Even though it was published 128 years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most contentious books in American literature to this day. It is challenged year after year and currently holds fourteenth place on the list of the most challenged books of all time. Many literary greats have weighed in on the book’s controversy over the last century-and-a-quarter. Ernest Hemingway famously stated that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” while Louisa May Alcott asked Mr. Twain to please “stop writing for…our pure-minded lads and lasses…if he cannot think of something better to tell [them].”
What readers have taken issue with since Huck Finn’s publication is Twain’s “coarse language.” Interestingly, however, it wasn’t the racial epithets that originally turned readers away, but the rather fact that Twain used words like “scratch” instead of “itch” and “sweat’ instead of “perspiration” –it was these two words that caused the Concord Public Library to ban the book. The biggest controversy surrounding the novel, however, the one that still plagues it today, is Twain’s portrayal of Jim—an uneducated, superstitious and extremely gullible slave fleeing to freedom. Critics of Twain’s depiction see Jim as a stereotype and a caricature—comic relief in the tradition of the minstrel show. Literary critic Daniel Hoffman, however, argues that this portrayal was the only option Twain really had, saying “The minstrel stereotype . . . was the only possible starting-point for a [Southern-born] white author attempting to deal with Negro character a century ago.”
Whenever there is controversy of this nature in a novel I, unsurprisingly, turn to the eating scenes. There is no better way to get your bearings on where a character stands than to see where, what, and with whom that person is eating. Throughout the novel, Jim and Huck are constantly cooking and eating meals with one-another in a way that signals not only comradery, but also equality. To have a runaway slave and a young white boy communing together over a meal in pre-Civil War America (the novel takes place between 1835-1845) would have been virtually unimaginable in Twain’s time period. For all of the insights Twain gives us into Jim’s kind heart, and all of the noble deeds he has him enact, the scenes where he and Huck sit and eat and chat are, to me, the quietest and clearest declarations of what Twain hoped to communicate.
I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens—there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right—and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time…. We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all (160).
Years ago, when I was much younger and much more foolish, I couldn’t stand collard greens. I thought they were tough and gritty and I hated their odd spicy taste and smell of them when they were cooking. Growing up in Massachusetts collards weren’t a huge thing, so I had never seen them properly cooked. The first few times I cooked them I just sautéed them in a pan with olive oil and garlic and lemon juice like I always did with kale. Huck is right when he says “there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right” but when collards are cooked wrong…there’s just about nothing worse.
I had given up on ever liking collards until one night my best friend, Rachel, came over to my house to cook dinner carrying a huge bushel of collards in her arms. I immediately felt a little panicked at the prospect of having to eat them, but Rachel is from North Carolina and she can cook southern food like nobody’s business, so I figured if anyone could change my mind about them it would probably be her. I watched as she diced up big chunks of bacon and cut the greens into thin ribbons, dousing the whole mixture in hot sauce and butter. When they were finally presented to me after an hour of cooking I couldn’t believe that what I was tasting was the same thing I had tried to cook. We ate the whole pot, even slurping up the murky green liquid left behind.
Years later, while cooking at a southern-food restaurant in Brooklyn, this collard juice would become part of my regular diet. The salty, buttery, spicy liquid was raised to almost mythical status, thought to cure anything that ailed the cooks—colds, flues, hangovers, heartbreak. While I’m sure this isn’t scientifically true, it certainly is immensely comforting.
Smoky, Spicy Collard Greens
- ½ cup hot sauce (I used Frank’s because it’s nice and acidic)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 cup salt
- ½ cup black pepper
- 1 smoked ham hock (bacon or any other smoked meat will work fine)
- 1 bunch collards
Directions: Put all of your ingredients, minus the collard greens, into a large soup pot with about 6 quarts of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. While the mixture is coming to a boil, thoroughly wash your collard greens. De-stem them by holding the stem firmly with one hand and pulling upward with the other hand. Discard the stems and stack the leaves on top of each other. Roll the bunch tightly into a cigar-shape and cut into long, even ribbons. Add the ribbons to boiling liquid and let the collards cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until they are soft and the meat is falling off your ham hock.
- 1 small yellow onion
- 1 cup AP flour
- 2 cups cornmeal
- tsp baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 teaspoon pimenton (or smoked hot paprika)
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons freshly cracked pepper
- ¾ cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons soft butter
- 1 14 oz can of creamed corn (I made creamed corn from scratch for this recipe which isn’t totally necessary, but if you want the recipe let me know in the comments)
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels (2 cobs should give you this)
- corn oil for frying
Directions: Finely dice onion and sautee ½ of it in 1 tablespoon of butter until soft and translucent (leave the other half raw). Add all of your dry ingredients together in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle. Add buttermilk, egg, honey, remaining 2 tablespoons of butter creamed corn, fresh corn, sautéed and raw onion and beat until well incorporated. Heat corn oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or dutch oven until small bubbles start to form and the oil is making crackling noises. Using a small scoop or spoon, scoop the batter and carefully drop the balls into the oil. Fry until golden brown on all sides and drain on paper towels. These are best eaten right away while still hot and crispy and gooey inside (as evidenced by the fact that the day-old ones were often used as a weapon). Serve with hot sauce or sour cream or use them to soak up your collard juice.