HomeArts & LitAt the Southern Literary Table

At the Southern Literary Table

Talking pickled peaches, greens, coconut cake and more foods that are essential to Southern literature. 

The kitchen table was loaded with enough food to bury the family: hunks of salt pork, tomatoes, beans, even scuppernongs. Atticus grinned when he found a jar of pickled pigs’ knuckles. ‘Reckon Aunty’ll let me eat these in the dining room?’ – To Kill A Mockingbird 

Most works of Southern literature aren’t complete without a mouthwatering food scene — or two or three or four. Keep in mind, we have to eat three meals a day with a slice of cake or a pickle in between sometimes. The above quoted scene from Harper Lee’s classic book is typical of what you’ll find spread out on a table in a Southern novel. The salt pork might be replaced by fried chicken, the beans with greens, scuppernongs with coconut cake and a slice of cornbread or a biscuit added for good measure. All of these are essential Southern literature foods.

Dinah Fried’s new book Fictitious Dishes is an album of literature’s most memorable meals, cooked, composed and photographed by the author herself. And it’s no accident that several Southern works make their way into the book beside historical classics from the likes of Melville and Dickens. You have to admit that yams covered in butter, buckwheat cakes dripping with syrup and ham swimming in gravy (from Gone With the Wind) sounds more appetizing than a second serving of gruel (from Oliver Twist.)

What Fried’s book does though is elevate these literary meals to art forms in themselves and celebrate the sensory experiences they add to some of our favorite works of literature. “Reading and eating are natural companions, and they’ve got a lot in common,” she states in her introduction. “Reading is consumption. Eating is consumption. Both are comforting, nourishing, restorative, relaxing, and mostly enjoyable.”

Delta Wedding, Essential Southern literature Foods While there are plenty of table scenes similar to the one in To Kill A Mockingbird to be found, other works center more around one food item. For example, Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding stars a memorable coconut cake, its pure white version contrasted with a spicy, dark “patticake” that “got a little white dove blood in it, dove heart, blood of a snake.” Think we’ll stick with the traditional version.

In Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, a failed cake is music to Frankie’s ears. “The afternoon was like the center of the cake that Berenice had baked last Monday, a cake which failed. The old Frankie had been glad the cake had failed, not out of spite, but because she loved these fallen cakes the best. She enjoyed the damp, gummy richness near the center, and did not understand why grown people thought such cakes a failure.”

Member of the Wedding also features a humorous scene about hoppin’ john as the favorite food of new Frankie turned F. Jasmine. “She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin, to make certain there was no mistake; for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead.” Leave it to Southerners to talk about food on their deathbed.

Anyone who’s read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying remembers Vardaman’s cryptic line “My mother is a fish.” Dewey Dell doesn’t have time cook up her little brother’s catch for supper so instead serves plain turnip greens and buttermilk — “mighty spindling eating” complains Pa. Greens, along with cornbread, probably make the most appearances on Southern literary tables, with pickled products not far behind.

It could be argued that tables in these Southern literary kitchens don’t look that different than they do today, at least for Sunday dinner. And there are plenty of modern Southern writers bringing a food focus to their stories and taking the concept even further. Author Michael Lee West has featured red velvet cupcakes and peaches on the covers of her novels and says her characters tell her what they want to eat. Her character Teeny Templeton loves to cook and eat, and recipes for things like her red velvet cake and Aunt Bluette’s Fresh Peach Pie are included in the backs of West’s books. “My worldview is food, and most of my characters have that. It can’t be avoided,” West told Deep South in a 2012 interview.

Kim Boykin’s new book Palmetto Moon involves a partnership with Charleston Chef Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad. He provided the recipe for crab cakes in the back of the book and inspiration for Boykin’s fictional chef Frank Darling in the story, who woos love interest Vada Hadley with his tender cakes. And Erika Marks made our mouths water for an order of crab balls from Folly Beach in her summer read It Comes in Waves.

We’ve also been having a blast pairing the latest Southern food products with some of these food passages. Think Bulls Bay Smoked Sea Salt with Vardaman’s fish and Caribbean Coconut Caramels with that coconut cake in Delta Wedding.

Update: We further explored this concept during Birmingham Public Library’s Eat Drink Read Write Festival. Events ranged from poetry paired with craft beer to a food writers fair, literary cocktail competition, program on food stories and latte art and a live chat about food in Southern literature at Pepper Place Market. Our Twitter chat with author Hunter Murphy on the subject took place Saturday, October 4, from 10-11:30 a.m.

Top image from To Kill A Mockingbird entry in Fictitious Dishes, taken by Dinah Fried. 

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  • Nicola Miller / September 19, 2014

    You have hit on my absolute obsession- the food culture of the Deep South and the way in underpins literature.
    Reading Truman Capote’s ‘A Southern Memory’ led to Harper Lee and ‘To Kill…’ which led to Carson and Faulkner and Eudora. Then Michael Lee West, Rebecca Wells and Fannie Flagg, Conroy, James Villas (his essay on pimento cheese and the perfect tomato sandwich are perfection!), Bailey White (not so much food there) until I got to seven bookcases floor to ceiling all filled with books written by Southern writers. I have yet to try Scuppernongs and Pimento cheese and Brunswick stew but i can dream and one day I will.

  • Steph Post / October 4, 2014

    I’m so glad to see this post! (And discussion on twitter) while I am far from a true foodie, I love looking at the importance of food in Southern writing. Sometimes reading about food is even more enticing than viewing it (or sometimes even eating it). My own Southern novel has a scene with a banana Moon-pie and while this isn’t specifically Southern food- when Birdie Mae eats one it always makes me think of a certain type of typical Southerner. And it makes me crave one….

  • Jenn / October 4, 2014

    This probably doesn’t count, but I love the cookbook Martha Foose did. Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. There are stories throughout.

  • Karen Reep / October 4, 2014

    I absolutely love southern lit. I wish I could come to Birmingham!

  • Pat Sabiston / October 4, 2014

    When Rick Bragg writes about Southern food, your mouth begins to water and your senses are tweaked.

  • Jessad / October 4, 2014

    I appreciate regional cooking and foods, visits to cafes, diners and restaurants where foods are made from scratch and w/local fare. Thanks for sharing so disappointed that I missed out the twitter talk #EDRW

  • Shelly / October 5, 2014

    Love love southern authors/ books . Brings me back home. !

  • Southern Lit Atelier / October 5, 2014

    LOVE! This article!!!