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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of Possums, Betty Talmadge and cookbooks

bettytalmadge.jpg
Memory is stirred in the strangest ways.

First, I need to provide the background:

It's been a year or two since I offered free opossums to anyone who would like to make a tasty Old South meal of them.

At least 40 of the marsupials, like the ghostly-looking one below, have crashed through our cat door to dine healthfully on the kittites' Science Diet. They don't care if I'm sitting nearby. The adult ones glare at me if I make a move. The cats step back and watch.

Wayne has gotten very good at seizing the toothy monsters by the tail and dropping them into a cat carrier. He then transports them across the street to Grant Park. (No, they do not return. We note pigmentation.)

But we've never cooked one.

So, Googling the edible creatures, I came across a recipe on "Bert Christensen's Weird & Different Recipes." It is from "Betty Talmadge's Lovejoy Plantation Cookbook" (1983). Betty was the ex-wife of Herman Talmadge, longtime Senator and former Governor of Georgia. She died in 2005.

I used to hang out occasionally with Betty in the early '80s. I met her through Larry Ashmead, my editor at HarperCollins. Her divorce had not been amiable. In fact, she testified against her ex-husband in a Senate Ethics Committee hearing. After refusing to discuss her divorce with anyone for several years, she granted me the first such interview. It was published in "Atlanta Weekly," the old Sunday magazine supplement of the AJC.

Betty invited me to lunch a handful of times at her famous home, Lovejoy Plantation. The fare was always simple. In fact my first lunch there with Larry was a white-bread sandwich made with slices of Vidalia onion and tomato. Larry, a sheltered New Yorker, was mystified.

She gave me a copy of her (much better) first cookbook, which blends recipes with memoir — "How to Cook a Pig and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes" (1977). Lunch at Betty's often included the Talmadge Farms cured ham for which she was famous. She had sold the hugely successful company by then, but still promoted the ham in every way. I recall pillows shaped like hams with the Talmadge label. The original plantation itself was allegedly the inspiration for the Tara of "Gone with the Wind." Betty told me she had bought the original sets for the movie.

Her first book, although mainly stressing her role as a hospitable Senate wife and cook, does sound a mildly feminist tone in the final chapter, "After the Dishes are Done — What Then?" After her husband filed for divorce — she learned about it while watching a TV news program — that independent voice grew stronger.

We talked about that a good bit and at least once discussed the subject of "gay liberation" too. You'd never know the reference, but here is what she wrote in the book she gave me, dated June 19, 1982 (after she gave me a birthday lunch):

"This book is guaranteed to liberate you — in cooking, that is!"

Yes, a gruesome possum brought back a sweet memory.

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