Books

Katrina and Collard Greens: 'Cornbread Nation 6'

Stick to the good stuff, and you’ll learn what makes the American South unique; a country within a country, struggling with the legacies of slavery, Hurricane Katrina, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the consequent irreparable losses.


Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing

Publisher: The University of Georgia Press
Length: 288 pages
Author: Brett Anderson, Editor, John T. Edge, General Editor
Price: $19.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2012-05
Amazon

Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing is a sprawling collection afflicted with a problem peculiar to “best of” collections: uneven writing. Published by The University of Georgia Press, the book has entries ranging from academic contributors and their dense wordiness to fine essays, poetry, and even a couple pieces of stray fiction that got lost and wandered in.

The book can be a slog at times, brightened by edifying entries that bring something new to this overloaded table. And Southern food suffers.

It suffers from being written about in such exhaustive detail that even previously unpublished essays felt repetitive. One could make an excellent argument that the food writing glut makes repetition a pervasive danger. Ezra Pound’s exhortation “make it new” is especially important when writing of matters gustatory.

Consider writing about barbecue. This byway of Southern cookery is so contentious that nobody can even agree on a spelling. Barbecue? BBQ? Barbeque? There are reams of barbecue writing out there—enough to fill its own anthology. Cornbread Nation 6 offers three essays about barbecuing as competitive sport; they could be stitched together with no evident seams. This is not to insult the writers; rather, it’s an observation about the topic. Enough of silly hats, marinade and rub concoctions reading like a random collection of pantry ingredients, and the manly, alcohol-suffused work of tending large, pork-filled fires while normal people sleep, all in the name of winning a contest.

Enough, too, of the “Southern Characters”. Can you imagine “Midwestern Characters”? “Eastern Characters”? “Western Characters” connote Clint Eastwood (in spaghetti Westerns, naturally), not Alice Waters or Thomas Keller. The Southern character stereotype—the lone man in a pickup truck with too many stories, the hardworking mother of ten baking at the woodstove--is one we’d do well to shatter. Reducing individuals to characters reduces those qualities that make them unique.

Yes, people living in the American South share some characteristics born of geography, just as Midwesterners or Northern Californians may share broad traits. This is not to say that biographical pieces on Southern chefs are unwelcome—Ben Westhoff’s essay on Ms. Peachez, the rapping drag queen, is thought provoking on numerous levels. Edward Behr contribues a lovely piece about Miss Eula Mae Doré, a Cajun home cook. But we are well-advised to remember that America is an enormous country inhabited by a wealth of nationalities, not an antiquated collection of personalities.

Any honest book about the American South must include the history of slavery and the racism that continues to blight American society. Cornbread Nation 6 rises to the occasion here, including numerous essays by African American writers and African American contributions to southern cooking. Jessica B. Harris’s “In Sorrow’s Kitchen” describes the ways slaves were fed—or, more often, starved—in harrowing detail. She also traces the foodways of enslaved Africans, who brought us rice cultivation, okra, greens, and the use of benne (sesame) seeds, whose oils helped compensate for a meatless diet.

We see the small plots slaves tended for themselves after their long workdays, their skills foraging, hunting, and fishing to augment an impoverished, cornmeal-based diet. Harris describes the mistresses in “Big Houses” who watched over kitchen slaves to ensure nothing was stolen. One Mrs. Flint waited until her family was served, then the ruined leftovers by spitting into all the pots and pans.

John Kessler’s “Where Are All the Black Chefs?” is a saddening examination of current day racism in the kitchen. African-American chef Darryl Evans recalls his first day in Atlanta’s Occidental Grand Hotel, a high-end establishment. Several of the kitchen staff quit on the spot. Evans was undeterred. He wanted to open his own restaurant, but encountered difficulty finding backers. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by illness, but he did mentor many African-American chefs. Notably, all the chefs discussed were men; everyone has forgotten the talented Gillian Clark, who put herself through culinary school in her 30s and opened her own Washington, D.C. restaurant, Colorado Kitchen, while single-handedly raising two daughters. (See Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef’s Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal).

Jack Hitt’s “Putting Food On the Family,” (this grammatically impaired title comes from former President George W. Bush, who uttered this fragment during an election speech) is a moving look at who’s doing the cooking. During Hitt’s South Carolina childhood, it was commonplace to hire a black female cook. Now Hitt winces at the casual racism in his childhood community, where the 1950 edition of the Charleston Receipts cookbook featured a black “mammy” at the top corner of each page. He calls it cringe-inducing. It is. Mercifully, times have changed enough that Hitt now cooks, as do his wife and two daughters. And it sounds like the food is excellent.

Several essays are paeans to specific foods. Alison Cook’s essay on Chile con Queso, with its resolutely low rent ingredients—Velveeta cheese, pickled jalapeno peppers, onions, sometimes tomatoes—describes what for some is the perfect dish. According to Cook, one dips tortilla chips into this concoction and promptly ascends to food heaven. Naturally, artisanal versions of Chile con Queso are to be had, complete with raw milk cheeses and brisket, but Cook is adamantly dismissive of attempts to fancy up this pedestrian food. Fans of this Tex-Mex dish agree with her. Only Velveeta cheese, with its melting capacity and orangey hue, will do.

Sara Roahen, an oral historian and author, writes of boudin, which is not French sausage made from pork blood, but an Acadian specialty of Southern Louisiana, most often sold at gas stations. Boudin varies, but is generally made from pork and rice. Roahen describes buying some at a gas station with a side of cracklins (fried pork skins) and a root beer. She gives a wonderful history of the Acadian people, who migrated from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, resulting a unique cooking style and a dying dialect. We learn that boudin is the ultimate locavore food, available only in remote Acadian parish.

In “Real Cajun”, Donald Link, Louisiana chef, author, and native Acadian, describes a vanished way of life. Growing up in Acadia Parish, Link was surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and countless cousins. The family farmed rice and crawfish, and ate well: gumbos, roasts, duck stews, creamed fresh vegetables, and rice, always rice. Of all the contributors, Link, who is executive chef at Louisiana restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, has a solid grasp of Cajun versus Creole Cooking. Such distinctions are the stuff of Ph.D. theses and fistfights, but this Acadian native easily settles the dispute:

“Real Cajun food translates to the best ingredients of the area, simply prepared. The flavors are focused and the food is highly seasoned, though not necessarily spicy... By contrast, Creole cuisine is a melting pot of European influences and African and West Indian ingredients. It’s considered fancier fare: you don’t see Cajun food on white tablecloths.”

Besha Rodell’s “An Open Letter to Kim Severson” sets the New York Times writer straight on a few points. Severson left the paper’s food section to become Atlanta bureau chief. She tweeted so many 140 word smackdowns about her new home that Rodell, who also moved from New York City to Atlanta, was impelled to pen a gentle corrective. Atlanta is not a backwater, but a thriving community of artists and foodies whose only lack is big city snobbery.

Cookbook writer Andrea Nguyen’s “Bags, Butter, Surfboards, and Spice: Viet-Cajun in Cali” is a standout essay, meshing Vietnamese culture with the Bayou fisherman. Only in America could Vietnamese fisherman flee to Louisiana bayous, fall in love with crawfish, and incorporate it into nhau, the custom of sitting for hours chatting while munching fish cooked to order. Entrepreneurial Vietnamese saw a good thing: the nhau slightly Americanized into restaurant form, where people can purchase plastic bags of shellfish coated in margarine and chiles, and work their way happily through these bags while sitting, drinking, and talking. Nguyen calls these Viet-Cajun restaurants. Their popularity is spreading from the South; I was delighted to learn the cuisine has spread to California, even if the wait at San Jose’s Boiling Crab restaurant is 90 minutes.

It’s impossible to write about food without politics intruding, particularly where Louisiana is concerned. David Grunfeld, staff photographer at the Times-Picayune, contributes a heartbreaking photo essay of the Collins Family, who farmed oysters in Bayou Lafourche for five generations. The British Petroleum Deepwater oil spill put them out of business. Inhabitants of the remote Bayou Terre aux Boeufs spoke Spanish and saw no reason to leave home for New Orleans, only 30 miles away. Henry Martinez, a lifelong resident, describes an idyll lost first to Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, then finished by Katrina, 30 years later:

“We had meat, fish, vegetables... we had a community where every kid had three hundred parents. You could play in the woods, swim in the bayou, hunt, and fish. We had the best life anyone could think of.”

There are the contributions from Paul Greenberg and Barry Estabrook, who steadily exposes the bad guys in American food production. And no food anthology feels worthy these days without a contribution from Michael Pollan, writing here about farmer/poet Wendell Berry.

Collections like these are bound to have essays that fall short or leave the reader shaking her head. I wasn’t sure how an individual choosing both a sex change operation and to embark on winemaking venture fit; while both are courageous choices, the writing style seemed fictional and not at all southern. Bill Smith’s essay on visiting Mexican cooks he’d befriended while cooking was Anthony Bourdain with less swagger. Lolis Eric Elie tries to tackle “The Origin Myth of New Orleans Cuisine” from the Creole angle, only to wade in too deeply; see Donald Link, above. Martha Foose’s “Family Pieces” is lifted from a novel but doesn’t successfully stand alone.

Is this volume worth your time? Yes, but cherry pick it. The stronger entries make Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing worthwhile. Stick to the good stuff, and you’ll learn what makes the American South unique, a country within a country, struggling with the legacies of slavery, Hurricane Katrina (which also walloped oft-overlooked Mississippi), the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the consequent irreparable losses. Yet there is hope in a generation of younger chefs like Scott Peacock and Sean Brock, both passionately committed to classic Southern foodways, and in the home cooks who, when hell and high water came, kept right on cooking.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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