In a book entitled What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy writes, “The satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for our definition of the merits of food.” In other words, being accustomed to a particular dish does not mean it’s good for us. In his own convoluted way, Tolstoy was defining “comfort food.” He was a nineteenth-century aristocrat who sold portions of his vast estate to pay off gambling debts, so his concept of comfort would differ mightily from yours and mine. He also got depressed a lot. He lost four children to early death and killed a bear at point-blank range, making him dang near a Russian version of Daniel Boone. He certainly thought like a Southerner when he wrote the opening line to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Of all the pitiless opinions set down about family, it’s hard to beat this snarl by August Strindberg, a sentence which appears early in the first volume of his novelized memoir, The Son of a Servant, one of the bitterest condemnations of family ever written: “Family! thou art the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.”
In Fred Hobson’s Tell About the South, he writes of a well-to-do white writer named Lillian Smith, born in Jasper, Florida, a mere eighty miles from my home in the hills of Leon County. I had never heard of her. Unlike her contemporaries W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South, and Clarence Cason, author of 90° in the Shade, Smith did not go the full Quentin Compson and commit suicide after publishing a poetic, guilt-laden jeremiad—but instead authored book after book laying bare the South’s transgressions. She was fearless, a rabble-rouser and rebel who integrated her life and art.
Ethnic insights do not always weather storms, particularly if one, black or not, is too committed to common cloudbursts: they can slowly evolve into an aesthetic version of sleeping sickness. Tarantino surprises us again because his Django Unchained is one of the worst versions of Blaxploitation ever seen.
I came to Replacements, Ltd. to see the huge collection of Fiestaware, the beloved American-made brand of colorful china, and to follow a hunch I had that a plate has special significance in the South. This was both an ethnographic mission for my work as a cultural anthropologist and a personal quest: I am one of countless Americans who collect Fiestaware.
Cooking with Chris.
Though not inclined to the supernatural, I am willing to recognize the effects of luck on my life, both good and bad. As a result I have many talismans of good fortune: a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, an oak leaf from a 150-year-old tree, and hundreds of lucky rocks. I don’t know if they work, and I don’t really care.
Reading Terry Southern’s letters, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it. More than once, as he apparently intended, I wondered, Well, is this true?