Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shall We Sup, Shall We Soup?: Two More from the Inimitable Eugene Walter

Jennie the Watercress Girl: A Fable for Mobilians and a Few Choice Others

Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes

If Everette Maddox is the unofficial poet laureate of the blog, Eugene Walter is its resident Puck. We're big fans, and when Brady returned from his research trip to the Gulf Coast, he brought me back two hard-to-find Eugene Walter reprints.

Walter's first book, Jennie the Watercress Girl was an effort to revive the lost art of pamphleteering. After returning to Mobile from Alaska, where he worked as a cryptographer during World War II (well-documented in Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet), he discovered the city had much changed in his absence. And not for the better.

This playfully illustrated little fable begins when Jenny Heynonny's family is ruined by the 1929 stock market crash, and little Jennie resolves to support them by selling watercress. And so, she departs for Bienville Square singing the refrain:

"Watercress, watercress, who'll buy my watercress?
Watercress sweet and shy,
Watercress wet and dry,
Oh, who'll of my watercress, watercress buy?"

Here, she befriends all the town characters, talking critters, too, and discovers her true calling as a ballet dancer. After years on tour, she returns to Mobile to find that the city has embarked on a course of PROGRESS. The trees are gone, the architecture is bad, and the pretty corners of the city are now littered with parking lots and filling stations.

And Jennie's heart is utterly, irreparably broken.

Of course, no city plots its course by broken-hearted ballerinas, or by the druthers of Eugene Walter; however, even today, Mobile has an interesting relationship with its quirky side. Though surrounded by suburban wasteland and industrial sprawl, in the core of the city you'll find cars sporting "Keep Mobile Funky" bumper stickers, independently owned shops, and historic preservationists who laugh in the face of termites and hurricanes. Starbucks only came to Mobile recently, and even its walls are plastered with local art.

So, maybe Eugene accomplished a little something after all.

A good bit giddier than the fate of poor Jennie is Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall, perhaps the most charming cookbook ever to grace my shelves.

Termite Hall, another marvel of Mobilian historic preservation, still stands despite its name. And Eugene wrote of it, "The Hall has always been a place where people came for a week's visit and stayed a year, where everybody read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it is haunted, delightfully so."

And so the cookbook begins with a ghost story, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Then, the recipes. It's rare to read a cookbook by a writer, and there probably has never been one by a writer who was so much fun to read as Eugene Walter. He manages a kind of playful 19th century elegance, with a healthy dose of southern vernacular thrown in as well. One recipe calls for "8 big fat sassy ripe tomatoes," but I fell in love on the first page, a recipe for a "Clear Soup of Greens." After his instructions for the broth, Eugene writes:

"Into this you can toss shredded lettuce, or young cabbage, or watercress, or baby collards, or baby mustard greends, or baby radish leaves (Yes, I did say radish!) or spinach or half spinach and half young sorrel leaves or whatever greens you fancy... Pretty and Very Good. With croutons or dumplings such a dish takes on resonance."

When he gave me the books, Brady pointed out the title of the second chapter, "Shall We Sup, Shall We Soup?" and said, "I saw that, and I thought that you and Eugene probably would have been great friends."

This may be the best compliment I have ever received.


Anonymous said...

I've been tryng to find this book at a reasonable price for years. Does the friend who gave it to you have a secret source? I would really like to add it to my collection.
Kay Hill

Anonymous said...

"So, maybe Eugene accomplished a little something after all." AYIEEEEEEE ! "A LITTLE something?"

Well. I would say there was never any doubt, dear, that no only did Eugene accomplish BIG GIGANTIC THINGS, he lived BIG GIGANTIC. And who gives more to this earthly plane than someone who shows us how to do just that.

Eugene's Time-Life Southern Cooking is mighty fine, too.

Next time...none of this, "little something" okay?