A week with Flannery O’Connor hasn’t been easy. Her parade of bizarre, grotesque, dysfunctional characters at times scared the be-Jesus out of me as I tried to pinpoint the perfect gumbo for her. The eighth of 52 American authors I’m getting to know in 2016, this Southern Gothic writer rarely includes food in her writing, save a few picnic snacks, a symbolic half package of Life Savers or a Co-Cola here or there.
O’Connor, who died in 1964 at age 39 from lupus, knew her life would be a short one so she “wrote out” the pain her last few years. The disease limited her travel so for inspiration she turned to the small Georgia world around her and articles in the newspaper. Her short stories are dark, dark, depressingly dark. I could read the first paragraph of one and a cloud of doom would descend over me. Occasionally, a stabbing line of humor or a bit of irony would make me gasp. Stealing a gal’s wooden leg while romancing her in a hay loft? A one-armed handy man? I even found myself reading the morning newspaper with a different approach – News of the Weird from Florida: Fodder for Flannery. For example, Father Tosses 5 -year-old Daughter off Tampa Bridge; Two Masked Gunmen Enter College Residence Hall; Trespassers Will Shot, Survivors Will Be Shot Again.
Fortunately O’Connor, following Southern etiquette, wrote letters and thank-you notes. It’s
this personal correspondence that provides clues to her culinary preferences. Once, when out of town she wrote the owners of Sanford House Tearoom where she often took her main meal of the day a note of thanks “ for all those baked potatoes, shrimp salad, bean salad, peppermint pie and roast beef that came from your kitchen and has been consumed by me over the past months. Up here the pickings are meager in the food line.” According to a blog post by Andalusia Farms, the historic home of Flannery O’Connor, her favorite dinner was Fried Shrimp from the Sanford House, along with their famous Chiffon Peppermint Pie.
So I’ll serve Miss O’Connor Shrimp Gumbo made from a dark, dark roux. And I’ll serve it on Friday. Strong in her Catholic faith, she would have eaten seafood on Friday. Despite her bone-chilling Gothic tales, she reminds me a saint or a martyr, struggling against pain, striving to write a few hours every day. Her prayer journal, which she began as a graduate student at University of Iowa, gives insight into this strong faith, plus her taste for Scotch Oatmeal cookies.
Even though Flannery O’Connor wrote of the grotesque, her life was surrounded with the beauty of peacocks. Dozens of them roamed the grounds of Andalusia Farm and their descendants still do.