It’s late, cold and I’m drinking Jefferson’s Kentucky Bourbon Very Small Batch. Much spice and vanilla on the nose with citrus notes everywhere–green apples and rum in there as well. Taste? Very clean, refreshing, slightly sour with red-hot candy, anise, a bit of lemon, bit of grass, and cookie dough.
A roll of nectar in the mouth, head tilts back, eyes close and the mind wanders to the past. In this case, Flannery O’Connor’s insightful diagnosis of memory in her classic short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Over the years, I’ve read and re-read this story, assigned it in various classes, and discussed with students its many aspects of the absurd, grotesque and violent. The story also contemplates our relationship to memories and what might happen when the past shapes the present. The following scene occurs halfway through the tale, and marks a turning point toward death. But for now, an old grandmother remembers.
They drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. “There was a secret:-panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .” (123)
So much here. From sleeping into dreaming into a recovery of what was lost; and then into deception through a promised secret, which of course memory serves as . . . secret and door. The “old plantation” haunts many a Southern character and many a Southern tale, and here along with the aesthetic properties of “white columns” and an “avenue of oaks” the ghost-like plantation appears to offer an innocence with its “two little wooden trellis arbors” where “your suitor” may call. But the reader knows what is hidden, the reader knows the slave shacks exist, the bit and chain exist, the burning and lynching. Then, “Sherman” appears, the great devil of Union aggression setting fire to the South. The boogey-man takes the stage. But first, I need to start my grits.
As I stated in my last post, Chef Sean Brock serves as Virgil to my wandering through the South, and today he’s taking me to the promised land of grits. He’s very particular about how he prepares this staple of Southern cuisine. Grits have played an important part in the history of the South because corn was a crop that could be grown easily in the region and dried and stored for winter consumption. A bowl of grits can tell the story of a region, a family or a time period. (74) Brock advises using Anson Mills grits, but I need to order those as they are not carried locally, so I’ve turned to Bob’s Red Mill Southern-Style White Corn Grits. The corn flew here from California, but it is coarsely-ground so I’m adhering to part of Brock’s words of wisdom. Following Virgil’s directions, I’ve set the grits in a pot and I’m about to soak them for six hours. Time for another dram of Jefferson’s and back to O’Connor.
“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey’s shoulder. (124)
Memory brings a thought, the thought threatens the grandmother’s view of the world and herself; while, the external world–the cat–notices this internal shift, and springs . . . violence ensues.
The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver’s seat with the cat gray-striped with a broad white face and an orange nose clinging to his neck like a caterpillar. (124-125)
A car accident. A whirling through air and a crash. Death breathes very close. How are my grits?
I skim off the hulls and chaff floating on the surface, then put the pot on the stove, turn the heat on high, and whisk the devil out of the grits until the water begins to boil and all looks so creamy. I remove the pot from heat for ten minutes, and then it begins.
As Sean Brock writes, After about ten minutes, take the lid off the grits, put them over low heat, and add couple of fresh bay leaves. Cook the grits for about an hour, stirring frequently. Taste the grits, every 15 minutes or so. After an hour, you’ll feel a textual change, and the grits will be very soft and tender. (75) Unfortunately, I did not check my supply of fresh bay leaves, and I’m out; however, I do have a sage plant out in the garden, so those wonderful leaves will save my grits. The stirring begins–a good time to return to O’Connor.
“I believe I have injured an organ,” said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no one answered her. Bailey’s teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee. (125)
Misplaced memory haunts the mind. She saw a phantom and believed it real like those denizens of Plato’s cave who take shadows for life. O’Connor’s grotesque fashioning pairs an injured organ with bright blue parrots and a humorous quip not to reveal the plantation is in Tennessee. The misplaced memory humbles our mind’s attempt to rule the world, to name it with conviction, to arrange items and people just how we wish. The haunted South includes our mistakes which will claim everything we have. Meanwhile, my arm’s held up and the grits have a lovely smooth, creamy texture and taste. Next step . . . .
I add salt, butter and lemon juice. Now it’s time to serve.
With hot sauce.
With pepper. Gabriela and Demian bless my honing of the grits and soon the pot is empty. The taste of corn, butter and salt amazes and I’m a convert. As for O’Connor’s grandmother, she’s in for more revelations before the story ends; a misplaced memory affords an opportunity to reach out and claim things of darkness, much like Prospero with Caliban. Bourbon and A Good Man is Hard To Find have brought together Kentucky and Tennessee, certainly a reason to celebrate; which I do, with a Jericho Hill Cigar and the last of the Jefferson’s listening to the Wailin’ Jennys. Bon Appétit!