The following story will be included in Sauceman’s next book, Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia, to be published in the spring of 2014 by Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia.
“Healthiest Location/Rates Reasonable” reads the business card from 100 years ago. As a boy, novelist Thomas Wolfe handed out such cards at the Asheville, North Carolina, train station, sent that way by his enterprising mother Julia, who ran the boardinghouse that would be called Dixieland in her son’s 1929 book Look Homeward, Angel.
Julia Wolfe, who made business deals while her husband, W.O., ran a stonecarving shop on Pack Square, bought the Old Kentucky Home in 1906 and began renting it out to boarders, many attracted to the community by the curative powers of the mountain air. Actors preparing for the Vaudeville stage, shoe salesmen, patent medicine peddlers, temperance crusaders, and newlyweds took meals in Julia’s dining room.
Remarkably, she provided a place to sleep and three meals for only $1 a day. Boarders joked about how far she could stretch a coffee bean, complaining about coffee so weak you could see the bottom of the cup.
Wolfe often worried about the toll the business was taking on his mother. In a letter to her on June 3, 1927, he wrote, “I hope you have given up keeping boarders and roomers:–surely you have enough to keep you without going through that slavery again for third-rate people.”
Tom was always known for his ravenous appetite, especially his capacity for biscuits, and some of the most memorable passages in Look Homeward, Angel describe the heavily laden tables at the boardinghouse. “That is my big extravagance—my ravening gut,” Tom wrote his mother on July 25, 1924, while teaching at New York University. “And when my mind has worked a few hours on books, papers, Creation—it calls for a different sort of food—meat, potatoes, pie.”
Wolfe’s mother often shipped him June apples and peaches from North Carolina, as well as oversized clothing to fit his 6’7” frame from Asheville’s Bon Marché department store. “I can truthfully say you could not have picked out any thing I needed more than socks, handkerchiefs, and ties,” he told her in a letter sent from Brooklyn on October 12, 1931. “I was reduced to two pairs of unmatched socks with holes in the toes, and two neckties, each embroidered with the steak and gravy of the past three years.”
Evoking strong memories of home for Wolfe, steak and gravy was a boardinghouse standard, and this version, reprinted in “Papa Loved Hot Biscuits and Corn Bread: Recipes from the Old Kentucky Home,” published in 1997 by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Advisory Committee, was taken from a cookbook used by Julia Wolfe and her daughter Mabel Wolfe Wheaton.
- Four pieces of round steak, pounded (or use cubed steak), about 20 ounces
- One cup flour
- Salt and pepper to taste
- One egg, lightly beaten
- One and one-half cups milk, divided
- One-fourth cup bacon grease, oil, or shortening
Season flour with salt and pepper. Dredge meat in flour mixture. Mix egg with one-half cup milk. Dip floured meat into milk mixture and then back into flour again. Fry meat in large, heavy frying pan with bacon grease, oil, or shortening. Brown on both sides and remove from pan to drain on soft paper. Keep warm on serving platter in oven. Drain all remaining fat from pan except two tablespoons. Stir in two tablespoons flour mixture and scrape bottom of pan carefully to loosen drippings. Using a whisk, stir in remaining milk and stir over medium heat until gravy thickens. If gravy becomes too thick, add more milk. Salt and pepper gravy to taste and serve over meat.