In the summer of 1986, an unusual book with a peculiar title was rocketing up the New York Times best seller list. The book was titled “White Trash Cooking,” and it was written by Ernest Matthew Mickler of Ponte Vedra.
Ernie Mickler was born in 1940 in a portion of Ponte Vedra known as Palm Valley. Back in those days, Palm Valley was home to shotgun shacks and moonshine stills. It was old Florida. That is what Ernie wrote about. It wasn’t so much the recipes; it was a look inside a culture that was already fading away.
Ernie was a storyteller. The South, he said, “is legend, on top of legend, on top of legend.” Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” called the book “a beautiful testament to a stubborn people.” Reading the book today is like stepping back in time. Many were taken by the photographs. Harper Lee called them “shattering.”
Nowadays, Ernest Mickler’s Palm Valley is overrun by development. It is barely recognizable. He was fond of saying he grew up in “the middle of a swamp” without electricity. He lived in a home with a fabulous oak tree in the yard, down by the bridge, near a place called Papa George’s Fish Camp. Today, there is a different bridge and a different restaurant. But they’re in the same spot.
“White Trash Cooking” was an overnight sensation, selling over 600,000 copies. The original publisher could not keep up with demand and sold the rights to someone who could. Mickler was featured in Vogue and People and newspapers across the country. Ernie appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman.” He set a trash can afire while preparing “Dana Pullen’s Chicken Feet and Rice” on air. Letterman refused to even taste it.
The book included a recipe for broiled squirrel and another for gator tail that was purportedly so good it would make “you wanna lay down and scream.” There were also several recipes for possum. Ernie advised that the only acceptable side dish to serve with possum was sweet potatoes and that you should only eat possum in winter.
The book earned substantially royalties. Most of Ernie’s share went to settle the lawsuits. He got sued by the woman whose picture appeared on the cover and by the Junior League of Charleston, South Carolina. They claimed some of the recipes were plagiarized. He used the rest of the money to buy a home in Moccasin Branch for himself and his partner, Gary Jolley.
He went to work on a second book, “Sinkin’ Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits, and Cravins.” It is still published today under the title “White Trash Cooking II.” Two days after the book was released, Ernest Matthew Mickler died of AIDs. He was 48 years old.
Ernest Mickler is buried in the Sampson Cemetery, next to his mother, surrounded by around 90 other members of the Mickler family. It is a private, family cemetery. In his second book, Ernie wrote about the extended family going out to the cemetery to clean four times a year. He wrote about the food they shared.
In Ernie’s day, you got to the graveyard down a lonely dirt road littered with potholes deep enough to swallow a pick-up. Today, the graveyard is surrounded by a golf course and luxury homes. The road is paved in asphalt. Golfers in brightly colored clothing cruise back and forth in their golf carts.
Scott A. Grant is a Yankee carpetbagger desperately trying to work his way up to scallywag. He writes local history and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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