2001 Lifetime Achievement Award: Marie Rudisill
Photo credit: The Tonight Show
You may know Marie Rudisill as the Fruitcake Lady from The Tonight Show. She first appeared onstage with Jay Leno in December of 2000, teaching Mel Gibson to cook. Marie, who had just written a book, Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook, was sassy. She was bawdy. She did and said things that only a nonagenarian can get away with. In 2001 she returned to Burbank to stuff a turkey with Hugh Grant. While the cameras rolled, she cupped Grant’s rear and, judging its curvature, called it – if my memory serves – “a nice little biscuit.”
Beginning in 2002, the native of Monroeville, Alabama, served as the show’s advice columnist. In a recurring segment, “Ask the Fruitcake Lady,” Marie — dressed in a severe back suit, her gray hair pinned in a bun, her talon-like fingernails lacquered red — addressed matters of fidelity, grooming, and bathroom etiquette. She is combative. She does not suffer fools. She uses decidedly unladylike words like “pecker” and “lazy son-of-a-bitch.”
Her performance was camp. But her outré Southern pedigree came honestly. Marie was the sister of Truman Capote’s late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk Persons Capote, who committed suicide in 1954. Capote called Marie “Aunt Tiny.” She helped raise him. And, like her nephew, who was a Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show favorite, she employed cathode rays to her advantage. But, as was the case with Capote, Marie was not, upon her passing, remembered by the demi monde for the flame and spittle and slur captured in television appearances. Nor was she remembered for the fruitcake book.
Marie Rudisill will be remembered as the author of a slim 1989 volume, Sook’s Cookbook: Memories and Traditional Recipes from the Deep South. Using plantation daybooks from the early 1800s as her primary sources, weaving in character studies of friends and neighbors and relatives from Monroeville, she wrote one of the best cookbooks to hit Southern shelves. It’s a portrait of place. It’s a portrait of people. It’s full of recipes for green olive jambalaya and watermelon rind preserves and poinsettia cake. And, sadly, it’s now out of print.
I love that book, but my recollections of Marie will be more personal. After I helped with a book deal negotiation, Marie phoned. She was, at the time, eighty-nine. And she was effusive in her thanks. “I’ll do anything for you,” Marie said, her tone raspy, her timbre bright. After a three beat pause, she added, “Except sex.” A hail of cackles followed. And soon after, a dial tone.
In 2000, the Southern Foodways Alliance celebrated her contributions by awarding her the Jack Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award. In November of 2006, Rudisill passed away.
– John T. Edge