Old Fashioned Cornbread at the Whistle Stop Cafe, 1993
My momma and Aunt Idgie ran a cafe. It wasn’t nothing more than a little pine-knot affair, but I’ll tell you one thing: we always ate and so did everybody else who ever came around there asking for food….and that was black and white. I never saw Aunt Idgie turn down a soul, and she was known to give a man a little drink if he needed it….” – Stump Threadgoode from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
I found my way into writing my initial thoughts on Brexit through an “old-fashioned” pork pie seen at a food fair on the dream-like day of the result, and being suddenly overwhelmed with visceral anger at my country. Yesterday, while making what Fannie Flagg calls “Old Fashioned Cornbread” from her 1993 Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook I started thinking about the tumultuous mess of Trump’s first week in office. The day which also marked Holocaust Remembrance Day (and a White House statement which managed to not mention the Jewish people by name), Trump signing an Executive Order shutting the US to all refugees for four months, and to Syrian refugees indefinitely, and pictures of Theresa May holding hands with Trump and flattering the Republican Party on their shared values with the Conservative Party. Her announcement that Trump is “100%” behind NATO looked like nothing more than Chamberlain’s “peace in our time”.
The similarities between Brexit and the rise of Trump are so parallel that it almost feels unreal, and to me as a history graduate, all I can see is a mountain of future essays tying together all the strands that brought us here. This period will become almost a cliche of essay titles, I’m sure. In a way, the events of the past year feel as if they have come out of the blue, a stone flung into a tranquil lake, but of course our progress to the point of wherever this takes us will look clearer in the history books. I’ve read enough history books to know that war is usually the conclusion of a set of circumstances like this, which feel so familiar and yet so unknown at the same time.
Trump is a schmuck – there is no better word I have come across to describe him. Part fool, part conman, and yes, the literal meaning of the word – dick – too. Especially that. A shyster involved with the Mafia, the Russian mob, fined $10 million in 2015 for money laundering, a thuggish litigation addict, fined for racist landlord discrimination, an admitted practitioner of sexual assault. A man who apparently has little concentration, cunning in spades but little intellect, and whose word means precisely nothing. Yet a man who thinks of himself as an intellectual giant, and who treats words rather as Humpty Dumpty did in Through the Looking Glass.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
That this can be also used to perfectly describe what will be Theresa May’s one appearance in the quoting dictionaries, “Brexit means Brexit”, is just more meat for those essays of the future. And what do we have to combat these words? A media which many are turning away from, choosing, incredibly, to believe instead that hyper-partisan news sources speak more unbiased truth. “Fake news” can be whatever disagrees with the individual’s personal stance now, and I think it’s a dangerous path indeed. Still, there’s going to be some astounding journalism on show in the years to come, and some damn good comedy too.
In such a short space of time, world events have been so interesting that the news has started to run anxiously though my head like an extra verse to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire:
Donald Trump, CIA, Vlad Putin, Theresa May,
Alec Baldwin, George Orwell, John Hurt, Mike Pence
Tiny tweeting hands, tiny crowds, dancing to “My Way”,
Refugees, Mexico, #Fuckingwall, maybe a fence?
A song from 1989, also pertinent as it’s the 80s I’m thinking of just as much as the 30s. The parallels to the 30s are obvious to anyone who’s studied the period – the popular movements, the distrust of the old orders, the shutting down of opponents. But in some ways Trump is the quintessential 80s man, the personification of all that garish money-splashing and selfishness that was one side of the decade. Not least because Bret Easton Ellis presciently made Trump Patrick Bateman’s hero in American Psycho, set during the 80s Wall Street boom.
“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”, a book and film I adore, looks at both eras, a depression-era tale told in flashback from the 80s. A tale which involves sentiment about America’s past, the Ku Klux Klan, racism, lesbianism and the strength of women. What with the Women’s March of a week ago, the largest single-day demonstration in American history, and involving nearly 5 million participants across the globe, this feels relevant. And the impossibly sad story of Emmett Till has reared its head from the history books with the revelation yesterday that the reason, small as it was, for the horrifying murder of a 14-year-old, wasn’t even true at all. And the order banning the acceptance of refugees to the US on Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the day that a Twitter account called St. Louis Manifest was tweeting the fates of all the passengers on the St Louis, the ship of German Jewish refugees turned away by the US in 1939, and who mostly perished in the Holocaust. The lessons from history hitting us in the face right now are almost unbearable.
In 1993 Fannie Flagg wrote in The Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook,
“Which brings me to the main reason I wanted so much to write this book. Lately it seems everyone is mad at someone, with groups on every corner, on the radio, on television, screaming about something or someone or other they don’t like. And there is so much anger in the air that you almost see it like a thick fog. In times like this, I think it is particularly important to try to be as calm and as happy as possible. And I don’t know about you, but I have always been happiest where food is concerned.”
The book was inspired by Fried Green Tomatoes fans asking whether her fictional cafe was based on a real place, which it was. It was The Irondale Cafe in Irondale, Alabama, set up in the 1930s by Flagg’s aunt Bess, who ran it for 50 years. A woman who loved feeding anyone and everyone, and, from her picture in the book, appears to be Idgie Threadgoode all over. It’s still there too, in downtown Irondale, right next to the train tracks, just like the Whistlestop Cafe. The recipes in this book come from the dishes traditionally served there.
Cornbread is one of those quintessential American food traditions which I had never tasted until my year spent going to school in the American South. I lived in Kentucky over 1992 and 1993, the same year this cookbook came out. I have extremely fond memories of iced tea, pimento cheese, buttermilk biscuits (what they call biscuits coming as a big surprise to me) and big blocks of squidgy American cheese you can microwave into a sauce. Less fond memories of the jello salad, lime jelly with vegetables in it, nonsensically served as a side dish. But I’ve never known hospitality like that I experienced in Kentucky. Such kindness and community. And I gained such a sense of enormity of the country, being hundreds of miles from the coast in all directions. It’s difficult for a Brit to get your head round the sheer scale of it all, and I never knew before how attached I was to the idea of being near-ish to the sea no matter where you are in the country.
Fannie Flagg’s cornbread recipe is best done old style in a skillet in the oven. There seems to be a lot of variants on cornbread depending where you are in the country, with an interesting take on the traditions here. Mine is yellow as white cornmeal is harder to come by in the UK. It contains no sugar – the article says this is the northern tradition, with the southern version always sweetened. Which doesn’t quite fit with this definitely Southern recipe, but never mind.
“I swear, this is the best I ever tasted.”
4 cups cornmeal
2 tsp baking soda
4 egg, beaten
4 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup bacon drippings, melted (I used butter)
Preheat oven to 450F (220C)
Combine dry ingredients and make a well in the centre.
Combine eggs, buttermilk and bacon drippings, mixing well; add to cornmeal mixture and beat until smooth.
Heat a well-greased 12-inch cast-iron skillet in the preheated oven until very hot.
Pour batter into hot skillet; bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in centre comes out clean and top is golden brown.
Good luck, America.