” My friend leaned back in his chair and waited for my answer.
           “Hmm. Well, …  Let me think about that and get back to you,” I answered. 
            Sorting through my mail at home that night, I found the latest edition of the alumni magazine from my undergraduate alma mater, Samford University. And inside was an article on Southern literature. My old school had offered a class on Southern writers during a three-week mini-term. In English 309 Traveling South: Tracing the Haunts of Southern Fiction, students read select works from Southern writers and then traveled throughout the South to the homes and home cities of those writers. Sounded like a fun course, but what interested me the most was discovering who made the list of writers. There was William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, John Kennedy Toole, and Flannery O’Conner.
            Okay, Faulkner’s on the list, I thought. He’s from Mississippi - Oxford, I think. Yes, that’s right. But what have I read by him? There’s…. Oh, surely I read Faulkner back in school. I looked up a list of his books on Wikipedia. I recognized the titles of: The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; Go Down, Moses; Requiem for a Nun; and Light in August, the book assigned for the course. But have I read any of these? On Amazon, I found the synopsis of each work. Nothing about these stories seems familiar. 
            On to the next author. Eudora Welty. I know she’s from Mississippi, too. I can even picture her face. But her writing…. The professor for the course assigned “Why I live at the P.O,” “A Worn Path,” and “Petrified Man,” all short-stories. And if I read any of them, they were short-lived in my memory. 
            Flannery O’Connor. Well, I know that’s a woman. And as for her works … The course covered “Good Country People,” “The Displaced Person,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and readings from the essay “The Habit of Being.” I’m being rather embarrassed at this point. I haven’t a clue what these are about. 
            Who’s next? Tennessee Williams. Ah, the professor’s assigned A Street Car Named Desire. I know that one! Marlon Brando. Screaming. “Stella!” Vivian Lee. Crying. Karl Malden.  More crying. And that blonde …. . What was her name? But I’m thinking about the movie version of A Street Car Named Desire, one I’ve only seen in bits and pieces on TV. I’m not even sure why these people were screaming and crying in black and white. Have I read the book? No. 
            Moving right along to John Kennedy Toole. Never heard of him. A Confederacy of Dunces. That would be another “No.” 
            Alice Walker. The names sounds familiar. “Everyday Use” and the essay, “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens.” On second thought … not so familiar.
            Truman Capote! He’s more than familiar. Praise Be! I’ve read him! I know I have! And there on the list of assigned short stories I find “A Christmas Memory.” Yes, I’ve read that one. And I’ve read “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” too, which isn’t on the list. I have copies of both. And I’ve been to Monroeville, Alabama, where he grew up. The course itinerary included a visit to that city, though I recall that the house where Capote lived has been razed. I don’t know the other short stories assigned: “Miriam,” “A Diamond Guitar,” “The Walls are Cold,” and “One Christmas.” But no matter, I have read Capote.
            And next up is Harper Lee. Dear, dear Harper Lee. Neighbor and childhood friend of Capote. To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read that, too. Not just seen Gregory Peck sweating in his light-colored suit and dark-rimmed glasses in that courtroom, but read the scene on the printed page and all the other scenes in that book, cover to cover, Amen.
           And then there’s H.L. Mencken. Dear, dear H.L… Well, actually I don’t know him/her or the essay “Sahara of the Bozart.” Why couldn’t the list have stopped with Harper Lee? But I know I’ve read two on this list of eight Southern writers. And as for the rest, well, I decide I must rectify this short-coming in my education. 
           So, where to begin? Faulkner seems like an important and appropriate choice. I head over to his Author Page on Amazon to peruse the choices. As I Lay Dying is first on the list. “In the story, the members of the Bundren family must take the body of Addie, matriarch of the family, to the town where Addie wanted to be buried. Along the way, we listen to each of the members on the macabre pilgrimage, while Faulkner heaps upon them various flavors of disaster.” Macabre. Disaster. Not what I’m in the mood for, now or ever. 
            Absalom, Absalom! is next. “The story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.’” Ah, another uplifting tale. I’ll pass.
            Maybe I’ll try The Sound and the Fury. I read the first lines:

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and I looked….”

What? I have no idea what’s going on. And, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. 
            I suppose I should have started with Light in August, the one assigned for the course. Let’s see…

“Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.’” I skim down the page. “Father and mother died (Of course)…bare feet (Yes)…died in the summer (Always)…log house (Doesn’t everyone in the South live in one?)….without screens (No A/C)…bugswirled kerosene lamp (What else would there be?)…died (Knew that)…buried (Good idea)….worked in the mill…brick rubble and ragged weeds…gutted…rusting…desolation (Oh good. It’s getting better)…(more) gutting…and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes (but of course!).”

And that’s just on the first page and a half! Well, bless Faulkner’s little old soul, but I’d rather never read another book in my life than read this one. 
            I move along and read the descriptions of works by Welty, O’Conner, Williams, and Walker. I Google Toole and Wikipedia Mencken. I find repeating themes, common words, typical characters, and stock scenes: Gothic, macabre, failed, fading, broken, broke, mentally ill, mentally disabled, estranged families or family’s that are so close – too close - destroying each other either behind the closed doors of crumbling antebellum mansions or in dirt-floored shacks. Whites and Blacks mistrusting each other, betraying, murdering, raping, beating, arresting. And sweating. It’s always summer in these books and no one has a dang air conditioner - just a porch, possibly a fan, sometimes lemonade, occasionally whiskey, often gin. 
            On a side note, I remember seeing the movie version of A Time to Kill and never have I seen anyone sweat as much, indoors, just sitting around, as Matthew McConaughey did. It glistened on his cheeks, dripped from his nose, trickled down his forehead, rivuleted on his temples, and soaked through his shirts. Ashley Judd played his wife, and I recall her being rather moist, too. I know they were in Mississippi, in the summer – of course, but he was a lawyer. I think he could afford an air conditioner! 
            I’ll give you a moment to think about Matthew sweating…. and then let’s return to perusing the article about the course. The professor notes, "The mystique of Southern writing comes from ‘the failed romantic vision of the Old South, its inferiority/victim complex, its roguish adventurers and con men, ingrained racial hatred, suspicion and bitterness, the always present violence and humor, and the pervasive religious culture and presence of Southern gothic and even grotesque themes.’” This makes Southern literature sound as inviting as the Holocaust Museum – important to experience, but there’s never a day when I think, I’d like to spend some time immersed in misery
            So, I haven’t read and probably never will read some of these “important,” “classic,” Southern writers. But do I read Southern writers? Yes, I do. I’ve read Fanny Flagg,

 Rick Bragg,

                                                                        Lewis Grizzard,
Pat Conroy,
and Anne Rivers Siddons.

             My mother likes Sue Monk Kidd,
Kathryn Stockett, 


Cassandra King,
and Dorothea Benton Frank.
Then there’s Winston Groom, Mark Childress,
and Terry Kay.
They are modern voices, raised in the South. And the South is a character in their stories. They write about the South I know - the South I was raised in - long after the Civil War, civil unrest, and the invention of air conditioning. If they write about the past, even if they write about tragedy, they show joy and humor, too, because life is never just all darkness any more than it’s all light. They write about a South where women are stronger than whiskey. Families fight, but stick together like honey to the comb. You laugh at the crazy things your family members do, and you laugh even harder about the crazy things you do. People make the best of everything along with pitchers of ice tea to welcome anyone into their homes, be they suburban mansions or tiny apartments. The seasons change in these stories, but if it is summer, and later than the 1950s, there is air conditioning, always air conditioning. And now to answer the question, Who is my favorite Southern writer? My favorite is whomever I’m reading at the moment whose stories encompass all those things.
 And am I a Southern writer? I write about family and place, manners and values, beauty and regrets, amusing moments and sad memories. I was raised in the South by Southerners to be a strong Southern woman, and I call the South home, always and forever. So I’ll count myself as a Southern writer and work toward one day being on someone’s list of favorites.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Tomato Man

            Fall has arrived, and I've turned the calendar page to October, but where I live, in coastal Texas, the thermometer has not received the news. Humid days in the 80s linger along with our summer wardrobes. And so, there's still time to visit the Tomato Man.           
            His place sits on a patch of land outlined by a chain-link fence. "Muh Daddy was born in a tent on this land," he reports with obvious pride. His family has lived here for generations in this community camped on a spot along the western shore of Galveston Bay. A new subdivision, the kind with big houses cheaply built,  butt up against his back fence-line. His children live nearby but have jobs outside of the family business, a business selling tomatoes, flea treatment, and random offerings, run out of a metal building. To know the selection, you have to drive by the gate. There, attached to the fence or propped on the ground, he posts the names of the day's bounty written in magic marker on cut-up cardboard boxes. "Watermelons," the sign, bearing a drawing of a watermelon slice, might read in high summer; the red-marker fruit outlined in green-marker and decorated with black-marker-drawn seeds. "Cantalopes," the misspelled sign sometimes reads; "Fresh Shrimp," caught from nearby waters at other times. If the gate is open, you can go on in. Outside the building's open, bay doors, peppers grow in plastic pots, the kind the garden centers sell them in. Other miscellaneous plants grow huge in the same-type pots; far bigger than they should be without replanting. The questions of "Why?" and "Are they for sell?" hang in the air, unasked. A cat will come, eye you in the way only cats can, and then, if you are deemed worthy, rub against your leg. The man's wife, adorned with blonde-dyed, permed, and teased hair, perches on a stool behind a counter in a room partitioned-off on one end of the cavernous space. The walls of the room are covered in fake-wood paneling, and shelves, bracketed to the walls, hold jars of home-made preserves, pickled vegetables, and relishes for sale. She plays Bejeweled on a computer while she waits for you to make your choice. "Come here," she beckons to my daughter and then shows the her the tricks of the game. Every one of her fingers, save her thumbs, are adorned with golden rings bearing their own jewels, all fake as the wood on the walls. She cackles in delight at sharing her favorite pastime with my daughter and then rings up the sale of fig preserves and pickled okra.

           But the best things offered for sale here are the tomatoes. Summer in the South means vegetables, and a good tomato is the Holy Grail of them all. (Yes, I know tomatoes are technically a fruit, but you wouldn't put one in a fruit salad, would you?" Now, you'll see "Vine-Ripe" tomatoes in the grocery store all year long, but whatever vine they ripened on wasn't anywhere close to the grocery store. The color is never truly red, but a mottled, dark pink.  And the taste? What taste? Then there is the "Hot House" variety - very red, but soft, with only some tomato flavor. No, nothing beats a freshly-picked-from-the vine, never-refrigerated tomato. The best way to eat one is to slice it thick, season with salt and pepper, and layer between two pieces of white bread spread with mayonnaise - homemade or Duke's or Hellmann's. This sandwich tastes best eaten over the kitchen sink to catch the juice while the sunlight streams in through white, eyelet curtains. Golden Flake potato chips make a nice accompaniment, and a glass of iced tea is a must. 

           You can grow your own tomatoes. If you have only a patio or balcony, tomatoes will grow just as well in pots as in the ground, but the weather has to be just right. The fruit sets when night temperatures are 50 to 70 degrees and days are 60 to 85 degrees. Tomatoes aren't happy when night temperatures climb above 72 and days soar above 92. The first summer I lived in Houston, night readings were never below 80, and the daytime temperature caused the mercury to boil. But somehow the Tomato Man has a bountiful, delicious crop to offer all summer long. And I especially "hanker for" (a Southern thing) a good tomato when the days are hot.

            I crave all sorts of vegetables when the temperature climbs. And each kind carries a special memory. I associate beans and peas with my grandmother's hot kitchen. While a box fan whirred in the nearby living room where the blinds were closed to block the sun's rays, we sat at the kitchen table shelling or snapping in preparation for a Sunday supper of beef roast and assorted vegetables accompanied by cornbread (not sweet) and tea (always sweet). When I think of summer squash, or Vidalia onions, or new potatoes, I picture farmer's markets with flies buzzing, fans blowing, and bins heaping with produce; the kind of produce that still has the soil it was grown in clinging to it.

           My favorite farmer's market is Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama. The Burris family grows on their nearby farm almost everything they sell, and if they don't grow it, someone else nearby does. My family would stop there on our way back from beach trips to Gulf Shores. Stand-up coolers offered plastic bags stuffed with varieties of shelled beans and peas.
Bins cradled piles of Chilton County peaches.

Shelves held jars of homemade jams & honey. Glass cases showcased loaves of fresh baked bread and pies. Pyramids of cantaloupes mounded on pallets and Sugar Baby watermelons balanced in crates.

And, of course, there were tomatoes - red ones for slicing and green ones for frying. We'd make our selections and stand in line among the other happy vegetablephiles (if it's not a word, it should be) while big fans blew our hair everywhere. Loaded down, we'd drive home to Birmingham and enjoy the abundance for days. 

             When I moved to Texas, land of wide-open spaces and the fertile Rio Grande Valley, I was surprised to find a dearth of farmers' markets when I was accustomed to a choice of roadside stands. I heard something about a market in downtown Houston, but that was 30 miles from my house in the suburbs. I couldn't find even one truck farmer parked on the side of a road with his bed loaded with produce. When I asked my neighbors about farmers' markets close by, I was told about one in a rural community. I made the 17-mile drive one afternoon in high summer only to find produce that wasn't as fresh as my local grocery store's offerings. And, to my utter horror, I spied shipping crates for their tomatoes - crates that had come all the way from California! In recent years, three farmers' markets have opened near my house to sell local produce, but only on Saturday mornings, and I'm not a get-up-and-out-the-door-early-Saturday-when-I've-worked-all-week-type-of-gal.

             I do hope that wherever you live, you have access to locally grown vegetables. And the best way to eat them is to have yourself a vegetable plate or even a meat-and-three. I do declare that there is no better meal than a plate heaped with the likes of boiled okra, new potatoes, lady peas, chow-chow relish, yellow crookneck squash sauteed with Vidalia onions, Silver Queen corn cut from the cob and boiled in its own milk, and fried green tomatoes served alongside sliced, red tomatoes and perfectly-golden cornbread that's been baked in an iron skillet. You can fix (the Southern verb for "prepare") this meal yourself, or, if you're fortunate, find a locally-owned restaurant, diner, or cafeteria that serves up such blessings. I remember, from my childhood, many meals eaten at my local mall's Britling Cafeteria where women in hairnets used metal tongs to pluck squash croquettes from steam trays and wielded serving spoons to plop macaroni and cheese on my plate. And if you're wondering, macaroni and cheese - God bless it - does count as a vegetable in the South.

              When I was all grown up and working at my first job in downtown Birmingham, I would often meet a friend for lunch at John's Restaurant - an old, family establishment where the sacred vegetable plate was served on melamine plates plopped on formica-topped tables scattered around the linoleum floor. Their specialty was slaw - but not your typical coarse-cut cabbage slathered in mayonnaise. At John's, a little, melamine, round bowl cradled tender, white, angel hair slaw, worthy of an angel's head, topped with their house-made slaw dressing - a tangy, orangey-red concoction that defies description or duplication. Alas, the restaurant was sold, remodeled, and is now a "City Diner," an over-priced, fancy place that serves things that are beer-battered or maple-glazed and wouldn't know a collard green from a cabbage. But you can read about the history of the slaw dressing here: and order it here: (Just passing that along - I don't get a commission!)
            And so I've shared my thoughts and memories of vegetables craved, coveted, and consumed. With locally-sourced food trendy now in restaurants, I hope you find some good, fresh vegetables, even if you can't find a farmers' market, or that you'll grow them yourself.  And as for me, I have the Tomato Man. But the summer is quickly drawing to a close, even here in coastal Texas. "Firewood" will soon be written on a cardboard sign outside the gate, but I have gas logs so I won't be stopping by - until next year - when the tomatoes are ripe and my daughter says, "Let's go to the Tomato Man!" The Tomato Man is old. I wonder what will happen to his place when he retires? In the meantime, God bless the Tomato Man.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton