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The Unsung South

Burkhard Bilger talks about the fine line between culture and caricature

October 26, 2000

Noodling for Flatheads
Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts
by Burkhard Bilger
253 pages, $24.00

In his new book, Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts, Burkhard Bilger writes that growing up in Oklahoma he was a "bookish, bilingual" boy who was "taught to be terrified of the outdoors" and who "learned about the American wilderness by reading James Fenimore Cooper in German." It may seem somewhat surprising, then, that in researching his book Bilger ended up chasing squirrels and raccoons through the woods, catching a twenty-five pound catfish by sticking his fingers into its barbed mouth, and creeping around with federal agents in the Virginia countryside, trying to nab moonshiners. As Bilger says at the outset of Noodling for Flatheads, "Books about strange obsessions, like the obsessions themselves, tend to grow out of chance encounters. Mine began, like an old Jack London story, with a search for a dog." Bilger was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wanted to find a coonhound, which were ubiquitous in Oklahoma but hard to come by in New England. His search led him back home, where he discovered a whole subculture of coon hunting -- complete with $20,000 purebred dogs and radio-tracking systems to help find the raccoons. Bilger described his exploration of that subculture in an article for The Atlantic, "Barking Up the Right Tree" (January 1996), which grew into a chapter of his book.

Noodling for Flatheads (the title refers to the practice of fishing for catfish using your hand as the bait), consists of eight essays, each exploring a particular southern tradition -- whether it's rolley holing (an enormously complicated game of marbles played outdoors in a few communities in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee), cockfighting, or frog farming. To the uninitiated reader some of these activities might seem strange, but Bilger approaches them with a genuine curiosity and a desire to look beyond their surface strangeness and examine the history behind them, the culture they represent, and the community of people who take part in them. Bilger isn't just an observer, but an enthusiastic, if at times bemused, participant, and his accounts are both vivid and humorous. In describing his experience noodling for catfish he writes, "I'm nostril-deep in murky water, sunk to the calves in gelatinous muck." (Bilger's chapter on catfishing ran in the February, 1997, Atlantic in slightly different form, under the title "In the Monster's Maw.") And of squirrel hunting:
In New York or Boston, where squirrels eat handouts and scamper impudently above park benches, squirrel hunting can seem like poor sport. But in Kentucky squirrels know the meaning of fear. They leap to the canopy at the first sign of movement. They baaaaa to one another like lambs on speed, sounding the alarm. They flatten their bodies against trees, rotating slowly to keep the trunk between them and the hunter, or just dive into the nearest knothole.
Many of these essays center on the tradition of hunting, in one form or another, and Bilger's focus on nature is clear-eyed and at the same time sympathetic. Bilger has been covering science and nature topics for more than a decade, for magazines including Harper's and The New Yorker, and is now a senior editor at Discover, a contributing editor at Health, and an adjunct professor of science writing at New York University. He is also the series editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, a new anthology that was published this month.

Bilger spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

Burkhard Bilger
Burkhard Bilger  

The traditions you focus on -- cockfighting in Louisiana, moonshining in Virginia, squirrel hunting in Kentucky -- are all southern. Is there something about the South that fosters or encourages these types of "strange obsessions," as you call them?

I think there are a couple reasons that the South is a breeding ground for these traditions. It was the first place to get colonized, so you have Spanish, black, and early colonial traditions, as well as Native American traditions. It's also more rural than the rest of the country, and most of these activities take place in the countryside, where people tend to have more time to themselves to create their own entertainment.

But if you were to go to some other very rural part of the country you'd probably find a whole other set of traditions that you could look into.

Yeah, you can find subcultures everywhere -- American popular culture is so homogeneous that anyone who wants an alternative has to create his own community to sustain it. What's neat about the South is that its subcultures tend to have so much historical resonance, and looking at them helps show us how we've changed as a people. The fact that Americans used to love cockfighting -- that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson used to be cockfighters -- and now we hate it says something about how our values have changed.

Do you worry about things like satellite dishes? That instead of coon hunting or rolley holing people will watch wrestling on TV?

Sure. Once you have a hundred channels available in your living room, it's a lot harder to convince yourself to spend half the night in the woods listening to a dog or shooting marbles. But it's a constant tug of war: the culture gets homogenized and then people get sick of the homogenization and go back to other things. Probably the best example of that is food. There's a wonderful book called The Taste of America, written by John and Karen Hess about twenty years ago, that laments the absolute destruction of American cuisine. It compares typical 1970s home cooking, with its cake-mix cakes and tuna casseroles, to the wonderful, fresh, varied food that a colonist might have eaten in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Well, what happened after the 1970s was that American food got a hell of a lot more interesting. People had had enough of that cream-of-mushroom cuisine, and started rediscovering fresh vegetables and foreign dishes. So I don't think there's a danger, really, of us ever becoming a completely homogeneous society. We're just too diverse to allow it.

In a review of Noodling for Flatheads in The New York Times, E. Andra Whitworth writes, "Many Southerners will wince at the peculiar and sometimes seemingly irrational traditions that modern society has forced underground." Do you agree with her? In general, how do southerners react to hearing about these traditions?

It's been interesting to see how southern and northern reviewers have reacted to the book differently. The northern papers have tended to say, "Oh my God, can you believe the crazy stuff this guy has dug up?" Whereas the reviewer for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution just kind of shrugged and wrote, "You know, this stuff isn't so weird...."

Most of the southerners I've talked to about the book like it, because it doesn't condescend to their traditions and because it takes them seriously. I really like the people in the book, and I admire them in most cases, and I do think that comes through. Still, the chapter on Kentuckians who eat squirrel brains did cause a stir in Kentucky. It took me by surprise, since the story had already been covered by The New York Times a couple of years before, and Jay Leno and David Letterman had joked about it on their shows. In my chapter I wanted to show that there was a lot of history behind the tradition, and that one of the wilder rumors about it -- that eating squirrel brains might cause mad-cow disease -- probably wasn't true. I wanted to show how quick the eastern media were to play into the hillbilly stereotype of Kentuckians. Of course, to most people in Kentucky none of those good intentions mattered much. I was just another easterner talking about them eating squirrel brains. No matter how much dignity I tried to grant a tradition, in other words, I'm still portraying the South as a haven for bizarre behavior.
About the people in this book you write, "They hide their liquor under floorboards, make chitlins late at night when the family is asleep, or practice marbles in forest clearings. The more chilling their isolation, the brighter burning their obsessions -- and their loyalty to those who share them." There seems to be a tension between the underground nature of these pastimes and unearthing them by writing about them. Did you find that to be true?

There's a tension in the sense that some people want to be underground and some people are forced underground. Some of them reject popular culture or common society outright, and others are simply doing something illegal. But the odd thing is that even the most antisocial types will still welcome a reporter. That's partly due to the confessional nature of modern society: even in small towns, people want to do what the guests on Oprah do, and they don't get any chance to do it. They have a deep love for their pastimes, yet very few people are interested in hearing about them. At the same time, they know that most people want no part in cockfighting or coon hunting or moonshining. So it's not like they're giving up some precious secret that's going to be despoiled.

Many of the traditions you cover are in danger of dying out -- squirrels are losing their woodsy habitat; few people these days have a taste for chitlins, or hog intestines. In a cultural sense, what do you think is being lost?

I do worry about a tradition like rolley hole. It's a wonderful game, and it fosters a certain kind of community, but it doesn't do very well in modern society because we just don't have time for it. The tragedy isn't so much that rolley hole is going to be lost, but that kind of easy-going, old-fashioned community activity isn't happening as much anymore.

One of the things I try to do in the book is show all the different ways that a tradition can be transformed or lost when it collides with modern culture. Coon hunting, for instance, went from being a subsistence activity to a very high-tech sport. That's been a good adaptation in the sense that a lot of people are still coon hunting -- the numbers are actually increasing -- and they've done some wonderful things with dog breeding. But something has also been lost. Coonhounds used to be these big, heavy-chested, long-eared old dogs that would howl on cold trails for hours, and hunters would take them out alone or with a friend and basically spend hours and hours hunting one trail. Now they go in teams of four hunters and a judge, and they accumulate points and vie for trophies, and it's all very hyperactive and modern-seeming.

From your chapter on squirrel hunting it seems like that's really changing too, as habitat disappears and people lose interest.

The loss of hunting is one of the major themes in the book. Sales of hunting licenses are plummeting; the number of children who are learning to hunt is decreasing every year; and the number of places to hunt is decreasing. At the same time, deer and raccoon are becoming overpopulated, which is not necessarily a positive thing, no matter what your feelings about animal rights. The other thing about hunting is that it used to be so common that a lot of fascinating traditions built up around it. You didn't just go deer hunting, you went to a deer camp where all the men would hang out in a tent for a week and play certain kinds of games, and have certain kinds of talks, and drink certain kinds of things. You take away that deer camp or the hunting part of it, and you've lost not just one tradition but many.

Do you think people should make a conscious effort to keep these sorts of dying traditions alive?

Well, it's impossible to make hard and fast rules about preserving cultures. You can't always draw a line between reviving an old tradition in a natural way and simply dressing people up in funny costumes. I would say that Bob Fulcher, the folklorist in the rolley hole chapter, went about it the right way. He found a few people who were still playing the game and he encouraged them to get more involved by starting a tournament and offering some prize money. It was a self-conscious attempt to preserve the tradition, but it was well worth doing. On the other hand, you have this whole culture of folk festivals, where basketweaving or burgoomaking get trotted out for a day or two, and people gawk at them and show the kids, and then the festival packs up and disappears again. That's not a living tradition -- it's kind of a Disneyfied version of what a tradition is.

Ultimately it comes down to this: do people still want to participate in these pastimes on a regular basis? Can they get a whole community involved, or just one obsessed person who happens to like something strange and likes being the only person who does it?

In your essay on Tim Patridge, an Atlanta chef who is known for cooking both haute cuisine and soul food, you write, "The world is full of people who define themselves by what they won't eat: macrobiotics, vegetarians, weight watchers, and weight lifters. But sometimes the more difficult, more audacious act is to define yourself by what you will eat -- especially if it turns everyone else's stomach." How does the soul-food tradition fit into this?

Part of the problem with soul food is that it's impossible to define strictly. Most people would say it's the food that slaves used to eat in the South. And it's true that the slaves caught wild game like opossum and raccoon and made stews and fried foods and ate a lot of sow belly and other meats "low on the hog." But the slaves also had their own gardens. They collected roots and nuts and greens from the forests, so the slave diet wasn't nearly as greasy and unhealthy as we think of it now.

In the sixties, eating black-eyed peas and chitlins and fatback and fried chicken was a way for blacks to take pride in their heritage, to reclaim the foods that once used to embarrass them. But it's one thing for Swedes to eat lutefisk once a year, saying, "This is disgusting, but Swedes always eat it." It's another to eat soul food year round. Not only is soul food -- in the narrow sense of the term -- unhealthy, it's a caricature of African-American cooking. The slaves didn't just cook more interesting things at home, they did all the cooking in the big house, so they invented a lot of what we now think of as "high" southern cooking.
It seems that there's now been a bit of a backlash against soul food -- in the Patridge chapter you describe a scene in which he's cooking chitlins and the other black chefs in the kitchen turn away from it.

Yeah, a lot of people don't want to eat that stuff anymore -- they don't like the associations; they don't like the food. One of the black chefs I talked to, Jessica Harris, said soul food is becoming like the lamb shank at a Jewish seder: it's something we eat more for the memory than for the actual food. And I think that's true to a degree. Soul food serves a certain purpose as an ethnic reminder, but the bottom line is that blacks in today's American society want to eat just as varied a diet as anyone else.

You were once told by an opossum hunter, "There's more difference between your life and mine than there is between mine and Jesus'." The divide is probably even wider between the subjects of your essays and many of the readers. Does that divide worry you, in terms of the way readers approach the book?

Again, looking at the reviews, there are readers who identify with the characters in the stories, who absorb the history and try to see it the way I saw it, which was as a portrait of whole communities and the interesting things going on in them. And there are readers who are more voyeuristic, who really just want to read about the wacky thing in the chapter. There's no way to avoid that. In fact, it's a symptom of the divide in our culture -- some people want to bridge it, and others are happy leaving it there.

I can't deny that my role is an ambivalent one. Like anyone else, I'm attracted by topics like noodling and cockfighting because they're lurid and secretive and strange. But my next impulse is to ask, Why do people do these crazy things? Is there more to them than meets the eye? Why did clergymen used to hold cockfights and now they condemn them? No matter what the answers are, there's always a tension between culture and caricature in these pieces, between showing that these people are complex and often quite admirable, and also letting them reveal a side of themselves that is exaggerated and somewhat one-dimensional. The last thing I want to do is reinforce grotesque southern stereotypes. But the fact is that if you deliberately do something illegal or dangerous or socially unacceptable, and you define yourself by it, you can't help but become something of a caricature. You're saying, "Yes, I'll do it, and I don't care what you think." And in doing that you marginalize yourself.

In your introduction to Best American Science and Nature Writing you write that you hope the series will offer readers "one guide to the essential" (as opposed to the ephemeral). Does science writing -- which covers fields where so much is changing so fast -- present special challenges when trying to anthologize and search for what is timeless?

It poses challenges for a couple of reasons. First of all, science gets old faster than most other subjects. You can read a political report about Dewey and Truman and still find it interesting fifty years later, but I'm not sure that reading some piece of disproven science is all that interesting even five years later. The other problem -- probably the bigger one for an anthologist -- is that science writing just isn't as evolved a form as a lot of other nonfiction writing. There have always been wonderful science writers out there, like Loren Eiseley and Oliver Sacks, but they have been the exceptions. The great majority of science writing is didactic, straightforward. It may have a mildly engaging first paragraph, but then it gets down to business. If you ask someone for an example of science writing as great literature, they won't come up with very many titles.

Now, maybe this is just a personal thing, but when I think of articles that I really remember from The Atlantic or from The New Yorker, often they're the science and medicine detective stories. At their best, they can really grab you in a way that a lot of other articles can't.

I agree, and that was part of the fun of doing this anthology. Yes, science writing is often uninspired, but when it's good it's wonderful. You get so many things at the same time: story, character, information, and a whole new perspective on the world. Most good readers know their politics and psychology and popular culture backwards and forwards. But science is essential to modern life, and it's fascinating, yet it gets discussed very little. If a writer with real literary flair and real insight tackles some human problem and works science into it, boy, it can have twice the impact.

Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bacon is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound. Her most recent interview was with Chinua Achebe.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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