Mrs. Faulkner’s Wedding

In this foreword to her son Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, Estelle Oldham (Franklin) Faulkner recounts her life before and wedding to her second husband, written at least five years before the publication of the book in 1977, the year of Franklin’s death.

For those who may be interested in Malcolm’s story of his close association of William Faulkner, I, his mother, feel compelled to write an unsolicited, explanatory forward. My son has written his own preface, as well as the text with follows—I use the word “text” advisedly, because fiction—imagination and literary embellishments—is completely foreign to his factual way of thinking.

Malcolm was born in Shanghai, the son of my first husband, Judge Cornell Franklin. We also had a daughter, Victoria (called Cho-Cho by her Japanese nurse-maid, and eventually by everyone but her father), a few years older than Malcolm. We were living in Hawaii when she was born, and she was still quite a mall child when Judge Franklin decided to move to China and go into the private practice of law in this flourishing international city of the Orient. A few years later Cornell and I agreed on an amicable divorce, and I brought the two children back to Mississippi.

It is not my intention to write a biography, but I feel the necessity of establishing the fact that our divorce did in no way alienate the deep affection of my former husband’s family in Columbus bestowed upon me. Visits by both families between Columbus and Oxford became frequent, mainly, perhaps, on account of the children. The train trip from Oxford to Columbus was particularly irksome—a change, and a long wait in a town called Winona. This is how Judge Franklin’s family met, and got to know, William Faulkner so well, for Bill would often drive us over, and he was very reluctant to forgo their hospitality. Their welcome was all too sincere. “Gran” (Victoria’s and Malcolm’s Franklin-side grandmother) was a charming and admittedly romantic woman, and it was she who approved and applauded my marriage to Bill. She also unhesitatingly upbraided my father for coldly insisting that I’d married a wastrel.

All this brings me to what I’ll wager was the strangest of honeymoons—one even a novelist would hesitate to invent: the groom a bachelor, the bride a divorcee with two children, and all of us having a gay, carefree time in a tumble-down old house on the Gulf of Mexico, with a colored cook loaned to us by my first husband’s mother.

It was late afternoon, the twentieth of June, 1929. My sister, Dorothy, had gone with us to College Hill, a village several miles from Oxford where there was a beautiful old Presbyterian church and an elderly minister whom we all knew, and who gladly performed the simple ceremony. At times I’ve wondered if Dr. Hedleston welcomed us to the church and married us out of pure Godly love and understanding, or was he thumbing his nose at the Pharisaical laws imposed upon divorce by the Episcopal Church? I’ll never know the answer.

Bill and I had talked over our plans for the honey-moon at some length. A friend of his had turned over a big old beach house for our use—unrentable, because at that time Pascagoula wasn’t a fashionable Gulf resort. Victoria was in Columbus with Gan, so Bill insisted that Malcolm be picked up with all our luggage, and dropped in Columbus till we’d gotten settle in our borrowed summer home. How simple it all sounded! I had left a note with Mama about taking Malcolm with us, so I thought that all we had to do was to take Dot home, gather Mac (Malcolm, jly) and the luggage, and take off for Gran’s. She was expecting us.

Mac was still such a baby that I had a nurse for him. Ethel Ruth was a fine playmate, but couldn’t read or write, or even tell the time by a clock with Roman numerals. So when Bill steered the car into our drive way, we found the child dirty, grass-stained and generally unkempt. Bill laughed, thrust Malcolm in the car, stowed our many bags, said good-bye to Dot and headed east toward Columbus.

By then it was late afternoon. We drove as far as Tupelo, and got rooms in the only hotel. I bathed Mac and gave him supper while Bill telephoned Gan that it would be impossible to travel further that night—to expect us for dinner the next day.

The Tomato Before the Bar

Botanically, tomatoes are a type of fruit; a berry, to be precise.

In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed duties on vegetables, but not on fruits. Some smart lawyer (we occasionally stumble upon evidence of these fabled creatures) representing not only a particular commercial interest but Mother Nature Herself argued that the tomato is indeed a (duty-free) fruit.

Alas for Mother Nature and the noble litigator championing her, on May 10, 1893, in Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) that “based use and popular perception,” under customs regulations the tomato is a vegetable. This puts the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

With appropriate deference to global hoards of bellicose taxonomists, the court acknowledged its limitations by not purporting to define tomatoes beyond the rule of American law.

The Original, Definitive, and Incontestable Stage Planks Recipe

This recipe for “Gingerbread Without Butter or Eggs” was first published in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, c. 1901.

Please note that I did not write this recipe. It was written by Lafcadio Hearn sometime in the 1890s. Racist epithets are, sadly, enmeshed in the American vocabulary, as they are in most others, but as a journalist, I’m obligated to accurately reproduce citations. My apologies to anyone who takes offense.

“1 cup molasses, 1 cup sour milk, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 8 tablespoons shortening, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda.

Melt the molasses, shortening and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for 10 minutes. (While the original recipe as printed omits the use of the sour milk, let’s assume it’s added before the flour.) Dissolve the soda in 1 tablespoon boiling water and add to the molasses mix. Then add just enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff batter, beating thoroughly and vigorously. Pour into several greased shallow pans and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.

This bread makes the famous “Stage Planks”, or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans in old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nick-names, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of “Estomac Mulâtre”, or “The Mulatto’s Stomach”, meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.”

The cookbook does not include an icing recipe, but I’d suggest a royal icing. Pink, of course.

Grilled Gator

Long ago, Howard Mitcham predicted that “the day will come when fillet of alligator will be served in first-class gourmet restaurants, and frozen alligator meat will be available in the supermarket.”

Well, if not in your supermarket then certainly online, where you can find gator meat from a number of sources. Here’s Howard’s marinade for alligator.

Marinate steaks for at least four hours, turning the pieces occasionally. Grill on a low heat for about an hour or until tender.

1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 1/3 cups salad oil
8 drops Tabasco
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Kool-Aid Pie

Mix one can sweetened condensed milk, one container Cool Whip or a similar whipped topping, and one packet of Kool-Aid drink mix. You can add chopped cookies and/or diced fruit if you want to. Spread in an 8-inch graham cracker pie crust. Freeze for at least two hours–I recommend 4–before slicing and serving.

Tammy, Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says.

Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves American film a notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song has music by Jay Livingston and lyrics by Ray Evans. Reynolds herself described it as a ‘sweet, simple ballad.'”

The song went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. “At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says.

“Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters.”

“The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy lives in Pocahontas, Mississippi. Buddy is the hardest-working person I know; he does drywall, roofs, painting, whatever work he can find to keep his home safe and his family fed. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and, like most you–without a smidgen of justification, I hasten to add–thinks I’m a bum.

Buddy’s always bringing me stuff from his garden; tomatoes, okra, and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax during the holidays. Some years ago in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic. The bulbs cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

I’ve since learned, it’s actually a leek, Allium ampeloprassum. You’ll find this onion growing around old home places all over the South. Here in south Hinds County, it’s practically endemic. You can use the fresh stems and bulbs before they divide out for a very strong garlic-y onion flavor. For the bulbs to clove, cut the blossom before it sets seed. Once the foliage has yellowed and the stem stiffened—this is a hardneck garlic—you can dig the buds. They will divide as they dry.

This old allium is a wonderful pass-along; plant toes/cloves after first frost in your strongest sun. Buddy tells me it spreads all over the place, and he has to thin his out twice a year. He also swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. They’re both pushing 80 now and show no signs of letting up.

Me, I’ve got the prettiest little patch of Pocahontas garlic you’d ever hope to see coming up in the bed next to the driveway.

Hollandaise

Whip three large egg yolks at room temperature and a teaspoon warm water until light and fluffy. Then, whisking continually, slowly dribble in a half cup (1 stick) melted butter. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of cayenne, and salt to taste.

A Rose So Blue

My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can still hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove.

She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d tap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.” She also told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.

“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”

Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”

She told me that where the blue roses grow, the east wind from the sea air keeps the mountains clouded against the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines her white, white light on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms blue as a gas flame climb to the stars.

When Emma died, my heart broke into a million pieces, but my heart healed, and I remember Emma, it’s warmed. When I find blue roses for sale, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the seaside slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.

Taking the Heat

There’s more than a grain of truth to the expression, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” because the pressures are enormous, and if you can’t deal with them, you’ll not be there long at all. You must have everything that can be ready well before hand without knowing how much you’re going to need, because more often than not you just can’t tell how busy it’s going to be. You also have to be able to cook several different things all at the same time and fast.

You’re also usually working for someone who wants to make every customer happy, and you’re obliged to respond with something approaching alacrity to the demands of the wait staff, who in turn are at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who has enough money to purchase a meal. The constraints are heavy, and as a result there’s very little feeling of autonomy.

Having said that, cooking in a restaurant does hold some appeal for those with the temperament and constitution. Getting out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning to cook appeals to very few people, so brunch shifts (which are invariably what weekend morning shifts are terms at most “upscale” restaurants) are not popular among restaurant workers. But once you’re used to being up and going to work at that time of the day—and it does take some getting used to—you might find a certain sort of appeal in it.

I once worked a brunch shift in an Oxford restaurant that required me to be at the restaurant around six every Sunday morning in order to begin serving at nine. Oxford is normally a bustling little city, but very early on Sunday mornings, downtown is usually quiet and sedate (mornings after an Ole Miss homecoming game are an exception; the partying never seems to end on those weekends).

At that time, only a couple of sleepy cops near the ends of their shifts, some few street maintenance workers and maybe a jogger or two are out and about. You notice the bird songs more because there’s no traffic. I always felt as if I’d gotten the jump on everyone, that by being among the first up on that day I’d somehow established some sort of slight moral superiority over other mortals by way of observing—albeit under some degree of duress—the old “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” maxim.

After getting to the restaurant and unlocking the door to the kitchen, on come the lights. You make a pot of coffee and check the notes left by the most conscientious person on the last shift and begin “waking up the kitchen,” bringing it to life, filling it with the sounds and aromas you’re accustomed to working around.

First you turn on the vent hoods (a crucial step), then you might fill the steam table pans with hot water and light the flames beneath them. You set your oven on whatever temperature you need to hold, heat, bake or broil foods. If you have them, you fire up the deep-fat fryers, the salamanders, the grill or the griddle. Then you begin prep, chopping up vegetables, mounds of onions, bell peppers and celery, parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, making batters, cracking eggs, making biscuits, muffins and shortbreads, setting water to boil for any number of things—grits, pasta, beans, peas, potatoes—putting together a soup for the day, warming up the menu standards, checking out leftovers to see what you can use and what should be trashed, deciding on a special and making sure you have enough staples on hand to get you through the day.

You’re cooking. You’re still alone and you have all these things going. You’re in control. It can be a wonderful feeling.

Sooner or later you’re joined by your compatriots in the kitchen, and you then find yourself dodging and dipping around them as they work. By the time the first servers get to the restaurant, you’re all in full swing, your steam table’s about half-full, you’re mostly through the prep for your line work and the smell of sautéing onions and baking biscuits fills the restaurant. More often than not, the servers are going to want to eat—especially those nursing a hangover, who in my experience with waitpersons tend to be in the majority—so you might as well put them a basket of biscuits with gravy out for them. You can yell at them later, but it’s usually a good idea to at least get off on the right foot with them initially.

By the time the first customers come stumbling in the door, you’re ready to serve up a beautiful meal, and soon you become lost in the peculiar, compelling rhythm of a working kitchen, which some people have compared to a ballet in its precision of flow and timing. Granted, a working kitchen certainly doesn’t exhibit the ostensible grace a performance of Swan Lake might—especially since, in a kitchen, a lot of billingsgate gets bandied around in what might seem to the uninitiated as an alarmingly casual manner (“Hey,  you stoner #$@^%&^%#! When am I going to get some %$#@&* fettuccine on the ##$%*%$# line?”)—but in its own cacophonous, high-tension way, a coordinated kitchen in operation is a beautiful thing, especially looking upon it and thinking back to when you walked into that cold, dark kitchen all alone very early that morning.

You’re the one who set the whole thing in motion, after all.