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Let Us Now Praise Fabulous Cooks
From the Florida swamps, a cookbook that turned a slur into a badge of honor.
by John T. Edge

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In January of 1986, The New Yorker rejected an advertisement from the Jargon Society, a North Carolina literary press, for White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. Camera-ready art and a check for $900 were returned. "We thought the title might offend our readers," a spokesperson for the magazine said.

"That just goes to show you how much The New Yorker knows about anything involving gravy," said Georgia-bred Roy Blount, Jr., an early proponent of the book and a putative kinsman of Florida-born Mickler. Blount did not stand alone; admirers of the work were many. In Vogue, Barbara Kafka wrote that Mickler "sees clearly, without condescension." Bryan Miller of the New York Times dubbed Mickler the "Escoffier of icebox cake and bucket dumplings," and proclaimed White Trash Cooking "perhaps the most intriguing book of the 1986 spring cookbook season." Colman Andrews, now the editor in chief of Saveur, then the food editor of Metropolitan Home, called White Trash Cooking "the best American cookbook of the century, by far."

Upon receipt of a galley, a correspondent from Monroeville, Alabama, wrote, “I have never seen a sociological document of such beauty—the photographs alone are shattering. I shall treasure it always…. Now that it’s harder than ever to identify the genuine article on sight—with two generations of prosperity white trash looks like gentry—we’ve long needed something other than the ballot box to remind us of their presence: White Trash Cooking is a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage.” (Harper Lee knew a good thing when she saw it.)

White Trash Cooking was among the most unlikely best-sellers to ever climb the charts. For those who did not dog-ear a copy, mixing Goldie’s Yo-Yo Puddin’ and Mona Lisa Sapp’s Macaroni Salad, baking Resurrection Cake, Grand Canyon Cake, and Vickie’s Stickies, for those who have never had the pleasure of pondering recipes for Canned Corn Beef Sandwiches, Potato Chip Sandwiches, and Girl Scout One-Eyed Egg—and for those who once knew but have since forgotten their glories—a primer is appropriate.

White Trash Cooking was published with a spiral binding, in the manner of the South’s beloved community cookbooks. The background for the cover image of a fleshy-armed woman in a flower-print tank top was a patchwork of Tabasco sauce, Ritz crackers, and Velveeta cheese bricolaged with those country icons Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Martha White, all of which was overlaid on a photostat of mulched turnip tops and precisely rectangular turnip roots—the sort of vegetable matter that does not come fresh from the farm but straight from the can.

On the inside cover, Jonathan Williams of the Jargon Society declared, “If you were trying to explain what these recipes and snapshots were all about to some grand mâitre like Paul Bocuse, you’d say: ‘Listen here, buddy, this be’s the victuals of white, Southern rural peasants… Hit’ll eat!’” Williams suggested that the reader imagine Bocuse and his ilk “swooning over such delicacies as ‘Big Reba’s Rainbow Icebox Cake,’ ‘Tutti’s Fruited Porkettes,’ and the ‘Cold Collard Sandwich,’ as the Durkee’s dressing drips over their cravats.”

But Williams also hinted at a deeper meaning, one that eluded many a wink-and-nod reader. After complimenting Mickler’s “snapbean prose style,” Williams, a countercultural poet and publisher who called himself an “aristo-dixie-queer” and called Mickler the “Carmen Miranda of Moccasin Creek,” argued that, in congruence with the collected recipes, the forty-six photographs at the center of the book “fill out a picture of Southern living suggested by the photographer William Christenberry.”

Regard the photographs—and the text—of White Trash Cooking closely and likely you will discover that the citation was apt. Christenberry, among our region’s most talented and forthright photographers, was born near Hale County, Alabama, the same Black Belt county that writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans chronicled in their Depression-era masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Early in his career, Christenberry claimed the work of Agee and Evans as his lodestar. And after a week of alternately thumbing White Trash Cooking and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I can’t help but conclude that Mickler read the words of Agee or saw the photographs of Evans. At the very least, Mickler, like Christenberry, was influenced by their unflinching and sympathetic style of documentation.

The Agee-Evans-Mickler triangle may not be provable, but I do know, thanks to an oral history collected late in life, that Mickler read Zora Neale Hurston. “Child that just blew me away,” Mickler said of his first encounter with the writings of the Florida-born and Barnard-trained anthropologist, best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. “[S]he walked on the shell ground I walked on. Played out in the same woods, saw the same rivers, and that’s what made her.”

Hurston documented the lives of working-class blacks. Mickler, like Agee and Evans, focused his lens—and cocked his ear—in an attempt to capture the pathos of everyday whites. Agee and Evans brought to life people unheralded. So did Mickler.

Agee wanted readers to apprehend that “these I will write of are human beings, living in this world…and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered, and loved.”

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men affirmed humanity: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” said Agee of the effort. “It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food….”

Mickler embraced the written tradition. And he aimed for nobility, invoking Welty and Faulkner, O’Connor and McCullers: “They all tell us, in their own White Trash ways, that our good times are the best, our bad times are the worst, our tragedies the most extraordinary, our characters the strongest and the weakest, and our humblest meals the most delicious. There ain’t much in between.”

But Mickler, like Agee, also relished the gut-punch of photography. A reviewer for American Photographer noted that Mickler’s pictures:

evoke a palpable social strain, and are filled with the sympathy and goodwill of a photographer who sees the joy in what might best be called the “supper class.” [T]here is more than a hint of pathos in the way Mickler has organized his pictures. Close-ups of frying hush puppies and plates gobbed over with grits, beans, creamed corn, and biscuits are interspersed with melancholy interiors of white-trash homes…. Subtly, Mickler reminds us that it takes a dirt-poor people to produce a diet as rich and raunchy as White Trash Cooking.

1 Star
Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was rejected by its commissioning agent, Fortune magazine, White Trash Cooking wasn’t warmly received by publishers. The name was the matter. For want of a title that would not offend, a half-dozen New York houses turned down the cookbook. But the Jargon Society, in the person of Jonathan Williams, saw merit where others saw a goof at best, a libel at worst.

A poet and contrarian, Williams was a veteran student of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, an early and important locus of free thought and Southern dissent, where artists in residence at various times included Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. On the Black Mountain College campus, Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome; John Cage staged the first multimedia happening in the U.S.; and the Black Mountain Review published the likes of Allen Ginsberg.

When Black Mountain College closed in 1957, Jonathan Williams threw himself wholesale into the work of the Jargon Society, declaring his mission to “keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!” Often dismissive of the bourgeoisie, Williams valorized the vernacular speech and traditions of his Appalachian neighbors. In Ernest Matthew Mickler, Williams found a swampy analogue to those mountain folk, touting Mickler as a poet laureate of the underclass, one of the coterie whom Jargon celebrated as “strays and mavericks…those afflicted with both vision and craft.”

1 Star
Mickler, baby-faced with the unstudied good looks of a country boy come to town, was born in 1940, in Palm Valley, Florida, near St. Augustine. His father was a shrimper. His mother worked as a cook and a filling-station attendant. Mickler was fond of telling interviewers that his family lived without electricity until he was seventeen or eighteen, in “the middle of the swamp” at “an old fish camp.” He described the buildings as “crude-cut cypress,” the family privy as “out-of-doors.”

Mickler’s father died when the boy was six. Mickler called him a “mean old son of a bitch.” He once called his mother, Edna Rae, “the lowdowndest White Trash that ever walked the face of the earth,” but aimed to flatter. “Mama was a great fisherman,” Mickler said, “redfish, bass, trout, drum on the hook and line. Mullet in the net. And she shrimped too. Caught tubs of fish.”

Mickler took great pride in place, although he was not wholly provincial. When he was a teenager, Mickler, along with Petie Pickette—granddaughter of the woman he called Mama Two, the woman who gave the world Tutti’s Fruited Porkettes—scored a regional country-and-western hit with the single “Our Love.” The duo toured the South and, depending upon the story told, either opened for, sang backup for, or merely conversed in a hotel lobby with Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison. “We were not big time,” Mickler said later. “We elbowed with them.”

In his mid-twenties, Mickler went to college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Jacksonville University. At the suggestion of his primary professor, Memphis Wood, he applied for and won admission to the Master of Fine Arts program at Mills College in Oakland, California. While in Oakland, Mickler likely concocted the idea for White Trash Cooking.

Apparently, Mickler and his friends first envisioned a campy television show, a kind of drag-queen riff on the Galloping Gourmet. The book came into focus later, as Mickler traveled the gay vagabond circuit from the Bay Area to New Orleans and on to Key West. He shopped the project for a couple of years, soliciting introductions to editors and publishers. To no avail. And then, while working as a caterer in Key West, Mickler received a call from Jonathan Williams, who, on behalf of the Jargon Society, offered a modest contract, a poet’s-eye edit, and, no matter the ruckus, a pledge to retain the original title.

Williams understood the power of the title. He knew that printing the epithet was an act of transcendence, a marker of movement beyond the constraints of stereotype. Mickler proclaimed White Trash to be a badge of honor. Black Southerners responded positively to the book, recognizing the ascendance of white trash as concomitant to the liberation of their people.

Mickler delineated lowercase white trash and uppercase White Trash, arguing that “manners and pride separate the two. Common white trash has very little in the way of pride, and no manners to speak of, and hardly any respect for anybody or anything.” White Trash, however, “never failed to say ‘yes ma’m,’ and ‘no sir,’ never sat on a made-up bed (or put your hat on it), never opened someone else’s icebox, never left food on your plate, never left the table without permission, and never forgot to say ‘thank you’ for the teeniest favor. That’s the way the ones before us were raised and that’s the way they raised us in the South.”

1 Star
In one of the preambles to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee fretted about the “emasculation of acceptance,” acknowledging that when an audience brings a work to its bosom, it smothers the potential to shock, to change perceptions, to catalyze action. And so it was with White Trash Cooking.

Within six months of publication, Jargon, overwhelmed by the response, sold the rights to Ten Speed Press of Berkeley, California, an upstart that earned a reputation for savvy marketing with What Color Is Your Parachute? Through the summer and fall of 1986, the book sold strongly, and by January of 1987, White Trash Cooking was number eight on the Publishers Weekly roster of paperback best-sellers. At a time when health-conscious cooking was all the rage—Spa Food, The New American Diet, and The Four Seasons Spa Cuisine were three of the books that made their debut alongside White Trash Cooking—Mickler’s book was a thumb-of-the-nose at the calorie-obsessed.

Mickler became a media celebrity, cooking chicken feet and rice on Late Night With David Letterman and starting an on-stage trashcan fire in the process. He became an arbiter of pop culture. When Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the fallen PTL founder Jim Bakker, offered her Sloppy Joe recipe to the PTL’s 900-line callers, Mickler defended Tammy Faye’s inclusion of canned chicken gumbo soup and her instructions that a cook will “know if you have enough ketchup when it gets to the right degree of redness.” He told a reporter, “I bet it’s delicious. But I like my Sloppy Joes on cornbread, which is real lowdown.”

Soon, more than two hundred thousand copies of the book were in print. But trouble followed money. In December 1986, in the wake of a People magazine article that referenced a $45,000 royalty payday, an attorney representing the Ledbetter family of Alexander City, Alabama, threatened suit and received compensation from Mickler’s unauthorized use of their daughter’s photograph on the book cover.

The Ledbetters joined an unlikely cadre of people who, taking note of the book’s success, threatened suit against Mickler. The most curious complainant was the Junior League of Charleston, publishers of Charleston Receipts, the ultimate white-glove Southern cookbook. The good ladies of Charleston claimed that twenty-three recipes in White Trash Cooking, including roast possum and broiled squirrel, were lifted almost verbatim.

1 Star
Mickler went to work on his second book, Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins (now available as White Trash Cooking II). The back cover shows Mickler in his prime, tending a cast-iron skillet roiling with grease. In the background, at the sink, is a man in briefs and a white tank top—his partner, Gary Jolley. With White Trash Cooking, Mickler outed the South’s White Trash. With book two, he outed himself.

“I casseroled them to death,” Mickler said of Sinkin Spells, the book he had written and collected in fits and starts, much of it while on book tour for White Trash Cooking. No matter what Mickler might suggest, Sinkin Spells was a more mature effort, one that utilized the recipes and folio layout, but shifted the focus to food ceremonies, like the dinner after a cemetery cleaning, the casserole luncheon of a quilting circle, even the wake of Mickler’s own mother.

The story of the wake was Mickler’s best piece of writing, in which a woman named Chestine flails at her neighbor, grabbing her dress “like a bulldog,” and Naireen Sikes, known for wearing “the tightis clothes you ever witnessed,” makes the “best, damn perlow” in “these scrubs.” Meanwhile, respect for Mickler’s mother is conveyed by deviled eggs, served in such quantity that “everybody’s hens had ta been a layin double.”

“One Side of a Conversation Between Gracie Dwiggers and Rosetta Bunch About Edna Rae’s Wake and Funeral, Over the Phone” was one of Mickler’s last efforts. Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins was published on Monday, November 14, 1988. Mickler died of AIDS the very next day.  

This article can be found in the magazine's current issue (Winter 2006). Click here to order this issue online.