Randall Kenan’s Favorite Food

PS Winter Issue Contributor Interview Series #1

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Randall Kenan's humorous and enlightening short story about relations between the rich and the poor, "The Eternal Glory That is Ham Hocks", is featured in our Winter 2012-2013 issue. In the first of our Winter Issue interviews, Kenan discusses notorious business magnate Howard Hughes, the presence of the story's narrator, and what it all has to do with food: 


Your story involves a real historical person–the business magnate Howard Hughes. How did you decide on him? Was there ever a question as to whether you'd use a fictional character or a real one? What do you see as the value of blending history and fiction in this way?


I have been fascinated by Hughes since I was a boy, when he was still roaming about the planet in his mysterious fashion.  Years back I set out to write a story about Hughes coming to Tims Creek, and tried to find a plausible reason to get him there.  Food became the most logical key, the most human, even greater than love or money. 


I have always enjoyed using historical figures and events in my fiction.  It feels very like using “found art.”  I remember reading E.L. Doctorow’s "Ragtime" as a kid.  It made a huge impact on my imagination.


The story starts out in a kind of "present" and then moves into the narrator's family history. Why did you choose this temporal structure to tell the story? How do you feel the past of the story informs the present?


I needed a somewhat omniscient first person narrator to fill in the blanks of the story.  Obviously the story is a stretch in credulity.  Having a narrator who could smooth over and link elements made the most sense to me.  It also allows me to tell several stories at once – the story of his mother, his grandmother, Hughes’ story and his story.


When you came to UNL as a visiting writer a couple years back, I had the good fortune to be able to take a workshop with you. I remember your "getting to know you" question: "What is your favorite food?" But I don't remember what you said! This is relevant because the sensuous qualities of food play such a large part in "The Eternal Glory that is Ham Hocks." Are you often inspired by food? Do you see connections between cooking and writing? And yes, please remind me of your favorite food.


The older I get the more I see love of food – aside from times of pure gluttony and self-medication – as a pure expression of self (and maybe even in those cases as well).  I learned a lot from reading M.F.K. Fisher, a great American original.  It’s more about eating than about food, the Art of Eating, as she called it.  A human being’s relation to food can reveal so much about character. The metaphors that link cooking, eating and writing are inexhaustible.

My favorite food is always in flux, but when I’m about to be executed, I think my last meal will still be two dozen raw oysters on the half-shell, with lemon and horse-radish and Tabasco.  Ice-cold vodka would make it perfect, but I don’t think they allow alcohol on Death Row.