The Life of One of the South’s Greatest Folklorists

AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez

I don’t know how many times a spiral-bound cookbook has made The New York Times Best Seller list, but in 1986, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s independently published White Trash Cooking did. The book gathered more than recipes. It contained Mickler’s stark, artful photographs, collected folklore and functioned as a document of a vanishing backcountry Florida. To some it seemed a novelty. To people who grew up in the Southern backcountry, it was a respectful record of life, and it validated their existence. Ernie distinguished uppercase “White Trash” from lowercase “white trash,” saying that, “Manners and pride separate the two,” yet his book title unnerved commercial publishers.

For The Bitter Southerner, Michael Adno travels Mickler’s Florida, talking with Mickler’s friends and family, to celebrate the man who embraced his roots and earned his MFA from Mill’s College in California, a man whose photos drew comparisons to Eggleston or Christenberry, whose tireless documentary work impressed Harper Lee, and who died from AIDS the day after his second book came out. His books are not novelties. They are rich cultural documents that still know how to have fun.

“Kit asked as a favor for us to look at a cookbook a young ‘caterer’ he knew in Key West had written,” Meyer said. “Kit sent the typescript, which sat on the desk for a couple months. Jonathan asked me to look it over before he returned it, assuming it wasn’t anything our press would be interested in. I sat down, read it, and told Jonathan, ‘This is fantastic — all the way through, the recipes, the presentation, the voice.’” And he added, “‘WTC’ was the only manuscript I recommended Jonathan publish I’m proud to say. The rest is history.”

Jargon’s Williams called the Oasis guesthouse where Ernie worked. Ernie was staying down the block, and when word reached him, he ran over like a bat out of hell to take the call. Phone to his ear, Ernie listened: “My name is Jonathan Williams with Jargon. Joe gave me your book, and we want to print it.” As Ernie recalled, “I almost fell off the end of the telephone.”

After Jargon took the book on, they began raising the money to print the thing. But more than a year later, Woolcott grew frustrated with Jargon’s glacial process, so he bought two tickets to Winston-Salem to crash the publisher’s next board meeting. Mickler and Woolcott arrived as Jargon was hosting an art opening. Ernie felt out of place among the art snobs. But soon enough, someone screamed at Ernie, “I’ve seen you in drag!” And in a moment, the purported pretension fell away.

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