Catfish and Collard GreensOn a hot Sunday in the summer of 1969 (or so?) Uncle Hank and Aunt Jean were going to pick up me and my mother at the corner of Moreland and Metropolitan at noon, right after church had let out. I remember that her brother and sister had wanted to leave earlier but Mother wasn't going anywhere until after she'd taught third grade Sunday School and gone to 11:00 church at Martha Brown Methodist there in East Atlanta. We were going to Thomaston, Georgia. I had no idea where it was. I was too young to know if it was a 100 miles or a 1,000 miles away. I really didn't know who Aunt Clifford and Uncle Ney were - only that they were names often brought up in conversation around our house. As the baby of the family I'd been required to make many of these visits to folks I didn't know. I wasn't old enough, you see, to have other things to do like my sisters. They always said they were doing homework. And Daddy didn't have to go because I reckon somebody had to take the girls home to work on their homework. Well, at least this time I was going to get to ride to this Thomaston place in Uncle Hank's big, white, shiny car that had AIR CONDITIONING! In 1969 we didn't have air conditioning in our house, much less any of our vehicles. This might be a boring trip with the old folks but it was going to be fancy.
Thomaston wasn't that long of a ride. I don't remember much about the view from the backseat until we got to Thomaston and went over a little bridge that crossed Potato Creek. Mother looked at me and said "That's where Uncle Ney caught those catfish I was telling you about..." I'd heard many stories about the catfish that Uncle Ney caught in Potato Creek. He'd catch but not kill and clean them right away. No, he took them home and kept them alive in their bathtub until he was ready to clean and cook them. Until I laid eyes on Potato Creek it was just another tale of the way things were when the old folks weren't old and endured hardships and ways of life us spoiled young 'uns could only imagine. But seeing Potato Creek I was, admittedly, intrigued by the whiskered creatures that lived deep in that muddy water. It would be a sight, I realized, to go take a bath and have them flopping around in the tub. "Did you have to take a bath while they were in there?" I once asked. No, I was told, you waited 'til whatever day the fish were dinner and took your bath then. Seemed to me folks used to bathe less.
This many years later I can't begin to tell you what Aunt Clifford and Uncle Ney looked like the first time I laid eyes on them. I seem to remember Uncle Ney being wheelchair bound by that point in his life but I could be wrong. And I remembering thinking that Aunt Clifford was a loud person. Those are the only things I can tell you about them. Details of the way they looked and the things we talked about have long since been swept away. But there does live in my mind a vivid recollection of one part of our visit - lunch.
We'd left Atlanta without lunch but Mother and Aunt Jean said they weren't hungry when Aunt Clifford asked about lunch. She said some one's name and said she was back in the kitchen cooking if we needed to eat. I didn't really answer but Uncle Hank said he could eat and he took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen in the back of the house. "Come on, this will be good for you." WHAT WILL BE GOOD FOR ME????
The kitchen seemed like an afterthought, obviously added on to the house some time after the place was built. It was hot and there was a very large black woman with a fly swatter in one hand and a spatula in the other. "Well ain't you a handsome one" she said looking down at me. She had sweet eyes and she was sweating profusely. God knows how many hours she'd been standing over that hot stove in that hot kitchen. She ordered us to sit on some wooden stools at that kitchen table and said "Sweetie, you want one piece or two?" I didn't even know what I was being offered much less how many of them I wanted. Uncle Hank answered for me "Give him two, he's a growing boy...and give me two." TWO OF WHAT????
She sat down two tall, cold glasses of sweet tea and a steaming bowl of greens. "Do you like collard greens baby?" "Oh yes ma'am," I answered and I wasn't just being polite. I loved the days when I'd go into my mother's kitchen and the sweet stink of collards had taken over the house. I don't know if it made me an odd child, but I loved collards and cornbread as much as any candy you could give me. And the pan of cornbread this black woman with the sweet eyes had just sat out to go with our greens was big enough to feed twelve folks. "This is the way you do it," Uncle Hank said. He got a bowl from the shelf next to the table, crumbled up his cornbread and spooned collards and pot liquor all over them. He handed me a bowl and I followed his lead, making extra sure all of my cornbread got wet with the elixir that collards give off when they're cooking. There was huge chunks of ham hock in the greens and I was in heaven. I'd completely forgotten there was more coming, the part of the meal Uncle Hank had just said I'd need two of....
"There ain't no bones in 'em so just eat 'em up!" she said. And there on my plate were two of the biggest pieces of fish I'd ever seen. I just stared at them and, again, sort of waited to follow Uncle Hank's lead. "It's catfish," he said. I loved fish so I grabbed my fork to dig into these 2 and their perfectly browned cornmeal crust. But then I slammed on the brakes. I was suddenly overcome with the image of these creatures swimming in the same tub that the old folks in the living room sat in and washed their old people body parts. "What's wrong?" Uncle Hank asked. I didn't want to be rude and let the black woman hear my concerns. So I leaned over and whispered to him "Did these come out of the bathtub?" He reared back on his stool and let out a loud laugh. "No, son...I reckon these probably came from the Piggly Wiggly. Uncle Ney hasn't been well enough to fish in a long time." Relieved, I dug into them. And, boy, were they perfect. Sweet, not greasy and perfectly crusted. I don't remember a thing about the branch of my family tree I met that day but I remember that catfish and those collard greens.
A full stomach and a long ride home and soon I was flirting with falling asleep in the back of Uncle Hank's shiny white car. "You know why you liked that food so much?" I realized he was talking to me. "Why?" "Because you're a good southern boy. Folks in other parts of the world don't get to eat like that....you're lucky." And there it was. For the very first time in my life I realized I had an identity that until that day wasn't anything that set me apart - it was just my life. I was a southern boy. So the spot on the earth where my roots are planted determines such things? Everyone I knew ate like me, talked like me and lived like me. I reckon I figured the whole planet did. But now I learn they don't and now I learn I need to be glad of it. The notion stayed with me - to this day a pot of greens and a pan of cornbread goes beyond sustenance. I feel the connection to the aforementioned roots and how deep they run. And I always think that my greens fall well shy of the perfection the black woman with sweet eyes was able to produce that Sunday afternoon so long ago.
I say all of that to say this - I had that very same sense of connection the first time I read words that Eudora Welty had put on a piece of paper. THIS was southern literature. THIS was a southern writer. You probably don't need to be from this part of the world to realize the mastery she had over her craft (she had a Pulitzer on the shelf, after all.) But I bet it helps. I bet you hear voices that someone from someplace like New York or Illinois or California wouldn't hear - not the way you hear them anyway. And being of similar background convinces you that you're hearing those voices just the way she wanted you to hear them.
It was actually Mary Chapin Carpenter that got me started reading Eudora Welty. I heard her explaining that "When Haley Came To Jackson" was inspired by Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings." Seems Eudora's father had held her in his arms when Haley flew by our planet in 1910 and prayed that she'd be alive and well when the comet made it's next visit. I quickly purchased "One Writer's Beginnings" and was hooked in just a few pages. I'd never heard her speak at that time but I could certainly hear her voice. I knew why she wrote the way she did. Without reading them I knew that any of her other works would feel as much a part of who I am as a plate of catfish and sweet tea. I quickly got a hold of "The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty" and began a daily regimen of reading a story a day, usually while I ate my lunch. I found that I kept a notebook and scribbled ideas about each story. I usually read the stories two or three times, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything. I felt more a part of someone else's words than I ever had. And I was strongly compelled to make the notes I scribbled in that notebook into something I could share with others.
So, going forward, this blog will occasionally be interrupted with a "Lunch With Eudora" post. Perhaps boring for others but something I selfishly feel the need to do. Agatha Christie once said the only way to write is to read...and read and read and then read some more. There's an ocean of stories living in my head. Maybe Eudora's stories will push my own out of my head, out of my soul and onto pages. I have no illusions that my words will live up to hers but, in whatever voice I have, I need to get 'em out.