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Beth Ann Fennelly: My Noble Prize, Caramelized

Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in Deep South magazine.

By Beth Ann Fennelly
Poet Laureate of Mississippi and UM Professor of English

I’ve won an award or two for my writing, but let’s keep it real: in Oxford, Mississippi, a town with twin passions of literature and food, I received the Nobel Prize the day a menu item was named for one of my books.

Beth Ann Fennelly. Photo via Square Books, by John Cancelino.

Across from the old fire station where novelist Larry Brown used to hang his fireman’s hat, Big Bad Breakfast—a nod to Brown’s Big Bad Love—anchors an unassuming strip mall. Owner John Currence is not merely a James Beard award-winning chef but also a genuine book lover; tomes with Oxford ties by Faulkner, Walker Percy, Barry Hannah, and John Grisham all have dishes named after them.

“Smonk,” an over-the-top novel written by my husband, Tom Franklin, inspired a Smonkburger over-the-topped with cheese, chili, bacon, and a fried egg. The Southern Belly, a grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, is named for the compendium of Southern food history by John T. Edge, director of the University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance. And lastly, there’s the Tender Hooks, named after my second book of poetry, twin crème brulee grapefruit halves.

What can I say? My Nobel is delicious. The succor of lock-jaw-sour-citrus cut with caramelized brown sugar. It’s served with one of those toothy grapefruit spoons. Tapping the spoon against the shell is the grownup version of breaking the birthday piñata. Better, actually, because you don’t have to immediately start fighting your best friends to get a bite.

Beyond taste, Tender Hooks distinguishes itself in two ways. In a restaurant with the motto “Lard have mercy,” the Tender Hooks is arguably the healthiest thing on the menu. And it’s one of two dishes named for a female writer—Donna Tartt is honored with an omelet.

Well, historically the writers who’ve put Oxford on the literary map have been men, but that’s changing. I’ve got a buncha-buncha talented female students at Ole Miss. Save some spots on your next menu, Big Bad Breakfast. When I lift my grapefruit spoon and tap, I love the cracking in the caramelized brown sugar—and maybe in the glass ceiling.

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She’s won grants and awards from the N.E.A., the United States Artists, a Pushcart and a Fulbright to Brazil. She’s the author of six books, most recently Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. She lives in Oxford with her husband and three children.

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