Tutti’s Fried Porkettes (page 29), Aunt Rosie Deaton’s All-American Slum-Gullion (The Best) (page 33), Sheba Spann’s Mock She-Mock Crab Stew (page 60), Russian Communist Tea Cakes (page 94), and Our Lord’s Scripture Cake (page 85). The Meat recipes include gator tail, possum, rabbit, and boiled and fried squirrel. I have to admit that despite all these years and countless times flipping through the delicacies in Ernest Mickler’s classic 1986 “White Trash Cooking,” I’ve never actually made any of these dishes. While the format is familiar, spiral-bound church/community cooks are most often found in secondhand stores, but these weren’t the cherished foods in my youth. In our home, there are no powerful reminders of the flavors or comforts reflected in this book, but they are the tastes and traditions of many of our neighbors. And at potlucks, weddings, and school gatherings, they share these pieces of themselves with us. It isn’t always Irma Lee Stratton’s Chocolate Dump Cake (page 88), but you get the point.
As popular as it is, if White Trash Cooking is not a cookbook in my home, what is it? It is an artist-made book, a way of storytelling that pushes the boundaries by combining visual elements with a nonlinear narrative structure. It’s a tactile, intimate work of art that sits on the shelf and can, and often is, revisited like a favorite painting that remains on view in a permanent collection gallery. Mickler was an artist by choice, who learned to cook at his mother’s knee from a young age. Born in 1940, he was raised in Palm Valley, Florida, a swampy hideaway along the Atlantic between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. He graduated from the art department at Jacksonville University, then in 1972, he accepted his MFA degree from Mills College in Oakland. For as long as anyone could remember been talking to anyone and everyone, collecting recipes and stories, carrying loose leaves in a battered brown paper bag. These were moments from home. San Francisco had been a haven for gay men from across the country, men who brought with them traditions, customs, and tastes from small towns near and far. These men, including Mickler, would come together with their adopted families to share meals, using food to communicate who they were and where they left behind.
In 1980 he settled in Key West, Florida, where he worked as a cook in an all-male guesthouse while finalizing his manuscript. He had lovingly gathered more than 200 recipes from north of West Virginia and back down to the tip of Florida. He met a man with experience in the publishing world here, and together, they sent copies out. The big publishers in the Northeast were instantly smitten with the thing. However, the title alone stuck fear in their hearts. Mickler knew the title was a provocation, but as an art project, he wanted these words to shock the audience, to start a larger conversation. He wasn’t afraid or ashamed of the term. He was delighted to be “White Trash.” The difference with the uppercase phrase was that “Manners and pride separate the two.”
“White Trash Cooking” found its way to a desk at the Jargon Society, one of the most significant small presses of the twentieth century. Based in Highlands, North Carolina, and founded by Jonathan Williams, who had been described as “our truffle-hound of American poetry” for his ability to work with unknown writers that would later become influential voices. Most often, these were artists and writers working in a manner deemed too unconventional by mainstream publishers; often, these folks were associated with the Black Mountain College of Art and poets from the Beat Generation. “White Trash Cooking” was right up his alley.
Much to likely, everyone’s surprise, the cookbook was an instant success. With very little advertising, Jargon had printed 5,000 copies but quickly received 30,000 orders. Unable to keep up, the Jargon Society sold the right to Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press for a $90,000 advance and a 15-percent royalties clause.
Readers immediately connected to the prose. There is a joy to it all, this respect for inexpensive and often processed foods. In the introduction, he notes that nearly all recipes depend on three essential ingredients – cornmeal, bacon, and molasses. The holy trinity. Mickler wrote just as he spoke and when using others’ voices left in their regional inflections.
1 glass of skim milk 1 envelope sugar substitute
Blend in blender until foamy, then add 1 teaspoon of McCormick’s vanilla extract.
Try this on hot days when your cardboard Good Sherpard fan makes you even hotter.
Betty Sue says: “This is a life-saver before Sunday dinner and just after church when it’s so hot you can’t hardly stand it!”
MARGIE’S FRIED CHICKEN
Cut up the fryer, and clean it with lemon only. Dredge in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and allspice. Put in ½ inch of hot lard. Fry one side and then the other until well done. Eat directly out of the skillet. This is very good with a cold beer. If you’re a strict Baptist, have a lemonade or a cold drink, and may god bless your home.
Mixed between the recipes, 45 full-color photographs are often compared to Walker Evans, William Eggleston, and William Christenberry. Mickler was a folklorist with a camera taking images of buildings, often abandoned or boarded-up houses in wooded settings. His saturated palette of kudzu greens and dirt browns was mixed with pale pink shrimp shells on newspaper, bright yellow mac and cheese, and deep black stovetops. The vernacular tradition of the southern sublime.
And, while the comparisons to the photographic giants are understandable, Mickler is more of a southern Rirkrit Tiravanija. They both blur the line between who is the artist and who is the viewer/or, here, reader. If you flip through this book and decide on dinner, you no longer are looking at art but are now part of it.
I’ll always think of “White Trash Cooking” as a celebration. A love letter that challenges our perceptions of class and cuisine while preserving a piece of unique culinary heritage. This is profoundly American food. These recipes are a reminder that food is more than sustenance. It is a reflection of culture, history, and resilience. Despite its title, despite being labeled as a cookbook, a peak behind the curtain of continuously overlooked foodways, the art is in the collection. The careful attention in collecting and cataloging these stories, the honesty of portraying a place and people.
6 years ago, the incredible Southern Foodways Alliance commissioned the Oxford, MS-based composer, and pianist to create a cycle of songs titled ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Cooks,’ a cheeky play off of Walker Evans and James Agee’s iconic book: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He took six recipes, six portraits of men and women we will never fully know, and transformed them into catchy, melodic ballads.
My favorite is Margie’s Fried Chicken (follow along on page 37):