It's been awhile since I told you a St. Augustine tale. Here's one about yet another writer, and how her work and kindness helped me begin to see myself as a writer. Oh, and you get a recipe tonight, too: Eat Here Eatery's Signature Cheeseburger is on tonight's menu. Stay tuned.
If you read here you know I used to work in a magical, unforgettable and now sadly gone independent bookstore called The Booksmith. It was a tiny place, really, with two small back rooms, one of which was the sale room, where we kept the remaindered books we loved, and one of which was the storage room, where only employees went and those few customers who might ask if they could use our restroom. The restroom backed right up on the men's room at the Trade Winds, the venerable watering hole next door. The Trade Winds is still there, still a watering hole, and a more-or-less mandatory stop on Palm Sunday. This didn't always fit together nicely for me during the days when I was also singing at the Cathedral, right up the block, but those are other stories, my loves, for other winter evenings.
This story is about Connie May Fowler, and the first novel she wrote, which was called Sugar Cage, and which was edited by the marvelous Faith Sale. (There are some intriguing blogland connections here, but those, too, are tales for another evening.) Connie was - and is - a novelist with a powerful voice and many tales to tell, which was a big deal if you were a bookseller. As one of our publisher's reps used to say, EVERYone has one novel in them. If you've lived a life, you have one novel. But real storytellers? Those are the people who have novel after novel, who mine some internal vein of richness the rest of us can only imagine. This notion of the true novelist, in fact, moved the publisher's rep to collect not first novels, as a fair number of book people do, but second novels, which by his lights were a far better measure of a writer of fiction. When a publisher's galley of Sugar Cage reached us, we knew something special had happened, something independent bookstores dream of, really: we had a novel with local overtones, written by a woman who had lived in St. Augustine as a child and had returned, and a novel that would be taken seriously on a national level. It was, in short, a book we would take to our hearts as readers, booksellers and locals. And it turned out Connie was someone very easy to take to heart, as well.
When I met her, her beauty took my breath away. It would be years before I would realize that she had suffered from such a serious misalignment of her jaw that the overbite would have to be corrected by a maxillofacial surgeon in her adulthood, and that she carried inside her the scars and ancient aches left by those who treated her with unkindness or outright cruelty when she was young. She simply looked lovely to me, with honey-colored hair, a willowly build and a sort of unpretentious warmth that seemed rooted in a rather shy personality. She autographed books for us, and we sold them joyfully, often giving that highest of bookseller recommendations: taking time to hand-sell the book, convincing people to read it, promising to take it back if they didn't like it. She was generous with her time (and those countless signatures and inscriptions!), did a reading at Flagler College (remember how small the Booksmith was - there was no way for us to get all the interested folks into the store for such an event), and best of all, she continued to write, as she continues to write to this very day.
Though I assumed it had been based, however loosely, on Connie's own personal history, Sugar Cage might have been written about Rodney's family. Some of the reminders were so poignant for me, some visions of my dear old person's history so powerfully evoked, that I would have to put the book down for an hour or a day. But remember: Connie is a novelist with many more stories than one waiting to be mined. When her book Before Women Had Wings appeared, it confirmed that she was indeed that storyteller we'd hoped for. She was no one-hit wonder. This was the real thing. Here's how I recall that book: I took a copy home and I can't remember if it was a publisher's galley, which are usually paperback versions that precede the print run, or whether it was a boud version of the draft. I can tell you this: I don't remember being capable of worrying about keeping the pages dry. I'd decided to take a nice hot bath and read in the tub for a bit. When I was finally able to stop reading, I had cried for so long that the water in the tub was utterly cold, and the pages might well have been as wet and messy as I was. It was a book I'd never really forget. At some point later, Connie inscribed a copy of the book for me, and in her kindness reminded me that I shared a love for "the word" and should follow that love. In some ways, I've followed it here, to the blog. Thank you, Connie. Thank you, from the center of my heart, Diana, Su, Katie...thank you, Booksmith.
If you stayed around for the modest food encore, this is it.
The Eat Here Eatery Signature Cheesebuger has been mentioned here before, of course, but since it's a nice time of year to have a meatloaf in the oven I thought it was worth revisiting. It's a sandwich I made some years ago to something less than universal acclaim: Dylan didn't eat many vegetables in those days (ah, the changes a trip to Africa can make!) and Mac doesn't eat cheese. But my dear old person loves it, and I love to make it, so here it is.
Make a meatloaf. I can tell you how to do this, but you probably have a recipe your mother made, or have evolved into a vegetarian version, or can make the yummy one in the Silver Palate cookbook or whatever. The only un-secret secret part of mine is the sauce you add to the meatloaf about 20 minutes before it has finished baking, which is a combination of ketchup, a touch of mustard, some brown sugar (or maple syrup - even better!) and a teensy whisper of ground cloves. You whisk this together more or less to taste and drizzle it over the meatloaf, allowing about 20 minutes' final cooking time so it can mature and take on a nice color. Be sure to make enough of this sauce to set some aside. You'll want it for the sandwiches and your people might like using it for other servings of leftover meatloaf.
When the meatloaf has cooled enough a bit, place two slices of very lightly buttered bread in a skillet to grill. We have a strong preference for sourdough bread for this sandwich but as always, use what you like. Add a slice of cheese (we use muenster or baby Swiss unless my dear old person is driving, in which case you're getting American cheese, baby, like it or not!) as for a grilled cheese sandwich. Top with sliced, warm meatloaf and a touch of the aforementioned sauce. If you're truly evil, or a fan of Ernie Mickler's White Trash Cooking (another night's tale, my loves) you can kiss this whole lovely thing with mayonnaise. Top the meatloaf with the other slice of bread you've been gently grilling. Slice and serve with salad or fresh fruit and do penance for it the next day. It's worth it, my dears.