Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts by Burkhard BilgerNoodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts by Burkhard Bilger

Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts

byBurkhard Bilger

Paperback | May 14, 2002

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Burkhard Bilger vividly captures a world that lies outside the familiar images of life in the United States in the twenty-first century in eight superbly crafted essays about little-known corners of the South. It is a world in which grown men catch catfish with their bare hands, crowds of people cheer on chickens as they fight to the death, and a woman moves into a trailer home when her house burns down just so she can continue hunting 350 nights a year. Bilger records the eccentric and sometimes downright bizarre behavior he encounters with humor and wit but nary a whisper of mockery. In essays that combine history, anecdotes, and personal observations, he describes each activity, its origins, its dangers, and its pleasures. But Noodling for Flatheads is much more than a survey of unlikely pastimes. Through lively portraits of the participants, Bilger illuminates the obsessive individualism that is at the heart of the American spirit.
Burkhard Bilger is a senior editor at Discover, writer for The New Yorker, and series editor for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Title:Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern ComfortsFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8.44 × 5.5 × 0.8 inPublished:May 14, 2002Publisher:ScribnerLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0684850117

ISBN - 13:9780684850115

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Read from the Book

Introduction Books about strange obsessions, like the obsessions themselves, tend to grow out of chance encounters. Mine began, like an old Jack London story, with a search for a dog. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, learning to play country blues guitar and thinking it would be nice to have a lazy coonhound for an audience. In Oklahoma, where I grew up, coonhounds seem to haunt every paper route and country road, to lurk in querulous packs down every gravel drive. Most of my childhood had been spent trying to dodge their teeth, whether on foot or on my blue Schwinn bicycle. But now I found, after years on the East Coast, that I missed their voices. That fall I started calling the AKC and the ASPCA, scanning ads in local newspapers and consulting dog trainers, all to no avail. In New England coonhounds are about as common as wolves. A few people had heard rumors of such dogs, but none had actually seen one in the flesh. Why not a pug, they said, or a nice Brittany spaniel? Finally one day, weeks into my search, I managed to track down a breeder of blueticks. At first, as I stood on his front porch explaining what I wanted, I could see his smile fade through the screen door: his puppies were all spoken for that season, he said. But then, as we talked some more, he suddenly held up his hand. "Hold on a second," he said, turning and disappearing into his house. A moment later he emerged from the shadows with a rumpled document: American Cooner magazine. It was the strangest publication I had ever seen. After half a century of television, it's easy to mistake our sitcoms for ourselves -- to imagine that there's no more to popular culture than Barbie dolls and TV theme songs. But American Cooner came from somewhere beyond the range of most antennas. Its closely typeset pages contained dozens of articles about coon hunters and their exploits, interspersed with snapshots of the hounds in action: front paws high up on tree trunks, eyes gone white from the photographer's flash, mouths bawling hysterically at a coon somewhere above. Here and there, advertisements for kennels referred cryptically to "Grand Nite Champions," "cold-nosed, chop-mouth dogs," and "chilled semen for sale." I had no idea what they meant, and it was hard to imagine that thousands of people out there did. Yet American Cooner was a fat, glossy monthly, chock-full of ads. Leafing through page after page of coonhound arcana, I realized there was a side to Oklahoma that I had missed growing up, a hidden history and landscape that even locals might not see. While I had moved about in what seemed a nine-to-five world -- where dinner was always at six and every porch light snapped off at ten -- a few of my neighbors spent half their waking hours in the woods. When the rest of us went to bed, the coon hunters among us were just fully awakening, keyed to their dogs' unearthly voices and the forest's nocturnal pulse. The wonder, to me, wasn't that people did such things, but that they published magazines about it and compiled coon-hunting histories, maintained century-old bloodlines, and held week-long competitions. Here was a full-blown subculture -- one with its own rites, rituals, and deeply rooted lore. And I had heard of it only when I moved a thousand miles away. In years since, I've come across even more obscure publications -- a cockfighting magazine called Feathered Warrior, for instance -- each of which speaks to a clandestine culture of its own. Few of them can be found on newsstands, just as their virtual alter egos can't be found on lists of hot Internet links. But like samizdat publications in the former Soviet Union, they reach their audience just the same. This book explores a few of those hidden worlds -- worlds that exist just around the corner, through the looking glass of American life. Each chapter circles in on a specific southern tradition: cockfighting in Louisiana, moonshining in Virginia, soul-food cooking in Georgia, and so forth. The book as a whole, however, is less about the traditions themselves than the hardy, tenacious communities that have come to entangle them, like wild vines around an underground spring. I won't pretend that the result is a comprehensive portrait, or even an internally consistent one. Religion isn't here, for one thing, and race only briefly. Some of these traditions are illegal, others merely obscure; some ancient, others ultramodern. But the people who practice them share an undeniable kinship. Unlike so many of us, bent on wealth, promotion, or a few seconds of prime time, they cling to dreams that force them ever deeper underground. They hide their liquor under floorboards, make chitlins late at night when the family is asleep, or practice marbles in forest clearings. The more chilling their isolation, the brighter burning their obsessions -- and their loyalty to those who share them. I now think that rumpled copy of American Cooner was less a magazine than a secret handshake, the opening clue in a scavenger hunt. It eventually led me to a half-lame coon hunter in western Massachusetts and through him to a six-month-old redbone, the lonesome runt of a broken-chain litter. Hattie is a dead ringer for the dogs I grew up with (though her disposition is sweeter) and sometimes she even howls on pitch when I play the guitar. But if she helps dispel my homesickness, it's not the way I imagined. Home, she reminds me, is a place as foreign as it is familiar -- one you can go back to again and again, as if for the first time. Copyright © 2000 by Burkhard Bilger

Table of Contents


Contents

Introduction

Noodling for Flatheads

IN WHICH A FISH NEARLY EATS THE AUTHOR?S ARM.

Enter the Chicken

IN WHICH A SPORT BELOVED BY WASHINGTON AND LINCOLN IS DECLARED UN-AMERICAN.

Moonshine Sonata

IN WHICH THE AGE OF THE MICROBREWERY MEETS THE MODERN POLICE STATE, WITH INTOXICATING RESULTS.

Mad Squirrels and Kentuckians

IN WHICH NEITHER CHANGING CUSTOM, NOR PUBLIC OPPROBRIUM, NOR LEARNED MEDICAL OPINION CAN DISSUADE SOME PEOPLE FROM EATING A SMALL RODENT?S BRAIN.

The Mall of the Wild

IN WHICH A GEORGIA MAN, DREAMING OF THE ULTIMATE GAME FARM, CALLS FORTH A PLAGUE OF FROGS.

Send in the Hounds

IN WHICH DOGS CHASE RACCOONS, HUNTERS CHASE DOGS, THE AUTHOR CHASES HUNTERS, AND NO ONE KNOWS EXACTLY WHY.

Low on the Hog

IN WHICH A COOK?S SOUL IS TESTED BY A PLATE OF STEAMING INTESTINES.

The Rolley Holers

IN WHICH A FEW GOOD MEN, ARMED ONLY WITH THEIR THUMBS, CRUSH THE BRITISH AND MAKE THE FRENCH CRY.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Editorial Reviews

Caroline Fraser Outside A fascinating look into rural America's intimate, uneasy relationship with the animal life that surrounds it -- both wild and domesticated.