By 1986 publishing was already wedded to celebrity so much so that the best-selling cookbook that year was by “The Frugal Gourmet”, an ordained minister who was convicted of molesting teenage boys some years later. But Smith, for all his faults, was an international media presence, while Ernest Matthew Mickler (God rest his sweet soul) who in the same year published White Trash Cooking, was a dying man with a vision.
Ernie insisted on the title, which left him an open target since his simultaneously unblinking and winking approach to the stereotype of the rural South confounded people across the country as well as people on the Redneck Riviera. The only thing even remotely resembling a precedent for White Trash Cooking was written by another Floridian, Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies in anthropology brought her back home, much as it did Mickler, who threw down a gauntlet, insisting that while the nation might profile Southerners as a whole as white trash, the behaviors that earmark anyone anywhere as decent, perhaps in cases even honorable, hold sway in the American South as well, a region that is no more tragic than any other section of the country. He also knew that people outside of the South consider us low and mean, but we are (as they are) a layered society undeserving of their unilateral condemnation; our culture, our manners, our morals all have as much a measure of civilized imprint as those of our fellow countrymen, but instead of embracing our differences, they persist in considering the South and its people worthy of their collective opprobrium.
With White Trash Cooking, Mickler opened a portal of discovery into the essential character not only of the South, but of the nation; white trash cooking uses cheap ingredients, commercially frozen, dried or canned, few seasonings, packaged mixes, plenty of salt and sugar, lard and margarine in dishes that are quick and easy to cook, unsullied by any degree of sophistication. It remains the most basic form of cooking in the nation, the cooking of people who don’t read Bon Appetit, people who work a forty-hour week (or more) at a poorly-paying job with little or no insurance, living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make a life for themselves and their children. They wouldn’t go to a Whole Foods store unless they lived next door and had to, which is good advice for anybody without an attitude. White Trash Cooking celebrates a significant surface of our many-faceted country, one we should all recognize as uniquely ours and none others. Love it.