Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

Interview with Norma Watkins, 1 of 3

Filed in Books, Memoir, Stories, voices, Writing :: October 6, 2011

I had the pleasure of meeting Norma Watkins, author of The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure, in a creative writing class with Lynne Barrett that we took together at FIU years ago.

I loved Norma’s writing then, especially because her nonfiction included recipes. I remember Really Good Granola–I think she brought some to class. I will have to make my own tonight.

Norma’s memoir of growing up in Mississippi came out in May, and she was gracious enough to answer some questions via email.

Today, Norma’s answer to my question about food.

Tomorrow, some wider ranging questions and answers (from politics to dogs).

Saturday, questions and answers about writing and memoir.

Angela: In The Last Resort, your lists of food from the resort, Allison’s Wells, are mouthwatering:

“Cobbler was served warm, in squares, with a dab of hard sauce.  Miss Hosford made the hard sauce because it contained whiskey.  She whipped up a fluffy mixture of butter, sugar, and bourbon that melted slowly over the top of a warm cobbler.  Lena made yellow cakes with thick caramel icing that broke like fudge under a fork, and lemon meringue pies tart enough to bring tears.  Fresh peach cobblers were served when peaches came in season, or homemade peach ice cream with Lena’s pecan-topped sugar cookies.  When there was no fresh fruit, we had peppery gingerbread with lemon sauce.”  

 

Food is also a race- and class- dividing line, and you challenged these lines even as a child.  For example, your mother forbids you to eat the food of your classmate, Ida, who is not of your economic or social class. 

“We found each other’s food delicious and exotic.  We traded entire lunches from that day on.  Biscuits and molasses with cold, heavily peppered pork sausage were the best things I’d ever eaten, though I knew better than to mention this at home.”  Later, in the powerful section about Rosalie, a black girl who worked at the resort, when your mother catches you sharing her cornbread, she says,  “’I hope I don’t see what I think I’m seeing.’ I hadn’t heard Mother coming up behind us. ‘You know we don’t eat other people’s food.’”

What do you think food adds to a memoir?  How do you use it to develop character or plot?

 

Norma: I love reading about food and I love eating, so it comes naturally for me to write about it (M.F.K. Fisher is one of my role models). I’m always disappointed in books (usually by men), which do not describe meals. Food is such an enormous part of our lives, and I judge writers when they leave it out; what else do they not notice or relish?

My aunt Hosford Fontaine published a book after the hotel burned (The Last Mississippi Spa) and included recipes for many of the dishes I talk about in my memoir. Her son John claims that none of them are accurate: “Mother always left something out.”

Food for me equals nurture (boiled custard), luxurious excess (almost any dessert), and the comfort of the everyday (Marie’s sliced carrots in butter). Before civil rights, the preparation and eating of meals marked the role of black servants—they could cook and serve, but were not allowed to share food or eat with us–odd logic indeed. In Ida’s case, our food indicated a class difference: I would never have been allowed sausage and biscuits for lunch, and knew when we traded lunches that if I wanted to continue this treat, I’d better not mention it at home.