Katherine Anne Porter: Southern Author and Serial Locavore


Katherine Anne Porter: Southern Author and Serial Locavore

     “You waste life when you waste good food.” – Katherine Anne Porter, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”

     I’m as big a fan of fresh veggies as the next gal, but here’s something I noticed on my last farmer’s market binge: You can’t utter the words “eat local” these days without sounding political. A tad smug, too. And with all the recent press about food miles and CSAs, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, eating local was just…eating. Back then, refraining from mid-winter mangoes wasn’t a micropolitical statement. It was a like-it-or-not reality.

Courtesy of lancet.com

     Southern author Katherine Anne Porter lived in that reality. But as I discovered recently in her archives at the University of Maryland, Porter brought to the necessity of eating local an M.O. that will feel familiar to contemporary foodies.

     For Porter, eating from her surroundings was a way to understand a place and make that place, whatever the geography, feel like home.

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     And goodness knows, she needed a home. Porter, whose short stories you might remember from high school English, crafted for herself a life that was...well, hither and thither, to put it mildly. Despite her deep appreciation for her work and her friends, she moved often between jobs, between men, and even between continents.

      From those conflicting impulses of adventure and security came Porter’s wonderfully mashed-up approach to food. She might not have deep roots in any place, but when she landed in a place, she embraced the local food with gusto. She was, in the best sense, a serial locavore.

     But her first experience with food—the experience that shaped her eventually worldly palate—was the South. Porter was born in Texas and, though she didn’t claim what she called the “guilt-ridden white-pillar” mentality of the South, her archives are proof that Southern food served as her culinary jumping off point for years to come.

     At a Christmas dinner in Santa Monica, for example, she served pimento cheese alongside California caviar. And she notes at the bottom of her well-used cornbread recipe, “For this, in Europe, use finely ground polenta.” One of Porter’s biographers, Darlene Unrue, notes that even when the author enrolled in Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, “her cooking had a dash of Southern style to it” (149).

Courtesy of the University of Maryland

     It had a dash of Southern sass, too. Convinced that French chefs were “touchy as hell,” she loved to tell about the time when her cooking school teacher, Jacques, asked her in French, “Does Madame wish to learn to cook pastries?” Porter replied, “No Madame wishes to learn to cook wild game” (150). To prove it, she went to the market and bought “a huge fresh ham that still had hair and a protruding leg attached” (150). Impressed, you amateur butchers out there? Jacques, I imagine, was less so!

     But Porter was so utterly enamored with the food in France that I suspect even Jacques couldn’t help being charmed by her enthusiasm. Her note to a friend, below, illustrates how being forced to eat locally creates a balance we could all use a dose of: what Porter didn’t have, she missed…what she did have, she savored.

     “August 12, 1963. Paris. Food. I miss here fresh okra, corn on the cob, pomegranates, avocados, mangos; I can’t find corn-meal or buttermilk. Other hand: wonderful peaches, figs, melons, the tiny green beans, the tiny green peas, the delicious fresh unsalted butter, eggs and milk so fresh and good, wonderful meats and fowls…I intend to do a roast pigeon stuffed with fresh truffles, ignited with brandy, served on a coche of real Perigoard gooseliver and thick, crusty, sauce-soaked toast.”

     Whether the flaming pigeon was a hit…well, that’s beside the point. For Porter, just as important as understanding a place’s food was understanding its people.

     She wrote of the friends she often fed, “I have put before them some of the damndest concoctions…and they ate them smiling; and came back again when I invited them, which I consider a true test of friendship and a triumph for civilization.”

     While it’s true that Porter fed these folks local food out of necessity, her embrace of foods all over the world points to one of the most appealing parts of the local food movement going on right now. To eat food from a place with people from that place is to know that place, and to know it in a way that sticks. And if you, like me, know most places via Wikipedia, you know that the sticky kind of knowing is different…distinctly richer.

     So whether the food around you is bourbon and barbeque or bangers and mash, sink your teeth in. Katherine Anne Porter might call it a “triumph for civilization;” I call it delicious. Bon Appetit!

Beef Stew With Imagination Sauce
From Katherine Anne Porter’s Archives at the University of Maryland

Take two pounds of the best tenderest lean stew beef, pare very carefully, take off all fat and tough rind. Lay in kettle, dust heavily with course black pepper, teaspoonful Beau Monde salt, course sea salt, and a tablespoonful of 1812 sauce. (If I have my own brandy sauce I prefer it, but 1812 sauce will do nicely.)

Barely cover, if that, with cold water. Peel and slice two medium sized potatoes very thin as if for Saratoga chips. Peel two dozen small white boiling onions. Slice very thin one heart of celery.

Lay all this around, among, between and on top of your beef, cover tightly and start simmering on the lowest fires you have. If you mean to have this for eight o’clock dinner, you should let it start at ten o’clock in the morning, for it is NEVER to come to a boil or even bubble. Leave it alone for four or five hours, then stir carefully with a wooden spoon. Taste the juice for flavor; add teaspoon of brown sugar. Add anything or everything else you have already flavored it with, salt, Beau Monde, pepper, 1812, until it has the right delicious taste for you…Cover it again and leave it alone until time to eat…Hot biscuits, or big crusts of toasted French bread, or hot rolls, or even extra plain boiled potatoes with sweet butter or…what you like to go with it. I don’t like carrots in stews, but if you miss them, serve them freshly cooked on the side, or fresh little beans…

Bon appetit…


*Author’s Note: I only made changes where they were needed for clarity. Punctuation and emphasis are Porter’s. Also, I whipped up my own brandy sauce and made this stew in a slow cooker, because I figured those were the “lowest fires” I had. It worked swimmingly. Bon appetit, indeed!

Archival material from the Katherine Anne Porter Collection at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Biographical information from Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist by Darlene Harbour Unrue

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