- The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks
Every man has a price.Howard R. Hughes Jr.
My mother did not tell me about Howard Hughes's visit to Tims Creek on her death bed; she had first mentioned that curious bit of family history several years before, while we shucked and cleaned ears of sweet corn, fresh from the field, each kernel pearl white and sweet like candy.
"Who?" I had said, absently, thinking I had misheard her, focusing instead on how good it was going to be to boil up these ears and add a bit of salt, a knob of butter—you simply couldn't get corn like this in L.A.
The radio had been playing, and at the top of the news had been a report about another settlement in the ongoing battle over the will of the late, great, reclusive multigazillionaire. "Who's that?" I repeated.
"Howard Hughes," Mama said. "Came and asked me to come to work for him."
I didn't drop the corn, exactly, for I believed I had misheard, misunderstood, misapprehended my mother, but I did squeeze it a tad overmuch, regrettably causing an unsightly bruise.
"What do you mean 'Howard Hughes wanted you to work for him'?" She had my attention now.
"Oh, it was a long time ago. We were living back at the other place. In Mama's house. Your daddy was stationed in the Philippines. Your sister was just a little bitty thing."
"What are you talking about?"
She gave me that look that only a woman who had taught elementary school for decades can muster.
"Howard Hughes wanted me to come work for him." [End Page 67]
There is a moment, when someone you've known all your born days, someone you respect beyond reason, with the force of superstition, says something so incredible it forces you to recalibrate, rejigger, rethink the blueprints of the universe that you haul around in your head.
Before I could say anything, she said, "Oh, but that was a long, long time ago. Long, long time. Before you were born."
"Why didn't you . . . What? When? Mama, you're joking."
"No." She picked up another ear of corn. "Mr. Thompson sure grew some pretty corn this year, didn't he?"
"What did Howard Hughes . . ." I paused, not certain if I wanted to know the answer to the question I was about to ask. "What did Howard Hughes want you to do for him?"
She laughed, that laugh I now miss so much: girlish, eyes closed, involving the shoulders, not quite coquettish but somehow apology and delight at the same time.
"He wanted me to come cook for him. Can you believe that? The richest man in the world. Shoot."
My abandonment of high finance for food was not gradual. In fact it came to me in a dream, very Old Testament prophet-like. Alone in my bed in my Riverside Drive apartment, I smelled a powerful aroma, so powerful from my childhood (neurologists say that smell hallucinations are a telltale sign of schizophrenia, but I was well past the age of psychotic breaks —past the average age, at least) that in my dream I arose and walked to the kitchen, and there on the butcher's block (I didn't actually own a butcher's block at the time, but it seemed right that I would, in this olfactory dream of mine) a sumptuous spread glistened and steamed, foods from my North Carolina boyhood undreamed of on the Upper West Side. Chitlins. Pig feet. Headcheese and sweetbreads. Chicken feet. Gizzards and livers. There were sweet potatoes and tomatoes and collard greens and okra and squash and, yes, sweet corn.
Before long in walked a woman, naked, save for one of those pirate hats with the great plumes jutting up and out and over, vividly red it was and full and large, which, all together, is undeniably sexy, and which, for this narrative would be a digression—needless to say when I awoke it was the aromas, the sights, the warm feelings of the food that lingered with me most.
I waited for...