Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes:
Tall Tales & Short Stories

by Meriwether O'Connor

Appalachia North, 2014. ISBN 978-0-692-27809-3.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 10/13/2014

Fiction: Mainstream

The squirrel ate a small hole in the wall. It didn't have to be large, as it was not a raccoon or a dog or even a burglar. But, a squirrel. Who only wanted nuts or cardboard or peanut butter. Or perhaps worse, to chew through brand-new wiring. Or far worse, through older wiring that didn't need any help catching fire. It could do that all by itself, thank you very much.

That squirrel opens the first story in Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes, and introduces readers to the perhaps startling cast of characters—animal, human and plant—that populate the fictional but also powerfully real world of Meriwether O'Connor's slim first book. O'Connor knows and deeply appreciates rural Appalachia, its people and their no-nonsense and sometimes desperately hardscrabble existence. Her meandering writing voice perfectly conjures the culture she writes about, and her choice of details, from one character's flip-flop, which "had about flopped out" to the four-o-clocks spread across the landscape so that "At night, the land was drowsy with their scent. Ladies put on their hats and sat outside on their porches just to dream of France or Timbuctoo or maybe Australia. Places where people smelled like this all day long."

Each character in these stories is someone you could meet in rural Appalachia: vivid, unique and offering a wry and rooted view of life. These lively and opinionated folk and their stories are guaranteed to enlarge your perspective in ways you might never have imagined. And each has a down-to-earth recipe to share, though not the sort you'll likely find in any fine-cuisine magazine or cooking app.

In this extraordinary collection, you'll learn about apartment "rabbits" in New York City and how to catch and cook them, and get to know Gardenia and the unlucky squirrel that ate a hole in her trailer and thus became dinner (to be eaten with strong black coffee, "as hot as you can stand it"). You'll watch as a third cousin touches up the hair of his dead relative with black shoe polish at a funeral, and learn his recipe for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches fried in a cast iron pot. ("Yes, you can use other metals, I understand, but what better skillet is there that can also be used in self-defense?")

After reading Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes, you'll see local food and Appalachian people in a whole new way. And if reading it doesn't cause at least one (perhaps astonished) belly laugh, you may need to get your sense of humor checked. It's not surprising that this collection was nominated for the Weatherford Award (the one Barbara Kingsolver won for Flight Behavior). As Carolyn Chute, author of the best-selling novel The Beans of Egypt Maine, said about O'Connor and her stories: "A strong writing voice like (this) is rare." And, I'd add, very welcome.

Check out our interview with the author of Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes.

Meriwether O'Connor is a goat-farmer in rural Maine who grew up in Kentucky, and has migrated around the country following her heart and her need to live where she can raise her own food and harvest wild edibles from poke to rattlesnake. Before moving to Maine, she lived most recently in New Mexico, where (among other things) she ran a poetry project.

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