02/13/07 — A novel, cooking take on southern attitude

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A novel, cooking take on southern attitude

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 13, 2007 1:54 PM

Southerners take their eating -- and their stories -- seriously, an area professor told audience members at the 2007 kickoff for the Wayne County Reads selection.

Dr. Mary Ellis Gibson, director of women's and gener studies and a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, presented "Still Cookin': Food and Memory in Southern Literature" Monday to help introduce the group's 2007 selection, "Walking Across Egypt."

Dr. Gibson invited the audience to think about food as it pertains to history, culture, and language.

"I personally think that eating is serious business," she said.

It is a universal language, she said, proving her point by sharing how the topic prompted a succession of stories during a meal before the program hosted by the Wayne County Reads organizers.

As part of her visit to Goldsboro, she said she indulged in a routine she always follows when she finds herself in a new town -- driving around to "eyeball the names of the restaurants."

Books have always included food as a means of telling a story, she said.

"The choice of the way food is treated shows us a lot about character," she said. "It could be that milkshake you had at Sonic with so and so ... or the first time you tasted lobster."

In "Walking Across Egypt," author Clyde Edgerton used food to weave together intricacies of the story, she said.

"I love the scenes where Mattie is feeding the dogs," she said. "First of all, we know that Miss Mattie is making hot biscuits for herself every morning. You know she's in this family habit."

Dr. Gibson also read from a story she had written, "Making Family," based on a saying she often heard her mother use growing up.

"Mom would invite anyone for a meal," she said. "If they showed up anytime after, say 5:15, and she got home from work, she would invite them for supper.

"She'd say, "We'll just make family of you.'"

Her story, set in the South in 1957, detailed "the complexity of eating and relationships in smalltown eastern North Carolina."

It was a taste of childhood, when two desserts adorned the family table each Christmas -- fruitcake and sweet potato pie. The main character, a little girl Dr. Gibson loosely based on her own recollections of childhood, did not particularly enjoy fruitcake but couldn't resist the large luscious pecans.

But getting caught extracting nuts from the fruitcake, she said, "meant that you could get in trouble for playing with your food."

And, she noted whimsically, how "our grandmothers and mothers left food on the table from dinner through supper ... until everybody left. And none of us ever died from food poisoning."

The next Wayne County Reads event will be Sunday, when a viewing of the film "Walking Across Egypt" will be offered at the Wayne County Public Library at 1:30 p.m.