There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice-box seasons his own food.
In my house, anyone waking to the soft, misty mornings of a searing Florida summer will be immediately drawn to the coolness of my refrigerator. There they might find a large white bowl, crammed with chunks of fresh salmon-colored papaya, sweet golden pineapple, reddish-pink watermelon, and orange-hued cantaloupe nearly spilling over the fluted edges.
But grits, no, no.
Zora Neale Hurston mentioned grits “piled high” in her work, Seraph on the Suwanee, along with “fried ham,” and the other accoutrements of the American breakfast, eggs and coffee and gravy. I know that grits figure prominently in the breakfasts of Floridians from the northern part of the state. North Florida cooking can often be indistinguishable from other parts of the Deep South.
Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most fascinating personalities of the Harlem Renaissance and a pioneering influence in early ethnology, was, unfortunately, born at a time when African Americans faced almost insurmountable obstacles to education and a penetrating life of the mind. Yet she persisted and prevailed.
At one point she and the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings became friends, in spite of society’s proscriptions against the mingling of whites and blacks at the time. Marjorie owned a small orange grove in Cross Creek, a town close to Gainesville. She invited Zora to visit. During one of the visits, they imbibed a staggering amount of alcohol, caught up in their delicious discussions of literature. Marjorie insisted that Zora stay the night and put her in the tenant house. Feeling remorse over this, the next night she insisted that Zora sleep in the guest room, a flagrant nose-thumbing of the social conventions of the time.
As I read once again about her contributions to knowledge, it struck me that Zora – more so than Edna Lewis – deserves the accolades heaped upon the latter. There’s an aura of hagiography surrounding Edna Lewis. Many apologists perceive any discussion of her other than fawning as a full-frontal attack filled with denigration.
Here’s the difference, as I see it.
Zora worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to compile information about African-American foodways in Florida. Of course, many of the people she spoke with hailed from many other parts of the American South, from the days of slavery and after. Edna wrote several delectable cookbooks, all filled with many of the dishes that Zora mentioned in her work. But a large number of those dishes originated in European kitchens prior to their arrival in the New World, as Adrian Miller emphasizes in his stellar book, Soul Food (2013).
As I immersed myself once again in Zora’s story, I felt only awe that she achieved what she did, against the cruelty of Jim Crow laws, yes, but also gender bias. Yet she persisted.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s story departs from Zora’s in many ways. But one thing is for certain: she also faced gender bias.
Two writers, of very different backgrounds, came together in a sort of sisterhood, bonding through writing and words and a landscape they both loved.
I think of these women as I chew my chopped fruit, sitting at a sun-lit wooden table. Tiny geckos no longer than a pinky finger flit from brick to brick of the garden wall, darting through shiny green leaves of out-of-control ginger plants. I raise my glass in silence, saluting Zora and Marjorie, and their incredible way with words..
Then I get up from my stiff-backed chair and walk to the next room. The computer screen seems to stare at me. And I begin. The first word down. Then a whole sentence.
That’s how it’s done.
And Zora did it well. Listen:
“Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths.” (Their Eyes were Watching God, p. 61)
Note: Many others tell Zora’s story far better than I can in this short blog post. See below for more, both her own work (very abbreviated list!) and other works about her.
Some Works by Zora Neale Hurston:
“Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore. Oct.-Dec. 1931, no. 174.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934)
Mules and Men (1935)
Their Eyes were Watching God ( 1937 )
Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
Some Works about Zora Neale Hurston:
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd (2011) [Note: The author, Valerie Boyd, is a terrific writer. A very enjoyable read.]
Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography of Works and Criticism, by Cynthia Davis and Verner D. Mitchell (2013)
Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert E. Hemenway (1980)
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan (2002)
Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures, by Fred Opie (2015)
© 2017 C. Bertelsen