Wednesday, June 12

What Do Southern Food and Crime Have in Common?

A new issue of our Gravy quarterly is on its way to the mailboxes of SFA members throughout the land. (Not a member? Join us to start receiving Gravy on the regular. Or look for it at Billy Reid stores; Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham; and Husk Nashville.) Guest edited by the writer Jack Pendarvis, this edition tackles the theme of Food and Crime. Contributors include singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan and crime novelist Laura Lippman.

Here, we share with you a special web companion to the print issue, written by William Boyle. A native New Yorker, William now lives in Oxford, where he teaches writing at the University of Mississippi.

Mystery Train
Making and Unmaking in the Rough South
by William Boyle

A scene from Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.

 My early notions of the South were formed by movies and music. Many of those initial ideas evolved around crime and food because I was drawn mainly to crime stories and I was always struck by scenes set in diners and kitchens. Growing up in Brooklyn, a kid fascinated with mob history (Bloodletters and Badmen was my go-to bedtime book), I already had the feeling that food and crime were twined together somehow—and my love of Quentin Tarantino movies gave me a propensity for violent dialogue delivered over meat products.

The first song I loved was Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe.” I heard it on the oldies station when I was in the sixth grade. Other kids were listening to Technotronic's “Pump Up the Jam,” but I had my mother take me to the mall to get a Bobbie Gentry tape. Gentry's tricky song felt like a murder ballad to me, and I loved the way the family sat around the table talking, unfolding the story for us over black-eyed peas and biscuits and apple pie. As a city kid, it opened up so many things about the South to me, not only the rituals and rhythms, but a deep and abiding sense of mystery, the very thing that propels my interests in food and crime. How is a thing made? How is it unmade?

A restaurant scene from Mystery Train.
When I moved to Oxford for graduate school a few years ago, one of my first stops was the Arcade Resaturant in Memphis, where several scenes in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train were shot. Most people probably wouldn't call Mystery Train a crime film, but it is: Crimes occur; music swirls us into a state of boozy desperation; we're not pinned in by a formula. The scenes shot in the restaurant have a tender beauty to them, and when you go to the Arcade and get black coffee in a porcelain mug, you feel pulled into Jarmusch's lonely late-night world. Like the con artist who tries to panhandle Nicoletta Braschi's Luisa, it's crime-sweaty and poetically peculiar. Luisa, visiting Memphis from Italy, feels the stress of that rough and wonderful city. After meeting the con man, she's out on the street and is followed by three sketchy guys before dipping into the hotel that serves as the movie's central locale. Mystery Train is ultimately about outsiders—visitors from Italy and Japan—ghosting after something holy and old. Maybe that's what draws me to it as a poem to and of the South—Jarmusch, also a New Yorker, visits like one of the movie's outsiders and his senses are assaulted. The Arcade is a place of reckoning, a source of mystery, just like the dinner table that the narrator's family sits around in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

I think also of Roberto Benigni in Jarmusch's Down by Law (set in and around New Orleans), on the run, cooking a rabbit on a spit, talking about his strange mother. Jarmusch has a great sense of how to use consumption—be it food, coffee, booze—to elevate tension. His series of short films, Coffee and Cigarettes, isolates those moments: people exchange wisdom over that mystical combination of caffeine and nicotine.

A scene from Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

On our first night in Oxford, The Hold Steady played at Proud Larry's. Stay Positive had just come out. My wife and I didn't even unload our moving truck. We parked it in the driveway, unpacking only an air mattress and our toothbrushes, and went straight to the show. We got burgers and beers. Larry's jumped with frantic energy. “Sequestered in Memphis” got the crowd going the way only place songs can. It's a noir story dressed up as a pop anthem: a sad-sack gets suckered by a femme fatale and then tells his story. It, too, is rooted in mystery. Craig Finn, a Minnesotan by way of Brooklyn, has the same spiraling vision of Memphis (and the South) as a place of promise and persecution. “We didn't go back to her place,” the narrator sings. “We went to some place where she cat-sits. She said, 'I know I look tired, but everything's fried here in Memphis.'” Like “Ode to Billie Joe,” we're never quite sure exactly what's going on—the story's being told later. Finn's Memphis is not that far off from Jarmusch's: Desperation rules the mood. His narrator's a visitor, as well. “I went there on business!” he pleads in the end.

I didn't come to the South on business. I came here with Airships and Big Bad Love tucked under my arm. I carried Tarantino with me. I knew every line. No one thinks about Tarantino as a Southern filmmaker, but he is. Born in Knoxville, his notion of storytelling is decisively Southern, even though most of the action happens far away from the American South. Scenes from Tarantino movies pop around me in the air like blossoms of blood. In Django Unchained, a “Southern” that rewrites history, we're at the dinner table with Calvin Candie for twenty-three tense minutes before the Peckinpah-like gore ballet that ends the film. In Tarantino's world, everything important happens while characters are dining. Plans are hatched. Lives unravel. Making and unmaking occur simultaneously. Mystery plunks down on us like a fat moon.