A Taste of Pimento Prose

Edging as I am past middle-age, I take my Saturday nights slow and easy. Content to enjoy occasional dinners with friends, a bluegrass concert or a book, I prefer weekends to be relaxed and spontaneous, an approach that differs considerably from the more disciplined social routine of my parents.

In our long-ago household, Friday night meant dining out, often at the Masonic Lodge, where dinner was followed by music and dancing to a live band. Sunday night was set aside for television – the news program See It Now, then Disney and Kraft Television Theater

But if Friday and Sunday nights were for family, Saturday was reserved for my parents and their bridge club. The games rotated from home to home, with the first cards shuffled at 7:00 p.m.  The game ended at 10:00 p.m., or as soon after that as the last hand allowed. After scores were tallied and the winners declared, coffee and dessert were served. Then, the couples headed home to rescue their baby-sitters.

When my parents hosted the club, furniture in the living and dining rooms was pushed back to make room for card tables. Each table held playing cards, score cards, pencils and coasters. There weren’t any rule books. They weren’t needed. It wasn’t that the players were lax about the rules – quite the contrary. They knew them so well a rule book would have been redundant.

They were serious about their bridge, but not obsessive. Now and then they laughed about the duplicate players in town who never allowed eating or drinking during their games. In my folks’ circle, bridge night was munchie night. The corners of the tables held mixed nuts, peanuts, pretzels, and the ubiquitous Chex mix that was the gold standard of 1950’s snacking. 

Salty and crisp were the criteria – snacks needed to complement the drinks. During that era of hard liquor and a well-stocked bar, men drank beer during football games or after mowing the lawn, while champagnes and wines were reserved for special occasions. The bridge club drank Old Fashioneds, a Tom Collins or two, whiskey sours and Manhattans – serious drinks for serious players.

When the ladies played their weekly game on Thursday afternoons, there was less liquor and more chit-chat.  They nibbled on blanched peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins, tiny pastel mints and Jordan almonds. They sipped lemonade or iced tea, giggled a bit when they lost track of the score and, at the end of their game, indulged in piles of marvelous sandwiches.

Often, the bread was shaped with cutters into playing card symbols – clubs, hearts, diamonds and spades. Sometimes, the sandwiches were trimmed of their crusts and cut into triangles. In either case, they were the very essence of midwestern chic and, as with all sandwiches, it was the filling that counted. Cream cheese and olives, cream cheese mixed with chopped dates and pecans, cucumber slices with dill and thin-sliced ham spread with tangy horseradish – all of them were good, even by the standards of children who generally preferred peanut-butter-and-jelly.

Unfortunately, my mother and her friends missed the pleasure of one of the world’s best sandwiches – homemade pimento cheese on plain white bread. I encountered this staple of the American South only after moving to Texas. What they do in Alabama and Mississippi I can’t say, but in Texas, pimento cheese is perfectly acceptable for weddings, funerals, Saturday afternoon domino parties and lazy afternoons on the porch . You might serve a pickle with it, or add a little cayenne or jalapeno, or even doll it up with just a touch of garlic, but the rich, satisfying flavor always is enough to pin people next to the sandwich tray until it’s been emptied.

When I asked a Texas-born-and-bred woman why I never saw pimento cheese served on whole wheat, nine grain, or any of the artisan breads so popular today, she looked me over with bemused tolerance and said, “Why, darlin ‘, I don’t know. It’s just the way we do it. I don’t guess different bread would be wrong, if that’s what you want. After all, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.”

More often than we imagine, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.

In her book Annie Leibovitz at Work, the photographer tells the story of her first significant political assignment, recording the departure of Richard Nixon from the White House. On the morning after Nixon’s resignation, as he stood on the steps of the helicopter that was preparing to whisk him away, other White House pool photographers shot his “V” salute at the top of the steps and then began turning away.

Rather than focusing on the President boarding the helicopter, Leibovitz turned her attention to guards rolling up the red carpet as the helicopter lifted off, managing to capture the image before the helicopter was fully aloft. The combination of an absent Nixon, an unwieldy red carpet and the entirely human sight of US Army guards attempting to hold onto their hats in the rotor wash was what Leibovitz calls an “in between moment”, a bit of captured life that manages to add piquancy and flavor to the bigger events of the day.

Reviewers of Leibovitz’ work refer again and again to her knack for capturing this “life in the middle”.  “A lot can be told in those moments between the main moments,” she says,  Her photos of the carpet being rolled up after Nixon’s resignation, of people crowding around the murder site during O.J. Simpson’s trial or of Barack Obama waiting in the wings during a primary campaign appearance all are marked by unusual details and a remarkable sense of presence. This is where her news photos gain their power – in her ability to tell a story by fleshing out the oft-ignored middle.

Even in literature, where it’s a given that stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, the issue of the missing middle is real.   “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts,” said Charles Dickens. His words are no less true today.

Part of the fault lies with authors who depend on formulaic writing, who believe the public prefers “easy reads”, and who accept advice to “write down” to an increasingly poorly-schooled and non-critical audience. On the other hand, there also is evidence that people who primarily utilize texts, tweets, wall postings and status updates as forms of communication begin not only to neglect the disciplines basic to reading and writing, but also forget the pleasures that lie between a story’s beginning and its end.

While children still plead, “Tell me a story,” adults increasingly demand, “Just tell me what happened.”  We have so little patience, so little willingness to wait, to dawdle, to lie suspended in the stream of language and allow its flow to carry us where it will. Unless, as readers and writers, we regain the courage to re-enter that flow, we may be left with stories reduced to little more than, “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.”

Without a middle, without a good dollop of  tension, humor, ambiguity and drama spread between its beginning and its end,  a story remains dry and tasteless as a cracker sandwich. While we could survive on saltines encased in white bread – at least for a time – we wouldn’t enjoy it, and we certainly wouldn’t be well nourished.

The question, of course, is why anyone would choose such dry, tasteless fare when so much more has been set out on the table to enjoy. It’s well past time for readers to stop accepting cracker sandwiches and for all of us – however much or little we write – to get out the old recipes and stir up some pimento prose. After all, whether it’s a story or a sandwich, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.


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68 thoughts on “A Taste of Pimento Prose

  1. My, that pimento sandwich looks yummy. I like that…what’s in the middle that counts. Indeed. What I would love to see more of is thorough storytelling which has a beginning, thick middle, and an ending that can evolve into another story. Stories are about our lives,views, and world. I get tired of short stuff and Twitter quotes. They are fine in their place, yet where is the storytelling?

    Well, your wonderful storytelling got me to pondering about stories. Oh, my parents had Saturday card nights when I was growing up in the 1960s. What you described was very similar to what I experienced. I loved hanging around listening in to the adult talk and snatching cookies. If I kept quiet, I was allowed to stay. I learned to stay invisible even though at times someone would comment on my pajamas and all eyes from the cards would focus on little me. I’d smile and scoot away and soon was forgotten because card games were serious.

    More middle, indeed, in this age of blogs, Tweets, and Facebook, instead of Likes and quotes. Everyone is a storyteller and has stories to share. :)

    1. Anna,

      Before I forget, I wanted to tell you about this wonderful Leibovitz quotation I found yesterday. She says, “Sometimes I enjoy just photographing the surface because I think it can be as revealing as going to the heart of the matter.” I think she’d get quite a kick out of Surface and Surface photographing life’s surfaces!

      From what you say about your love of stories, I’m sure you’d enjoy the StoryCorps. Have you heard of them? It’s a national oral history project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, meant to encourage people to record and share their personal stories. There are links on the site you can follow to listen to some of the stories. How I wish I’d taken more time to listen to my grands and greats when I had the chance!

      And wasn’t it fun to “go invisible” and listen to the big people talk? We had a two story house, so I could creep down the stairs to the landing and sit there out of sight, listening. I can’t even count the number of times they found me curled up asleep, and carried me to bed.

      Even today, being able to “go invisible” is a good trait for a photographer or writer. Once we become just part of the landscape, there’s a lot to see and hear!

      Linda

  2. The thing is, Linda, if anyone could inspire me enough to get back to good writing it would be you. So please don’t stop doing what you do so well. Lead us on and don’t give up on us. Please.

    1. Ginnie,

      However well or poorly I do what I do here, you know the truth as well as I do – today’s creation always is only the current end of a long process.

      When I began this blog – nearly four years ago! – I intended to use it as a platform for learning to write. I had no idea what that meant. In fact, I suspected I might run out of things to say after a month.

      Well, that didn’t happen. But when I look at my first, awkward entries, it’s obvious I’ve learned a good bit. Now, there’s much more to learn and some boundaries to push, even when I’m tempted to give up on myself!

      I came across a very interesting entry yesterday that included this quotation from the artist, Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

      You know it as well as I do. The way to become a photographer is to take photographs. The way to become a writer is to write. But every photograph and every paragraph builds on what’s been done, in order to support what’s yet to come.

      Isn’t it fun?

      Linda

    1. Al,

      I’d not heard of “Pilgrimage”. Clearly, I need it on my shelf. As I read the review, I kept saying, “Yes, yes…”

      I read things there I’ve talked about here, not the least of which is the importance of deciding how best to use the time left to me. And when Leibovitz says, “Now when I take a picture, I can tell if I feel the pilgrimage in it”, I understand her perfectly. At least, I think I do, and that may be enough.

      Ironically, I’ve made my own pilgrimage to Abiquiu, to see O’Keeffe’s cliffs and her vistas. I brought home a piece of those red cliffs. Now, it roams around the house – doorstop, bookend, decorative reminder of a favorite artist.

      Thanks for the marvelous links!

      Linda

  3. I teach creative writing at the local high school for the continuing education program and I plan on sharing this particular post with both my Writing The Short Story class and Creative Writing Group. Thanks for an inspiring reminder that the heart of the story is what makes narrative interesting.

    1. Jennifer,

      I’m pleased and honored that you’ll be sharing the piece with your students. I do hope they enjoy it.

      You may find this added detail of interest. The genesis of this piece took place about two years ago. I was chatting with a blog friend in her comment section, and mentioned the “lack of a middle”. I began thinking about it, came up with the title “A Story Sandwich”, and tucked that into my files. It’s languished there all this time. Every now and then I’d pull it out, look at it and put it back on the shelf. Finally, the time was right. I changed the title, and away I went.

      It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned – save the scraps! They’ll be useful for something, someday.

      Linda

  4. Absolutely marvelous! Just like pimento cheese! It was a staple at our larger family Christmas Eve gatherings, where we got to see our out-of-town cousins annually. It was spread, hold on to your hat, on little party rye slices topped with a green olive slice. My good friend, Mrs. Marilyn, makes the best ever pimento cheese–with cream cheese and grated cheddar. Mmmmmm good!

    1. Bayou Woman,

      Cheddar AND cream cheese? I can hear my arteries screaming right now – I’ll bet that’s good stuff. Some of the recipes I’ve seen call for Duke’s mayonnaise, but I think that’s a deep south product. I’ve not seen it on the shelves over here.

      We had the cocktail rye, too, but I can’t remember what it was used for. Not pimento cheese, for sure. Whatever it was, I must not have liked it, or I’d remember it.

      I hope we don’t end up having to make itty-bitty chicken sandwiches from your noisy rooster. Tell that boy once he has a name he has to straighten up and fly right – no more of this 24/7 crowing business!

      Linda

  5. I think even when they are reading fairly short pieces of journalism people have extremely short attention spans. This, I am pretty sure, is dangerous to the future of our democratic republic.

    (My parents and their friends had square dance parties. When it was our turn, we’d clear the dining room. I would fall asleep on the upstairs heat register, watching the skirts swirl out in pretty patterns, listening to the stamping feet and the twang of the music.)

    1. Gerry,

      I suspect there’s a reciprocal relationship. The attention span shortens, and the writers or speechifiers don’t try quite so hard. Or, the reader or listener finds nothing compelling, and tunes out.
      I’m always astonished when I read things like the Gettysburg address – or even the social notes in a c.1900 newspaper. The spare elegance of the prose can be mesmerizing.

      Speaking of mesmerizing, this isn’t square dancing, but if the steps are different, I suspect the spirit’s much the same. I just watched it again, twice – and I’m smiling as much as I did the first time.

      Linda

  6. There were no regular entertainments when I was growing up; shortly after the war our household was poor and my parents had few friends. Politics was what kept the family together, raving and ranting was the main course at every visit (perhaps that’s where I got my love of argument). Even so, sandwiches, of the non-frilly variety, were meant to be well-filled. My aunt Katy told me numberless times to “put something in it, one bit of cheese/cold meat will never keep body and soul together”.

    I agree with you about any kind of writing needing a good middle, but twits and suchlike have no beginning or end either. I don’t use them, blogging is speedy enough for me.

    That’s not to say that I need my books ‘to start at the beginning, run through the story and end at the end’. I can cope with slightly more demanding texts. And if it’s all middle apart from a short introduction, then that’s fine with me too.

    Your essays are textbook models of the genre and what I find even more exciting, is that your grammar is faultless and that you can spell! As a non-native English speaker I learned the language by studying it which means that I notice grammatical and spelling errors with a jolt. Besides, words have been my trade and I love language.

    PS: US spelling v English English spelling I can take and I wouldn’t dream of complaining)

    PPS: thanks for an idea: I shall cut my tea party sandwiches in future with a cookie cutter, I have round ones and animal shapes and christmas tree shapes; up to now I’ve only ever cut out triangles)

    1. friko,

      I played your aunt Katy to my mother innumerable times. Perhaps because her family grew up equally poor, her idea of a sandwich was one slice of cheese or meat. I’d have to sneak extra slices on while she wasn’t looking. Then, she’d have a couple of bites and murmur, “I think you’re right. It is a bit better with a little more filling…”

      Because I focused on the “middle” here, I left unsaid some things you point out. A strictly chronological sequence isn’t necessary for a good story – the “beginning” may not show up until the middle of a book, and the “end” may come first. Still, all the elements need to be there.

      One of my favorite reads is Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet”. Each of the four volumes tells essentially the same story, though from a slightly different point in time and through the perspective of a different character. Speaking through his narrator, the writer Darley, Durrell tells the tale “as though with a series of sliding panels”, creating as complex, tightly-woven and beautifully detailed a “middle” as you could want.

      But here’s the wonderful thing. After four volumes of writerly confusion and angst, Darley produces a penultimate paragraph for the series which is simple, striking and just slightly humorous:

      “One day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of his fellow-men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: ‘Once upon a time…’ And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!”

      So – now you see my small personal joke with my last illustration!

      I do strive for perfection when it comes to spelling, grammar and such, but I’m not too proud to use dictionaries and I don’t take offense when someone points out errors that I’ve missed. I’ll say this – my admiration for editors and fact-checkers has grown considerably!

      One kitchen note: if you do use cutters, the metal ones seem best. Plastic ones have a thicker edge that tends to smash the bread.

      Linda

  7. Here’s my admittedly distant connection to Annie Leibovitz (beyond the fact that we’re both photographers): she ended up having as her domestic partner Susan Sontag (another S.S.), who was my humanities teacher one semester at Columbia in around 1965.

    1. Steve,

      i’ve been trying to get my mind around what it might have been like to have Sontag as a teacher. I was aware of her at the time (who wasn’t?) but as time went on, her views seemed less and less relevant to any reality I lived in.

      I made a quick run through the wiki, especially the section concerned with “On Photography” – she certainly had some interesting convictions about the deeper meanings of quite ordinary behaviors, e.g., vacationing Americans and their picture-taking.

      Ah – the wondrous ability of the academic to engage in complexification!

      Linda

  8. You wrote: “…there also is evidence that people who primarily utilize texts, tweets, wall postings and status updates as forms of communication begin not only to neglect the disciplines basic to reading and writing, but also forget the pleasures that lie between a story’s beginning and its end.”

    You already know that I’m in sympathy there. One of my greatest frustrations over the past four decades has been to watch helplessly as our school system allows students—almost encourages them—not to learn very much yet still get passed along from grade to grade and handed a meaningless diploma at the end.

    1. Steve,

      Teaching to the test and social promotion are two primary cancers eating away at our school systems. Even worse is the apparent desire of some to have schools supplant parents by babysitting, feeding, and providing health care without accountability. There’s not much time left for education after all of that.

      On the other hand, there may be signs of hope in the greater society. I just popped over to Twitter and did a search using the phrase, “proper grammar”. This made me smile:

      “Want to conversate with a young lady who talks & write/text in proper grammar. I’m tired of these kindergarten spelling females.”

      So, there!

      Linda

      1. I’m sorry to say that I’ve grown old enough for social promotion to have existed now for most of my life, and it occurs to me that the large majority of people alive in our country today have never known a school system in which social promotion hasn’t been a fact of life. Even dumb kids are smart enough to realize that if they’re going to get passed along anyhow, there’s no need to do much work.

        I hear a lot about teaching to the test, but I’m ambivalent. If arithmetic is on the test and the teacher teaches arithmetic, why would that be improper or undesirable? There must be more to “teaching to the test” than I’m aware of. In any case, this controversy has been going on for so long that many people have no idea why standardized testing came to be imposed in the first place: it’s because so many teachers were doing their own thing that a lot of students weren’t getting taught the basics anymore. Unfortunately school systems have become as adept at circumventing the consequences of the tests as students have become at avoiding learning, with the result that students still aren’t required to learn the basics.

        1. Here’s how far we’ve come. When I was in school, we took the Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED). I believe it was one of the first. The focus was on the student. When test scores came in, our teachers met with us and our parents after school or in the evening to go over the results and make recommendations. I do remember that arithmetic flashcards came into my life as a result of the ITED, and I also remember that a whole week was set aside for the conferences, which could last as long as an hour.

          Then, in 1959, Wisconsin passed the first collective bargaining law for public employees. The NEA became a labor union rather than a professional organization. Eventually, the unionization of teachers became widespread and students’ performance on the tests became linked to teachers’ salaries and promotion. There you have it. The world of teachers hired directly by local school boards and accountable only to the community in which they taught was over.

          I admire all of the teachers I know. I’m in awe of some. I hear about others, who aren’t so admirable, and I have no time whatsoever for the machinations of the union in the Houston district. But now I’m edging toward rant, so I’ll let it be.

  9. Perhaps I should know this, but I’ll say it anyway: we must be of the same generation. All these things you write about, I recognize and remember. Ah, pimiento cheese–can it be found anywhere today? I applaud the great middle you create from that simple pleasure.

      1. Great article, Al. And you’re right – it is a cultural icon.

        I smiled to see the mention of the old-fashioned meat grinder. I have my mother’s and use it regularly for ham salad, pimento cheese, homemade cranberry relish and such.

        One humorous side note: in the process of writing this post on Sunday, I finally had to get up, head to the grocery, fetch the ingredients and whip up a nice batch of pimento cheese. Never doubt the suggestive power of the written word!

    1. Susan,

      Oh, there’s no question we’re rooted in the same time. I’m 65 – born in ’46, graduated from high school in ’64. I mentioned to a young friend this week that I was alive “the day the music died”, and she looked at me like I’d suddenly sprouted two heads. I decided not to mention watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or that whole American Bandstand thing.

      As Al mentions below, pimento cheese is best made at home. You can find it in supermarkets – ours sells the Price brand. But it is slimy and utterly unappealing to anyone who’s had the real thing. Here’s a great basic recipe. I use yellow and white cheddar, add a little of the pimento juice and usually eliminate the cayenne pepper – or cut it back a good bit. If I want a little spice, I add fresh jalapeno instead.

      The recipe in the article Al linked is pretty much the same, but spare me the pickle in the mix. I’ll take mine on the side.

      Linda

      1. Bookmarked! (63 here, BTW.) About the sprouting of two heads–oh, yes, I remember the first time I got that look at a musical reference (I think it was to the Beach Boys . .). Now, as I swim in the lovely new music waters, I’m constantly getting looks, but from the converse perspective. Just yesterday I said, “Now, who are the Nationals?” Response: “You mean you don’t know the Dessner twins?” (Now I do. They’re great guitarists, as it happens.)

  10. I would venture to say, based on following you seem to have, that there are many of us who believe it is “what’s in the middle that counts.” Your writing inspires and informs and I love it. I once read a critic’s comments about a book I was reading, and loving, who said: “Why doesn’t the [author] just shut up about the surroundings and get on with the story.” The surroundings were integral the story. He was commenting on “The Lord of the Rings.” The author Tolken.

    Why do we have to have just the facts and no delicious filling indeed! As a retired educator I get irritated at all the books on the market that are no more than glorified comic stories. Nothing against illustrations, but where is your “…scope for the imagination?” I guess I am turning into a curmudgeon in my old age as well, because I am tired of periods between your words for emphasis. What? You forgot how to write in whole sentences with good punctuation and words larger than three and four letters?

    Yes, the future of literature as we knew is looking a bit thin, and certainly bereft of interest for this reader. Hence, my enjoyment of your weekly installments. ~ Lynda

    1. Lynda,

      One of the biggest “problems”, I suspect, is time. This is another way of saying many of us prefer to make difficult choices. Many of my earliest memories are of being read to before bed by my mother or dad. It was a far cry from being allowed an extra half-hour with Angry Birds, but they made time for the ritual. They thought it was important.

      Beyond that, parents and teachers were determined that my friends and I would become comfortable with literature. Of course we had comic books and such, but when my mother read to me, she read whatever was around. If it was the latest issue of Look magazine, that was fine. If it was Shakespeare, that was ok, too.

      In school, through at least 5th grade, we had a reading hour every day – 50 minutes when we learned to sit still and listen. I remember my 4th grade teacher reading the entire “Little House” series to us. I also remember Walden pond popping up in our reading hour, and the Brontes. And we memorized poetry. Much of it’s gone now, but it doesn’t take much revive the memory.

      We didn’t just read, of course. We wrote, and spelling and grammar counted. We had vocabulary quizzes, and we diagrammed sentences. In junior high, we were required to take two years of Latin – all of this in a standard-issue public school. As it turned out, one of the best Latin students in school turned out to be one of our “thugs”. He thought Julius Caesar and the Gallic Wars were cool.

      Of course there are parents who continue these traditions, and schools that do their best with kids who confuse Lil’ Wayne with William Shakespeare. In the meantime, the blogs have given many of us a place to reclaim and share our love of reading and writing – it’s almost as much fun as 4th grade reading hour!

      Linda

      1. We must be of the same vintage. I remember all of what you refer to. I tried to get my students to memorize verses and learn to love the oral stories. I’d say it was an 80 to 90 % success. It wasn’t required in my prescribed curriculum, but I did it anyway because after the first month of exposure they wanted it. I enjoyed hooking them into the story and then seeing their illustrations and writing after each session.

        One book in particular I didn’t think was going to make it, because the little boys in the class weren’t buying into the fact that the main character was a very fancy china bunny doll, with a wonderful wardrobe to go with… then when sailing with the little girl and her mother across the ocean, he fell into the water and sank to the bottom. Suddenly all the line drawings which had previously lacked any real detail, and were almost exclusively drawn in pencil or black crayon, bloomed! I was so excited with the results in their comprehension, and their desire to write, that I kept the book and used it for several years. I never allowed even a peek at the limited, albeit exquisite illustrations, until we had finished the last chapter. Interestingly, many of their illustrations were similar to the book in many details.

        The book? The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DeCamillo. I am retired, but I kept that book.
        ~ L

        1. Lynda,

          It’s not surprising that I’ve not heard of the book, but it’s another I’ll take a look at. I really like the title – it’s got a nice rhythm to it. Another children’s book I met as an adult and loved was “The Velveteen Rabbit” – those bunnies do a good job of communicating wonder and truth, don’t they?

          It’s no wonder the drawings bloomed – I can see Edward at the bottom right now – although your students probably did a better job of illustrating the story than I could.

          Linda

  11. My parents played bridge with my aunt & uncle every Saturday night for YEARS. I really wish I had taped some of those sessions – there was a lot of kicking under the table & fussing & outright discussions about what so & so should bid. You could say that their rules were “flexible.”

    That same aunt makes the best pimento cheese – I really should make a request of it (& her banana pudding) the next time I’m in NC :)

    I LOVE a good meaty book! There’s a place for the fluffy stuff, if my brain feels too full for a heavy load, but then I have to go back to something with substance. Of course, for me that means a mystery of some kind, and occasionally a “real” novel (like The Book Thief). Right now I’m reading my way through a series by Kate Wilhelm – the Barbara Holloway books. She’s a defense attorney in Eugene, Washington. I really enjoy getting inside her head & staying a while. Makes me feel really special when “we” solve a case – ha!

    1. Bug,

      The weekly bridge game was such an institution. Now that I think of it, none of the family played. It was something for my parents and their friends. I learned the game eventually – in a math class my freshman year in college. There were five hundred of us in the class, with the instructor on a tv set up front and a couple of grad assistants keeping an eye on things. The last four rows of my room were the bridge tutorial.

      I love that you mention the “we” of the detective series. That’s what a good book does – pulls us in, creates a world and lets us live there for a while.My resolution for the new year was to do more reading. I’m finally getting into the rhythm, and enjoying it immensely.

      Did you really have to mention banana pudding? That’s another of those southern classics that puts midwestern cooking to shame. When I got my first taste of a friend’s creation here in Texas, I just didn’t know what to do, except have a second helping!

      Linda

  12. I’m still sneaking down the stairway and picking up bits of the “Adult’s Conversation” around here but every now and then I get to deliver trays of treat sandwiches with the crusts snipped off – and I loved those crusts.

    My early “Adults” were into arguing some strange things: Communism versus Capitalism or Is Nothing Something? The last one had my Dad and Uncle shouting at each other in the living room till my mother brought in the garden hose.

    Quite often some of the group of regulars would bring musical instruments and set up in that room. Nobody noticed me snoozing in a nook by the couch (that’s where the heat register was as well) as the old Ballads and Waltzes drowned out the arguments. “Good food, good wine and good company; what more can one ask for?” (That is my best recollection of one of my few lines in the one stage play, a farce called “Three Philosophers and an Ass” I acted in.)

    1. Ken,

      The “trimmings” always are good. Bread crusts, the crisp edge of brownies that gets cut away before serving, the first bits of turkey that are too small of a nice slice – all of them were wonderful, at least in part because we didn’t get yelled at for eating them.

      That garden hose is one of the stranger stories I’ve heard recently. It got me thinking about arguments around our house. I can’t remember one. Of course there were disagreements, but real arguments, with shouting and such? Either they went on when the kids weren’t around, or they just didn’t happen. Maybe some of those times when mom went to visit the neighbor or dad disappeared behind his newspaper were their way of coping.

      Your quotation reminds me of the old table grace that never was allowed at Grandma’s but sometimes popped up at home: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat”. My Baptist friends were envious – sometimes the blessings said at their tables had so much “middle” to them the food was cold by the time they got to it.

      Linda

  13. Too many folks these days don’t bother with middles; those are where the thinkin’ takes place. Much easier to turn on the TV where, before the story is told, an analyst will preview what will be said, then at the end, another one will explain what took place and what it meant. No thinkin’ required, but of course, no substance either.

    1. montucky,

      Isn’t that just the truth? And how ironic that the one place where people really pay attention is the Superbowl! Despite all the pre-game and post-game analysis, folks still watch the game itself, and form their own opinions about the quality of play-calling, player performance and so on. If only we could tranform that dynamic to other arenas.

      Of course, some would argue (perhaps with some justification) that the Superbowl’s interesting precisely you don’t know what’s going to happen – the very essence of story!

      Linda

  14. You introduced me to aspects of American life I had no clue about. Wow. Not only the bridge games and culture, but the drinks, the snacks, and then those pimento sandwiches. So yummy looking.

    Your point is very well taken, that we have learned to speed up our lives to the point of missing the middle. I suppose it’s about not living in the moment, “living to Friday” as someone put it. How many people live for the weekend, for instance, believing that their world of work is just the stuffing that we’d rather not partake of?

    I so enjoy your posts with reminiscent photographs. Just brilliant. And the Leibovitz anecdotes also make me think of what is outside the frame of photos, especially those that are shot with models.

    1. Ruth,

      Isn’t it funny, the differences between parts of the country and family cultures? So often I write about something that seems to me common as air, and the next thing I know, someone is saying, “I never knew…”, just as I did when I discovered the Louisiana bonfires.

      I thought about the “missing middle” when I took my mother’s ashes to Iowa for burial. Looking at the stone with its dates, 1912-1981 for Dad, 1918-2011 for Mom, I couldn’t help but think, “What about 1936? 1957? 1977?” Birth and death dates are only the parentheses, the embrace of time’s arms around all the years between.

      Your comment about what lies beyond the frame makes me smile. I know a photographer or two who are very proud of never cropping their photos. The truth is they crop as soon as they choose one view over another. It’s not wrong, it’s inevitable.

      Linda

  15. Oh I love this, Linda! “in-between moments”…” It’s what’s inside a sandwich that makes it delicious.

    Your post spells out some important writing tips. That’s why the little people count in the torrents of history, the lives lived, the moments tasted. I’m in the midst of a writer’s block regarding my project, and this is exactly what I’m struggling with, putting in the middle parts… you see, I’ve got the beginning and the climax all figured out, except the middle. O the joy of creating. Thanks for this.

    Also, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your capturing of the 50’s experience, which, if you’re to write a screenplay, would make some great middle moments.

    1. Arti,

      I’ll make a deal with you, right here. If you’re working on a screenplay and need a ’50s advisor, I’ll do my best. But the odds of my ever wanting to write a screenplay – let alone actually do it – are less than the odds of me ever looking around and saying, “Well, now that I’m all caught up with everything, what should I do next?”

      Talking about the middle, and the “middle moments”, is another way of approaching one of my favorite bits of writing advice – Chekov’s “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” It’s the details that count – and not just the piling up of them, but the selection of the ones that help to set the scene, aid our understanding of a character and advance the story.

      I can just hear it now – “But you’ve never even written a real story!” And that’s true. But one thing’s certain – when I finally get started with it, I’m going to have a much better idea what to do than I would have had two or three years ago!

      As to the joy of creating, you know how much I enjoy Annie Dillard’s perspective. As she says, “It is no less difficult to write a sentence in a recipe than sentences in Moby Dick. So you might as well write Moby Dick.” ;)

      Linda

    1. Claudia,

      I looked at the link first last night, and was pretty much undone for the rest of the evening. It’s wonderful. Thank you. Here’s one of the things I did while I was messing around instead of responding to comments. ;)

      Linda

  16. I really enjoyed this post! So true its what in the middle that counts! I think though that attention spans are decreasing so much that many people are forgetting the pleasures of a well told, substantial story.

    1. Juliet,

      I’ve been thinking about other arenas where shortened attention spans can have an adverse effect. One that hadn’t occurred to me until I saw your name is dear to your heart – bird-watching! It would be fun to know the reading habits of avid bird-watchers – I’ll bet their attention spans would be long enough for a whole lot of middle!

      Linda

  17. My mother-in-law taught us to include pimento cheese on the grocery list. It’s economical and rounds out lunch or a Sunday evening supper nicely. Although it’s cold now and soup is constantly on the stove for lunch, my husband and I enjoy pimento cheese on crackers or spread on triangles…four delicious ones from two slices of bread.

    I love your reminding us about the club/spade/diamond/heart shapes! My parents were on the bridge circuit. We loved it when it was their turn to host as that meant we could “snitch” some snacks before or find some waiting for us Sunday morning. The morning after rounds of bridge at their friend’s house, we loved finding out what their prizes were…Dad always won the main prize and Mom came home with the “booby” prize. She was no dunce; I suspect her heart was not in the game.

    Your title is simply wonderful! You certainly make me think. I write so many vignettes, it’s about time I abandon the shapes and get on with fleshing out the “flesh”/ “carne y hueso” they call it in Spanish. Thank you for another great post.

    1. Georgette,

      I’m so glad you like the title. I love titles, and think about them a good bit. Now and then one appears out of nowhere, and then it has to sit in my files until I figure out what to do with it. I suppose it’s an analogue to the fiction writer’s experience of having a character show up and say, “Write me”.

      Your mention of “flesh/carne y hueso” reminds me that if you haven’t stopped by Steve Schwartzman’s Spanish-English Word Connections, I think you’d enjoy it.

      I just was thinking today – the only time I remember the usual shapes for the little sandwiches varying was Valentine’s Day or its season, when Mom would use the heart-shaped cutters. Sometimes she’d tint the cream cheese a light pink and add strawberries and pecans – those sandwiches were like grace notes in the chorus of life.

      Aren’t the memories wonderful? And it amazes me how many are held in common. Sometimes I think we need to ponder just a bit more what memories we’re leaving for the next generation.

      Linda

  18. i agree. even when i recount a brief conversation, i give all the details as they occurred instead of skipping to the end. a few family members find it irritating:-), but in my opinion it’s always best to have events laid out in sequence. (btw, my mother was a pimento cheese person and has always lived in the north. strange how certain foods become popular in an area)

    1. maggie,

      I have a dear southern friend who’d never heard of crabapple jelly, or of rhubarb. How that could be, I don’t know, but there you are. On the other hand, we didn’t have any more of a clue about grits than we did about pimento cheese. I still can’t cozy up to the grits, but I try now and then.

      I wonder if those long conversations aren’t time-related, too. When you’re just sitting on the porch of an evening, talking over the day, there’s plenty of time to savor the details and maybe even embroider just a bit. And in the kitchens, snapping beans or doing dishes – that was conversation time. Convenience vs. conversation – frozen veggies and dishwashers aren’t always “all that”.

      Linda

  19. First of all, I love it when you take us back into your childhood or anywhere into the past. My mother was a bridgie — sometimes Dad, too, but not so regularly. But mom? Every week! A joyful nostalgia! And that spread with the walnuts — still great on a bagel!

    But what I really love about this post is how you take these seemingly unrelated topics and weave them together in such a divine way. Why is it we listen raptly to Garrison Keillor tell the news from Lake Wobegon, but not to someone in front of us tell the story? You bring up a tremendous point. I’m a detail person — and sometimes, that doesn’t work. (Of course, presentation has much to do with it!) I love how Annie’s photo made the story more real. I’d never seen that image — and it is so rich.

    Well, I’m taken back in time, and as I often do when I leave your page, will continue the thoughts! Lovely. Again!

    1. jeanie,

      You know I love the words Faulkner put into Gavin Steven’s mouth in “Requiem for a Nun” – “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
      But there’s another bit of Faulker that seems to me to apply, his contention that “time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

      Storytelling stops the clock, and the best, like Keillor, move us into another time, a different place. I used to listen to tapes of the Lake Woebegon series when I was driving, but I had to stop. I would get so caught up in the story I wouldn’t pay attention to the road!

      One thing I enjoy about Leibovitz’ photo is that it’s such a reminder of the power of perspective. How many times have we been at the table with people – family, maybe – and someone starts telling a story. It’s not long until someone pops up and says, “It wasn’t like that at all. What really happened is…” And around and around we go. If six people witness an event and tell the story later, there will be at least twelve versions! That’s one reason William Zinsser’s great book about memoir is called “Inventing the Truth”. He probably knew Faulker’s other great line: “Fact and truth really don’t have much to do with one another.”

      Linda

  20. There’s a lot in this post to digest, Linda. All I can say for the moment is that your writing is like a good homemade pimento cheese sandwich… and I shall take it on trust from you that these have a really delightful filling!

    1. Andrew,

      The filling is great – although these days I prefer it on something other than standard-issue grocery store white bread. A nice rustic French or Italian white? That’s something else – or a nice whole-grain, too.

      I must say – many of your photos have the same piquancy as Leibovitz’. There are some that have been just great – especially the ones in the art museums, and that series at the communal garden.I still smile when I remember the one of the fellow with the red sweater over his shoulder, checking out the details in another photo! Good stuff(ing).

      Linda

  21. Hi Linda,
    Well just left a long post but it disappeared. Anyway, I loved your story. You have lots of delightful “middles” in your stories and I never want to rush thru any of them.

    And growing up in NE Arkansas and Memphis, Tenn. We had Pimento Cheese sandwiches also. Always on white bread! I did not know there was any other kind of “light bread” LOL until I moved to SE Fla!

    Thanks for a great story!
    Patti

    1. Patti,

      Don’t feel bad – Bug had some problems, too, and I “lost” two of my comments here today. WordPress is fiddling around with some changes, and I suspect that’s the cause.

      Wouldn’t we have a grand time if we ever got together? You’re a natural-born story-teller, too, especially when it comes to your growing-up years and your adventures with the kids. Maybe we’ll finally connect in Arkansas – I have a cousin who’s moving there for a new job and there’s no question I’ll get up there to see him.

      Lots of folks make fun of Wonder Bread and such now, but it was a complete “wonder” back in the day. My favorite memory is the Omar Man – Omar bakeries had trucks that drove around, delivering cupcakes, bread and such to homes just like the milkman. You could flag him down and buy a cupcake for a nickel – a far cry from the $2.75 cupcakes they sell down the street from me!

      Linda

  22. Where does one begin. I remember pimento cheese sandwiches, but never ate them. Disgusting. At least from a child’s perspective. I stuck with PB&J. No card parties at our house. Mom played bridge but never at home. Stepfather was too often drunk, I think.

    Speaking of Liebowitz and perspective. I recently had an experience that was traumatizing, but when I related it back to the person handing me the trauma they had a completely different version, which was almost as traumatizing. As for the Super Bowl comment. I love the story, the drama and the pathos. I see no middle…it’s just one continual story. Like life that has no middle, except middle-age, which you began this post with, but really, we never know what is the middle.

    1. Martha,

      Your remark about not knowing where the “middle” is reminded me of an off-handed comment made by another reader about today’s texters. She pointed out with great good humor that “M” is in fact the middle of “OMG”. So, I suppose we can take comfort in that.

      I don’t know what I would have thought of pimento cheese as a child. Perhaps I would have joined you in tucking it over into the “disgusting” category. As far as I was concerned, Brussels sprouts certainly belonged there, and stewed prunes. If I really threw a fit and a substitute could be found, that was fine with my folks. We had our battles, but they weren’t about food.

      Thinking about those other battles, I remember Tolstoy’s line to the effect that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The only quibble I’d have with that is that every family’s a mix of happy and unhappy, at different times and under different circumstances. Or so it seems to me.

      Isn’t it amazing how differently people experience the same event? Words, too. My sense of humor can be a little – wacky. I have to keep my internal editor well-fed and rested!

      Linda

  23. I’m finally back to try again.

    I love pimento cheese sandwiches. You are correct in that they can be found on a platter at any gathering, special occasion or not.

    I had done a blog about pimento cheese a while back on WU. I did a quick browse through my archive during lunch one day at work last week. I have no idea when it was, so must keep looking. If I can find it, I’ll let you know. I had some links to good variations of the recipe.

    What’s in the middle truly is what is important, whether it be a sandwich or a book. I’ve found some great books over the years inside uninspiring covers. Either old and falling apart or lousy illustrations on the dust covers.

    THIS time, I’m copying before I hit post.

    1. Gué,

      I don’t know if you saw my note to Patti, above. I think WP has been engaged in a little site tweaking – I’ve had some comments not post/disappear, too. It seems to have solved itself now.

      I don’t remember seeing you post about the sandwich spread of the gods, but I did do a bit of a search and discovered the Aged Rellie sent you home with some of the homemade variety on March 26, 2006. And, you made some on February 1, 2008, to take to your cousin’s. Gotta love google! If you ever find the recipes, I’ll be pleased to give them a try.

      You’re absolutely right – you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some of the worst reading I’ve ever done was the result of a really enticing cover on a sale table – cracker sandwiches extraordinaire. And like you, I’ve found some real treasures that looked dry, dusty and boring on the outside, but were pretty tasty once I got into them.

      Linda

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