Plume: White Trash Cooking
Revisiting Ernest Matthew Mickler’s seminal cookbook almost thirty years later
Ernest “Ernie” Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking was published in the spring of 1986. The book—a 160-page anthology of Southern recipes, stories and photographs—was the result of Mickler’s travels around the South and his upbringing in Palm Valley, a place he described as “a cabbage-palm swamp near St. Augustine.”
According to his dear friend Petie Pickette, that’s where “Ernie learned cooking at his mama’s knee.”
Born the youngest of four boys in 1940, Mickler grew up next to the former County Road 210 bridge, sandwiched between Papa George’s Fish Camp and the Anchorage Restaurant. Mickler, a gay Southerner, liked to say, “White Trash” was separated from “white trash” by pride and manners, making a distinction between uppercase and lowercase versions of the epithet.
Mickler earned a bachelor’s degree from Jacksonville University before moving to California to earn a master’s from Mills College. After that, he moved to Key West, where he said he met “all of the people that knew what to do to get my cookbook into print.”
When first published by the Jargon Society, White Trash Cooking flew off the shelves so quickly that the publisher, unable to meet the demand for the book, sold the rights to Ten Speed Press. Everyone who read it, including Roy Blount Jr., Helen Hayes and J. William Fulbright, fell under its spell. Bryan Miller of The New York Times called it “perhaps the most intriguing book of the 1986 spring cookbook season.” And Harper Lee deemed it “a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage.”
With recipes like “Mama Leila’s Hand-Me-Down Oven-Baked Possum” and “Tutti’s Fruited Porkettes,” paired with his photographs of everyday country life—scenes depicting cans of Ro-Tel and black-eyed peas, and folks sitting on torn-up couches on their front porch—Mickler compiled a vital account of rural cooking and culture in the South.
“WHITE TRASH COOKING: It’s a dream come true. I can just hear Raenelle and Betty Sue at every Tupperware party in Rolling Fork saying, ‘Ernie went from white trash to WHITE TRASH overnight,’” Mickler wrote in a note penned in Key West in 1985 that appeared at the end of the book.
For many, Mickler’s work is comparable to that of fellow Floridian Zora Neale Hurston and worth returning to again and again, to share and celebrate.
Two years after White Trash Cooking was published, Mickler’s second title, Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins came out in the fall of 1988. It’s a more mature, idiosyncratic and regional look at his upbringing in North Florida. On November 15, 1988, one day after the book arrived at bookstores, Mickler died at his home in Moccasin Branch, Florida from AIDS. Perhaps because of his death, his work has not always attained the kind of critical cachet it deserves. Undoubtedly, White Trash Cooking remains one of the South’s most important contemporary touchstones. And, more than 30 years since its first edition, it remains as honest, funny and poignant as ever.
Take one cake mix, your choice. Mix as directed on box. Pour in well-greased cake pan, kind of deep. Over the top, pour a pint of stewed pears or other fruit of your choice. Canned fruit will do fine, but home-canned is best.
Then cover the top of the fruit with pats of oleo, or butter, and sprinkle with a good coat of sugar.
Stick in oven heated to 350 degrees for 30–40 minutes, or until cake has risen to hide the fruit and is brown. Eat hot with a good strong whiskey sauce.
- 2 cups of sugar
- 1/2 pound of butter, or 2 sticks
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup of Jack Daniel’s Black Label
- 1 pinch of salt
PREPARATION: Blend sugar, butter and vanilla until mixed completely. Then add whiskey bit by bit, mixing until it is a nice, loose, creamy sauce. The sugar is supposed to be grainy.
Pour over resurrection cake, and it’s guaranteed to resurrect.
- 3 No. 2 cans orange or tangerine juice, chilled
- 2 pints vanilla ice cream
- 1 quart ginger ale, chilled
PREPARATION: Pour chilled orange or tangerine juice and ginger ale into punch bowl and mix well. Drop ice cream by the heaping tablespoon into mixture. Stir until ice cream is partially melted. In Miami, that won’t take long.