Bailey White may be best known for her holiday stories broadcast on NPR, but the Georgia-born writer, a graduate of Florida State University, has also written a charming novel filled with quirky, small-town characters who say peculiar things, such as "People knew how to die back in those days," which is countered by, "They didn't know how to die any better than we do. They just told it better." In the novel, Quite a Year for Plums, Roger, an expert on peanut plant diseases, discovers his wife Ethel has run off with a Nashville musician, but he ends up taking care of her aging mother — his mother-in-law — who has started obsessing about extraterrestrials and losing her way around the small Georgia town where she has lived all her life. Into this story wanders Della, an artist who produces paintings of birds. An anxious woman, she has an unfortunate tendency to clench her teeth. She also frets about the decline of a particularly attractive breed of chicken. Roger meets Della by way of the explanatory notes she affixes to objects she leaves at the town dump. ("This fan works, but it makes a clicking sound and will not oscillate.") He promptly falls in love with her, but can't come close to enchanting her as much as the colorful birds she adores.
This book turns out to be as smart as it is silly. The author allows her eccentric characters to provide the humor that makes the story so endearing, but also uses them to pursue bigger themes — something about the ghosts of "a gone world," for example, and something else about the consuming demands that the creation of art places on mere mortals. And by showing how hapless her characters appear in the modern world, White seems to mourn the passing of small-town life even as she gently mocks it. "All day long I study cause and effect," Roger says. "I'm good at it, but it's not helping me." With that comment he deftly captures the difficulty of living in a world too complex to figure out, and too busy to place much stock in the simple pleasures of life.
A lush layer cake seems to capture the essence of Southern hospitality, and few cakes are more Southern than hummingbird cake, so rich and sweet that each bite supposedly makes you hum with delight. Variations abound, since everyone seems to have a favorite recipe, but all of them include plenty of fruit, nuts, and sugar. If the cake itself isn't rich enough for you, the cream cheese frosting will definitely put it over the top.
If you don't have the time or inclination to bake, a nice banana or carrot cake with cream cheese frosting will approximate the taste and texture of hummingbird cake. If your bakery doesn't have what you're looking for, check the frozen food section of the grocery store, where you'll find some very respectable cakes waiting to be defrosted.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.