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Spinning ol’ Hank again 

They don’t make entertainers like they used to.

Southern culinary tales
  • Southern culinary tales
Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams By Paul Hemphill, Viking Penguin, New York, hard cover, $23.95. Hank Williams was a country-music singer who died more than 50 years ago, and it’s rare you’ll come across somebody under 60 who’s ever even heard of him. They’ve maybe heard of his son, Hank Jr., from his outlaw Country Boy and Family Tradition anthems, and from Monday Night Football, but the Pap is one of the forgottens from that quaint time of hot rod Fords and two-dollar bills. Fifty years ago, though, Hank Williams Sr. was Elvis, only he burned brighter than Elvis, and faster, and he was a true poet as Elvis was not, and authentic genius played around and about his music, while it never got within a country mile of the King’s. God A’mighty ol’ Hank had a tough life! And yet he was able to turn the pain of it into song. He wrote the words down — well, anyway, he approximated them semi-literately — and then he sang them. His own words about his own heartache. And, as Kris Kristofferson once said, he made suffering enjoyable better than just about anybody else ever has. Heart pain shared in song came to be the definition of country music; he’s the one who gave it that definition; and the genre since he died at age 29, already an old man washed up and burnt out and about 150 proof, has only been imitations and echoes of what he did with it and to it. His legend lives, even if the songs are seldom heard any more, and Paul Hemphill’s little elegiac riff on this weird sad bedeviled drunk-assed redneck artist (Hemphill compares him to Van Gogh) might find him a bit of a retro-fad audience among the whippers and snappers. One likes to think so anyway. It’s a short book — but not so much so when you consider that Ol’ Hank (that’s how he referred to himself, and preferred others to) was a dropout and dead-drunk-every-day alcoholic before he turned 16, and apparently never did an interesting thing for 10 years after that, and then died within 48 months of his epochal Opry debut. And within the scant 207 small pages, Hemphill concomitantly conveys a compelling and miraculously understandable precis of the fluid, shifty country-music oeuvre at mid-century, and his narrative swells almost Shakespearian as Ol’ Hank strides up out of Alabama into that world, and staggers through it, beset as Oedipus, and then mysteriously passes out of it like some cowboy scarecrow Kurtz. It was like he was a phantom, a character from a depressing and exhilarating and very brief dream. The Greeks saw their ancestors as titans, and Milton’s rebel angels were veritable giants, measurable in leagues; and it’s that way with us, too — with nostalgia at any given time — which is preface to saying that they just don’t make entertainers in this country like they used to, larger than life. Hemphill quotes a Moline, Ill., fan of Ol’ Hank’s who attended a 1953 concert at which he turned up much too drunk to even think of going onstage. “But two handlers brought him out, one on each arm, his guitar around his neck, and stood him at the mike. He didn’t say a word, not even howdy. He was like a zombie. But he sang great for an hour and then the two men came and got him and took him away. They propped him in a chair backstage. He was so drunk he didn’t know his name or where he was. But you talk about a performance. He never missed a note.” — By Bob Lancaster Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South By Marcie Cohen Ferris, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., hard cover, $29.95. The author of this big, beautiful book about Southern Jewish cooking, and the cooks who cook it, and the families who eat it, is a native of Blytheville, and grew up there. One of the Mississippi County Cohens, you know. Her book isn’t a cookbook, though it has dozens of recipes from divers home kitchens from Virginia to Texas, including some really swell ones, such as Company Cornbread, and Mimah’s Cheesecake, which unless I miss my guess would be rendered in the conventional vernacular as Meemaw’s Cheesecake. It is rather a cultural history of Jews in the South told from the perspective of the family dinner table and in the language of those incredible aromas emanating from Granny’s kitchen. Among the promotional materials sent out by the book’s publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, is an interview with author Marcie Cohen Ferris in which she discusses her favorites among these delectables, and how she went about compiling these often elaborate dinner-table tales. The interview also focuses on Marcie Ferris’s very pertinent background. Here are some excerpts: Q: You grew up in a Jewish family in Blytheville, Ark. Did your childhood play a role in developing your interest in Jewish food?” Ferris: “Yes, it was a mixed marriage. My Jewish father was born and raised in Arkansas, and my Jewish mother grew up in Connecticut. Grits weren’t allowed in our house until I rebelled in high school and made them myself. My mother, Huddy Cohen, is an excellent Jewish cook, so I have fond memories of Sabbath dinners and special meals for the Jewish holidays. My favorite holiday meal, usually the evening before Rosh Hashanah, began with a fancy Jell-o mold, followed by matzoh ball soup, roasted honey chicken, green beans with almonds and mushrooms, noodle kugel or a sweet potato tzimmes, and stewed fruit and pound cake. My Jewish grandmother in Blytheville, Luba Tooter Cohen, made delicious matzoh ball soup, but she also prepared some of the best ‘pole beans’ and black-eyed peas I’ve ever tasted. Q: Why study food in the Jewish South? Ferris: “In the South, where you come from and ‘who your people are’ defines each encounter between Southerners. An equally important question is ‘What do you eat?’ Both Jewish and non-Jewish Southerners share a regional love for food. During my research in the South I met many Jewish Southerners for the first time. After ‘So nice to meet you,’ ‘who’s your mama and daddy?’ and ‘where did you say you’re from?,’ out came a plate of rugelach, pound cake, and cookies. Wherever Southern Jews gather, food appears. The heritage of Jewish Southerners, their isolation, and their need to connect with each other makes food double important. Q: Is there a definable Southern Jewish cuisine? Ferris: “There aren’t roadside cafes with blinking neon signs advertising Bubba’s Southern Jewish Cuisine but there’s plenty of Southern and Jewish cooking going on. It’s different in every region of the South and in every Jewish home and synagogue kitchen, but in general, Southern Jewish cooking is defined by the following: traditional Jewish recipes passed down from one generation to the next; the influence of regional ingredients, flavors, and cooking methods; a deeply ingrained sense of hospitality and sociability; the importance of family and regional Jewish connections; and the presence and influence of African-American cooks and caterers. Some examples: barbecue brisket, pecan mandel bread, Sabbath fried chicken, matzoh meal fried green tomatoes, praline sweet potato casserole, lemon stewfish, Br’er Rabbit molasses cookies, and Rosh Hashanah jam cake.” Q: You say African American cooks are integral to the Southern Jewish culinary tradition. What is it about cooking together that breaks down barriers? What kind of new dishes and traditions resulted from these relationships? Ferris: Jewish and African American women in home and synagogue kitchens have long exchanged recipes for collard greens and matzoh balls. Since colonial times, they’ve shared an unlikely alliance as outsiders — Jews due to their religion and blacks due to their race. The kitchen was a kind of ‘free zone’ where … an important blend of Southern and Jewish cuisine emerged. ... In his book ‘The Provincials,’ historian Eli Evans describes an Atlanta brisket prepared by black cooks for his family in North Carolina. Their secret ingredient was Coca-Cola. Jewish and African American women created similar blended dishes such as lox and grits, sweet potato kugel, collard greens with gribbenes, sweet and sour shad, Rosh Hashanah hoppin’ john (the black-eyed peas and rice dish traditional served on New Year’s Day), and barbecue brisket. Ferris is no great literary artist, but she’s a terrific sociologist, and her vast narrative is admirable for the tightness and springiness of its prose. One feature of the book that particularly grows on you is the abundance of black-and-white snapshot photos. This isn’t Ansel Adams photography. It’s album pictures of families gathered round supper tables, big formal community feeds, individual cooks sweating over hot stoves. What’s common to them all, what keeps you returning to them, is this: Everybody in them is happy. And it’s obvious why. It’s the food. — By Bob Lancaster
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