The Sartoris Thanksgiving

In a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), Adam Gopnik points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

Faulkner falls solidly into the second category, a writer who uses food to show who his characters are, as does (unsurprisingly) a French writer who influenced the Mississippian very much, Marcel Proust.  “Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts,” Gopnik says. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This is precisely what Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel was rejected by his publisher, but it was released in a drastically edited version as Sartoris in 1929. The full manuscript was finally restored and published under the editorial direction of Douglas Day in 1973. The novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, aristocratic Sartoris in decline, clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here Faulkner describes their Thanksgiving table:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. Then they ceased talking for a while and really ate, glancing now and then across the table at one another in a rosy glow of amicability and steamy odors. From time to time Isom entered with hot bread . . . and then Simon brought in pies of three kinds, and a small, deadly plum pudding, and a cake baked cunningly with whiskey and nuts and fruit and treacherous and fatal as sin; and at last, with an air sibylline and gravely profound, a bottle of port.” (Flags in the Dust, Random House, 1973, p. 281)

The meal is lorded over by the family patriarch, Bayard Sartoris II, who is soon to die as well as his son, Bayard III, leaving the few remaining members of the once proud and powerful Sartoris family destitute. Old Bayard’s attempts to maintain the family’s traditional high standards are exemplified by this meal, which is indeed a groaning board with plentiful meats and game, vegetables and breads, sweets and condiments. The inclusion of stewed cranberries, somewhat of a luxury item at the time, stands out. Towards the end, adjectives begin to cluster as they tend to do in Faulkner, and the final, “sibylline and gravely profound” presentation of port lends a dark, ceremonial  coda.

Menu for a Delta Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik lists four kinds of fictional food: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be predominant, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does as well with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described–a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards–people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book. This a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household in the South during the Coolidge administration. In both Faulkner and Welty, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes to Welty, who is not only subtle and understated, but knows food as few writers do, it’s easy to miss things; read Delta Wedding again, if for that reason alone.