“The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods”
Author: Emily Blejwas
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $39.95 (Hardback)
There are recipes in this book, even one for Sunday School punch, which is iced tea, muscatel and rum, but this not a cookbook.
In some ways this book resembles Rick Bragg’s recent food book, “The Best Cook in the World,” but where Bragg used the food and the recipes as jumping-off places for his wonderful, usually humorous family stories, Blejwas uses each food as an opportunity to talk about a bit of Alabama history or the contributions of a particular Alabamian, or to look at a segment of the Alabama social fabric.
Sometimes these explorations are humorous. Occasionally they are pretty grim, as when discussing civil rights clashes, but they are always highly readable.
The sections are, very loosely, chronological. Food is not inherently chronological. Blejwas includes time charts for each food, illuminating in some cases where a food is mostly unknown until some cultural event brings it to the fore. For the peanut, for example, the Civil War was a high point—peanuts, cheap, lightweight and nourishing, could be carried easily by soldiers and, when salted, lasted for days.
Since the native Americans were growing corn ages before the first Europeans arrived, she begins with corn, which became the primary crop, “in every colony and every state.” Corn was so ubiquitous it even served as currency, “whether it appeared as ears, meal, or whisky.”
“By 1849, the South had eighteen million acres planted in corn, compared with five million in cotton.” The ratio of corn to cotton is, oddly enough, a kind of measure of Alabama’s economic, military and racial history.
Blejwas uses her discussion of corn to tell the story of Alabama Native Americans, especially the Poarch Creek Indians.
A middle chapter is given over to peanuts and George Washington Carver. One marvels anew at the stubbornness and thickheadness of Alabama farmers who refused to stop growing cotton even when the soil was depleted and prices were in the cellar. The boll weevil saved some of them by destroying 2/3 of the crop in 1916 around Enterprise, forcing them to switch to peanuts, but only for a while. Ten years later, “Cotton returned to pre-weevil levels in Coffee County almost as quickly as it had gone.”
Of Carver, enough praise can never be offered. He discovered 285 uses for the peanut, including hair oil, cough syrup, mock oysters, on and on, and never took a patent. (He also discovered 118 uses for the sweet potato.)
He insisted God had given him his discoveries: “How can I sell them to someone else?”
He lived simply, wore one baggy suit, refused raises, worked to help small farmers and when he died left everything to Tuskegee.
There is a chapter on wild turkeys, which are amazing birds. They have 360-degree vision, great hearing, run 12 miles per hour and can see colors. No wonder it is so hard to kill them.
The chapter on tea, especially Milo’s Sweet Tea, is used to discuss the Depression in Birmingham.
There is a witticism, often heard, that Alabama was already so poor folks didn’t notice the Depression. Well, not in Birmingham.
Mill workers, miners, had no work and no collard patches and they starved, pawed through garbage for food, ate cats, became hoboes. Intervention by the WPA and the federal government saved thousands. The federal government came to help and did.
There are several chapters on home-cooked food and African American entrepreneurship. One is Martha’s Place in Montgomery, started up during the bus boycott and specializing in sweet potato pie; another is Georgia Gilmore’s home restaurant, a safe place for the Rev. King and others to have lunch and talk.
There are chapters on chicken stew, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and Lane cake. The chapters on gumbo and Moon Pies both lead to discussions of Mobile, as does the chapter on bananas, brought in at the port. Bananas were the first fresh fruit in America available year-round.
There is of course, a chapter on barbecue, but we have heard enough about that. Recipes for barbecue sauce cause a lot of discussion—there are, Blejwas says, “at least six distinct regional variations of barbecue sauce”: the Alabama version of the many cheeses of France?
One odd note, however, was the continued existence, only in Sumter County, of Barbecue Clubs. That sounds like fun.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.