Riding the rails, poet Wallace Stevens’ love affair with Florida

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The Gulf, Florida & Alabama Railway excursion train crosses the pine forest near Pensacola in 1913. Poet Wallace Stevens, traveling through the Florida Panhandle on business, might have traveled on a similar passenger train. State of Florida Archives/Cottrell Image RC03853

I’m always fascinated when I learn about a famous writer visiting Pensacola – no matter how brief the stay.  As a writer living across the bay from the city, I’ve found a vibrant writing community but rarely hear of any famous writer having lived here.  Much to my delight Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Wallace Stevens visited Pensacola in 1919 — a neat fact I discovered in my quest to read 52 American writers in a year.

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Stevens in Florida in 1922 from Florida Book Review of A Poet’s Escape: The Key West Idyll (and Turmoil) of Wallace Stevens

Stevens, a noted modernistic poet, never quit his day job, rising to Vice President of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn. Though his first poetry was published in 1915 and his first book in 1923, the bulk of his poetry was written after age 50. His business brought him to Florida for more than 20 years.

Early on, he described his anticipation to see Pensacola in a letter to his wife written on January 17, 1919, while riding the train from Jacksonville to Houston.

 “Summer never completely fades out in Northern Florida, but, of course, it is very different from Southern Florida which is four hundred miles away. Tomorrow morning I change cars, I believe, in Pensacola and have several hours to spare.”

Sounds like Stevens was looking forward to the stop.

And, of course, my imagination envisions Wallace Stevens’  train lumbering through the pine forest, crossing the Apalachicola River,  rumbling through quiet marshes, nearing  the beach and crossing the bay, to reach America’s first settlement, bustling Pensacola.

I wonder what Wallace Stevens did with his hours here.  Did he walk Palafox Street and visit glamorous San Carlos Hotel, lovingly called The Gray Lady? Did he walk the waterfront looking at hurricane damage from two years prior? After all, he was in the

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The San Carlos Hotel, affectionately known the Gray Lady of Palafox, was a grand and glamorous hotel in Pensacola built in 1910 that eventually had nearly 250 rooms. It was demolished in 1993, despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. State of Florida Archives Image PC11786

insurance business. Whatever Stevens encountered, it helped cement a love affair with Stevens and Florida that lasted a lifetime.

Of course, I also wonder if he sampled gumbo – maybe at the San Carlos.  Perhaps the  chef served the popular “gopher” turtle gumbo made with turtle meat purchased at the grocery store on the corner of Intendenica and Palafox.

Or perhaps Stevens dined on the train and ordered seafood gumbo. That is, if he rode the L & N, which featured a platter for the seafood lovers served with Seafood Gumbo, Julienne Potatoes, Cole Slaw, with shrimp and tartar sauce.

Though I can’t locate the original L & N recipe, here’s a recipe from Dairy Keen  an award-winning fast food restaurant  in Utah, where you can dine on gumbo as miniature trains clatter by on rails overhead. 

By the way, just like gumbo, Stevens’ poetry has layers of flavor, secret ingredients, that sometimes I couldn’t quite comprehend. But I envy his perfect meter, rhythm and rhyme. Maybe that comes from riding all those trains across Florida.

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Sancocho: Gumbo, Colombian Style

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This chicken sancocho was prepared by poet, artist and Colombia-native Victoria Franks. She recently left Florida to return to Armenia, Colombia, to live. She cooked and photographed the dish especially for The Gumbo Diaries. Victoria’s collection of poetry and art, Aroma of Coffee, is available in both Spanish and English on Amazon.

Today, guest author and friend Jeannie Zokan of Gulf Breeze, Florida, brings an international touch to The Gumbo Diaries. Her memories of a native dish hint at the flavor of her first novel, The Existence of Pity. The book is set in Cali, Colombia, and debuts November 14. You can read more by Jeannie at A Writer’s Cup. Welcome Jeannie!

I grew up with our maid making sancocho, a traditional Colombian stew, from leftover chicken, plantains, and lots of yucca. Every time sancocho was on the table, the meal was a special headshot2occasion, and I miss the simple goodness it brings back to me. I never thought much about it, though, until I started reading Diane Skelton’s blog about gumbo, and realized sancocho is Colombia’s gumbo.

As with gumbo, anything goes for this soup. Different kinds of meat can be used, as well as any vegetables available, but it’s usually served with rice, and often with a big glass of fruit juice. And like gumbo, it’s made differently depending on the area. In Barrancabermeja three meats are cooked into the stew. In Armenia, pork is the main ingredient. Along the Atlantic coast of Northern Colombia, sancocho is made with fish.

I spent most of my youth in Cali, though, so I made a call to the assisted living facility my parents once lived. The nurse on duty laughed at my questions about sancocho, thought a moment, then told me families often take the ingredients, including the squawking chicken commonly found in a Cali sancocho,  on vacation (a popular destination is a local river, maybe Rio Pance?) and the stew is made fresh on the shore. Now that’s a cookout! sancocho

Dear friend Victoria Franks, who moved back to her hometown of Armenia, Colombia, sent helpful information and some pictures of sancocho, but you can see hers isn’t served by the river. My mouth is watering and my heart is missing the memories of a time gone by.



Jeannie Zokan’s first novel The Existence of Pity, published by Red Adept Publishing, appears November 14 sancocho-bookand will be available on Amazon.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist to Children’s Author

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While other school children across America were reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I was emptying the Eastlawn Elementary library shelves of those “orange biographies” about people like Clara Barton, Dolly Madison and Wyatt Earp. I had never heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder until I was 30 and my bookstore customer wanted to feature The Little House on the Prairie books in her advertisement.

I didn’t read Wilder then either. Not until I invented this 52 American Writers series did I actually read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I chose to read, however, her articles written for Missouri Ruralist. Long before she was famous for writing children’s books, Laura Ingalls Wilder (Mrs. A.J. Wilder) was a household name. She was a farm journalist – truly a voice from the prairie providing advice and guidance to women living in rural areas.

Originally published from 1911 to 1924, her articles are reprinted in Stephen Hines’ book Laura

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“A Homemaker of the Ozarks” in June 1914 issue carries a Mrs. A.J. Wilder byline.

Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist. Though in one piece she disavows giving advice, many of the pieces provide advice on topics ranging from self-education to use of modern inventions to make life less burdensome.

There are touches of poetry, memoir, anecdotes, inspiration.  Even included are a few travel logs sent from her only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who went on to become a famous journalist, travel writer, O. Henry Award winner, and the editor for her mother’s stories. For me, these articles give a  personal  perspective  into the lives of women on both the prairie and farm. Her wisdom holds true today with lines like “ The problems of today and tomorrow must be met in much the same ways as those of yesterday” and “The key to a good life hasn’t changed much in a century.”

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Mother Laura Ingalls Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane were both noted journalists of their day. Rose later assisted her mother as editor of the “Little House” books.

Her farm journalist articles include some recipes with an international flair like Mexican Tamale Loaf and tips for making plum jelly, but there’s no prairie stew or gumbo. So when determining a gumbo for Laura Ingalls Wilder, I’ll take a line from By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Laura tastes Oyster Soup for the first time and relishes in its “savory, fragrant sea-tasting hot milk with golden dollops of melted cream and specks of black pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters on the bottom.”  And to those oysters, add some prairie rabbit and cook up a pot of Emeril Lagasse’s Rabbit and Oyster Gumbo.

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Gumbo for F. Scott Fitzgerald — anything but listless

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Don’t worry about popular opinion, dolls, the past, the future or growing up —  those were just a few of the items on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s list for his daughter Scottie. Image F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter Scottie in 1924.

Readers of the Jazz Age classic The Great Gatsby see a bit of the author’s personality when narrator Nick Carraway lists in great detail the guests arriving at Gatsby’s party.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author, was himself a notorious listmaker. When University of South Carolina received  Fitzgerald’s personal scrapbooks, including 13 ledger-sized notebooks, archivists found, among other things, list after list.  Sadly, no favorite gumbo list, though he did keep detailed recipe logs.

His last personal assistant, Frances Kroll Ring, wrote he was “amazingly organized” and

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Fitzgerald’s lists included money earned, money spent.

made lists for novels, football plays, football players, wars, reading, movies. Of course that wasn’t news to his daughter Scottie. When she was eleven, he prepared a life list of things for her to worry about, not worry about, and think about.

 

In 1936 when wife Zelda was under treatment in a nearby psychiatric hospital, Fitzgerald was convalescing in an Asheville, North Carolina hotel. He offered his nurse a list of 22 books he

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No Shakespeare or James Joyce on this list of essential books that Fitzgerald dictated to his nurse.

 thought were essential reading. The list on the right is written in the nurse’s hand. Best known for serious works The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Beautiful and the Damned, his humorous side appears in his famous Turkey List for Thanksgiving.  Published in 1956 along with some recipes, the list provides a dozen funny ways to prepare turkey. For instance, Turkey Cocktail: To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.

Of course there’s no turkey gumbo recipe on the list, but he surely would appreciate the Southern tradition of gumbo the day after Thanksgiving. (After all, Zelda was from Montgomery, Alabama).

So it’s turkey gumbo for F. Scott Fitzgerald, served with lemon cake for dessert, as a remembrance of The Great Gatsby scene when Gatsby prepares an afternoon tea for Daisy.

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On the Road: Gumbo for American Writer Jack Kerouac

This back-of-the-book-photo shows  Jack Kerouac's original continuous manuscript next to the original manuscript 50 years later. I missed seeing it because I was on the road.

The back-of-the-book-photo (left) shows Jack Kerouac’s original continuous manuscript. Fifty years later the original (right) came to Texas. I missed seeing it because I was on the road.

I was on the road and couldn’t make it to the Jack Kerouac exhibit in Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2008.  A month earlier, I had seen the show advertised with a lengthy, winding banner stretching along a stone wall on the edge of the University of Texas campus. The banner resembled the continuous teletype-paper manuscript of Kerouac’s novel On the Road – all 120-feet of it. Well, except for the part his friend’s dog ate.

Written by the Father of the Beat Generation, the semi-autobiographical novel covers the bohemian travels of Sal Paradise (Kerouac), the story’s narrator, and his friend Dean Moriarty, a rambling free spirit, as they crisscross America four times from 1947 to 1950.

Some say On the Road inspired the television series Route 66 starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, a Kerouac look-alike. Kerouac is on the left, Maharis on the right.

Some say On the Road inspired the television series Route 66 starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, a Kerouac look-alike. Kerouac is on the left, Maharis on the right.

The traveling Kerouac would have loved Guy Fieri’s TV series Diners, Drive Inns and Dives. Those were the kind of places he and his characters frequented on the road from California to New York. Though Kerouac repeatedly mentions a fondness for ice cream and pie, he includes plenty of other food references . . .

 “Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf—nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco.” On the Road (1957)

This excerpt convinces me Kerouac liked the mild, sweet taste of lobster and crab. So for Jack Kerouac, I recommend a big bowl of shrimp and blue crab gumbo from Guy Fieri’s recipe on Food Network.

By the way, I couldn’t make it to the Kerouac show in Austin that summer because I was moving to Florida, the state where Kerouac was living when On the Road was published and where the road ended for him at age 47. It’s nice to know that Florida remembers him with The Kerouac Project and Writer’s Residency in Orlando.

Oh to be a writer at this retreat. The Kerouac Project is located in Cottage Park section of Orlando supports writer residencies.

The Kerouac Project,  located in Cottage Park section of Orlando, supports writer residencies.

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Ohio Proud: Sherwood Anderson and Bob Evans Sausage

Clyde MapI’d always heard about Sherwood Anderson, but never read anything he’d written until I devised this crazy plan to read 52 American writers, one a week for a year. I ended up reading Anderson’s entire collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio.

Anderson (1876-1941) created this fictional Ohio town and with it inspired other writers to create their own small towns – like William Faulkner and Yoknapatawtha.  Anderson left Ohio for the big city lights of Chicago and New Orleans, but it was his novel about Ohio that had made him famous.

The town of Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson grew up, proudly admits to being his inspiration

for Winesburg.  But, that wasn’t the case when the book came out in 1919. Residents called it a “dirty book” and the town librarian burned it. Only in recent years, after the book was ranked #24 on the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels, did the citizens of Clyde decide to honor Anderson  — and cash-in at the same time. Today Clyde lures tourists with literary town maps and museum exhibits celebrating Anderson.  They even celebrate his birthday every September 13 (that’s my birthday, too).

When Anderson lived in New Orleans in the Roaring Twenties, he opened his home to aspiring writers.  John Dos Passos, Carl Sandburg and Gertrude Stein came to the city because of Anderson.  For a while, a young William Faulkner lived at the Anderson’s home.  But there’s no mention of Anderson’s culinary tastes in that gumbo town — not even a favorite restaurant, though he liked noisy restaurants, including one in Paris frequented by fishermen.

According to his grandson Michael Spears, Anderson liked to talk more than eat. Once when his grandfather visited their North Carolina home, the writer piled his plate high with mashed potatoes, gravy, greens, peas, pork chops and biscuits. He then became more interested in telling stories than eating.  Maybe that’s what happened on the cruise when he swallowed a whole toothpick that eventually killed him.  

Along with being the birthplace of Sherwood Anderson, 24 astronauts, and seven U.S. presidents , Ohio prides itself on pork sausage.  So for Sherwood Anderson, I offer Ohio Proud Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, a taste of New Orleans flavored with Bob Evans’ Ohio Hot Zesty Sausage – yes, the same Bob Evans of Midwest restaurant fame.

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Matzo Ball Gumbo takes center stage for Kansas playwright

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PICTURE THIS: Matzo Ball Gumbo combining the flavors of favorite Southern recipes.

Memories of playwright William Inge make me cringe and cry at the same time.  I wept until my eyes swelled when I saw the movie Splendor in the Grass. And when I sat in the audience for a high school production of Picnic, I cringed every time the screen door on the set slammed — at least 100 times.  But William Inge, an Independence, Kansas native, could cast a spell with stories of regular folks in America’s heartland no matter the venue.

At one time in the 1950s, four of Inge’s plays were running almost simultaneously on

Broadway. All went on to be major films. He won a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar, yet like so many writers I’ve written about this year, he suffered from alcoholism and depression. And, he didn’t write much about food. His plays reference fare for picnics and barbecue (Picnic), diners (Bus Stop) and boarding houses, (Come Back, Little Sheba) but those weren’t Inge’s favorite foods.

Advice about food was the last thing his mother told him when he set off for New York to be a writer (with a degree from University of Kansas, a Masters from Peabody and plenty of theatre experience under his belt).

“Now, Bill, you know whenever you get to New York or any of the cities and you need a good home-cooked meal, you must go to a Jewish deli and get it there.” Inge’s friend Jack Garfein, who relayed the anecdote in “He Knew the Poetry of Life,” wrote that Inge’s favorite restaurant seemed to be a Jewish deli.

And no doubt when Inge lived at The Dakota apartment coop in New York with other writers, artists and actors, he could walk to a good Jewish deli. But Jewish Gumbo is a Southern thing.

Marcie Cohen Ferris, a native of Arkansas and professor at University of North Carolina, is author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. She shared her recipe for Matzo Ball Gumbo on blog Eat, Drink & Think.

It features Matzo Balls flavored with Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning dropped in a Louisiana Chicken and Sausage Gumbo (kosher optional) with okra and tomatoes. It’s made with a baked roux and sounds delicious.

And for dessert, how about a big slice of pie from Grace’s Restaurant, maybe one like those on the set of Bus Stop?

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