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.
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.