Cornbread & Sushi at Wofford

(This account of the Cornbread & Sushi class I teach at Wofford with Deno Trakas appeared in Larry McGehee’s column in Southern newspapers 12/30/06)

SOUTHERN SEEN by Larry McGehee

“Tis a Consummation Devoutly To Be Desired”

With cotton and tobacco gone as the chief crops of the South, newer crops have had to be found to replace them. NASCAR racing bodes to become the primary southern industry, but the unheralded major industries have actually been the South’s writers and the South’s food.

Beginning with the Southern Renascence in the 1920s, the South has produced scores of writers, from William Faulkner, T. S. Stribling, Erskine Caldwell, Robert Penn Warren, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers in the earlier years to Barry Hannah, Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith, Pat Conroy, and John Grisham in the recent era-with James Dickey, Peter Taylor, Reynolds Price, and others in between. Readers across the country have tasted and feasted upon southern literature–an ironic achievement since southern literacy rates and English scores are annually the lowest in the nation.

Paralleling its achievement in letters as been the South’s achievement in lard, in exporting its recipes to the arrested but developing palates of the rest of the nation, everything from New Orleans Cajun cooking to Colonel Sanders Fried Chicken to Carolina barbecue to Kentucky bourbon to Mississippi farm-raised catfish to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It is no accident that the king of culinary art, in New York City, was the late Craig Claiborne from Mississippi, or that the most popular of the mesmerizing television cook shows are Emeril from New Orleans and Paula Dean from Savannah.

Recognizing the convergence of good writing and good eating characteristic of the unique place called the South, Wofford College’s creative writing professors, Deno Trakas and John Lane, are mid-way through their second year of offering a fascinating interdisciplinary course combining southern travel, meeting southern writers, reading, writing, and eating, with history and sociology and economics thrown in-not to mention studying southern speech patterns and dialects. The year-long course, funded by the South-conscious Watson-Brown Foundation in Georgia, immerses lucky undergraduate students in literature, rural studies, music, and foodways. The course’s name is Cornbread & Sushi.

n its first year (2005-2006), twenty students spent fall semester reading extensively and meeting regularly for class discussion and for guest appearances by 16 authors, including Lee Smith, Hal Crowther, Ron Rash, George Singleton, Dori Sanders, and Jack Templeton Kirby. To spice it up a bit, music was added with Little Pink Anderson, Robbie Fulks, Jason Ringenberg, Fayssoux McClean, and Baker Maultsby.

Ten of the students stayed on for the rest of year, spending their January Interim Month on the road with the two professors and photographer Mark Olencki, moving through north Georgia to Nashville and down through Mississippi and then up into North Carolina, sampling the varied cuisine along the way and visiting the homes of Faulkner, Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, interviewing writers Butch Clay, Steve Harvey, Bettie Sellers, Singleton, Rash, Peter Cooper, Tom Franklin, William Gay, Dixon Bynum, Faye Gaillard, Karen McElmurray, Martin Lammon, Smith and Crowther. In the spring semester, six students selected and edited essays and writing excerpts to produce and publish a large paperback book (ten chapters, 54 works, 238 8-1/2 X 11 pages), Cornbread & Sushi: A Journey through the Rural South.

This year’s class has met and heard Singleton, Rash, poet Ann Fisher-Wirth, and historian James C. Cobb, and in January they hit the road to Carrboro and Chapel Hill in North Carolina to meet Smith, Crowther, and Randall Kenan, and then on up into Virginia to see Tinker Creek and meet Thorpe Moeckel at Hollins, a poet at Charlottesville and see Monticello. From there they move to Cape Hatteras on the Atlantic coast to meet Jan Deblieu and to Wilmington to meet Clyde Edgerton. Then, they go down to Charleston to see Josephine Humphreys and Liz Scarborough Rennie and perchance to meet Pat Conroy., before hopping to Hilton Head to meet Roger Pinckney and winding up in Savannah to meet Craig Barrow, the owner of Wormsloe Plantation. On day trips, they’ll visit Singleton and Rash and eat organic food with Fran Davis.

What an enviable learning experience this is-seizing the opportunity to see where southern literature was written and to meet some of the authors who produced it and to eat from the southern smorgasbord of disappearing but memorable foods! Who knows what southern writers for the future will rise from such fertile and focused plantings?

© 2006, Wofford College , Spartanburg, SC 29303 Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu.

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