Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations

Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations

by Roy Blount Jr.


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Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations by Roy Blount Jr.

In Alphabet Juice and Alphabetter Juice, Roy Blount Jr. put a humorous and genre-defying spin on the English language. Now, with the same wit and charm, he tackles a topic just as rich and fundamental: food.

As a lifelong eater, Blount and food always got along easy--he didn't have to think, he just ate. But food doesn't exist in a vacuum; there's the global climate and the global economy to consider, not to mention Blount's chronic sinusitis, which constricts his sense of smell, and consequently his taste buds. So while he's always frowned on eating with an ulterior motive, times have changed. Save Room for Pie grapples with these and other food-related questions in Blount's signature style. Here you'll find lively meditations on everything from bacon froth to grapefruit, kobe beef to biscuits. You'll also find defenses of gizzards, mullet, okra, cane syrup, watermelon, and boiled peanuts; an imagined dialogue between Adam and Eve in the Garden; words and stories from Robert E. Lee, Louis Armstrong, and Frederick Douglass; and of course some shampooed possums and carjacking turkeys.

In poems and songs, limericks and fake (or sometimes true) news stories, Blount talks about food in surprising and innovative ways, with all the wit and verve that prompted Garrison Keillor, in The Paris Review, to say: "Blount is the best. He can be literate, uncouth and soulful all in one sentence."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374175207
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,047,072
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty-four books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to what dogs are thinking to the ins and outs of etymology. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!, a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, and a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, he now divides his time between western Massachusetts, New York City, and New Orleans with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold, and their cat, Jimmy.

Read an Excerpt

Save Room for Pie

Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations

By Roy Blount Jr.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Roy Blount Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71288-4




My wife, Joan, and I live partly in rural western Massachusetts, where one minute people are discussing the different tastes of bear (very strong) and woodchuck — I guess you don't ever want to try muskrat, though people do — and the next minute the topic turns to whether turmeric has to be organic. Just the other night in the midst of a hearty meal, we were Googling to see how much more nutritious sesame seeds are with the hulls on than with them off. Not a simple matter, because while the hulls do have food value they also contain — never mind. I try to keep things light by asking how many sesame seeds you should take daily. But these are, after all, matters of life and death.

Speaking of which, I heard the other day that Google has a task force working on an end to death. Not Google's death, people's. If eternal life is anything like teen sex (probably not, come to think of it), it will no doubt come along too late for me. But let's say I get the message, through Gmail: "Hooray, immortality is here! Click for two weeks free." And I don't reply right away. Google, again: "Grateful? No? What else do you want?"

Here is my response: "Mashed potatoes with that. And gravy."

Because there will be a catch. To live forever, I'll have to give up food, except for Googruel or Gvittles or whatever they're going to call the only sustenance you can live on forever. Maybe something virtual, you don't even get to chew. And I'll have to think long and hard.

I grew up on food, among people who were devoted to the joy of getting plenty of it. Some years ago, I visited Mel Blount, the great Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback, on his family farm in Vidalia, Georgia, and wrote this:

"Keep 'em fed," Mel's father used to say about his offspring. "Keep 'em fed and they'll work." They're still working — for instance, tossing a crop of fifty- or sixty-pound watermelons along a family bucket-brigade line ("And you can't stop") to load them into a truck. And every time I walked into Mel's mother's house, she, Alice Blount — at 9:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m., or 9:30 p.m. — she was putting fried chicken, stewed chicken, butter beans, soupy white lima beans, grits, gravy, corn bread, rice, mashed potatoes, thick-sliced bacon, collard greens, biscuits, ham, black-eyed peas, sweet iced tea, and hot sauce onto the table and saying, "Y'all about let it get cold." When I start eating food like that, it takes me back to when I was fourteen, could eat steadily for hours with impunity, and figured I'd be a sports immortal myself. Inside every thin Southern person is a fat person signaling to get out. Mine has partially emerged, as has Mel's brother Bobby's. One night Bobby leaned back from the table, slapped his stomach proprietarily with both hands, and said, "Roy, this is all the savings I got." Mel has had the football glory, but Bobby (who some say was the best athlete in the family) may well have had more food, and he seems pleased with his end of the deal.

If Google can arrange something like that in perpetuity, farm to table, I'm in. Doesn't have to be soul food, as long as it's good. In a lifetime of eating, I have savored Madhur Jaffrey's home cooking, Donald Link's prizewinning hot tamales (I was a judge), and an eight-course banquet in the Palace of Versailles. And see "What We Ate in Japan."

As to healthful eating, I take a positive approach. When I hear that something I like is good for me or anyway better than something else (for instance, that Velveeta has more protein and fewer bad fats than many real cheeses, because it is largely whey), I say, "Hey! Let's see if we have some in the fridge." (To mix with RO*TEL. I wouldn't eat Velveeta without mixing it with something containing an asterisk.) When I hear that something I like is not so good (for instance, that Velveeta is rich in sodium), I say, "Let us not rush to judgment."

And there is room for positivity today. It may not last (remember when bread, with gluten, was the staff of life?), but lately I have heard good things, from authorities recognized by my wife, about watermelon, avocado, egg yolk, cane syrup, okra, lard, oysters, beef (if raised right), whiskey, hot peppers, coffee, (dark) chocolate, butter!

Butter! Not margarine, no, p'tooey, and none of your quasi-buttery "spreads," but actual, cow-given butter:

Bananas are yellow in their season.
Butter is always. And better on peas, on
Toast, on corn bread, on corn on the cob.
A baked potato begins to throb
With life, with juice when butter melts
Down, down into each crevice and ...
Oh! Nothing elts
Melts the way butter melts.
Truer words were never uttered:
Anything good is better buttered.

But we can't be complacent about food. As we learn from the media that mice don't really like cheese, milk doesn't suit cats, elephants aren't partial to peanuts (I worked with one, though, who loved M&M's), dogs shouldn't be given bones (unless they're raw, and who keeps raw bones around?), and bananas (as we know them outside the rain forest) are bad for monkeys, we realize that our timeworn conceptions need to be shaken up. You know the expression "acquired taste"? It's a sneer, is what it is. I once heard George Will, on television, refer to Michael Jackson (his music I mean) as "an acquired taste." Michael Jackson? Moonwalking? ("Walking backwards forwards," as someone described it, or maybe the other way around.) Either you can't help deriving at least some fleeting enjoyment from that weird little dervish's work, or you can be determined not to: acquired distaste. In today's changing food environment, you're crazy not to acquire tastes. I have gone so far as to acquire one for kale.

Like many people, I got my back up against kale. I had been eating other greens regularly and naturally for years and years and years when, boom, kale was the new manna. So was kimchi, but kimchi was a discovery for me (I thought you had to find it where I had found it, in a Korean grocery in Queens, New York), and it was fermented (hey-hey!). The other night at a place in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans called Booty's, which serves street food from around the world, I had a kimchi pancake with pork-belly hash that made me want to shout.

Kale, though, had been around, lurking in the background, and in fact I had enjoyed it as the original green in a Portuguese soup that I went on to make myself: using red beans, canned tomatoes, chorizo sausage (which conspire, those three, in a cloudy liquor), chopped onions, and fresh collard greens. We grow collard greens (and in Massachusetts they don't get gritty, somehow). Some people look down on collard greens, so more collard greens for me. Who needs kale? was my feeling. But then the other night Joan fried some kale just long enough in a little olive oil with a sprinkling of parmesan, and bingo: a chew that I have to rank (see "Song to Ribs," "Song to a Nice Baked Potata") among the best chews in my experience. And it's healthy, which is fine with me.

I can also eschew with enthusiasm. I do have a weakness for frozen waffles and saltine crackers (oyster crackers even more) and the "mixed-fruit jelly" that you get in a diner (the tublets it comes in should be bigger, though, and more squeezable so you don't lose so much in the corners). But "nondairy creamer" will never pass my lips. Nor Hostess Twinkies, nor Hot Pockets.

Indeed we keep an organic garden, which last summer produced five small but delicious fresh-picked ears of corn, alone. (And a bumper crop, thanks to the Missus, of kale.) When Joan is out of town, and I'm tempted to slip away from the organic grocery section, I feel adulterous (see "Steak, Environmentally"), and not in a good way. But where I come from, the worst thing you can be toward food is persnickety. Eating primarily for health is too much like marrying for money. In other words, it's not completely crazy, but unless a meal or a relationship commences with yum, I don't see it going anywhere.

And how can anybody keep up with what we should and shouldn't eat? I notice that people who used to say, "They say," with regard to what they've heard is deadly or not, are now saying, "What they're saying is ..." They used to say lots of fruits, things like groats, and scratchy bread:

"People who eat
Wonder bread
Must be underbred.
Did no one explain
About whole grain?"
— Say the elite.

So their childhood
Did not include
Tomato slice red
As a harlot's lip
On Wonder bread
With Miracle Whip?

At the moment, as I write this, I'm being advised that the only way to avoid eating yourself into an early grave (too late for me, ha!) is to eschew grains — and all other carbohydrates, including orange juice for God's sake — and get plenty of good healthy (not trans-) fat. Well, I'm not going to give up orange juice, but I hear the part about fat.

Breath is nice,
And some love vice,
And I'm a bear for reading,
But all of these,
Without some peas
Or onions, fall exceeding-
Ly short of feeding.

The human hand
And eye are grand
(Trained or amateurish),
But none of these,
Without some cheese
Or toast that's warm and beurreish
Really nourish.

So much talk
Today of walk-
Ing, running, sweat, and sleekness!
Let me stress:
Some fat, unless
You're riding in the Preakness,
Is no weakness.

Suet in you,
Just like sinew,
Throbs with tonic value.
All the weight
From what you ate
That tasted great
Will resonate
Like turtledove timbale, you
Bet. So sing the food chorale (eu-
Peptic musicale), you
Hungry guy or gal, you.

That's where I'm coming from. And am I a butterball? "For a man of your age," someone said to me the other day, "how do you manage not to be any more paunchy than you are?" He was a friend of mine, and was about to ask a favor, but the next day (in Felix's oyster bar in New Orleans) I heard something along the same lines from a complete stranger — whom I had asked for a favor. "Could you pass the horseradish?" I said.

"You going to eat all two dozen of them?" she asked. "You're like an uncle of mine. And he's dead. You're not even all that fat."

I may be too thick in the middle to be a TV personality (on the radio, people have told me, I sound more portly than I am) or to live in certain parts of California, but you accept all that, and life goes on. My height, I have been told, should be twice my waist measurement. At my point in life, I am in fact settling slightly. In a doctor's office, I have to stretch to reach my definitive height of six feet even. I can hardly be expected, at this stage, to grow four inches taller. If I thought I could learn to dance the Lindy Hop really well, I would consider going into training. But as a man in Clarksdale, Mississippi, once told me on the radio, "I'm seventy-three years old already." We were eating fried catfish at the time. I hope people in Clarksdale, Mississippi, still eat fried catfish on the radio.

When I met Satchel Paige, the immortal baseball pitcher, he was openly eating a piece of fried chicken. "But," I said to him, "I thought you said, 'Avoid fried foods, because they angry up the blood.'" That remark had, after all, been famously attributed to him. "I said avoid 'em," he said. "I didn't say I avoided 'em." With that in mind, here are some guidelines.

Guideline 1

Eat less gravy than you want. Wait — consider this: you can't, possibly, eat as much gravy as you want. A book titled Favorite Recipes, Favorite Sayings by Mary Howard Shelfer Morgan, of Tallahassee, Florida, quotes a wise saying by First Lieutenant William Howard Shelfer (1917–44), whom I infer to be her father or uncle who died in the war: "The only way to have enough gravy is to funnel it down from the attic through a hose." Eating less gravy than you want, therefore, is feasible on the face of it. It will also enable you to eat less mashed potatoes, or whatever you were going to put the gravy on, than you thought you wanted.

Codicil to Guideline 1

After five potato chips, you are just trying to reclaim the glory of the first two — and you know it.

Guideline 2

Never eat anything promoted as "amazing," because it might actually be: "Everyone loves Cheetos, the crunchy cheezy [sic] treat that you have to lick your fingers to savor every flavor, but this new amazing flavor infuses American Mountain Dew with the crunchy Cheetos snack. This combo version by Frito-Lay Japan ... in cooperation with Pepsi, ensures an authentic taste experience."

Guideline 3

Hard liquor may be better for you, at some yet-to-be-determined ratio, say two fingers to eight ounces, than soft drinks. As a boy in Decatur, Georgia, I would ride my bike to the gas station, in front of which stood a big, rusting, red-metal box with a slide-open door at the top. I'd reach down into that well of ice gradually melting among variously shaped cold bottles randomly heaped, and I'd swush around heavily for a while and come up with a NuGrape. A Grapette. A Sun Drop. An Orange Crush, with its pebbly, thick-walled bottle the color of iodine. A Bireley's chocolate drink. Bireley's put out an orange, too. A Nehi black cherry. An RC Cola, a Dr Pepper, a Frostie Root Beer, a Squirt, a Canada Dry ginger ale. Ice water would run down my arm, and I would have myself a very cold, highly satisfactory drink. I don't think anything has ever struck me as prettier colored than NuGrape foam back then. I was a child, with little experience of the world. But in college English, when I came upon "the blushful Hippocrene, / With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stainèd mouth," it brought back NuGrape.

As I acquired other tastes, those sugar potions became too icky for me. But I would still enjoy an occasional Coke. I lived near Atlanta, the corporate and ancestral home of Coca-Cola. Coke was the cola, the one on the periodic table; Coke was It. But then It came out with that commercial showing people singing, "I'd like to buy [Oh, not sell?] the world a Coke / And keep it company." Uh-oh. Conceptually, It had gone Icky. Then It changed Its very essence. Transubstantiated Itself into New Coke, which tasted more like Pepsi! As if Louis Armstrong had decided to imitate Al Hirt! And then, when It saw the reaction to what It had done, It brought back Its old self — now called Coca-Cola Classic, which sounded like a golf tournament. After a while, It discontinued New Coke, which had become known officially as Coca-Cola II, and dropped the "Classic" from old Coke. Today, under Its Minute Maid brand, Coca-Cola sells a juice It calls Pomegranate Blueberry, which is 0.3 percent pomegranate, 0.2 percent blueberry, and nearly all the rest grape and apple juice, dyed dark purple. The picture on the label shows an apple and some grapes peeping from behind a pomegranate and some blueberries. "HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN," it says in big letters on the label. (Some research suggests that antioxidants in pomegranate juice may be good for your brain.) The other day I turned on the television and saw a cat, with a German accent, saying, "What if life tasted as good as Diet Coke?" Talk about icky. Diet icky. And of course people say you really ought to drink Mexican Coke, which is sweetened with cane sugar instead of icky corn syrup, so It tastes like It should. Would whiskey put you through all that?

Guideline 4

If it sounds like the name of a pool hustler (Natural Fats), it's probably good for you, within reason. If it smacks of sadomasochism (Whipped Spread), it's not.

Guideline 5

Save room for pie. Pie being the highest form of food. When we say "Sweet as an angel eating pie," we do not mean icky; we mean sublime. Eudora Welty, in her story "Kin," celebrates the perfect ending to a pleasant day: "wonderful black, bitter, moist chocolate pie under mountains of meringue." Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to his friend James B. Thayer, loved pie so much he ate it regularly for breakfast. One morning, Emerson offered several gentleman guests, one after another, a piece of pie. Each gentleman declined. "'But ...,' Mr. Emerson remonstrated, ... thrusting the knife under a piece of the pie, and putting the entire weight of his character into his manner, 'but ... what is pie for?'" There. There you are. That rhetorical question, extended across a broad spectrum of good food, is the answer to Why I Eat. Was breakfast pie bad for Emerson? In only slightly premature old age, the author of "Self-Reliance" began losing his memory, but by all accounts he retained a nice smile. "He suffered very little," according to his son Edward Waldo, "took his nourishment well, went to his study and tried to work, accomplished less and less, but did not notice it." More and more, I think of this as my fallback ambition. But might Emerson's golden years have been even mellower if he had saved room for pie?


Excerpted from Save Room for Pie by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Roy Blount Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Table d'Contents

I: Why I Eat
It's Good to Eat
But Nothing is Simple
The Way Folks Are Meant to Eat

II: Essentials
Song to the Apple
Animals Eat
Bear Notes
How About Sheep?
Hold the Foam
Song to Decent Pizza
I Could See Just Overalls
The Fall: A One-Act
Song to Hot Dogs
But Ain't Nothing Wrong With a Varsity Dog
Song to Hamburgers
The Lowdown on Southern Hospitality
Song to Grease
Song to Eggs
Ironic Biscuits?
Song to Gumbo
Boiling the F-Thing Down
A Grapefruit Moment
Let the Last Word in Appetite Not Be Petite

Part III: Meat of the Land
Steak, Generally
Song to Beef
Steak, Environmentally
Chicken Medley
More to a Chicken
Song to Ribs
Song to Bacon
Hymn to Ham
Song to Pig Knuckles
Yes to Gizzards

Part IV: Meat of the Waters
Song to Oysters
Born for the Pan
Have a Little River
Song to Catfish
Just Put the Hairdo Out of Your Mind
Fishing Hard (as of 1976)
Sharing Oysters

Part V: Plants
Song to Onions
Song to Okra
Song to Love Apples
A Paean to Southern Peas
Boiled Peanuts: Be Not Afraid
Song to Beans
Song to the Lentil
Song to Legumes in General
Carrot Whimsy
Song to a Nice Baked Potata
Song to Beets
The Fall of Corn
Song to Grits
Hold the Cheese

Part VI: Drink
Song on Drink
Drinking With Kate Smith

Part VII: Food in the Arts
Food Names for Bands, I
Louis, Louis, Louis, Fats and Slim
Food Names for Bands, II
Mississippi Music Notes
For Champion Crickets, No Wheaties
Food Names for Bands, III
Some Spicy Limericks
Pimento Easter Eggss
Food Names for Bands, IV

Part VIII: Incidentals
Ro*Tel It on the Mountain
Song to Catsup
Song to Barbecue Sauce
Brunswick Stew: Scalable?
I Don't Eat Dirt Personally
The W-word
A Dark Sweetness

Part IX: Process
Dream Song
Yellow Squash Crisps
Eating Out of House and Home
Song to Cooking Out Over an Open Fire in the Open Air With Crickets . . .
Compost Happens
Weed-dating May Work For Some
Between Meals Song
Green Pea Lover's Lament
Bees of the Anthropocene

Part X: Trips
What We Ate in Japan
Incident in the Times Square Nathan's
Buttered Kittens
Last Night
Man Here Tried to Be a Good Citizen of the D Train
June, Spoon . . .
Ticks du Pays
Hyenas Feel Good About Themselves
Wild Fish Ripped My Flesh
The Pirate Captain Addresses the Crew
You Can Tell a Good Possum
Thanksgiving Eve: What Happened in the Wood
New Orleans Coming Back, 2007

Part XI: Dessert
Pie: The Quest
Song to Homemade Ice Cream
Song to Peaches
No Sweetness in a Stone
Mark Twain's Pie Dream
Song to Pie

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