Tuesday, January 25, 2011

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 5

Here's another glimpse into the fabric of our little town, one I've been meaning to write for a long time. I know I just told a St. Augustine story in my most recent post, but writing that one fired the right combination of synapses to call forth this one from the proverbial back burner. So: another glimpse, which might be subtitled White Trash Cooking, by Palm Valley's own Ernest Matthew Mickler.

The Booksmith brought more than one writer into my orbit, but Ernie Mickler might have been at once the most different and the most reflective. He'd have been recognized in most any company as A Character, for any of a number of reasons. He was completely unpretentious and uproarious fun to be around. He was so easy in his own skin that he made other people rest more comfortably in their own, or if they didn't, you wondered what was wrong with them. He was gay, and in those years small towns in the Bible Belt - certainly St. Augustine - still took a rather dim view, in more ways than one. But my first adjective is my most accurate: Ernie was sublimely unpretentious. His authenticity gave him charisma, which he never took seriously. To my knowledge, he never lost the kernel at the heart of the authentic: the ability to laugh at everything, including and most especially, himself.

Ernie was a mirror, too, as I mentioned. Ernie's book, White Trash Cooking*, was published in 1986. In the social and physical geography of St. Augustine, you might say that Ernie's was one lens through which the contemporary dialogue about and horrifying reality of AIDS could be viewed. The Booksmith was on the eastern-most end of Cathedral Place. At the western end of our block stands the Cathedral of St. Augustine, where another lens entirely would focus on the subject; a beloved bishop and a popular priest would be part of that view. I might be making too much of that aspect, of course, and Ernie would have been the first to call me on it if I did. But here again is tale for another winter's night, my dears.

The mirror, though? I held it up to myself when Ernie was alive, and it changed the path of my life in several ways. Funny thing, though: as I thought about telling you this story, I reached back and realized that Ernie is more present than I'd ever realized. You know those recipes I'm always throwing in here, how they're always more narrative than classic recipe? I owe that to Ernie, and I didn't realize it. So as I wrote about Connie Fowler's influence teaching me to think of myself as a writer, I began to remember that it was Ernie who gave me some powerful lessons in how to do the work.

I've given you a (poor, as usual) photo of the book's cover. The other image is of the title page of my treasured and dog-eared copy of the book, which Ernie inscribed as follows:
To Angie,
Ernest Matthew Mickler
St. Aug 86
I know you're pure White Trash and proud

There's a saying that the further north you go in Florida, the further south you go; this must have been patently obvious to Ernie as he collected recipes and photos and memories for his book. For instance: "Never in my whole put-together life could I write down on paper a hard, fast definition of White Trash. Because, for us, as for our southern White Trash cooking, there are no hard and fast rules. We don't like to be hemmed in! But the first thing you've got to understand is that there's white trash and there's White Trash. Manners and pride separate the two....where I come from in North Florida you never failed to say 'yes ma'am' and 'no sir', never sat on a made-up bed (or put your hat on it), never opened someone else's icebox, never left food on your plate...That's the way the ones before us were raised and that's the way they raised us in the South."

As you might imagine, Ernie's book was born into a media circus. I think he was on The Today Show (oh, dear: another only-in-St.-Augustine-story, but I'll have to tell you about the NBC connection another rainy night, my loves) and just about every other talk show you can think of before he and his partner came home to live. At the Booksmith, I'm not sure we all knew what to make of the book at first, but I knew right away about the mirror thing. I could see myself in the Palm Valley Ernie's book recalled, for this was the cusp of the time when Palm Valley, a rural community northeast of St. Augustine where people lived in trailers or little Cracker cabins, kept chickens or pigs or horses (though not recreational horses, if that makes sense), made its fateful intersection with Development. It was only a few years before natives who'd lived for generations on the same parcels of land found themselves taxed beyond their ability to sustain themselves, only a decade or two before Palm Valley was largely absorbed into Planned Unit Developement World. I could see myself in Ernie's eyes and they could see the placid past and the inevitable future; in less than 20 years the Palm Valley Ernie affectionately documented in his book would be gone. The media covering Ernie and his book could hardly have grasped this, nor this, another quote from his book that explains a LOT about how I cook and how I share that with you in this blog:
"...equipment is the next most important thing...skillets, Dutch ovens, and cornbread pans (all of black cast iron) are the only utensils tha give you that real White Trash flavor and golden brown crust...Now don't be too concerned about keeping them clean. Netty Irene says, 'It's no trouble at all! All you gotta do is rench 'em out, wipe 'em out with a dishrag, and put 'em on the fire to dry out all the water'...Netty Irene also said that her mother would never use water on her black iron...pans, only dry cornmeal. She'd rub them until they were smooth..."

Does this sound familiar? You might have learned it somewhere else, of course, but you've heard it here, too. And it's partly because my mother and Ernie's mother were not so far apart but it's also because the simple learnings I carried from my mother's kitchen were validated by those Ernie wrote about. I should have credited Ernie in part for the Eat Here Eatery concept, as well as the way I write recipes. Here's Ernie's version of Ida's Indian Onion Curry Omelet:
" 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
6-7 eggs
3 green scallions
1 teaspoon of curry powder
1 teaspoon prepared mustard (French's yellow)
1/2 cup of milk
Fry sliced green onions in mdeium-hot skillet. Add mixture of eggs, milk, curry, mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until eggs are firm and all liquid is gone. Serves 4 or 5. Serve with toast and plain sardines, cold. Ida Dillard, of Due West, South Carolina, said, 'You gotta be kinda wild to try this one. It weeds 'em out.'"

Ernie's versions of recipes like tomato sandwiches and icebox cake just about make my hair stand on end. There are a million of them, and they'd be right at home at Eat Here. You'd love them. But the evening winds on, and this recollection has rambled far longer than I meant it to. Ernie didn't live to see the turning of the new century, but he did his part to usher it in, with a touch of hope and a boatload of laughter. In fact, I'm rather shyly delighted to find that Eat Here might in fact have carried forward a bit of that hope, that love of food and friendship, and maybe even a tiny bit of that willingness to stare into the mirror and laugh and laugh and laugh.

*White Trash Cooking, by Ernest Matthew Mickler, 1986
Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA


  1. "... the further north you go in Florida, the further south you go..."

    Truer words were never spoken, at least from the perspective of my limited experience. I spent quite a few winter weeks in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami areas, due to My Dad's ability, as an airline employee, to secure free passage there from Boston during my childhood years. Very metropolitan areas, with large Northern transplant and vacationing populaces. On subsequent jaunts through the state, driving, during my twenties, I came to realize that the part of the journey near the Georgia border, and down to Tampa/St. Pete, was the most likely to bring grief in myriad ways (small town police writing tickets, locals not being especially receptive to a long-haired Irish Yankee and his Jewish girlfriend stopping to eat at local diners, etc.)

  2. Very entertaining and insightful post, Angie...I sure wish I could've met Ernie. Gotta get that book!

    Oh, and I've often heard North Florida referred to as South Georgia (not in a complimentary tone)...

  3. Suldog and Lulu, it's so funny how that phrase struck a chord with both of you. And Suldog reminds me of a story I'll have to tell sometime, about being Jewish in the South. Maybe I'll save it for Hannukah and post my southern "latkes" recipe with it...:) Thank you both for reading and taking time to write, too.


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