Dining with American Writers: Gumbo with the Pulitzer King

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America’s First Poet Laureate, Robert Penn Warren, authored 10 novels, 14 collections of poetry, critical studies and textbooks. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer for both a novel and poetry.

Even though three-time Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Penn Warren lived in Louisiana for nearly a decade, taught at LSU and penned the most famous novel ever set in the State, I would not serve him Cajun gumbo. In fact, I’d serve him just the opposite.

Hearkening back to my family tree, I’d make chicken gumbo rich in bay and filé, reminiscent of the Choctaw. While serving him a rich, nourishing bowl of my grandmother’s chicken gumbo, I can answer the question he poses in his epic poem “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.” Simply put, food can reveal what our ancestral blood remembers.

Most of Warren’s poetry, like Chief Joseph, and his prose, like All The King’s Men, is rich in historical context, but “Red” as his friends called him, was himself rich in Kentucky-Tennessee border heritage. He was a Southern yarn-spinner from tobacco country.


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Over a simmering pot of my grandmother’s gumbo, we’d sit in the kitchen and share stories all day long. Of course, I’d tell him about my grandfather who shared his love of baseball. I’d tell the pun my great-grandmother from Louisiana used to tell about Huey P. Long (you know, the one about seeing Huey Pee on the floor — hee, hee, of the Senate). And, of course, I’d joke about the essays I wrote in Freshman Composition at the University of Southern Mississippi using the textbook he and his pal Cleanth Brooks wrote.


And then I’d be quiet and listen, for as I learned from reading Steve Oney’s 1979 interview for The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine, Robert Penn Warren, America’s First Poet Laureate, was foremost a storyteller.


“The Kingfish” Huey P. Long, U.S. Senator and Governor of Louisiana, was assassinated in 1935. Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men is a fictional version of Long’s story. Warren, who taught at LSU when Long was in power, once said “. . . before Long, Louisiana was a worthless state. No government. No literacy. No hospitalization. No free roads. No schools. No nothing. . .  I was reading Julius Caesar . . . I was interested in how power corrupts absolutely. I saw that at LSU and that gave the book a setting.”



About thegumbodiaries

On the search for the perfect gumbo!
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2 Responses to Dining with American Writers: Gumbo with the Pulitzer King

  1. solosocial says:

    I learned of Robert Penn Warren in a graduate-level American literature class at the University of South Alabama. I still have a copy of “I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition”–a collection of essays by twelve Southerners, including Robert Penn Warren, in defiance of Northern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and bigotry.

    Robert Penn Warren is also cited in Donald W. Livingston’s enlightening essay, “Why The War Was Not About Slavery”–which reads, in part:

    “Robert Penn Warren, a Pulitzer Prize poet and novelist, witnessed the birth of this new style of writing history in the early 1960s, and wrote a devastating critique of it in ‘The Legacy of the Civil War’. Through the myth of a holy crusade to abolish slavery, Americans had illegitimately acquired what he called a great ‘treasury of virtue.’ Even historians who know the myth is a distortion have generally not written history in a way to criticize it…

    “…what Warren called America’s great ‘treasury of virtue’ is filled with fool’s gold that morally corrupts all who exploit it.”


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