December 4, 2020: “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks” by Randal Kenan

Happy Friday, Story366!

Classes are over at MSU now, as today is what they call “dead day,” a day between classes and finals. Right now, I’m in the eye of the hurricane, as I graded a whole bunch of stuff, and now am awaiting assignments and finals to be turned in next week. I actually have a weekend that I don’t have to grade all that much, which is a grace at this time of the year. Will my next week be awful? Let’s just say I’ll be busy.

This semester, I’ve been overly lenient on deadlines, taking work all the way through finals week. Usually, everything would have been due by now, but instead, I gave a blanket extension. It’s been a rough semester for everybody, including me, and there’s really no reason I can think of to not be generous. I’ve had several students report positive tests for coronavirus, most of them getting pretty sick, a whole new experience for me (not to mention them). On top of that, I’ve had quite a few students report other types of illnesses. There’s a lot of stress out there, a lot of people at the end of their ropes, a lot of people who have not adjusted to this new reality, this new modality. If giving them the benefit of the doubt means they still do the assignments, then so be it. Some of them won’t rally, sure, but a some of them will. I’m ready to have a bad few days trying to figure all this out if that means I can help a few students through this. I’ve heard stories of professors who are not taking any of 2020’s shittiness into consideration, which is their right. But I don’t know how I’d live with myself if I didn’t.

Today’s post led me to read from the late Randall Kenan‘s newest book, If I Had Two Wings, out from Norton. Kenan passed away this past August, right when If I Had Two Wings came out, which is of course as tragic as anything. I’ve somehow never read any of Kenan’s work before, so this is an about-time, one that’s come much too late.

The opening story, “When We All Get to Heaven,” is about Ed Phelps, a man visiting New York for the first time in thirty years, just happy to be in the city. He’s amazed by things like fruits stands and flower carts, the beautiful simplicity of all those things in the middle of the city. He’s wondering around, taking a break from a conference he’s attending, when he comes across a crowd of young people on the sidewalk. As he’s weaving his way through, a limo pulls up and out comes two beautiful, barely clad women, followed by some sort of celebrity, whom everyone is waiting to see. The celebrity’s name is Billy, and in a moment, he and Ed are standing face-to-face on the sidewalk, their paths crossing at the right moment. A second later, three of Billy’s goons usher Ed away, but then Billy calls Ed back. He refers to Ed as “Deacon” and explains to a producer who’d been waiting for him that Ed, or the Deacon, is a famous singer in his own right, part of his entourage. Ed goes along with it, swooped up, and before long Billy’s telling the producer that the Deacon is going to play guitar and sing for everyone. Luckily, Ed can actually play guitar and strums some bars of an old hymn. The producer is not amused, wants Billy to go on and fulfill his contract, but will not permit Ed, posing as the Deacon, to go on with him. Ed instead receives VIP seats in a luxury box and watches Billy’s show, which disturbs him more than anything. After, Billy drives Ed back to his hotel—where his wife has been patiently waiting—and the two men part ways.

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” is about a woman named Gloria Brown who has a dream that her daughter will die in a helicopter crash. The daughter, Tamar, is shipping out for her third tour in the Middle East, and is indeed a combat helicopter pilot. The story takes place on the day before Tamar ships out and there is a party planned for later in the day. First, Gloria, who works at a funeral home, helping people plan the ceremonies, has to deal with a customer, an “out-of-towner,” a man who was traveling through the area when he wife dropped dead from a stroke at a local Hardee’s. The man is silent and dumbstruck, his vacation with his wife turned into him escorting her body back to Texas. Gloria thinks about her dream—she’s an empath—while dealing with the man, considering him and his situation, finding a connection between what he’s going through and what she hopes will not happen to her daughter.

My favorite story of those I read is “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks.” This one features a young, unnamed man who is a chef and owns his own restaurant, a modern soul food restaurant where he serves high-priced versions of his mother and grandmother’s recipes.

The story starts with the man and his mother, shucking corn in a field—farm-to-table, you know—when his mother casually drops a line about Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, once visiting her in North Carolina and offering her a job. Our narrator is shocked, asking her to repeat herself, then explain herself, and most of the story, from there, is the story of how one of the world’s most famous billionaire’s showed up at their family house, trying to recruit her.

Kenan starts way back, a couple of generations, as that’s where the seeds of the story lie. There’s a lot about young Howard Hughes, the son of successful man, and the death of his mother, which brings him home from boarding school. Young Howard fiddles with this and that, forming the personality that will be his for life, and one day stumbles upon our narrator’s grandmother, cooking in the kitchen. On orders from Howard’s father, she makes simple meat and potatoes, but this time, Howard finds her cooking beans spiced with ham hocks—where the title comes from—which is unlike any food he’s ever eaten. Jump ahead a lot of years and Hughes’ father dies, leaving Howard with their budding fortune, which he turns into an empire, as well as a persona. He sells the Texas house where he grew up and moves to Hollywood, and our narrator’s grandmother is handed her final check by a lawyer, never seeing Howard again.

Meanwhile, our narrator’s family’s story is told, too, interwoven between the bits about Hughes, often overlapping. The grandmother, after her job with the Hughes family ended, moved to North Carolina, started a family, passing down her recipes to her daughter, our narrator’s mother. That mother is not a cook or chef, but still makes her mother’s recipes, which she makes for our narrator, inspiring him, one day, to become a chef and serve this food—with some foodie alterations—for the paying public.

Mom does recount the story of Hughes recruiting her for a job, but I won’t relay what happens in that exchange, or how Kenan ends this story. It’s a heartwarming tale, though, one with the quirky celebrity run-in, a really complex but rewarding structure, not to mention all the good-sounding food that makes me want to go to this fictional restaurant.

I came to Randall Kenan’s work much too late, enjoying If I Had Two Wings today, just a few months after the book came to us and Kenan left us. This is a special book, centered in Kenan’s North Carolina, featuring a variety of characters in an eclectic mix of predicaments. I very much enjoyed my time with this book today, which will certainly land on my best-of list at year’s end.