The Short & Brilliant Life of Ernest Matthew Mickler

In the 1980s, some folks wrote off Ernie Mickler, author of “White Trash Cooking,” as a yayhoo curiosity. Others thought him one of the most brilliant Southern folklorists and photographers of the 20th century. But perhaps most importantly, Mickler left behind a testament to the fact that all Southerners — even those at the margins — have a right to claim their roots.

By Michael Adno for The Bitter Southerner (Available online here)

In spring of 1986, Ernest “Ernie” Matthew Mickler’s “White Trash Cooking” landed on bookshelves across America — a 160-page, spiral-bound anthology of Southern recipes, stories, and photographs.

Oddly enough, damned near everyone loved it. It was immediately revered by literary snobs, Southern aristocrats, Yankees, folklorists, down-home folk, and people on either side of the Mason-Dixon.

The book stirred a firestorm of publicity — partly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek — landing Ernie on “Late Night With David Letterman” and National Public Radio, in magazines like Vogue and People, and in a litany of newspapers. In The New York Times, critic Bryan Miller deemed “White Trash Cooking” the “most intriguing book of the 1986 spring cookbook season.” Even the grand dame of Southern literature, Harper Lee, claimed she had “never seen a sociological document of such beauty — the photographs alone are shattering.” She called the book “a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage.”

“White Trash Cooking” was a staple on The New York Times Best Seller list for weeks as a gift for Southern kin, an eloquent medley of camp and honesty. It was Ernie’s reclamation of the South, as he knew it. And he knew it from a distinctly rural view. Ernie was born on August 23, 1940, in Palm Valley, Florida. Today, the TPC Sawgrass golf resort crowds Palm Valley from the north, but in Ernie’s youth, it was a backwoods haunt on a thumb of land along the Atlantic, about 10 miles south of Jacksonville Beach.

In “White Trash Cooking,” Ernie provided a thorough account of recipes and conventions many grew up with, some had forgotten, and others couldn’t imagine. Broiled Squirrel. Betty Sue's Sister-in-Law's Fried Eggplant. He built a simultaneously endearing and tempestuous catalog of archetypes — vestiges of the South, sets of beliefs and traditions that would otherwise dissolve into lore. Cool Whip, once prosaic, became profound in Ernie’s books.

No more than a month after “White Trash Cooking” hit bookstores, its original publisher, The Jargon Society, decided it couldn’t meet the demand and sold the rights to Ten Speed Press for $90,000 and a 15-percent royalties clause. Jargon had received 30,000 orders; it had printed only 5,000 copies. Ernie’s dear friend Calvin “Cal” Yeomans once said the publication of “White Trash Cooking” was “one fuck-up after another.”

Two years later, Ernie published a second book, “Sinkin’ Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins.” It followed the first’s form, but went further. Its sections and stories were built around certain gatherings he grew up with in North Florida: hog-killings, cemetery cleanings, wakes. Ernie put the recipes in those contexts and colored them with prose that edged toward writers like Padgett Powell or Zora Neale Hurston in its ability to pin down regional dialect. Ernie himself said he was good at “writing cracker.” And, as in the first book, you could easily mistake Ernie’s photographs for William Eggleston’s or William Christenberry’s.

It’s safe to call “Sinkin’ Spells” a more mature, carefully crafted project — more idiosyncratic, regionally specific, and intimate. It was bound to do well after the warm reception of “White Trash Cooking.”

On November 14, 1988, “Sinkin’ Spells” arrived at bookstores across the country. The following day, as readers dove in, Ernie died at his home in Moccasin Branch, Florida, of AIDS. He was 48.

Read the entire feature and see all the photographs online at The Bitter Southerner. web.jpg

Ernest Mickler receiving his M.F.A. receiving his diploma from Mills College, clad in butterfly wings dedicated to his mentor, Memphis Wood. Photograph by Larry Tiscornia for the San Francisco Chronicle and courtesy of the University of Florida.