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survival | barbara koenen


SUMMER 2011 GASTRONOMICA survival | barbara koenen Muse 48 They are heavy in my hand. Round,


They are heavy in my hand. Round, lumpy, fecund. If I threw them against a wall they would explode, fragments of pulp and red stain. One Chicago winter, I remember watching my art- school friend cut up pomegranates for her children to eat. Paper and plastic covered the table and the red juice flowed over everyone’s faces and arms, dripping onto the floor. Eating pomegranates was rooted in tradition for her, the daughter of Armenian immigrants. It was important that her children experience this sensual, staining fruit that was so much work, yet so much fun. A sensory burst—delicious to eat, to see, to smell, to feel. For a Midwestern girl like me to witness such an event was unspeakably exotic.

Years later, preparing for an exhibition, I found myself researching the iconography of war rugs, carpets woven in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that depicted various forms of weaponry amidst traditional floral and geometric motifs. Considering that impulse to document war in craft form, I wondered what an American example would look like. Just as my aunt would crochet cozies for “unmentionables” like tissue boxes and toilet paper rolls, I began crocheting cozies for hand grenades. That was when I discovered that grenades were named for pomegranates. I knew a little about pomegranates, mostly from art- history classes. Our English word comes from the Old French pome grenate, “apple with many seeds.” The fruit

gastronomica: the journal of food and culture, vol.11, no.2, pp.48–50, issn 1529-3262. © 2011 by barbara koenen.



photograph by william zbaren © 2010

2011 GASTRONOMICA photograph by william zbaren © 2010 of a deciduous shrub that has grown for

of a deciduous shrub that has grown for millennia in the Fertile Crescent, pomegranates have been cultivated throughout Iran, India, parts of Southeast Asia, and into the East Indies and tropical Africa. They were introduced into California by Spanish settlers in the 1700s. Symbolically, pomegranates are the motherlode, repre- senting fertility and eternal life in many cultures. Goddesses from Phoenicia (Astarte), Greece (Hera, Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone), and Rome (Juno, Athena, Ceres, and Proserpina) are represented by the fruit. Winter’s barren months are the result of Persephone/Proserpina eating just three (or four, or six) of the juicy seeds while held captive by the god of the underworld. Pomegranate trees were planted on the graves

of heroes in ancient Greece, to ensure that they would have many successors, and brides wove branches in their hair for weddings. Pomegranate depictions are found on ancient coins and on pottery and jewelry. King Tut was buried with a pomegranate, while the Madonnas of Leonardo and Botticelli cradle an infant Jesus holding the fruit that symbolizes the generosity to be found within his church. Talmudic scholars speculate that the pomegranate is the fruit that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Buddha received a gift of a small pomegranate from a poor old woman and then adopted it as one of three blessed fruits. Beginning in the fifteenth century the meanings changed. No longer just a representation of fertility and





love, the pomegranate also became a small projectile bomb. The heavy, lumpy round fruit containing hundreds of little seeds and topped with a distinctive crown, or calyx, was the perversely logical namesake for a handheld projectile filled with tiny metallic shrapnel and a fuse contained in a distinctive cap. Grenade, granada, granata, rimmon, its name was adopted into many languages. Grenadiers were the French soldiers who threw the small bombs from the front lines. These tall, strong men, revered for their bravery, evolved into elite units serving Napoleon i and the King of Prussia. Since World War i, grenades have been a mainstay of warfare the world over. Years after my friend’s pomegranate feast, in 2003, a clever ad campaign began for a new product whose antioxi- dant properties would “prevent death.” It was a “survival kit,” “death defying,” an “ancient power” that was also “pure sci- ence.” The Antioxidant Superpower would provide “heart therapy,” “life support,” a “survival kit,” an “extreme make- over” that would “cheat death” and, as our “guardian angel,” make us “forever young.” POMWonderful . Suddenly, everyone in the United States was talking pomegranates. Pom-tinis were served at the Academy Awards, and pomegranate recipes appeared in magazines, food blogs, and on Martha Stewart and Oprah. Grocery shelves featured bulbous containers of variations on the pricey elixir. POMWonderful had tapped into the jugular of the post 9-11 zeitgeist—joining reality television, Botox ® , and the War on Terror. Its marketing campaign extended into research, with over thirty-four million dollars provided to top scientists and leading universities whose studies yielded impressive results: pomegranates lowered the risk of prostate cancer, ldl cholesterol, blood clots, and erectile dysfunction, to name but a few contemporary scourges.

Much of the research was funded by the owners and found- ers of POMWonderful , Lynda and Stewart Resnick (who also created Teleflora and FIJI water and their memorable marketing campaigns). Pomegranates provided the American public with an excellent diversion from another marketing campaign at about the same time, one that was equally effective but that had extremely different results. When President George W. Bush declared that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, his extraordinary claims laid the groundwork for the u.s. invasion of Iraq. As accusations crisscrossed the airwaves, the newspapers, and the floor of the u.n., America launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The initial “shock and awe” was followed by years of deployment of thousands of American soldiers carrying millions of grenades into the heart of the Fertile Crescent. With thousands of lives lost, millions ruined, and tril- lions of dollars misspent, the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was publicly debunked in 2004, when it was confirmed that Saddam Hussein did not possess or have the capability to produce Weapons of Mass Destruction, and was not supporting Al-Qaeda. It took a few more years for the amaz- ing powers of the pomegranate to be quietly refuted by the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. Although it is a nutritious fruit with a lot of Vitamin C, the agencies’ research revealed in 2010 that the pomegranate is not exactly death defying. Not to lose hope, however. In 2008 the United States sponsored a twelve-mil- lion-dollar campaign to promote pomegranate exports from Afghanistan. Perhaps the Antioxidant Superpower will pro- vide life support and a survival kit after all. g


passions | sabrina small

Harmony of the Spores

John Cage and Mycology

Finding a cohesive link between musician John Cage’s mycological and compositional pursuits is as frustrat- ing as hunting for summer truffles in November. Cage’s quirky obsession with mushrooms may seem like nothing more than a career side note, but his contributions to the field of amateur mycology were actually quite significant. Mushrooms, for Cage, served as a muse of sorts. Adamant about not letting his personal taste interfere with the process of creative discovery, he adopted a ritual of using chance operations to compose and write many of his best- known works. In this regard Cage’s taste for mushrooms seems anomalous compared to his other projects. And yet he titled numerous poems, articles, and compositions around mushrooms. It is somehow comforting to contem- plate Cage’s involvement with mycology, to know that the rigid experimentalist who created 4’33” and cajoled audi- ences into enduring lengthy “prepared piano” performances would go home and cook wild mushrooms for his friends. 1 Through this article’s focus on mushrooms, I hope to offer

a more intimate portrait of this singular and astonishingly

productive man, who was revered as a composer, musical innovator, visual artist, writer, lecturer, Zen Buddhist, and anarchist—all in the span of one lifetime. When you add his significant achievements in mycology to that list, it is remarkable that Cage found time to sleep. Although many researchers have sought to discover the decisive link between mushrooms and all other things Cageian, success has mostly eluded them. The first to try was Tim Wilson, who in 1983 recorded a program for cbc radio called Cage in the Woods. The segment was meant to be a metaphysical exploration of Cage’s weltanschauung by means of a mushroom foraging expedition. Although the introduction promised to turn listeners into “Alices of

a sort under the spell of Cage, a cryptic caterpillar,” 2 the

result was far more chaotic and circuitous than the term cryptic implies. Wilson and Cage volley questions at one another like actors in an alternative version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, with Wilson asking a question


Above: John Cage gathering mushrooms in Mountain Lake, Virginia, 1983.

photograph by tim wilson / © 1983


and Cage responding with another, more open-ended one. Any attempt to get Cage to imbue the activity of foraging with spiritual import ends with Cage slyly subverting the very terms Wilson proposes. When Wilson mentions coyly that “a lot of people regard mushroom foraging as a sacred activity,” Cage answers rather sharply, “I don’t think any one thing is more sacred than another. We should brush our teeth and wash our dishes without giving any prefer- ence to one thing being sacred and another not.” 3 When

gastronomica: the journal of food and culture, vol.11, no.2, pp.19–23, issn 1529-3262. © 2011 by the regents of the university of california. all rights reserved. please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the university of california press s rights and permissions web site, doi: 10.1525/gfc.2011.11.2.19.



SUMMER 2011 GASTRONOMICA 20 the program ends, one is left with the sense that Wilson was


the program ends, one is left with the sense that Wilson was frustrated by the colossal task of picking out a mushroom- focused argument from Cage’s taciturn displays and resigned himself to let the piece stand for itself, no matter how unwieldy it turned out to be. Twenty years later, in 2008, David W. Rose wrote a long and impeccably researched article for Fungi Magazine, in which he set out to fully integrate Cage’s practices concern- ing “mushrooms, music, daily living, and habits of work” into a unified aesthetic. 4 Rose leaves no toadstool unturned on his journey. He manages to amass an impressive col- lection of mushroom-related materials, but his analysis, once again, lacks definition. It’s as if in his fungi-fueled frenzy to find connections Rose begins seeing mushrooms everywhere, even where they don’t belong, and in his effort to perceive mushrooms as Cage’s ultimate “teaching- machines,” he sees them as tools of silence. “Coming to terms with silence,” Rose advises, “is the critical capability:

silence leads us to nature, and thence to mushrooms.” 5 Unfortunately, the same could be said about many other aspects of Cage’s symbology. Indeterminacy, for example,

Above: John Cage, Vorticella (For Miles and Ruth Horton), 1988.

courtesy of ray kass and the mountain lake workshop. photograph by deb sim. © john cage trust

the foundation for most of Cage’s compositions, is the notion that ideas are not precisely determined or fixed. In their randomness, mutability, and variability, mushrooms are emblematic of this concept, and it is possible that inde- terminacy, rather than silence, is the “critical capability” we must come to terms with in order to unravel the greater meaning of mushrooms in Cage’s universe. Using the old literary argument against authorial intent, the possibility of finding the ultimate connection between Cage and mushrooms becomes much more tangible when it turns to the facts, rather than trying to rely on the com- poser’s own nebulous comments on the subject. And facts abound: Cage began to forage for mushrooms in his home of Carmel, California, during the Great Depression as a means of supplementing his meager meals. He realized quickly that mushrooms were not especially nutritious when, after subsisting on them for a few days, he grew very faint. 6 Despite mushrooms’ lack of calories, the activity of



foraging them became a constant throughout Cage’s life. His association with mycology is well documented on two levels: one personal and artistic, the other official and pub- lic. The difficulty in analysis relates to the personal, artistic level. Were we to draw conclusions based merely on Cage’s public involvement with mushrooms, the narrative would be quite simple and straightforward. By the late 1950s Cage had established himself as a devotee of amateur mycology, reaching out to experts in the field and amassing a considerable collection of books on the subject. He became so competent in mushroom identification that he sold many of the mushrooms he collected to Creative Food Services and to Restaurant Associates, in New York, which supplied, among other high- end restaurants, the Four Seasons. 7 Perhaps because the pool of applicants was not very large, or perhaps because Cage was an ambitious, highly organized public figure, he was offered a variety of official positions by far more serious mycophiles. His earliest official mushroom capacity was as Vice-Chairman of the People-to-People Committee on Fungi, a program established under the Eisenhower admin- istration to promote peaceful international relations. Cage was responsible for coordinating the work of this committee in the eastern region of the United States. He was joined by his friends and fellow foragers, artist Lois Long and New Jersey naturalist Guy G. Nearing. Throughout his life Cage worked closely with Long and Nearing on a variety of mushroom-related projects. From 1959 through 1960, for example, he and Nearing taught mushroom identification classes through the New School for Social Research. The classes feature heavily in Cage’s writings about mushrooms, and it was with the help of students from these classes that Cage was able to found the New York Mycological Society in 1962, arguably his most lasting mycological contribution. Still in existence today, the nyms boasts over 150 members who meet regularly for walks, lectures, and larger events. Cage’s work in establishing the nyms garnered him the North American Mycological Society’s Award for Contributions to Amateur Mycology in 1964. Perhaps Cage’s most public mushroom-related event occurred in 1959, when he was a contestant on the Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing). The show invited participants to choose an area of expertise, and over the course of a week they were asked a series of questions, each more difficult than the next. One incorrect answer and the contestant was booted off the show. Cage competed as a mushroom expert. His final task was to cor- rectly name all the genera of white-spored mushrooms, which he did, walking away with the lira equivalent of six

thousand dollars. 8 The quiz show garnered Cage celebrity status throughout Italy, as well as offers to join various European mycological societies. Cage was not only a brainy mushroom pseudo-academic, he was also a highly gifted mushroom cook. Up until the late 1970s he, like many American gourmands of the era, was heavily influenced by French cuisine. He used a lot of cream and butter and loved red meat and red wine (he also loved whiskey, coffee, and cigarettes). Cage’s love of food was well documented by others and by himself. In the essay “Where Are We Eating? And What Are We Eating?” Cage chron- icled all the meals he ate while on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1975. Mushrooms were definitely on the menu. With its colloquial, good-humored tone and rapid-fire verbal snapshots of life on the road, “Where Are We Eating? And What Are We Eating?” allows the reader to observe Cage the social animal. At times he appears nurturing, commandeering motel kitchens with his bounty of recently foraged mushrooms and creating elabo- rate feasts for the entire dance company. At other moments he seems endearingly childlike, studding each sentence with exclamation points to communicate his excitement to the reader: “We’re going to Athens in southern Ohio. Every mile (we’re going seventy!) brings us closer to morels!” 9 There are even moments in the essay where Cage, usually the center of attention, seems gratefully dependent on the people he encounters. In one episode in Kansas, Cage hands his wild mushrooms over to a motel-restaurant cook. “They came to the table swimming in butter. Carolyn, who isn’t wild about mushrooms, had seconds. I complimented the cook. How’d you know how to cook ’em? ‘We get them all the time: I’m from Oklahoma.’” 10 In the foreword to this essay, written five years after it first appeared in print, Cage brings the reader up to date on his eating habits. Though the essay describes copious amounts of artery-clogging fare, by the time Cage wrote the foreword he had embraced a macrobiotic diet, on Yoko Ono’s recommendation. He writes of his sudden conver- sion: “For two days I lived in shock. I ate almost nothing. I couldn’t imagine a kitchen without butter and cream, nor


a dinner without wine.” The positive effects on his health,

however, helped convince him the diet was worthwhile. “Within a week the pain behind my left eye went away. After

a month the toes began to move. Now my wrists, though

somewhat misshapen, are no longer swollen and inflamed. I’ve lost more than twenty-five pounds.” 11 Perhaps the fact

that mushrooms were still permitted in his diet allowed Cage to surrender the butter and booze. “I follow Lima Ohsawa in the cooking of mushrooms, sautéeing them in a




little sesame oil, finally adding tamari.” 12 Cage continued to eat macrobiotically until his death in 1992. Due to his public identity as a mushroom forager, Cage amassed quite a cache of mushroom-related items. In 1971 he entrusted nine archival boxes of mushroom ephemera to the University of California at Santa Cruz. The contents of the Santa Cruz collection meld Cage’s personal and pro- fessional mushroom pursuits. Here we find his mushroom watercolors, mushroom poems, and the legendary mushroom book on which he collaborated with lithographer Lois Long and professional biologist Alexander H. Smith. 13 The collection also contains various mushroom-related gifts Cage received from colleagues and friends: mushroom guide books, a collection of mushroom recipes, even kitschy mushroom paraphernalia like mushroom-print tea towels and a mush- room-print tie. What the contents of this collection say about his persona, however, remains difficult to decipher. The desire to find direct correlations between mush- rooms and any of the concepts in Cage’s musical oeuvre quickly leads to tautology. Cage’s contradictory statements about mushrooms are as uninterpretable as those of the smiling Cheshire cat. “Music and mushrooms: two words next to each other in many dictionaries,” begins one of Cage’s readings from a series of one-minute performances he made under the umbrella title Indeterminacy. 14 Many of the minute-long readings Cage incorporated into the per- formance pertained to mushrooms, and because each piece stands on its own it is tempting to read them as parables handpicked by Cage to illustrate some larger truth. A num- ber of the stories do, in fact, work that way, such as the one about Mr. Romanoff, one of Cage’s mushroom students, who expresses “childlike pleasure” at every specimen he encounters. He takes color slides of the mushrooms and, after smelling one mushroom in particular, asks whether it has been perfumed. The segment ends with Cage warmly quoting his pupil, “Mr. Romanoff said the other day, ‘Life is the sum total of all the little things that happen.’” 15 Because Cage so often ended the Indeterminacy stories with a simple, straightforward statement, it is tempting to see mushrooms as representing an obtuse sort of wisdom that we often overlook in our busy, chaotic lives. Indeed, many of the stories have a “stop and smell the mushrooms” feel to them, such as this one about Cage’s mushroom men- tor Alexander Smith:

While hunting morels with Alexander Smith in the woods near Ann Arbor, I mentioned having found quantities of Lactarius deliciosus in the woods of northern Vermont. He said, “Were the stipes viscid?” I said, “Yes, they were.” He said, “It’s not deliciosus; it’s thyinos.” He

went on to say that people go through their entire lives thinking that things are that when they are actually this, and that these mistakes are necessarily made with the very things with which they are most familiar.”

Illustrating the simple truths that mushrooms can bring to anyone who cares to stop and consider them is a theme that pops up throughout Indeterminacy, but Cage goes even further in the following story, which casts composer Colin McPhee in an unfavorable light, suggesting that Cage was personally disappointed by his reaction. “When Colin McPhee found out that I was interested in mushrooms, he said, ‘If you find the morel next Spring, call me up, even if you only find one. I’ll drop everything, come out, and cook it.’ Spring came. I found two morels. I called Colin McPhee. He said, ‘You don’t expect me, do you, to come all that way for two little mushrooms?’ 16 Cage’s attempt to use mushrooms to draw our atten- tion to things we often overlook is partially attributable to his affinity for the works of Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years in relative isolation meditating on solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature. When asked about the deeper meaning of mushroom foraging, Cage often mentioned Thoreau. Specifically, when Tim Wilson asked him in their 1983 interview whether he did a lot of thinking while gathering mushrooms in the woods, Cage replied, “I don’t think so. What you’re doing in the woods is looking at what there is to see.” Cage credits Thoreau with this perception, remarking that Thoreau wrote, “What right do I have to be in the woods, if I’m thinking of something out of the woods.” 17 In the sound composition “Mureau” (a meld- ing of the words music and Thoreau, although mushrooms and Thoreau produce the same hybrid) Cage explored sev- eral variations of Thoreau’s message, layering them in a sort of textual collage along with other works he found relevant. For example, he whittled down R.H. Blythe’s original haiku, “The leaf of some unknown tree/ sticking/ on the mush- room,” to read simply, “What mushroom? What leaf?” 18 Restructuring and reshaping language focused Cage’s mind in much the same way that foraging for mushrooms did. Mushrooms themselves presented an especially intriguing platform for language play because their names are seemingly fixed. Based on rigid Latinate taxonomy and classification models, mushrooms require rigorous identification methods— after all, misidentification can result in death. But Cage was determined to find a way to keep mushrooms “fresh and experiential” as opposed to “fixed and clear.” 19 If he could not tinker with mushrooms themselves, he could extract and dilute their meaning on a purely linguistic level. Cage was attracted to the musical, polysyllabic names of mush-



rooms, and he constructed hundreds of mesostic poems around them and featuring them. In the poem “Song,” 20 which Cage wrote for and constructed around the name “JASPER JOHNS,” mushroom varieties appear numerous times, though their meaning is maddeningly vague.

not Just






not Just hunter:

cutting dOwn


cuttiNg down


Whether this poem was intended to be read as a per- sonal message for Jasper Johns or as a simple language exercise is unclear. For Cage, mushrooms evolved from a philosophical tool to train our minds to the beauty of exis- tence into objects whose meanings continually transform to suit their conjurers’ needs. In yet another mushroom- inspired work, The Music Lover’s Field Companion (a humorous take on the common mushroom field guides), Cage begins, “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.” 21 What follows, however, is not a concise or profound deliberation on the true meaning of either entity, but rather a farcical play in which Cage bemusedly remarks, “What a boon it would be for the recording industry if it could be shown that the performance, while at the table, of an lp of Beethoven’s Quartet Opus Such-and-Such so alters the chemical nature of Amanita muscaria as to render it both digestible and delicious!” 22 And yet, it is within the short and farcical Music Lover’s Field Companion that we find some of the most whimsical yet poetic writing about mushrooms and music Cage ever conceived:

I propose that it should be determined which sounds further the growth of which mushrooms; whether these latter, indeed, make sounds of their own; whether the gills of certain mushrooms are employed by appropriately small-winged insects for the production of pizzicati and the tubes of the Boleti by minute burrowing ones as wind instruments; whether the spores, which in size and shape are extraordinarily various, and in number countless, do not on dropping to the earth produce gamelan-like sonorities; and finally, whether all this enterprising activity,

which I suspect delicately exists, could not, through technological means, be brought, amplified and magnified, into our theatres with the net result of making our entertainments more interesting. 23

Compared to this lively and quixotic prose piece, Cage’s mesostic poems appear clinical. But, as with most of his artistic pursuits, the ascertainment of meaning and aesthet- ics were secondary to the experiment itself. Mushrooms offered yet another lens through which to explore experi- mental production. Cage’s unabashed pursuit of the new and undiscovered may be the only true link among all of his artistic projects. Each subject was a platform from which to spin words, images, and sounds. While mushrooms inspired a staggering amount of artistic output for Cage, they turn the task of writing about Cage in this capacity into a bewildering exercise. Perhaps Cage saw a profound con- nection between music and mushrooms; more likely he was only trying to make his entertainments more interesting. g


1 . In the prepared piano pieces the strings of a piano were fitted with a variety of screws and then plucked mercilessly by eager virtuosos.

2 . Tim Wilson, “Cage in the Woods,” Inside the Music, cbc Radio-2 (2009).

3 . Ibid.

4 . David W. Rose, “A Plurality of One: John Cage and the People-to-People Committee on Fungi,” Fungi Magazine 1, no. 4 (2008): 27.

5 . Ibid., 25.

6 . David Revill, The Roaring Silence (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992), 43.

7 . Ibid., 182.

8 . Rose, “A Plurality of One,” 27.

9 . Alison Knowles and John Cage, “Where Are We Eating? And What Are We

Eating,” in John Cage, Empty Words: Writing 73–78 by John Cage (London:

Boston: Marion Boyars, 1980), 82.

10 . Ibid.

11 . Ibid.

12 . Ibid.

13 . John Cage, Lois Long, and Alexander H. Smith, The Mushroom Book (New

York: Hollander Workshop, Inc., 1972).

14 . John Cage, A Year from Monday: Lectures and Writings (London: Calder &

Boyers, 1985), 34.

15 . John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (London: Marion Boyars

Publishers Ltd., 1987), 268–269.

16 . Cage, A Year from Monday, 35.

17 . Ibid.

18 . Rose, “A Plurality of One,” 30.

19 . Tim Wilson, transcript of an interview with Cage made in Mountain Lake,

Virginia, September 1983 (

20 . Cage, Empty Words, 10.

21 . Cage, Silence, 274–276.

22 . Ibid.

23 . Ibid.




americana | ruth tobias

Catfish and Controversy at the Okie Noodling Tournament

I think I’ll noodle ’til I die. If that’s not what kills me.


—Jerry “Catfish” Rider, Okie Noodling

The deeper you go, the darker it gets. That, in a nutshell—make that fish maw, for a more appropriate metaphor—is noodling, otherwise known as handfishing, hogging, grabbling, stumping, cooning, or dogging. 1 It’s true of the sport itself, which involves submerging partly or fully in your river, lake, or pond of choice to trap catfish in their nesting holes or under brushpiles, jamming your arm through their mouths—getting “tore up pretty good,” of course, in the process—and bracing for a tussle. It’s true of noodling’s murky history, unrecorded beyond “a few photos here and there of Native Americans holding up fish,” as Bradley Beesley, director of Okie Noodling and Okie Noodling 2, puts it. 2 “Most of the guys I’m in touch with are now in their forties; they were taught by their fathers, who are now in their seventies. I haven’t yet found the great- great grandfather who’s going, ‘I remember when,’ but that’s because there was a time people didn’t think much about it. It was just a technique for catching fish: ‘It doesn’t mat- ter if we’re gonna hit it in the head with a rock or whatever; we’re gonna bring you dinner tonight.’ There wasn’t a cul- ture built around it.” Yet the nothing-if-not-colorful culture that now exists is at the root of noodling’s equally unclear future, fraught with controversies—not the least of which is its newfound status as a cult phenomenon (based in large part on the success of Beesley’s own documentaries). Before there was controversy (of which more later), how- ever, there was the first annual Okie Noodling Tournament and Fish Fry in 2000, founded by Beesley himself in the course of making his first film with the help of Phil Henderson, one-time fisheries biologist and current owner of Bob’s Pig Shop in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, on whose premises the tournament is set every July. Now approaching its twelfth anniversary, the event sheds a very public (not to mention scorching) light on a very private pastime.

This year, as the clock nears noon, you wouldn’t know from a glance around North Ash Street that the tournament was already underway at fishing holes across the Sooner State. Sure, the setup is complete: there’s the weigh-in tent with its scale, chalkboard, and holding pools; the demon- stration tank brimming with 3,500 gallons of water, pumped in that morning by the fire department from the hydrant across the street; bleachers, a stage, and a few kiosks have been erected. Yet the mood seems as sleepy as it does on any other day in this small town, with only a couple of kids running wild and a pair of cowboys striding by on horseback. Only inside Bob’s do you begin to get an inkling of what’s to come. Already a few tables are ringed round with good ol’ boys yukking it up amid too many cans of Budweiser and rib platters; already the cooks and servers are picking up the pace with expressions somewhere between grins and grimaces in preparation for the “bizarre chaos” Henderson guarantees will ensue with his usual cheer. Sure enough, fast-forward an hour, and it’s like some- thing out of Hitchcock’s The Birds: from out of nowhere, scattered individuals have multiplied into throngs at the intersection of Ash and Agnew. Some are setting up camp under trees—precious property in the one-hundred-degree heat—with lawn chairs and coolers; some are staking their claims on the bleachers; a line is already stretching out the door of the Pig Shop from the order counter, and the first pickup trucks are beginning to pull up to the weigh- in tent with contestants waiting for aquatic biologist Joe Bidwell and his team of graduate students from Oklahoma State University to record their catches. Meanwhile, a dense band of spectators is gathered around the tank as a red-bearded, bandanna-capped guy in trunks emblazoned with the words “Noodlers Anonymous” lowers himself into the water for a demo. Slogan notwithstanding, there aren’t many among them who don’t already know that this is none other than Lee McFarlin—being about as close to famous as fishermen, especially handfishermen, ever come: the star of Beesley’s documentaries has gone to appear on espn, the

gastronomica: the journal of food and culture, vol.11, no.2, pp.14–18, issn 1529-3262. © 2011 by the regents of the university of california. all rights reserved. please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the university of california press s rights and permissions web site, doi: 10.1525/gfc.2011.11.2.14.



SUMMER 2011 GASTRONOMICA Discovery Channel, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s bbc series The F-Word , and more.

Discovery Channel, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s bbc series The F-Word, and more. If you can make your way to the front, you’ll get an eyeful of flurry: Lee on one side, his partner on the other, maneuvering and grabbing at the twenty-pound flathead trapped in a box between them. If you can’t, there’ll be other chances; the weigh-in deadline of 7:30 p.m. is hours away yet. Nothing to do but kick back with a Sno-cone and a pulled-pork sandwich or a plate of catfish fresh from the giant, bubbling fryer out back. (When the tour- nament started, the contestants donated their catches to the for-profit fish fry; now, farmed fish is offered for free, Henderson explains, because “this game warden came up to me a couple of years ago and said, ‘You aren’t selling those fish, are you?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, we’re just selling the plates the fish are on.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s good, because you can’t sell wild-caught fish in Oklahoma.’” Oops.) Buy a souvenir T-shirt from Henderson’s daughter Heidi, as filled with as many deadpan quips as her dad about the “crazed grab-bag of happenings” she finds herself helping to assemble every year. Check out the materials at the promotional booth for women’s roller derby. Watch the photo shoot as noodlers by the twos and threes—sweaty, grimy, bleeding, and grinning in their fishing caps and

Above: A noodler takes to the stage with his winning catch.

photograph by brit withey © 2010

cargo shorts—pose for the camera, the ones that didn’t get away dangling from their fingers. And just let the afternoon melt away in the heat, still swelling along with the crowd— which, of course, is prime for people-watching. In fact, what distinguishes this “little fiesta,” in Henderson’s words, from other fishing contests is something I’ll call the Fearless Freak Factor, described by a friend of mine as “the rednecks ogling the hipsters and the hipsters ogling the rednecks.” Though the diversity actually extends to bikers, families, and, increasingly, tourists from as far away as Norway and Japan, the description is not inaccurate. The Fearless Freaks is the title of another documentary by Beesley that features The Flaming Lips, the only rock band out of countrified Oklahoma to achieve megastardom. Known worldwide for their psychedelic sound and surreal live shows involving dancers in bunny costumes, bouncing balls, fake blood, and fire, they were known as heroes to those of us who grew up in the 1980s on the outside of the dominant local culture. Me, for example—the daughter of liberal, secular-Jewish intellectuals who couldn’t wait to get out of the reddest of red states in the Bible Belt.




SUMMER 2011 GASTRONOMICA 16 What I didn’t know until Beesley made it clear to me in


What I didn’t know until Beesley made it clear to me in Okie Noodling—underscored by a Lips soundtrack—was that even some of those rural folk with monotone drawls and cowboy boots, the ones who personified rampant provincialism for us hipster-prototypes, felt like outsiders, too. They were and are noodlers. As McFarlin put it rather poignantly during an interview for the film, “Noodlers are like carp or drum. They’re the bottom-feeders, they’re the trash, they’re the scum-suckers…They’re the lowest on the totem pole as far as the bass fishermen, your tournament trout fishermen…Noodlers are the very last to be talked to or heard about.” A decade later, all the recent fanfare notwithstanding, their struggle for respect continues—most notably in Missouri, where, as in the vast majority of states (excluding Oklahoma), handfishing is illegal; the Missouri Department of Conservation (mdc) holds that it depletes local catfish populations. 3 The implication of the depart- ment’s position, explains Mary Grigsby, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri who is working on

Above: With a Band-Aid on one arm and a catfish on the other, Buster Garrett of Eufala, Oklahoma, flies his colors.

photograph by brit withey © 2010

a book about noodling culture, is that “noodling is not fair play. Fair play is not going into the hole when the catfish are trying to reproduce, blocking the hole, and grabbing them off their nest.” 4 Champions of the sport dispute that perception fiercely, citing as the real reasons for its prohibition politics and a trial legal season that was badly managed and failed to generate revenue from fishing licenses. Recalls Gary Webb, at sixty-six a fiery yet affable spokesman for the afore- mentioned Noodlers Anonymous, “The [mdc] didn’t exactly treat us right. At first they compared us to poachers, shooting turkeys off the nest and spotlighting deer.” 5 And the stigmas handfishermen face go far beyond their perceived lawlessness, Grigsby notes: While they see themselves as courageous and self-sufficient, living a lifestyle that sensibly values frugality, responsibility, and intergenerational community above all, “noodlers are portrayed as crazy, ignorant, backwards rednecks”



by a media that privileges the urban/suburban, middle-class norm. In short, the noodlers emphasize their fearlessness; the media, their freakishness. (Indeed, the potential for eye- popping and jaw-dropping is undoubtedly why newsmakers turned their attention to the admittedly unsightly sport at all, from the 1989 appearance of Jerry “Catfish” Rider on Late Night with David Letterman onward.) 6 Granted, such tensions are inherent in the sport. On the one hand, noodlers prize the intimacy it entails, the direct contact they have with both the fish and their noo- dling “clan.” 7 With “no hooks, no bait, [and] no fear” (to use the tournament’s official slogan) between them, they’re equipped with nothing but their wits, their bare hands— and their comrades, whom they literally trust with their lives. After all, the dangers of noodling are very real. You can get bitten by a poisonous snake. In certain tight holes

a catfish can clamp down on your arm and, as veteran

noodler Clarence “Scooter” Bivins puts it, “you’ve basically just stuck your hand in a vise.” You can get trapped in crev- ices. Without your buddies to watch out for you, you can, in short, drown. (It’s telling that most of the noodlers I’ve interviewed hold day jobs with high risk factors as well:

Bivins is an assistant fire chief; McFarlin is a burner special- ist, fixing gas pipes; his son-in-law, Joshua Garcia, works in surveillance at a casino.) 8 Meanwhile, says Grigsby,

“you also trust others to keep their mouths shut”—whether because what you’re doing is illegal or because fish-rich locales constitute prime real estate. When he first started filming, remembers Beesley, “It took me about a year to find guys who were willing to take me out” and make their favorite holes known: “A lot of them have spent decades cultivating these spots.” On the other hand, now that handfishing is in the spotlight, the noodlers are caught between a rock and a hard place like none they encounter underwater. Should they milk their minor celebrity and prove they’re not just “poor hayseeds,” in McFarlin’s words,

by promoting the sport they love, or will promotion itself be noodling’s downfall? “It’s kind of a secrecy thing,” admits Bivins, “and when all of your places are being discovered,

it just kinda shoots you out of the saddle.”

But for now, at least, camaraderie still trumps compe- tition, and the romance of living off the land—or rather on and in the water—endures. Though “the omnipresent theme among the noodlers is the adrenaline rush,” as Beesley puts it, the joys they describe are as meditative as they are physical. As McFarlin is fond of saying, “When you’re out there [noodling], it’s you and Mother Nature. You can kinda see our ancestry. You can see where we evolved from before there were tools and guns. I’m happy

when I think, hey, I coulda made it then.” Beesley agrees. “For me it’s so exciting when you’re just about to catch a fish with your hands or you walk down the riverbed and you start getting butterflies, exploring these creeks and rivers and seeing the things only twelve-year-old boys get to expe- rience.” Meanwhile, Mary Grigsby cites “reciprocity and interdependence” as core values of the noodlers she works with, whose skill allows them to “share with their commu- nity, feeding people at fish fries” and in private, for instance by providing for the elderly. And sure enough, to ask Bivins what he loves about noodling is to learn first and foremost not about the activity per se but about the conviviality it engenders: “For one thing, I keep a deep-freeze full of meat, and I can give it to my friends. I’ll have them come and haul hay or something”—he lives on a ninety-acre farm— and I can pay them in fish. And we have fish fries.” A typical fish fry reflects as clearly what noodling’s all about as the sport itself. As Bivins explains:

My thing is, “Tell anybody, tell all.” Anybody’s welcome as long as they respect the property and the people around them. I prepare [my catfish] perfectly, better than any restaurant would consider cleaning it…It gets to where you’re preparing the meat so that you cut all of the red out, down the backbone, distinguishing the fat versus the meat, and cleaning it all away. Some people watching might think you’re wasting a lot of fish, but it’s not worth saving that extra few bites so it’s gonna taste bad whenever you eat it. Whenever it’s cleaned, it’s nice and white, no red and no black, and that way it’s just 100 percent better. People will come out and say, “Oh, I don’t like fish,” and I’ll just say, “Well, that’s fine, but try mine just this once.” And they’ll say, “Oh my God, I never knew it tasted like this.” We kinda got the batter to the way we like it. We use cornmeal, flour, garlic salt, and pepper, and sometimes we’ll even add some cayenne pepper. The tartar sauce we make homemade, because there’s no comparison to storebought. That’s something that everybody looks forward to. Then my wife usually puts on a huge pot of red beans with ham. For sure we’ll have french fries, usually made the old style, where we’ll just wash [the potatoes] and run ’em through [the dicer] so they’ll be square and natural. And my friends will bring chips and hot sauce or something to snack on. I don’t try to tell anybody what to do. There’s a few that might sip a little whiskey, a few that might drink a little beer, and we always have some iced tea around. Also we play country music. We have a drummer and a fiddle player and I play acoustic guitar and sing. So we have a good little group. My dad played music, too, and there’s one guy that played with him that still plays with us. It’s old-time country music, like Merle Haggard and George Strait. You respect your elders, and that’s what he loves, and he still feels good enough to do it, so we’re gonna make him happy. When he leaves we’ll venture into the more upbeat stuff.





So is this an adults-only affair, I ask? “Oh, no,” Bivins assures me. “A babysitter out in the middle of the country is something you can only wish for. So yeah, there are lots of kids. They just get right out in the middle of everything and play while the adults sit around and talk about the next grabbling trip.” Back at the tournament, Bivins’s description echoes even as the tv camera crews descend and the mood begins to shift from one of mellowness to mania. By six, the motorcade at the weigh-in tent stretches for blocks. If you nudge your way through the crush of bodies toward the roped-off entranceway, you might just catch a glimpse of three ham-shouldered, sun-reddened guys in ripped-up T-shirts, gingerly making their way off a truckbed; slung over the collarbone of one is a bespeckled, bewhiskered creature that looks as though it hasn’t evolved in millennia. It’s behemoth. It’s ugly. And you have to admire it. Sure enough, everyone cheers—as much, it seems, for the fish as its catcher; for the primordial death-battle that must have ensued; for every pound it was about to officially weigh—representing as each one does, according to Phil Henderson, a year of hard-fought life on the mean streets of rural waterways. The rules of the contest are few but crucial. There are monetary prizes for the largest natural-caught fish, the largest natural-caught stringer (a group of three fish), the largest fish caught using scuba gear, and the largest stringer caught using scuba gear, as well as a separate category for female noodlers. 9 The fish must be flatheads, the only type of catfish that may legally be noodled in Oklahoma; they must be caught in-state; and they must be brought in live—dead fish are disqualified. So how do the organiz- ers know the contestants followed the rules, that the fish weren’t line-caught or driven in from Texas? Well…they don’t. “We really have to kinda go by the honor system,” admits Henderson. Adds Beesley, “Every year somebody accuses somebody of cheating, and I’ll be like, ‘Well, he has to sleep with himself.’” Ultimately, he insists, “It doesn’t matter to me who wins or loses. The purpose of the tourna- ment is to bring together these guys who kind of have been overlooked in the fishing community.” Needless to say, most noodlers, for whom trust in community is so essential, wouldn’t have it any other way. Suddenly a buzz runs through the crowd as Joe Bidwell writes a number on the chalkboard: 59.24 pounds. Folks, we have a winner! (It just so happens to be Scooter Bivins.) And so the attention turns to the stage, where prizes are announced and the Okie Noodling Queen is crowned by her predecessor with about as much articulate poise as you’d expect from someone whose only duties today appear

to have involved knocking back her weight in beer. To be sure, a sizable majority of attendees have been keeping close pace all day. And so, many begin their loose-limbed, sun-spent shuffle toward home; and so still others start to move, almost involuntarily, to the music as a band takes the stage, playing red-dirt rock as only alt-country Oklahomans can. And so another festival winds down as the sky darkens and the heat wanes. As Phil’s daughter Heidi succinctly puts it when she steals away from the souvenir booth to whisk me into the Pig Shop’s walk-in cooler for a quick nip of our own: “It’s a slice of Americana you will not forget. I can tell you that.” g


Many thanks to Bradley Beesley, Scooter Bivins, Rebecca Eskreis, Joshua Garcia, Mary Grigsby, Heidi Henderson, Phil Henderson, Lee McFarlin, and Gary Webb for their insights.

1. Burkhard Bilger, Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and

Other Southern Comforts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 20. The varia- tions in terminology are, of course, regional.

2. So Bilger concluded in the course of his research; for more on indigenous

handfishing methods, see Noodling for Flatheads, 19.

3. See “Why ‘No’ to Noodling?”


4. Grigsby is understandably adamant about maintaining her own neutrality

on this issue.

5. Reasoning that “they don’t want some poor redneck trying to tell the legislature

what to do,” McFarlin highlights the role played by lobbyists for the sporting- goods industry in ensuring that handfishing remains illegal. One can certainly sympathize with such conspiracy theories.

6. Rebecca Eskreis, a filmmaker at the University of Southern California who is

currently working on a feature narrative titled Noodling that is set in Pauls Valley, became fascinated by the sport after reading about it in the New York Times,

in all its “zany, macho” glory. Without discounting that aspect, she quotes the observation of an Oklahoman friend that “Whenever there’s a tornado, [the news crews] always find the one guy with no teeth” to interview. A New York native herself, Eskreis aimed to avoid such stereotyping by shooting her film in Pauls Valley, using a cast entirely made up of locals.

7. Some Missouri noodling groups “call themselves clans, as in kin and friends

of kin,” explains Grigsby. “It’s this idea of shared experiences, norms, and values that they associate with noodling.”

8. “I think most noodlers find a trade where they use their hands a lot,” Jerry

“Catfish” Rider concurs in Okie Noodling.

9. The majority of noodlers are men, to be sure. Referencing her interviews on

the topic of fish fries, Mary Grigsby observes that their self-perception as big- game hunters is borne out in interesting ways: while, traditionally, men went out to get the fish, women foraged for wild mushrooms and the berries with which they baked pies.