My Christmas reading list

If you’re out there scrambling for last-minute Christmas gifts, you should consider heading to your nearest independently owned bookstore and buy some books.

Books long have been among my favorite Christmas gifts.

I have two books I want to recommend for this Christmas. Both have been released this year, and both are written by erudite Arkansans.

Both of these authors were kind enough, in fact, to appear with Blake Eddins and me on Fresh Talk 93.3 FM in Little Rock this week to talk about their books.

The first book on my list is “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage” by Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

The second book on my list is “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” by Little Rock food and travel writer Kat Robinson with photos by Grav Weldon.

Literature, history, food, Arkansas — all things I like. Whenever I take a break from reading one, I pick up the other.

Let’s start with Ruth’s book.

In 1996, Ruth was leading an eight-county effort to attain national scenic byway status for the Arkansas segment of Crowley’s Ridge, the natural formation that extends 200 miles from just below Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Helena. Ruth needed an attraction in far north Arkansas to promote, and she thought Piggott might provide just such an attraction.

“The Delta Cultural Center and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena anchor the southern end,” Ruth said at the time. “Identifying a northern anchor for the ridge, however, was somewhat problematic.”

She finally focused on the fact that Paul and Mary Pfeiffer had called Piggott home. The couple moved to Piggott in 1913 and eventually acquired 63,000 acres in the area. The Pfeiffers had the first electric refrigerator and stove in Piggott and later led efforts to provide electricity for the entire town.

They also had a daughter named Pauline, who in 1927 became Ernest Hemingway’s second wife. The marriage lasted until 1940, and during that time there were regular visits to Piggott. Hemingway wrote parts of “A Farewell to Arms” along with short stories in the Pfeiffer barn, which had been converted into a place for him to work.

Ruth learned that the Pfeiffer home was for sale. ASU bought the home, which is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Educational Center. After a short break for the holidays, the museum will reopen Jan. 2 and be open each Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and each Saturday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.

Along the way, Ruth determined that she had gathered enough information for a book.

“When I began researching Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway and her family nearly 15 years ago, I was surprised at what little attention the Pfeiffers had received,” she writes in the preface to the book. “Though the Pfeiffers were mentioned by many Hemingway scholars, this family’s impact on Ernest Hemingway and his writing career essentially was neglected. Today, that hasn’t changed significantly, and much of what is written is inaccurate or does not capture the family’s true contributions. Only a few writers, such as Michael Reynolds, have suggested the breadth of the Pfeiffers’ influence, and it was Reynolds who convinced me that this book should be written.”

Ruth attributes the lack of attention to two things:

1. The Pfeiffers were an extremely private family and never publicly discussed their relationship with Hemingway.

2. Pauline died before her former husband did.

“His other three wives had the good health and the good sense to outlast him and contribute their own views of life with Hemingway, thus balancing out the record, if not actually setting things straight,” Ruth writes. “In spite of the greater attention given to Hemingway’s other wives, Pauline lived and worked with him during his most productive period as a writer and bore two of his three children. Thus she deserves more than to be dismissed as a man-chaser who went after Hemingway and broke up his marriage, got what she deserved when the same thing happened to her and ultimately wound up in an unmarked grave.

“Even Pauline’s uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, acknowledged as Hemingway’s financial backer, is mostly ignored except as the man who wrote occasional big checks that helped Hemingway get through the rough spots. Yet Uncle Gus had a profound influence on Hemingway’s career, including gathering research materials, providing sound advice and enabling him to live the lifestyle necessary for his writing success.”

Ruth believes that Pauline actually was a naive women who became “enamored of Ernest beyond all ability to judge or care about right and wrong. Not only did Pauline have the misfortune to fall in love with him, but she continued to love him until the day she died. It is questionable whether Ernest ever truly loved her, though a strong sexual chemistry existed for a time. More likely, he loved everything she brought to the marriage — her family money, her editorial skills, her strong belief in him and her devotion to his every need.”

Ruth admits that Pauline made bad choices.

“Though witty and intelligent, she had little ambition of her own and chose to promote the man she loved rather than attempting anything in her own right,” she writes. “Perhaps her greatest failing was in her role as a mother. When married to Ernest Hemingway, one often had to choose between being a wife and being a mother. Pauline chose being his wife, and in the end she lost both her husband and, to a degree, the respect of her children.”

It is Ruth’s contention, though, that the support of the Pfeiffer family enabled Hemingway to develop the literary style that brought him international recognition.

“Despite her faults, Pauline and her family deserve recognition for the major impact they had on Ernest Hemingway financially, emotionally and artistically,” she writes.

“Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” provides that recognition.

On to pie.

Way back in 1983, famed “Roadfood” authors Jane and Michael Stern did an interview with People magazine.

When asked what part of the country had the best regional cooking, Michael Stern responded: “The Deep South. It’s a stewpot of different influences and dishes. There’s New Orleans Creole, Louisiana Cajun, Southern fried chicken, barbecue, catfish, Arkansas pies, country ham and redeye gravy.”

Yes, he singled out Arkansas for pie.

Asked directly who serves the best pie, he said later in the interview: “Arkansas is the greatest pie state. We found terrific Karo-nut pies in a converted tool shed called Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff.”

Enter Kat Robinson, a former television producer turned food blogger turned communications pro for the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

In the foreword to “Arkansas Pie,” North Little Rock writer Eric Francis states bluntly: “If I’m hungry and I’m in Arkansas, I let Kat Robinson tell me where to eat. I’d be a fool not to.”

In a 2011 response to a website posting in which a bunch a Yankees presumably said Arkansas was identified with “jelly pie” (something none of us had ever heard of), Kat responded: “It’s true, Arkansas has no official state food. But there are foods that originate here. We host the Hope Watermelon Festival, which claims the world’s largest melons, and the Cave City Watermelon Festival, which serves up the (academically asserted) world’s sweetest melons. We produce a fantastic amount of rice and soybeans. … We love sassafras tea and rice smothered in chicken gravy (and rice with just sugar and butter to boot). Our state produces fabulous cheese straws, funnel cake mix, yellow corn grits and muscadine wine.

“We like our pies — oh heavens we do — but we prefer them meringued or creamed or with a little coconut in them.”

After reading Kat’s book — and staring at Grav’s beautiful photos — I’m prepared to agree with Stern that Arkansas is America’s top pie state.

“I suppose in some states a restaurant might be like as not to have pie,” Kat writes. “Here in Arkansas, we love pie. We love its infinite diversity and its infinite combinations (to paraphrase the old Vulcan maxim). We claim so many varieties that the head swivels.

“In Arkansas around the holidays, pecan pie is so prevalent that a dinner table is empty without one. Feuds have broken out over the superiority between sweet potato and pumpkin pie. Restaurants compete over which has the tallest meringue on its coconut or chocolate pies, and you can tell the progressing weeks of summer based on what pie shows up at Sunday dinner.

“Our oldest and most famous restaurants, for the most part, are known for their pies. Every innovative young chef seems to have a special one. Almost every drive-in, diner, family-style restaurant and soul food shack has its own version, and it’s nary a barbecue restaurant that doesn’t have a grand fried pie. You can even find good pie in Chinese restaurants, at service stations and inside flea markets and antique stores. Pie is everywhere in Arkansas.”

The majority of my favorite Arkansas restaurants are in this book — the Bulldog at Bald Knob, Burge’s at Lewisville, the Colonial Steak House at Pine Bluff, Ed & Kay’s at Benton, Franke’s in Little Rock, the Hurley House in Hazen, the Kirby Restaurant at (you guessed it) Kirby, Mama Max’s at Prescott, Neal’s Cafe at Springdale, the Oark General Store in Oark, the Pickens Store at Pickens, Ray’s at Monticello, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales at Lake Village, Sweet Treats at Lamar, the Wagon Wheel at Greenbrier, the White Pig in North Little Rock and Wood’s Place at Camden to name just a few.

Here’s to good reading.

And good eating.

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One Response to “My Christmas reading list”

  1. Jim Brewer says:

    Rex, I have got to carry you to Selma for a plate of the best catfish and hush puppies anywhere at the Country Store! You’ll thank me!

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