An installment in Chris Offutt’s Omnivore column, Cooking with Chris.
Magic and cooking are based on the same principles of transformation, cutting and restoring, vanishing and reappearing. A blue handkerchief suddenly becomes red! A woman sawn in half returns intact! A coin disappears from the hand and reappears in a child’s ear! An egg becomes an omelet!
Following John McPhee to Florida.
McPhee’s book about oranges in the age of concentrate production is not a screed against industrial food or agribusiness priorities. There’s no scolding chapter explaining which oranges to buy at the grocery store. For that matter, there’s no hand-holding “what will happen in this book” chapter or really even much in the way of plot or main character, aside from the regular presence of our reporter guide. In that way, it doesn’t much resemble the books published about food today.
These assemblages don’t need to be explicitly religious to suggest the spiritual potency of ordinary things. That simple things—especially things detached from ordinary meaning—may acquire a higher meaning. That these objects make no obvious representational sense makes sense. Who knows what spiritual beings look like, after all? Platonic forms?
He was a modernist scholar, one of the earliest, and for decades a leading translator of ancient Greek poetry; but he also wrote with authority on the social history of the pear, Mother Ann Lee and Shaker aesthetics, Dogon cosmogony, the anthropology of table manners, 2 Timothy and the Pauline doctrine, Louis Agassiz, Eudora Welty, geodesic domes, the paintings of Balthus, and the behavior of wasps—which he fed in his home from a saucer of sugar water. He himself subsisted on fried bologna sandwiches and Marlboros.
I love potatoes in all their forms—even raw—but especially hash browns, latkes, French fries, baked potatoes, soufflés, puffs, pastries, and homefries. And vodka. Don’t get me started on vodka. Please don’t! The last time I imbibed potato liquor I wound up hiring a bicycle taxi to pedal five people to my mother’s house for a nightcap. Mom was delighted; the taxi-cyclist quite a bit less so.
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.