Way down among the hills and the hollers and up in the back country where most people don’t get to visit much, there’s some folk, mysterious to the rest of the land, who have become sort of legendary. They don’t go in for highfalutin things like indoor toilets and such. They stick pretty much to themselves and don’t bother nobody who don’t bother them. They are known for their hospitality, although it does tend to vary depending on whether you’re kinfolk or stranger. These folks, White Trash a lot of people call them, like their music and their story-telling. They read their scripture, and they brag about their corn whiskey. And they do love their food. They love their Shortnin’ Bread, their Kiss-Me-Not Sandwiches and their Sweet Tater Surprise. Up until now, the rest of America didn’t really know much about this cuisine, and—well, heck—that was the rest of America’s loss.
So along comes Ernest Matthew Mickler, proud as punch to be called White Trash and real fond of the kind of food his mama used to serve up, and he writes himself a book called White Trash Cooking (Ten Speed Press, $12.95). It’s got 229 recipes, four dozen evocative color photographs and so much homespun wisdom you can’t hardly stand it. Butt’s Gator Tail, for instance, is “so good, you’ll want to lay down and scream.” Or consider Mickler’s recipe for after-dinner coffee liqueur, which is “better if you let it set for six weeks before you drink it.” No wonder this book is selling like Resurrection Cakes.
Mickler, 46, got the idea for White Trash Cooking when he was taking a cooking class in San Francisco. A woman in his class had written a successful cookbook, and Mickler says he thought, “Hell, I can do that.” Armed only with a title and a 35mm camera, he crisscrossed the South for four years, collecting recipes like Aunt Rose Deaton’s All-American Slumgullion, Tutti’s Fruited Porkettes and Vickie’s Stickies wherever he went. “I would get them written down, usually in the people’s own handwriting,” he says. “Sometimes people would hand me a brown envelope full of family secrets, things only their mother knew how to do. I was honest: I told them the name of the cookbook from the very beginning.”
White Trash Cooking is more than a cookbook for Mickler. It’s his salute to the folk he grew up among. The son of a shrimper, Mickler was raised in Palm Valley, Fla., just north of St. Augustine, where he now lives. His father died when Ernie was 6. His mother’s second husband died seven years later. At that point “Mama sold some land, and we put the little house up on logs and moved it right to the highway,” he says. “We built a little shed onto the house, and Mama opened a grocery store and gas station. We put in two pumps: regular and ethyl.”
Mickler sang country music for a time and eventually got a fine arts degree from Jacksonville University. After earning his M.F.A. at Mills College in California, Mickler made his way to New Orleans, where he worked as a cook. He wrote White Trash while living in Mexico in 1976-77. For the past seven years he has cooked in friends’ Key West guest houses.
After Mickler had written his book, he found nobody that wanted to publish it because they felt the title would offend too many people. Finally it was put out last January by the Jargon Society, a small North Carolina-based organization that publishes contemporary poetry, photography and folk art. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out. With no money for a second printing, the Jargon Society hired an agent and, with Mickler, sold the rights to Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, Calif. Since then it has sold 120,000 more copies.
“I always had great faith in the book because of the title alone,” says Mickler, who has never married. “I knew there were people out there who would enjoy it, but I never dreamed it would sell like this.” So far Mickler has made $45,000 off White Trash, and he’s already working on a sequel about “Cracker cooking.” Why, it’s enough to make a feller feel proud as a coon dog in a pickup truck.