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As Burkhard Bilger tells it, he first got interested in buying a coonhound, an American breed developed from various European treeing experts and hunters, whose chief pleasure and talent is running a raccoon up a tree and barking like crazy. A city boy, originally from Oklahoma, the award-winning journalist and senior editor at Discover magazine went in search of a purebred pet and wound up putting his foot through the crust of innocuous American entertainments, as it were, and plunging into what he calls “hidden worlds.” This is where a fanatical handful risks threats of ridicule, jail time, even death to pursue their passions, whether the consumption of chitterlings or squirrel brains, the manufacturing of moonshine or supersize bass, the sport of cockfighting or marble-rolling.
Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts is Bilger’s close-up look at eight evanescent obsessions peculiar to the South—some perplexingly obscure and seemingly pointless—that, while hardly pretending to be a comprehensive overview of Southern culture, brilliantly illuminates the whole by shining a light on the parts. The chapters in which Bilger focuses on one thread of activity and then backs up to reveal how it weaves inexorably through the social, cultural, and racial warp and woof of the complicated Souths, Old and New, aren’t always the most flat-out entertaining ones. For sheer roller-coaster pleasure, it’s hard to beat the first and most startling segment, in which the scholarly author goes hand-to-teeth with some gnarly Oklahoman catfish.
While larger America doesn’t like to think about where its protein comes from, Southerners are traditionally less chary about how barbecue and fried drumsticks get to their tables. But catfish in their original live form are truly daunting, not to say disgusting, and Bilger’s description of their mien and habits
drives one to wonder who first thought it a good idea to eat these things. The floppy fillets lying inoffensively on the local fish counter are the Disney version of huge lumpy beasts, bristling with rat-tail whiskers and armed literally to the teeth with “thick rows of inward-curving barbs.” They live in swampy, still spots, close to their friends the cottonmouth snakes, electric eels, and alligator snapping turtles. What noodling is, is you stick your arm into a muddy hole and let a fish swallow your fist. Oh, and they have a tendency to “bear down and spin, like a sharpener on a pencil.”
In each chapter, Bilger conscripts an expert in the field and accompanies him or her in pursuit of a particular preoccupation. The author plays up his own sedentary writer’s life to contrast against the rough-and-readiness of his hosts. (Probably bookish but no girly-man, Bilger writes wide-shouldered stuff about sports, science, and nature). But it’s the writer’s gift, not the comic contrast, that brings the noodling segment to freaky parallel-universe life—Bilger with his arm down a cat’s throat, the realization that one or both of them has been caught dawning simultaneously in his and the fish’s brain, “like stooges backing into each other in a haunted house.”
The sequence is funny and revealing in that the attraction of noodling, grabbling, humping, stumping, dogging, or cooning catfish (every locale has its own term) is impossible to explain. Although this segment doesn’t tell us much about Southern culture beyond confirming its patented reputation for dangerous backwoods weirdness, the very mysteriousness of the sport’s satisfactions cements the notion that Southerners are different from you and me. Even the insiders’ explanations are hopeless: “You know little puppy dogs, when you shake the fire out of them when they’re teething?” offers Lee McFarlin, Bilger’s humping host. “That there’s exactly how it feels.” Do what, now?
If much of Noodling for Catfish is a queasy read, that’s as it should be—a really juicy compulsion is dangerous, secretive, and difficult to satisfy. And perhaps no Southern taste is as bizarre and denigrated as the eating of squirrel brains. Bilger traces the history of the 1997 squirrel-brain panic, started by a letter to the Lancet in which two Kentucky neurologists linked Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—a variant of mad cow disease and the human-brain-ingesting punishment, kuru—to the eating of squirrel brains. The fact that no squirrels tested for CJD had been found to carry the disease and that the researchers never factored in other connections among their CJD patients didn’t stop the panic from providing comic fodder for city slickers like the New York Times and David Letterman. Epidemiologists who stepped in after the Lancet letter was published found the connection between colorful eating habits and deadly disease impossible to make—and also impossible to quite unmake. The scare has pushed the taste further underground and added to the nation’s store of ignorant-hick lore.
Many of Bilger’s subjects function underground not by choice but thanks to pressures spawned by the increasingly confusing terms of what boosters like to call the New South—slick, moneyed, Northernized and Westernized, its gritty Gothic past spiffed up and served on a bed of polenta Parmesan, formerly known as cheese grits. He spends some time tackling the bad reputations of such disgraced hobbies as moonshining and cockfighting, which have powerful moral and legal handicaps. Cockfighting enthusiasts may crow that it is chickens’ nature to tear one another to pieces—but, true or not, every single sentence of the paragraph that explains how the fights are engineered in various countries and factions is absolutely revolting. For the most part, Bilger doles out unpleasant facts and defending arguments with an even hand, but statistics on the churchgoing habits of your average cockfighter and the “the birds like it” case make for a dubious defense.
Swift and merciless change is the book’s chief, saddening theme. The subjects are more than hobbies; they’re vanishing representations of America as the most of itself—wild, staunchly individualistic, driven by pleasure as well as necessity. Bilger’s deep explorations of such who-knew? microworlds as raccoon-cornering and marble-shooting take the reader so far inside the fixations of his subjects that those traditions’ ephemeral status is actually painful. It seems criminal that the greatest rolley holers in the country (actually, Americans dominate the world in this sport) have died out, quit playing, or found their reason for being co-opted and ESPNed out of all recognition.
The last two chapters explore in delicate counterpoint the nature of the New South and its representations of culture to the larger country. In “Low on the Hog,” black Southern food is the focal point for an irreconcilable tussle over race, status, and the claiming of history. Bilger is swept into the considerable wake of Tim Patridge, a delightful Atlanta chef using his sterling credentials to restore African-American Southern cooking to the canon. Soul food had already been co-opted in its ’60s renaissance, when all things soul-brotherly got mainstream hip. (A repugnant line in a 1968 Esquire article, quoted in Sylvia Lovegren’s Fashionable Food, runs: “Soul food is why it is chic to have a soul sister in the kitchen.”) The simple problem with such cooking, to modern blacks, is that it stands as a reminder of shameful necessity—it is, essentially, slave cooking. The complex truth is that the cuisine’s African influences and slave uses are part of African-American history, solid, evocative, and centuries-old; surely something other than shame—something precious and specific—will be lost when okra, chitterlings, and greens are eased off the menu once and for all.
After his fraught meal of pig innards, Bilger segues seamlessly into the dirt-pit underworld of the rolley holers, a small cadre of marble enthusiasts whose flint-ball sport was actually almost publicized out of existence. The book wraps up with a long, ambiguous sigh from folklorist Bob Fulcher, the Alan Lomax of rolley hole, whose untiring flack work on the part of this obscure Tennessee pastime led to world competitions, sizable cash awards, infighting, humorless competitiveness, and burnout: “It approaches being meaningless,” he says. “I mean, when some eighteen-year-old city kid plays ‘Whoa, Mule, Whoa’ what does that mean to him? Not the same as to Grandpa, who had to hold on to that mule.”
It’s hard to separate the allure of intense microcosms of Southern manias from the characters who indulge in them. It’s also hard to refrain from sketching caricatures, but Bilger manages, thanks to cool-headed reporting, a knack for graceful description, and understandable awe. But one chapter, titled “Mall of the Wild,” bursts from its boundaries, swaggering, boasting, exaggerating, and generally confusing the bejeezus out of our intrepid narrator. It stars an eccentric visionary by the name of Ken Holyoak, whose “psychic connection” to fish led him to establish a sort of game preserve that’s some percent rational and some percent insane, ratios to be determined by the god of inscrutable ideas. Bilger visited him in his latest incarnation, as frustrated frog-breeder—an impossible dream as old as alchemy and as American as Edison.
A more colorful, less trustworthy entrepreneur you won’t find this side of Charles Portis novels. Indeed, Holyoak’s résumé reads like an excised chapter from The Dog of the South or an exhibit plaque in the Museum of Jurassic Technology: vague but important-sounding titles, American business mysticism, sales schemes carved out of dust, gold-mine plans ending in ruin, big-talking catalogs, grandiose architectural statements, and twisty details like his place of birth (Enigma, Ga.) and the enormous hybrid bream Holyoak has managed to patent even though they occur naturally in the wild. For no apparent reason, Holyoak forbids Bilger to see the revolutionary frog hatchery, and he double-talks around the concrete points of his latest gold mine so thoroughly that halfway through the chapter Bilger compiles a list of “Ten Signs That Ken Holyoak Is Paranoid.” But Bilger does get to see the channel catfish pond. “‘Reach around inside until you feel something strange,’” an assistant tells him—a perfect metaphor for the author’s exploration of this country’s quirky, violent, winning, obsessive underworld. CP