Maybe it all started when I made that soul-saving apple cobbler a few weeks ago. Stacy and I both marveled at how homey a dish it was, just spoonful after spoonful of comfort, and she began digging through the cookbooks on our shelves — looking for things we could make cheaply at home to bring us a little pleasure during this pandemic.
Soon, I found her poring over a spiral-bound, 160-page cookbook published in 1986 called White Trash Cooking.
When that book was published and almost instantly gained national attention, I was living in New York City. From the first time I saw it on a bookstore shelf, I knew what would happen, and it did: I would be the butt of jokes. The wisecracks soon came.
“Bet you know all those recipes by heart.”
“Did you grow up eating that stuff?”
Well, the fact was, I had grown up eating that stuff, because White Trash Cooking consists entirely of simple recipes made from simple ingredients, things you could buy on the cheap at the grocery store and turn into a treat for your family. The recipe names remind you of titles you see in the countless church cookbooks that sit on almost every Southern cook’s shelves.
Betty Sue’s Sister-in-Law’s Fried Eggplant.
Edna Rae’s Smothered Potatoes.
Clara Jane Vickar’s Creamed Tuna Lunch.
Sharing the apple cobbler recipe with the world had given Stacy the idea to pore through old cookbooks, try out the recipes, and rank them for you, our beloved readers and customers. So she set her hand first to Fanny’s Fruit Cocktail Cobbler from White Trash Cooking. It called for only three ingredients: one box of Betty Crocker yellow cake mix, two cans of fruit cocktail, and two sticks of oleo margarine. We live in a butter household: Margarine had never once graced our refrigerator. But when Stacy returned from the grocery store with the cake mix and the fruit cocktail, sure enough we had oleo, too.
Doesn't Everybody Hate Fruit Cocktail?
As for me, I was skeptical at the very best. I sat at too many tables during my childhood where someone had dumped a No. 2½ can of fruit cocktail in a bowl and called it dessert or a side dish, and I had developed a deep dislike for the stuff. Stacy did not tell me before she made Fanny’s Fruit Cobbler Cocktail that she shared my prejudice against the concoction.
“This cannot be good.” That’s what Stacy says she thought when she encountered the recipe. “This sounds disgusting. Fruit cocktail is gross, and canned fruit cocktail is terrible.”
Why she went ahead and made the thing, I do not know, but she soldiered on. The recipe is ridiculously simple. Grease a big oblong cake pan. Dump two 30-ounce cans of fruit cocktail straight into the pan, liquid and all. Spoon the cake mix all over the top of it. Melt two sticks of oleo and pour it over the mix.
I had no idea that she had planned to make the thing, and she did it all while I was at work in my office. All I knew, the next time I took a break, was that I emerged to smell something sweet in the house and there was a cobbler-looking thing cooling on our kitchen counter.
“What is this thing?” I asked Stacy.
“It’s Fanny’s Fruit Cobbler Cocktail, from White Trash Cooking,” she replied.
Remembering Ernie Mickler
I left it on the counter to cool down and began remembering how much I had learned several years ago about the life of Ernest Matthew Mickler (pronounced MIKE-ler), the young man from Palm Valley, Florida, who spent several years of his life pulling the book together before it was published in the spring of 1986. I had edited a story about Mickler in my last job, a wonderful tale by Michael Adno that pieced together Mickler’s life.
Ernie was gay, and AIDS took his life less than two years after White Trash Cooking was published. He had spent his youth living, as he wrote in his book, “in the sticks with all the rest of the Palm Valley hicks.”
I knew none of this background about Mickler’s life when I bought my copy of the book in New York all those years ago. I didn’t know that he had to move to San Francisco, away from his native South, to find a place he could call home. I didn’t know any of that when I bought the book.
But I knew from the moment I bought the book and read it that it was a labor of love.
Mickler had painstakingly collected recipes made by real people with meager resources, added his own beautiful photographs to the mix, and had come up with something that would stand the test of time. When it was published, even Harper Lee wrote she had “never seen a sociological document of such beauty.”
And here we are, still cooking from it almost a quarter-century later.
The Buttery Arms of Betty Crocker
By the time I emerged from thinking about Ernie Mickler’s life, the cobbler was sufficiently cool to taste.
It was amazing. The cloying fruitiness of the canned fruit cocktail was all wrapped in Betty Crocker’s buttery arms. It was delicious.
“I was terribly, terribly wrong,” Stacy says. “It was so delicious.”
Within a day or two, there was more fruit cocktail and Betty Crocker in the kitchen, and Stacy split the recipe into two square baking dishes. I heard her holler out the back door at our neighbor, Chris. “Hey, Chris! You gonna be there for a while? I’m gonna bring you a cobbler.”
He loved it, too.
- 1 box of Betty Crocker yellow cake mix
- 2 30-ounce cans of fruit cocktail
- 2 sticks of oleo margarine or salted butter
- Grease a large oblong cake pan well with canola oil or vegetable shortening.
- Pour both cans of the fruit cocktail, liquid and all, into the greased pan.
- Spoon the cake mix over the fruit cocktail so it covers all the fruit. Melt your margarine or butter in the microwave and drizzle it all over the top of the cake mix.
- Bake at 350 degrees for one hour, or until nice and brown.