Have you ever eaten something so blissfully good that you wanted to write an ode to it or, perhaps, in the more modern fashion of Glee or Bollywood, burst into song and dance? The Cornbread Nation series captures just this feeling of unrestrained exuberance. Published in association with the Southern Foodways Alliance, it explores, explains, ponders, and celebrates Southern food and culture with such gusto that even if you’ve never ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line, you’ll soon be craving sweet tea.
In Cornbread Nation 5: The Best of Southern Food Writing, sweet tea is exactly what inspires Fred Thompson in his contribution to the collection, “Taste of Tradition”. It begins, “My mother swears she didn’t put sweet tea in my baby bottles, but the twinkle in her eye and the sly, sideways smile tell me she’s probably not being truthful.” If sweet tea can substitute for baby formula, than surely it’s no surprise that, in a dry Mississippi county, Donna Tartt’s family stored bourbon under the bathroom sink, “like medicine”.
Salley Shannon also shares childhood memories—of her mother shooting squirrels for Hopkins Country stew: “Cover your ears, now, sweetheart. Mama’s going to go bang-bang.” Shannon traces this stew’s Texan origins to pioneers in the 1840s. It remains a staple of community get-togethers, although now chicken rather than squirrel typically joins the stew’s potatoes, onion, tomatoes, corn, stock, garlic, and chili power. Cheddar cheese and crackers are served on the side.
While some food obsessions start young, others develop over time in the minds and mouths of adult edible adventurers. One author, a self-proclaimed “Jewish Yankee”, visits the County Ham Festival in western Kentucky to seek out the “nearly illegal” homemade version of this Southern specialty, which he wants to eat raw, like prosciutto. Another works up the courage to eat the “hot chicken” at Prince’s in Nashville, a dish so fiery that the proprietor advises a side of Alka-Seltzer and close proximity to the restroom. Charles C. Doyle eagerly digs through dictionaries, cookbooks and locals’ memories to identify the origins of mull, a thick soup with a base of milk and pulverized cracker crumbs that is slurped in northeast Georgia.
The previous edition of Cornbread Nation focused on food in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. It would be too much to ask for this edition to find another unifying topic that could plum the same depths of culture, emotion and cuisine. The largest section of Cornbread Nation 5 is devoted to “accents” on Southern foods. It features the stories of immigrants who have made their mark on southern taste buds, like a Sicilian who came to the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the 19th century and opened Doe’s Eat Place, famous for its hot tamales. Also in the Delta, Joan Nathan talks with members of a three-generations-old Chinese community, where collard greens are stir-fried with oyster sauce and garlic.
A highlight of the collection is Kathryn Eastburn’s “The Sacred Feast”, a lovingly-told tale of her trip to the 89th-annual Henagar-Union Convention in Alabama. Here, the gospel signing is done in four-part harmonies known as “Sacred Harp” and most of the day’s eating is done at the noontime potluck feast. Eastburn captures the spirit of the people who gather for this event; food is just one expression of how they come together as a community. When Eastburn arrives, the local pastor is smoking Boston butt pork roasts rubbed with his own dry mix and his wife has put out yeast rolls to rise, prepared from a recipe found in a church cookbook.
Of the 71 poems and essays in Cornbread Nation 5, only a handful don’t quite rise. “Friends and Fancy Food” is unpolished; “The Invasion of the Whores de Orvays” is not as funny as it thinks it is. Bill Archer’s description of an annual Hungarian Cabbage Roll dinner in southern Virginian holds promise, and probably worked well in its original incarnation as a newspaper article. In this type of collection, Archer needs more space to flesh out the town and its characters.
Overall, however, Cornbread Nation 5 will win you over with its passion and, yes, there are even odes—one to chicken, another to a catfish house. The collection ends with a benediction to butter in the form of a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, the Yale professor who presented “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s inauguration. Her mother eats butter plain, straight from the stick. As for Alexander, “when I picture / the good old days I am grinning greasy / with my brother”.