White Trash Banquet
A feast fit for a king
By Cynthia Adams
When I mentioned my long-held dream of a White Trash Banquet in an O.Henry editorial meeting recently, I got shushed. Shushed! And some fingers actually wagged.
“B-b-b-b—but,” I protested. “I am white trash! I can say it!”
I was shut down by the youngest among us who said, “You will die on that hill.”
As they say in Hell’s Half Acre where I was raised, “It don’t matter.”
Turns out, it don’t matter if I think I can say white trash even though I am white trash. Take my Georgia writing friend Lauretta Hannon, whose moniker is The Cracker Queen. Her beautiful memoir revolves around trailer park life and a mama who liked to buzz past chain gangs as Lauretta threw packs of ciggies out the car window. They may have been regarded as white trash, but they were lovable, thoughtful white trash.
But that was 10 years ago. And the name, “Cracker Queen,” probably won’t fly now either.
When Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking hit the shelves in 1986, it was a publishing phenomenon. You could argue it was the equal and opposite reaction to the era’s Silver Palate Cookbook, and snooty restaurants that served up tiny portions — for big bucks. Sure, WTC had the support of local arts patrons Charlotte and Philip Hanes, but it wasn’t so much a rebuke as an homage to what most Southerners ate for generations. I had it for years until I lent it to someone. For the record, I want it back.
Garden ’maters on white bread? That’s a “Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich.” Who hasn’t bent over a sink with Duke’s mayo and tomato juices streaming down their chin?
One of my favorite observations about a tomato sandwich was when a farmer told me, “A ’mater sammich ain’t nothing but sunshine in your mouth.”
He was proud of his ’maters that year. They were sunshine in the mouth.
Say “white trash cooking” and most Southerners realize it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may connote fat ’maters, fatback or lard. But white trash cooking encompasses a world of things that ought not be left behind. Beloved, if lowbrow. (Like Vienna sausages. Pork and beans. Or a fried baloney or livermush sandwich. Nobody actually says bologna, as spelled on the pack. That would be pure-t baloney. And we know Vienna is a place but who doesn’t say VYE-ee-na?)
It is in the eye (and palate) of the beholder. My Mama thought frozen coconut pies were white trash. But she raised a daughter who loves them, along with honey buns and Little Debbie cakes. Little Debbie came of age during the Great Depression. Her oatmeal cream pie is unsurpassed.
I kept brick-sized boxes of Velveeta in the fridge until my Charleston-born friend, Stephen Levkoff, ridiculed me into kicking my “liquid gold” habit. (“Liquid gold” is Kraft’s New South tagline.) I miss it. Velveeta was so handy for a grilled cheese sammich. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at White Trash Cooking’s list of ingredients for “Paper-Thin Grill Cheese.”
Also, Velveeta’s unrivaled shelf life could see you through a bad break up or a pandemic.
And if you think that’s gauche, consider my wealthy white trash friend who threw parties notable for the hors d’oeuvres: aerosol cans of Cheez Whiz served up bare as a baby’s ass with sleeves of Ritz crackers.
Far be it for me to get above my raisin’; I squirted and scarfed with the best of them. For all I know, Cheez Whiz was developed by NASA for the moon probe. It squirts more than whizzes, but like Velveeta, it is good.
So I stuck by my position on white trash vernacular until I read Chris Offutt’s buzz-killing essay in Oxford American, “Trash Food.”
He made the excellent point that people can be hurtfully equated with trash because of what they eat or wear. That just saying white trash food can be hurtful.
Finger-waggers, I do see the point.
I do not intend to die on that hill. Certainly not without Little Debbie or Mrs. Smith right at my side, a good ’mater sammich in my hand. OH
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry with a perverse attraction to pickled eggs and pigs feet bobbing in gallon jars on country store counters. At her white trash banquet, Little Debbie, Frito-Lay, Lance and Cheer Wine would take top-billing.