Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts

Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts

by Burkhard Bilger

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Burkhard Bilger vividly captures a world that lies outside the familiar images of life in the United States in the twenty-first century in eight superbly crafted essays about little-known corners of the South. It is a world in which grown men catch catfish with their bare hands, crowds of people cheer on chickens as they fight to the death, and a woman moves into a


Burkhard Bilger vividly captures a world that lies outside the familiar images of life in the United States in the twenty-first century in eight superbly crafted essays about little-known corners of the South. It is a world in which grown men catch catfish with their bare hands, crowds of people cheer on chickens as they fight to the death, and a woman moves into a trailer home when her house burns down just so she can continue hunting 350 nights a year. Bilger records the eccentric and sometimes downright bizarre behavior he encounters with humor and wit but nary a whisper of mockery. In essays that combine history, anecdotes, and personal observations, he describes each activity, its origins, its dangers, and its pleasures. But Noodling for Flatheads is much more than a survey of unlikely pastimes. Through lively portraits of the participants, Bilger illuminates the obsessive individualism that is at the heart of the American spirit.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ted Lee The New York Times A collection of powerful essays...[Bilger's] lyrical narratives thrum with energy and affection.

Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Smart, clear-eyed, witty, and unsentimental, not to mention quite agreeably surprising.

Newsweek Meticulous reporting and graceful writing — with zero condescension.

E. Andra Whitworth The New York Times Book Review A rare and sometimes surprising glimpse of the American backwoods... Bilger's folksy descriptions of these eccentric pursuits are charming.

Caroline Fraser Outside A fascinating look into rural America's intimate, uneasy relationship with the animal life that surrounds it — both wild and domesticated. editor
It all started because editor Burkhard Bilger knew he'd need a coon dog in order to really play the country blues guitar. Bilger's search for the perfect pet resulted in Noodling for Flatheads, an intelligent exploration of the South's most peculiar pastimes. Delving into eight southern subcultures -- from squirrel eaters to moonshiners -- Bilger's narrative is an eloquent tribute to fierce southern individuality.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's refreshing to read a book about Southern subcultures that doesn't bog down in easy caricature or yet another Confederate flag discussion. Bilger, a journalist and features editor at Discover, writes with deadpan grace to capture half-buried worlds, linking the vivid participants to a larger history -- whether it be the transatlantic heritage of soul food, the legal and illegal sides of cockfighting in America or the evolution of coondogs since the time of "the father of coon hunting," George Washington. The title essay describes the squirmy practice of "noodling" one's bare fingers inside a catfish's underwater hiding place until the toothed fish bites hard enough to be hauled to the surface. In his exploration of Louisiana cockfighting, Bilger pulls off something that easily could have backfired: he contrasts the rooster farm of John Demoruelle (where the cocks are pampered like feathered celebrities) with the anonymous violence of the modern chicken factory. As Bilger tours a Tyson chicken facility, the spectacle of the young birds riding passively to their conveyor-belt deaths complicates the reader's feelings about the comparatively glorious (but bloody) lives of the gamecocks. In other essays -- about a South Carolina "moonshiner's reunion," an Oklahoma coon-treeing competition and a visit with Kentuckians whose delicacy is squirrel brains -- Bilger always sees past the freak show to get the full, resonant story, often of older cultures retreating before the new. Readers who liked the Southern exotica of Confederates in the Attic or Mullett Heads should enjoy this promising debut about "the forgotten folkways [that] still inhabit our back roads."
Library Journal
Odd, regional Southern cultures seemingly fascinate readers in the rest of the country. When Bilger, an editor at Discover, who was born in Oklahoma and now lives in Brooklyn, NY, was learning to play country blues guitar, he decided that he needed a hound as an audience. His search for a coondog in New England led him into the world of cockfighting in Louisiana, eating squirrel brains in Kentucky, and moonshining in Virginia. This quirky collection of essays records Bilger's adventures dissecting the history and practice of eight peculiar Southern pastimes. The resulting book, while chockfull of trivia and folklore, isn't for the fainthearted, delicate, or animal lover. Readers who enjoyed Tom Franklin's Poachers (Morrow, 1999) and Brad Watson's Last Days of the Dog Men (Norton, 1996) will like this. Incidentally, the author finally found his hound in Massachusetts.
Outside Magazine
A minor masterpiece of popular anthropology.
The New York Times
Fascinating... powerful...[Bilger's] lyrical narratives thrum with energy and affection. They celebrate cravings as being deeply personal, utterly illogical and irrepressibly alive.
New York Times Book Review
A rare and sometimes surprising glimpse of the arcane traditions of the American backwoods and the diverse characters who keep them alive...Bilger's folksy descriptions of these eccentric pursuits are charming, though he does not fail to point out that they can be hazardous, violent or illegal. In fact, his presentation of the historic origins of these traditions and the cultural roles they have played in American life is so adept that even the brutal sport of cockfighting and an occasional hankering for squirrel brains can be viewed with a certain degree of sympathy.
The Seattle Times
Fascinating, weird and sometimes just plain disgusting...Bilger's easy-going, enlightening prose opens a window onto sights -- not to mention smells and tastes -- perhaps better visited in print than in person.
It is doubtful that this reviewer...can fully grasp the awe bound to gape the jaws of most readers of Burkhard Bilger's Noodling for Flatheads.
Jonathan Yardley
Noodling for Flatheads is smart, clear-eyed, witty and unsentimental, not to mention quite agreeably surprising. It tells you not the usual things about the South that you already know to well but unusual things about the South that you probably know nothing about at all.
The Washington Post
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
[Bilger's] dispatches on a variety of 'forgotten folkways' are keenly observed and carefully measured.
Southern Scribe.Com
As I read page after fascinating page, I began to wonder, "How much more craziness can this guy reveal?" Then I realized, "This is the South. There is no limit to what he may uncover."
Meticulous reporting and graceful wirting, with zero condescension, about such far-from-obsolent Southers pursuits as cockfighting, moonshining, and "noodling"- catching catfish ("flatheads") barehanded.

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Read an Excerpt


Books about strange obsessions, like the obsessions themselves, tend to grow out of chance encounters. Mine began, like an old Jack London story, with a search for a dog.

I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, learning to play country blues guitar and thinking it would be nice to have a lazy coonhound for an audience. In Oklahoma, where I grew up, coonhounds seem to haunt every paper route and country road, to lurk in querulous packs down every gravel drive. Most of my childhood had been spent trying to dodge their teeth, whether on foot or on my blue Schwinn bicycle. But now I found, after years on the East Coast, that I missed their voices.

That fall I started calling the AKC and the ASPCA, scanning ads in local newspapers and consulting dog trainers, all to no avail. In New England coonhounds are about as common as wolves. A few people had heard rumors of such dogs, but none had actually seen one in the flesh. Why not a pug, they said, or a nice Brittany spaniel?

Finally one day, weeks into my search, I managed to track down a breeder of blueticks. At first, as I stood on his front porch explaining what I wanted, I could see his smile fade through the screen door: his puppies were all spoken for that season, he said. But then, as we talked some more, he suddenly held up his hand. "Hold on a second," he said, turning and disappearing into his house. A moment later he emerged from the shadows with a rumpled document: American Cooner magazine.

It was the strangest publication I had ever seen.

After half a century of television, it's easy to mistake our sitcoms for ourselves — to imagine that there's no more to popular culture than Barbie dolls and TV theme songs. But American Cooner came from somewhere beyond the range of most antennas. Its closely typeset pages contained dozens of articles about coon hunters and their exploits, interspersed with snapshots of the hounds in action: front paws high up on tree trunks, eyes gone white from the photographer's flash, mouths bawling hysterically at a coon somewhere above. Here and there, advertisements for kennels referred cryptically to "Grand Nite Champions," "cold-nosed, chop-mouth dogs," and "chilled semen for sale." I had no idea what they meant, and it was hard to imagine that thousands of people out there did. Yet American Cooner was a fat, glossy monthly, chock-full of ads.

Leafing through page after page of coonhound arcana, I realized there was a side to Oklahoma that I had missed growing up, a hidden history and landscape that even locals might not see. While I had moved about in what seemed a nine-to-five world — where dinner was always at six and every porch light snapped off at ten — a few of my neighbors spent half their waking hours in the woods. When the rest of us went to bed, the coon hunters among us were just fully awakening, keyed to their dogs' unearthly voices and the forest's nocturnal pulse.

The wonder, to me, wasn't that people did such things, but that they published magazines about it and compiled coon-hunting histories, maintained century-old bloodlines, and held week-long competitions. Here was a full-blown subculture — one with its own rites, rituals, and deeply rooted lore. And I had heard of it only when I moved a thousand miles away.

In years since, I've come across even more obscure publications — a cockfighting magazine called Feathered Warrior, for instance — each of which speaks to a clandestine culture of its own. Few of them can be found on newsstands, just as their virtual alter egos can't be found on lists of hot Internet links. But like samizdat publications in the former Soviet Union, they reach their audience just the same.

This book explores a few of those hidden worlds — worlds that exist just around the corner, through the looking glass of American life. Each chapter circles in on a specific southern tradition: cockfighting in Louisiana, moonshining in Virginia, soul-food cooking in Georgia, and so forth. The book as a whole, however, is less about the traditions themselves than the hardy, tenacious communities that have come to entangle them, like wild vines around an underground spring.

I won't pretend that the result is a comprehensive portrait, or even an internally consistent one. Religion isn't here, for one thing, and race only briefly. Some of these traditions are illegal, others merely obscure; some ancient, others ultramodern. But the people who practice them share an undeniable kinship. Unlike so many of us, bent on wealth, promotion, or a few seconds of prime time, they cling to dreams that force them ever deeper underground. They hide their liquor under floorboards, make chitlins late at night when the family is asleep, or practice marbles in forest clearings. The more chilling their isolation, the brighter burning their obsessions — and their loyalty to those who share them.

I now think that rumpled copy of American Cooner was less a magazine than a secret handshake, the opening clue in a scavenger hunt. It eventually led me to a half-lame coon hunter in western Massachusetts and through him to a six-month-old redbone, the lonesome runt of a broken-chain litter. Hattie is a dead ringer for the dogs I grew up with (though her disposition is sweeter) and sometimes she even howls on pitch when I play the guitar. But if she helps dispel my homesickness, it's not the way I imagined. Home, she reminds me, is a place as foreign as it is familiar — one you can go back to again and again, as if for the first time.

Copyright © 2000 by Burkhard Bilger

What People are saying about this

David Quammen
David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and The Boilerplate Rhino:

Go out to the semi-lunatic fringe of any society, and you'll find charmingly aberrant folks whose weird tastes, notions, and practices tell you something, yes indeed, about values and origins back at the center. Burkhard Bilger knows that, and puts the knowledge to good use in this graceful, entertaining book.

Gordon Grice
Gordon Grice, author of The Red Hourglass:

Noodling for Flatheads is terrific. Bilger's style is accessible and somehow unobtrusive even when he's delivering a knock-out bit of description, a feat he manages every five pages or so. I love the intelligence of these essays. They start in the quirkiest places and end up deep in the human heart. Just wonderful writing.

John Seabrook
John Seabrook, author of Nobrow:

Leaving the Cineplex and The Gap far behind him, Burkhard Bilger goes searching for authentic American folk traditions, and finds among the cockfighters and squirrel eaters the kind of literary journalism not seen in these parts since John McPhee's travels in Georgia. A wonderful debut.

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point:

Burkhard Bilger has done for the South what Joseph Mitchell did for New York City. He has taken a seemingly familiar world and exposed its strange and bizarre and poignant soul.

Meet the Author

Burkhard Bilger is a senior editor at Discover, writer for The New Yorker, and series editor for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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