A belated contribution to our 40th Anniversary festivities from novelist and former contributor Jack Butler.
Max Brantley, who was then editor at the Times, was at the induction proceedings for the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. I was being inducted at the same time as Verna Lee Hinegardner, whom I had met through The Arkansas Poets’ Roundtable. I think Max was there to deliver the speech. I don’t think he was being inducted. My memory has become even poorer than it used to be, so I’m not sure. But somehow I suspect Max would not have spent his time praying to be inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame.
I was good friends with The Arkansas Poets’ Roundtable, so they were pleased and treated me as one of their own. Maybe they hadn’t quite got it when I persuaded John Ciardi to be the judge of their annual awards ceremony, but these people genuinely admired poetry, and battered relentlessly on its walls just as I did. I had to give them a lot of credit for that.
Ciardi, by the way, mistook the Arkansas River for the Mississippi River, but he was a long way out of his familiar ground. We were sitting high in some hotel (I can’t remember which), relaxing in armchairs between events. I’ll never forget him chortling, over a massive glass of whiskey and rocks, “Alcohol is not mortal.” I was forcibly reminded that he was Catholic.
I liked the Poets’ Round Table, as I say, because they cared, and they actually tried. We held a poetry conference at The College of Santa Fe when I was there, and trying to interact with the community, I set up a breakfast for them with some of the visiting poets. They called themselves The Live Poets’ Society, which was their notion both of a clever idea and a manifesto.
None of their poetry was any good, except for Murray Gell-Mann’s wife, who was competent or better in a free-verse imagistic kind of way.
I was expecting maybe gratitude for my efforts, but the Live Poets had an irrational bias against what they called “academic” poetry. I think they labored under the impression that if it weren’t for the prevalence of “academics.” their own poetry would have come into the renown they thought it deserved.
So anyway, they tore into the poets, angry at them (for no good reason except that they perceived the poets as “academics”), and unbearably offensive. What I’m trying to say, The Arkansas Poets’ Roundtable wasn’t like that. They fought over tiny awards like any other group of poets, but they genuinely loved the stuff, and couldn’t live without it.
So anyway, I’m sitting up on the rostrum with Max, and we’re talking about the Times, and he says how they’re having a hard time finding a food columnist, and I said, Hell, I eat. Cook too. I’ll do it.
He cautioned me about the low pay, but I’ve never minded that sort of thing from strapped magazines. I’ve always wanted a place for what I write more than I’ve wanted money for it.
Which, it turns out, is a good way not to get rich.
So I wound up writing the food column for something like three years, and enjoyed it wonderfully. It was pretty Southern and country in its outlook until we moved to Santa Fe. I kept writing it for a while out there, but eventually it was more about food in New Mexico than in Arkansas, and I felt it was only right to give the column up. I had to write about the food we prepared every day, but readers of the Times deserved something closer to home.
Those people out there were savages. I mean, when they sold turnips at the farmers’ market, they cut off all the greenery and threw it away.
Still bothers me.
Eventually I got a book out the column, which, if the Times doesn’t cut this paragraph, I can plug: “Jack’s Skillet,” it was called, on the notion that a black iron skillet was just about the only pan or skillet you needed. It’s out of print now, but you can still find it cheap on the net. I don’t get any money for those sales, so this a peculiar sort of plug, I guess.
Oh. In that book, I maintained that there were convergent food groups, which, no matter how you began them, wound up the same good way, including Refrigerator Soup, Meat Loaf and Barbecue.
To bolster my thesis, I had included the recipe for Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce. Mosey was a character from one of my novels. A reviewer had described it as “The most terrifying barbecue recipe I have ever seen.” Some time later I saw, for real, in an on-line recipe site, a barbecue sauce recipe the cook referred to as Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce.
I like to think that cook was completely unaware of the genesis of that recipe in a novel. (I admit, the actual sauce I make differs in many details from Mosey’s approach, which included “the left-over Cokes nobody had put a cigarette out in.”) I like to think that at least that once, fiction had crossed over, invisibly, into life.