Let Us Now Praise Famous Cooks
a set of 6 songs
based on Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking and Sinkin’ Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravin’s
commissioned in 2015 by the Southern Foodways Alliance
I will never forget the day John T. Edge and I met in his office to talk about what this song cycle might become. Each of us had serendipitously brought along copies of White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. We both saw in that volume the stories and hopes we wanted to share with the audience at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium. After weeks of reading and two amazing days of digging into Mickler’s papers at the University of Florida Smathers Libraries, I recognized a kindred spirit in the author and his books, White Trash Cooking (1986, Jargon Society) and Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits, and Cravins (1988 Ten Speed Press) On every page, I saw myself and the women I grew up with in Booneville, Mississippi. I knew these were people we should celebrate.
Ernest Matthew Mickler was born in Palm Valley, Florida, in 1940. After a brief career as a country singer, he earned an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mickler cobbled together White Trash Cooking, a collection of 229 recipes and 46 photographs from his home and from his travels. Harper Lee called it “a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage.” Colman Andrews said White Trash Cooking was “the best American cookbook of the century, by far.” In 1988, Mickler died of AIDS. That same week, his publisher released Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits, and Cravins.
What follows is a song cycle in name, but at heart, it is a series of portraits of six women and one man, all either from or suggested by Mickler’s recipes and writings. In a culture rife with class warfare and tinged with elitism, we have forgotten the skill and ingenuity it takes to produce a cuisine this rich and varied. In this age of “white trash” theme parties and poverty tourism, I hope to restore depth and grace to the human beings in whom Ernie and I found so much beauty and vitality.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Cooks is lovingly dedicated to Sarah Taylor Ellis, and given in memory of Ernest Matthew Mickler, a Renaissance man for the rest of us.