Category Archives: Memoirs with Recipes

Southern Testimonio: Remembering a Sharecropping Childhood


The Pecan OrchardDespite its title, Peggy Vonsherie Allen’s memoir, The Pecan Orchard: Journey of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, only gets around to narrating her own Southern success story of overcoming a crippling illness (rickets) and becoming a well-established civil engineer in the closing pages of this affecting memoir. The bulk of the book is a paean to her parents’ hard work and dedication to provide enough for their large, 13 children family on a sharecropper’s lot, and still save enough to eventually purchase their own land. This memoir would be a good counterpoint to reading about another, more famous family of farmers who become sharecroppers, the Joad family, immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Whereas the Joads had to leave their ancestral land behind and journey to faraway California during the Dust Bowl for a chance to make a living using their inherited farming skills, the Allens stayed put and worked their way out of poverty and tenant-farming through unrelenting effort, luck, and sheer numbers. Allen’s clear-eyed account of witnessing both the sacrifices and ingenuity her parents and siblings demonstrated as independent agricultural contractors as well as enterprising business people with lucrative, and sometimes dangerous, sidelines in moonshine (father and grandmother) and strawberries and strawberry wine (mother), is both compelling and instructive. Not only does she shed light on how sharecropping families who made it succeeded in supplementing their meager earnings by catering to the demand for luxury items like seasonal fruit and alcohol of all kinds, but it also dramatizes the risk and personal cost of such undertakings, such as the year and a day her father had to spend behind bars for being caught in possession of a gun, something he presumably used to keep him safe in his delivery rounds. Though Allen does not grow up to farm or garden herself as an adult, she spent all of her childhood out in the fields helping her family harvest and care for crops that belonged to other people. As a first-person account of those labors, this text contributes to our general understanding of how racism affected the workings of the food system in the South during the decades of Jim Crow, and the risks small sharecroppers and their families took to work on behalf of Civil Rights and equal access to voting booths in their local communities.

Because it tells the stories of so many different people at once—her family, other sharecroppers in the neighborhood, blacks living in the Jim Crow South, and sick and disabled children in rural areas, just to name a few—this memoir really carries out the functions of a testimonio, a work of collective storytelling acting as a supplement to the official histories of oppression during this time, and reflecting a deep and communal political engagement to combat the status quo. Though this book is written directly by Ms. Allen, her narrative style bears distinctive traces of her oral approach to storytelling: there is a lot of repetition spread out throughout the various chapters; they do not necessarily adhere to a strict chronological or thematic order, and lots of dialogue or recalled conversations are central to how events are described and/or remembered. The Pecan Orchard meets most of the criteria Doris Sommer spells out for what makes a text a testimonio (or a “testimonial” in her terms) in her analysis of the differences between that genre and women’s autobiographies:

(1)Testimonials are related to a general text of struggle. They are written from interpersonal class and ethnic positions. (2) But the narrator’s relationship to her social group(s) is as a particular individual. Therefore, she represents her group as a participant, rather than as an ideal and repeatable type. . . . (3) To make the reader’s interpellation possible, the narrator and her public must assume that language always relates to the world, even when it does so imperfectly. (4) One symptom of language’s imperfection is the limit or boundary of any one code. . . . (5) Finally, male models are adapted to a different but related female experience. (129-130)

The Pecan Orchard chronicles the exploitation of sharecroppers in general, regardless of race, at the hands of their landlords—their meager pay is exploitative and out of keeping with the profits the landowners reap from the crops the sharecroppers tend and harvest for them. Allen also speaks as an African American girl living in the South during Jim Crow, and recalls from her now-adult perspective how assiduously her mother worked to shield her children from the institutional prejudice that surrounded them. One such example is when Allen explains her inability to understand why her mother would not take the kids to town to buy shoes but would take a paper cutout of their foot shape instead. It turns out salespeople would not let black people try shoes on so that white customers would not have to put their feet where Negroes’ feet had temporarily been. Allen also recalls her sisters’ political activism and work for Civil Rights. The memoir uses language primarily as a tool to get meaning across; rarely are there any personal or stylistic flares. And, Ms. Allen’s father plays an outsized role for as little as he was personally engaged with his children, especially little sickly Peggy.

In fact, the memoir closes with her describing the most significant keepsake she still has of her childhood: the “little hoe” that her father fashioned for her so she, too, could contribute to her family’s quest to earn their livelihood despite how rickets had disfigured her legs. In this description, the plural nature of this collective identity is in evidence through Allen’s appeal to her heritage and her community’s experience of slavery as well as sharecropping:

I still have part of the little custom-made hoe that Daddy fashioned for me so many years ago. The wooden handle has long since rotted away but a portion of the metal blade has survived. I will cherish it always. It reminds me of my childhood and the people who were such an important part of my growing up. It reminds me of where I’ve been, and of my history and my heritage. I am only three generations removed from slavery and my little hoe helps me remember that. (255)

The reference to slavery here echoes with her earlier descriptions of older members of her family and community and their own experience of having lived in bondage. It is precisely this aspect of Allen’s narrative that lends itself most closely to the Latin American tradition of the testimonio, because so many of the female narrators in the genre told the tale of their communities’ struggles against the legacy of colonial oppression, slavery, and exploitation.

What strikes me as the memoir’s most all-American aspects of its narrative, however, is Peggy’s descriptions of her mother’s ingenuity, demonstrated both in times of hardship—when she managed to feed 13 mouths on very little food—and in times of opportunity, such as when she saw the chance to nurse some discarded strawberry plants back to health and therefore started her own strawberry business—selling the fruit and the wine made from them, and turning the “damaged” berries into pies and preserves. Though Peggy cherishes the hoe her father made for her, she feared him as a child for his emotional reserve and demanding work ethic towards his children, she clearly loved and admired her mother for the way she made her children feel loved and appreciated. This becomes most evident in Peggy’s description of her mother’s approach to tending her strawberry patch; it is not hard to see how the assiduous and tender attention she pays to the plants is a metaphor for how lovingly she related to her offspring:

One of the many things that Mama did to try and earn money for the family was growing strawberries. She always had a strawberry patch, and from as far back as I could remember strawberries were growing somewhere around the house. Strawberries were her pride and joy, and rightfully so. Of the many fruits and vegetables we grew, Mama took the greatest pride in her strawberries. She loved them and she put her heart and soul into every plant. Strawberries can produce a bountiful harvest if they are tended just right, and they were a really consistent income-producing crop for years. (88)

Like the strawberries, the children received loving care and attention, though neither kids nor berries were spared the hardships of the weather. Both produced income for the family. And, according to Allen’s description, her siblings turned out to be just as sweet as they always suspected the mother’s ripe berries would taste. It was her mother’s ingenuity under dire circumstances, her desire to improve her lot and that of her family through dedicated labor and taking chances that endeared her mother to Peggy and, through her, to us readers. I end on this note not to suggest that sharecropping was not a tough life, but to affirm that people found ways to add a little flair to meet the difficulties they faced every day.

The two recipes the memoir contains are both for alcoholic beverages: Mama’s strawberry wine, and Peggy’s Dad’s/Grandma’s recipe for moonshine. More than how-to guides for the amateur mixologist, these recipes serve the same purpose that the little hoe does—to attest to how people found ways to make the work they had to do somewhat easier. These three things, the recipes, and the hoe, are Peggy’s legacy, and her memoir is an attempt to share that with a broader public.


Works Cited

Allen, Peggy Vonsherie. The Pecan Orchard: Journey of a Sharecropper’s Daughter. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Penguin, 1976.

Summer, Doris. “Not Just a Personal Story”: Women’s Testimonios and the Plural Self.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodkzki and Celeste Schenchk. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.107-130.


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The Picaresque in the Restaurant

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Furnishing “The funeral bak’d-meats”: Southern Food Memoirs and Funeral Fare

Consuming Passions           Being-Dead-Is-No-Excuse-9781401359348

As a group, Southern culinary memoirs have a distinct charm and appeal to readers not only because they include recipes for tasty regional specialties sandwiched between chatty anecdotes about Southern life but also, and I would argue, primarily, because they promulgate the rules and etiquette for the hospitality that has made the region so famous. A case in point are discussions of funeral fare, which show up more often in food memoirs written by self-declared Southerners than by any other regional group of food writers in the United States.  Novelists like Michael Lee West, author of Consuming Passions, and the duo behind Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, social commentators Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, share their insights into the specific role homemade cuisine plays in both comforting the bereaved and affirming a sense of community and solidarity among the living. Aware of the fact that with the passage of time, “[w]e’re burying our best recipes,” as West’s Aunt Tempe observes (CP 7), the memoirs and guide books seek to both chronicle and preserve a way of life and a set of customs that is under threat of disappearing due to family members living far apart, the ease and temptation posed by catering services, and the failure of the older generation to transmit their culinary knowledge to their children and grandchildren. With heavy doses of humor and a dollop of nostalgia, these writers are self-appointed ambassadors of the South and share with their non-Southern readers a sense of the importance of food to rites of passage in a context unmediated by commercial interests.

As the allusion to Hamlet in my title attests, funeral fare makes an impression on the grieving, rather than conveying anything specific about the dearly departed. Hamlet’s bitter charge that his mother, Gertrude, remarried with such haste that “the funeral-bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (I.ii.65) is not too far off the mark, since some Southern ladies use the opportunity to cook for the funeral reception as a chance to show off their culinary skills in the hopes of snatching a husband, maybe even the widower. Metcalfe and Hays contrast the customs surrounding those two key social events that mark people’s transitions publicly—weddings and funerals—by highlighting the role of the community in determining the etiquette for the latter: “Some people may hire wedding consultants, but for the funeral we rely on tradition—and input from veterans of Delta funerals past. What makes the Delta funeral different from others is the large number of friends who get into the act” (BDINE 209). Indeed, funerals are organized by others for the person whose life is being commemorated, whereas the couple entering into wedlock feed and entertain those of their friends and acquaintances they invite to witness the ceremony and celebrate their love.

The Church takes center stage at both funerals and weddings, with West reminding us that: “Southern churches have traditionally provided the meal after the funeral; it can be grand or pathetic. And you can’t go by a church’s size, either . . . When it comes to good funeral food, it all depends on how many good cooks are in the congregation” (CP 132). Both Being Dead is No Excuse and Consuming Passions attest to the importance of the canonical desserts that make a funeral Southern. West explains that, “In the South, chess pie is also known as funeral pie” (CP 135), before sharing her recipe for “Lemon Chess Pie.” For dwellers of the Mississippi Delta, coconut cake fills this same comforting role, with Metcalfe and Hays admitting “We’re already thinking about this coconut cake before the last ‘amen’” (BDINE 12).

The South—both Old and New—lives on in the national imagination thanks to its writers’ penchant for penning how-to lifestyle guides like the Southern Ladies’ guide to  parenting, gardening, entertaining, courtship, weddings and funerals. This region affirms its rich heritage by marketing its cultural traditions to curious onlookers, eager to learn more about the mystique of Southern comfort, the last remaining bastion of gentilesse.  Though I am reassured by the thought that wakes and funerals are still being portrayed as community-building events, I do wonder how much this idea persists in literature more than in real life. It would be interesting to know what sub-section of the catering industry specializes in funeral fare. The one bad thing about losing such a homey tradition, in my view, has less to do with the dishes being brought to comfort the bereaved, and more with the therapeutic aspects of having to return the dishes to the families that brought the meals.  As West’s mother points out, this obligation forces the widow or widower to go out and face the world one more time, thereby putting one’s grief in context with the ongoing rhythms of life. Perhaps that in itself is enough to make us preserve, or reclaim, such culinary traditions.

Metcalfe, Gayden and Charlotte Hays. Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

West, Michael Lee.  Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life.  New York: Perennial, 1999.

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The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book as the Fulfillment of the Couple’s Writerly Ambitions

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

In what is arguably the best known expatriate culinary memoir of the twentieth century, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), Gertrude Stein’s widow offers a “mingling of recipe and reminiscence” for American readers to emulate. The California-raised daughter of Polish immigrants, Alice B. Toklas traveled to France after the San Francisco earthquake in 1907. Once she met and fell in love with Gertrude Stein, Toklas decided to make France her home permanently. The two women parlayed their romantic and professional partnership into a carefully crafted joint public persona as a couple, a phenomenon that has recently become more mainstream through the popular or celebrity media practice of blending the first names of partners involved in high profile or celebrity “supercouples” to arrive at a portmanteau word which serves as a joint moniker, such as Bennifer, TomKat, or Brangelina. While such naming conventions were not in vogue when either Stein or Toklas was writing, I argue that they nonetheless pioneered the concept of the supercouple by constantly referring to their status as domestic partners in public and private life, and using the first person plural “we” and “our” more often than the first person singular in their correspondence and published writing.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), may be the earliest, most intricate and most high-profile articulation of their joint identity; this text first suggests the possibility that Alice could earn a living as a writer at some future time. In a three paragraph sequence leading up to the book’s denouement, the revelation that Gertrude Stein, and not the titular character, is the actual author of the Autobiography, the “narrative voice” of Alice B. Toklas claims that, unlike American novelist Ford Maddox Ford, a family friend who takes turns being a “pretty good” writer, an editor and a businessman, she/the narrating Alice manages multiple obligations simultaneously:

I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author. (no pg #, Kindle version)

Interestingly, being a “cook” is not among the multiple occupations at which the narrative voice of Alice B. Toklas claims to be “pretty good”. This silence regarding her skills in the kitchen seems all the more striking for all the attention paid to the meals the couple consumes and feeds to their famous friends, both at their Saturday night salons in Paris, as well as in their summer place in Provence. Since Alice B. Toklas’ refined palate was legendary in its sophistication even at this early date, and especially given that gastronomy is an ongoing theme throughout the Autobiography, this omission is rather comical.
Such was the strength of Alice B. Toklas’ culinary prowess, that it even suffused their intimates’ sense of the couple’s household as being one large, extended kitchen instead of a grand atelier. In the chapter he dedicates to discussing Gertrude Stein in Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-11930 (1931), Edmund Wilson quotes novelist Sherwood Anderson, a frequent guest of the Stein-Toklas household, whose own “imaginative energies” lead him to conflate the two women into the one public persona of “Miss Stein”, in an interesting projection of a male fantasy of domestic bliss:

In the great kitchen of my fanciful world in which I[ see] Miss Stein standing, there is a most sweet and gracious aroma. Along the walls are many shining pots and pans, and there are innumerable jars of fruits, jellies, and preserves. Something is going on in the great room, for Miss Stein is a worker in words with the same loving touch in her strong fingers that was characteristic of the women in the kitchens of the brick houses in the town of my boyhood. She is an American woman of the old sort, one who cares for the hand-made goodies and who scorns the factory-made foods, and in her own great kitchen she is making something with her materials, something sweet to the tongue and fragrant to the nostrils. (Axel’s Castle 201)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read this mouthwatering scenario as Anderson’s sexist reaffirmation of traditional gender roles, not only because he situates Stein, who does not cook, in an imaginary kitchen but also, presumably, because he explicitly compares her approach to writing to the manual labor of both hired cooks and of the unacknowledged Alice. I prefer to read this passage as an example of how successful these women were in promoting a joint public persona.

Stein returns to the idea that Alice B. Toklas should become an author with the publication of Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), the decidedly more experimental, less commercial follow-up to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing in her own inimitable voice, Stein recalls an exchange with a fellow traveler on board during the return voyage after the lecture tour of the United States during the mid-1930s. This passage constitutes the first reference to Alice B. Toklas’ alleged desire to write not just a book, but a cook book some day:

On the Champlain it was not exciting, we were still celebrated of course but we were soon across the ocean and back again, there was one nice American who told Alice Toklas that she was going to have a career that would soon be beginning, and that I would go on succeeding, we wondered what the career of Alice Toklas was going to be and when it was to begin and then it almost began she decided to write a cook book and if she did the career would begin and she will but she has not yet had time, naturally enough who can and of course this she would not let me do for her and with reason. (Everybody’s Autobiography 305)

This passage may be just another instance of what Gilbert and Gubar call Stein’s “lesbian doubletalk” which they claim she developed in the poem, “Lifting Belly,” where Stein deploys the couple’s collective voice to “re-enact yet ridicule the hierarchies that structure the heterosexual marriage even as they release imaginative energies” (No Man’s Land 188). However, in the passage I examine, Stein’s imaginative energy goes so far as to portray Alice as an independent, self-determining, desiring agent who not only “decided” to undertake such a project but also denies her lover the authority to act as literary ventriloquist a second time, “with reason”. The source of such confidence is not the stranger’s prognostication but, I would argue, the self-same culinary expertise to which the “narrative voice” of the Alice B. Toklas from the Autobiography lays claim. In any event, time is the ever-present foe which thwarts the writerly ambition of both Stein’s 1933 and 1937 literary projections of Alice B. Toklas; it is not until Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946, that the historical Alice B. Toklas takes steps to fulfill this joint ambition of having a career writing cookbooks.

When she does take it upon herself to put pen to paper and recreate the meals she and her beloved shared in France for the enjoyment and pleasure of her American (and British) reading audiences, Toklas contradicts the easy and confident tone which Stein ascribed to her fictional narrative voice early in the Autobiography. Stein’s version of Toklas takes ownership of her personal expertise in the kitchen; to her presumably lay readers, Stein’s Toklas defends her use of the culinary allusions to explain her understanding of how artists conduct their work: “I do inevitably take my comparisons from the kitchen because I like food and cooking and know something about it” (no page numbers, Kindle version!) Ironically, the historical Toklas herself addresses her American and British readers more complexly, simultaneously leveling the playing field by declaring herself an expert in the kitchen who is addressing an imagined community of peers “As cook to cook” (xi), while also confessing that her ascendance to that role coincided with her relationship with Gertrude Stein: “Before coming to Paris I was interested in food but not in doing any cooking. When in 1908 I went to live with Gertrude Stein at the rue the Fleurus she said we would have American food for Sunday-evening supper, she had enough French and Italian cooking; the servant would be out and I should have the kitchen to myself” (29). Toklas ascribes the rise of her interest in domestic matters to a double displacement occasioned by love: through her involvement with a beloved who is employed abroad (Gertrude Stein), she becomes separated from the United States, her country of origin, and cast adrift from her own identity as a professional except in relation to the beloved. Cooking or the task of overseeing the preparation of meals, thus, become acceptable ways through which Toklas and the women who follow in her footsteps perform their identity as “Americans” for and with their beloved.

Alice B. Toklas’ self-titled Cookbook displays a wealth of hard-earned, accumulated culinary knowledge, most of it hers, but not exclusively so but also serves as a work of mourning: it pays tribute to the long and happy union that was the inspiration for Toklas to finally fulfill the writerly aspiration her beloved envisioned for her.

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