Author Ernest J. Gaines grew up in Pointe Coupee Parish just northwest of Baton Rouge and is one of Louisiana’s most accomplished writers. I’m so mad at myself for not having read his work before now. Parental exhaustion and bedtime Netflix have snaked their way into my pleasure reading habit, but I’m rectifying that. I just finished A Lesson Before Dying this week, and now I’m floating in the good book fog. Good, but painful.
Food Factors Big in A Lesson Before Dying
Gaines tells the story of Jefferson, a young African American man from a plantation community who is an accidental accomplice to armed robbery and murder. The book is set in South Louisiana in the 40’s, and the jury ignores the case’s nuances and finds Jefferson guilty. In the sentencing phase, Jefferson’s public defender pleas for life in prison over the death penalty by arguing for Jefferson’s ignorance, which he says is akin to “a hog.” You wouldn’t put a hog to death because it knows not what it does, he declares. The argument fails.
The heart of the story is the attempt of Jefferson’s godmother, his “Nannan,” as godmother’s are historically called in Cajun communities, to enable Jefferson to go the electric chair with his head high and believing that he is, indeed, a man. She calls upon a family friend, the community’s young African American teacher, Grant Wiggins, to help her achieve this. Grant, with his own emotional baggage in tow, begrudgingly obliges and the story unfolds from there. It’s a beautiful book, rhythmically narrated by Grant, thick with the layered pain of the segregated South but also hopeful and redemptive.
It’s hard not to read this book through the lens of food. The meals that Jefferson’s aging godmother Emma prepares are a huge factor in the story. They gird her efforts to reach Jefferson as he languishes in the courthouse prison of Gaines’s fictional Bayonne (based on the town of New Roads). Emma sends fried chicken and sweet potatoes carefully wrapped in paper through Grant, and Jefferson’s initial response to them demonstrates his emotional state. Later, it’s gumbo and rice, which Emma manages to serve to him around a set table in the prisoners’ commons area. Each time Emma’s meals are described, you can feel their back story – the careful preparation, the way she must have learned to achieve flavor on a meager budget, the intentionality of cooking for a young man whose days are, literally, numbered. Jefferson’s last meal, which he describes in the chapter comprised of his journal, is a big pivot point in the story.
Published in 1993, A Lesson Before Dying is a must read with continuing relevance. One of it’s most revealing points of entry is its treatment of South Louisiana’s African American foodways.
There’s more on the topic of food in A Lesson Before Dying. Here’s a link to an article archived by the Louisiana Folklife Program.