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

Burkhard Bilger, Author
Burkhard Bilger, Author Scribner Book Company $24 (256p) ISBN 978-0-684-85010-8
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 251 pages - 978-0-684-85011-5
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It's refreshing to read a book about Southern subcultures that doesn't bog down in easy caricature or yet another Confederate flag discussion. Bilger, a journalist and features editor at Discover, writes with deadpan grace to capture half-buried worlds, linking the vivid participants to a larger history--whether it be the transatlantic heritage of soul food, the legal and illegal sides of cockfighting in America or the evolution of coondogs since the time of ""the father of coon hunting,"" George Washington. The title essay describes the squirmy practice of ""noodling"" one's bare fingers inside a catfish's underwater hiding place until the toothed fish bites hard enough to be hauled to the surface. In his exploration of Louisiana cockfighting, Bilger pulls off something that easily could have backfired: he contrasts the rooster farm of John Demoruelle (where the cocks are pampered like feathered celebrities) with the anonymous violence of the modern chicken factory. As Bilger tours a Tyson chicken facility, the spectacle of the young birds riding passively to their conveyor-belt deaths complicates the reader's feelings about the comparatively glorious (but bloody) lives of the gamecocks. In other essays--about a South Carolina ""moonshiner's reunion,"" an Oklahoma coon-treeing competition and a visit with Kentuckians whose delicacy is squirrel brains--Bilger always sees past the freak show to get the full, resonant story, often of older cultures retreating before the new. Readers who liked the Southern exotica of Confederates in the Attic or Mullett Heads should enjoy this promising debut about ""the forgotten folkways [that] still inhabit our back roads."" (Sept.)
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