Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This article first appeared in Gravy #41, September 2011. 

True Grits: Pendarvis on Portis
by Jack Pendarvis 

Good fiction makes you hungry. If you can read Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain without craving a plate of chicken, you have no soul. But the king of the culinary allusion—and yes, I’m counting Proust—is the great comic novelist Charles Portis of Arkansas.

Portis looks serious here. But good lord, is he funny.

The most familiar foodstuffs in the work of Portis are those poor corn-dodgers victimized for drunken target practice in True Grit. But then there’s this foodways-friendly passage from Gringos:

He held up a floppy tortilla and said that corn didn’t have enough gluten in it to make a dough that would rise. Still, heavy or not, the flat bread it made was good, and yet no one seemed to know it outside Latin America and the southern United States. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, yams, chocolate, vanilla—all these wonderful things the Indians had given us. Whereas we Europeans had been here for over 500 years and had yet to domesticate a single food plant from wild stock. 

My wife’s favorite Portis quotation is from The Dog of the South, and coincidentally, it fits right in: “When she’s eating chocolate cake late at night, does she also drink sweet milk from a quart bottle till it runs from the corners of her mouth? ”

But for me, the pinnacle comes when the title character of Norwood chunks a sausage patty at his annoying brother-in-law through an open bathroom door. The ensuing slapstick* concludes with this handy rule-of-thumb: “I don’t think you could put anybody’s eye out with a sausage.”

Jack Pendarvis is the author of two collections of short stories and one novel. He is also a columnist for The Believer

*Editor’s Note: You want a little more of the ensuing slapstick, don’t you? All right, here it is: 

Norwood speared a sausage patty with his fork and gave it a hard flip through the bathroom doorway.

Hey!” said Bill Bird. “All right now!” He emerged from the steam in some green VA convalescent pants that were cinched up with a drawstring. Except for his tan shoes, that was all he had on. He was holding the sausage on his open palm, level, like a compass, and he was studying it. “Did you throw this, Norwood?”

“What is it, Bill?”

“You know what it is. It’s a sausage.”

“I wondered what that was,” said Norwood. “I saw a arm come in the back door there and chunk something acrost the room. I thought maybe there was a note on it.”

Now, of course, you want to read the rest of Norwood. First published in 1966, it’s available in paperback from Overlook Press, along with Portis’s four other novels.