- A Good Mayonnaise is Hard to Find:Flannery O'Connor and Culinary Codependency
Flannery O'Connor loved mayonnaise. Her culinary tastes, unlike her literary tastes, tended to be bland and conventional, and she used mayonnaise as her universal condiment on both sweet and savory dishes. While she attended the writer's workshops at the University of Iowa, she craved mayonnaise, which she was unable to find in Iowa City, and she pleaded with her mother for weeks to send her some in the mail. The letters between O'Connor and her mother, Regina, are interesting not only for their insight into O'Connor's palate but also for what they suggest about food as a signifier for mother-daughter relationships in her stories. She and her mother had a complicated relationship, and the letters are a revealing record of their passive-aggressive codependency. Mother-daughter relationships in O'Connor's stories are similarly complicated, and food often operates as a signifier for maternal codependency in her mother-daughter stories in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find.
O'Connor was an awkward, shy young woman with an overprotective and domineering mother, and going to graduate school in Iowa City was the first time she lived away from her mother. Regina Cline O'Connor protected her only child from infancy. In Flannery: A Life, Brad Gooch describes their relationship as "intimate, though fraught" (27). Regina doted on her only child. When Flannery was a baby, Regina pushed her through the streets of Savannah in an elaborate perambulator monogrammed MFOC, and "the word used over and over by friends to describe O'Connor's childhood is 'protected, or, just as often, overprotected'" (Gooch 20). As the family struggled through the Great Depression and Edward O'Connor's illness, Regina took control of the family's affairs, including wrangling their stubborn, intelligent daughter, who refused to conform to the standards of Southern [End Page 29] femininity. Their relationship was complicated in part because they both had strong personalities that were expressed in different ways; Regina was a gregarious, overbearing extrovert, and Flannery was a sarcastic, intellectual introvert. Despite their differences, they were also tightly bonded, and they were apart for only five years, from the time Flannery went to Iowa in 1945 until she was diagnosed with lupus in 1951. After her diagnosis, Flannery returned to the "loving but dictatorial care of her mother," and they lived together until Flannery's death in 1964 (Cash 145). Toward the end of her life, O'Connor confided to Sally Fitzgerald that her greatest fear was "that her mother would die before she did," which indicates the degree to which she depended on her mother during her extended illness (xii). Considering their close and complicated proximity, it is unsurprising that mother-daughter relationships are a recurring theme in O'Connor's stories.
While Flannery O'Connor was at the University of Iowa, she wrote to her mother nearly every day.1 Not only did they exchange letters almost daily, but if Regina missed a day, Flannery would also comment on it in her next letter. These letters indicate the depth of their bond and illuminate the most important relationship in O'Connor's life. Because these letters are in the collection that was made available at Emory University in 2014, they are not among the letters in The Habit of Being or the Library of America edition Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, so they add a newer level of insight to O'Connor's experience in Iowa and her relationship with her mother. On her first day alone in Iowa, for example, she wrote to her mother "there aren't many southerners up here that I can see" (September 24, 1945), and a month later, she wrote that she had dinner with three girls, one of whom is "colored," which Regina apparently disapproved of (October 27, 1945). The archive only contains the letters from Flannery to Regina, so we miss the other side of the correspondence and are left with the eerie feeling of listening to one side of a conversation, but the letters still vividly illuminate the complexity of...