Flannery O’Connor made the peacock as familiar a cachet of Southern fiction as the Persians made the phoenix of mystical iconography. The two great birds can still be found together in Georgia, O’Connor’s peacock feathers shared with countless established and aspiring writer-friends of hers, and the fabled phoenix on the great seal of the City of Atlanta. How fowl came to play so large a role in O’Connor’s imagination is as mysterious as the phoenix of legend, but the chronology of her interest in birds and their eggs is recorded in her letters. The record begins early and earnestly: she wrote on March 3, 1957, of eating a good egg for breakfast, which left her “galvanized for the rest of the day.” No reader of her stories or her letters can doubt that whether from eggs or from some other source of inspiration, O’Connor was indeed “startled into sudden activity.” Seven months later, on October 8, she writes of “keeping my mind on the important things, like peachickens.” By Groundhog Day of the following year, the behavior of the fowl has become for her a kind of metaphor for human behavior, for she can “understand their world thoroughly.” By May 6 of the next year, she doesn’t “know how I could live without them birds”; by March 29, 1961, the significance of the birds reaches a new level, for “I have six geese setting, so my cup runneth over.” It is a world in which “everything [is] hatching or squawking or strutting” (June 5, 1963). The numerous references to fowl in these letters often have about them the feel of chicken-scratchings themselves, deft, terse, quick strokes at the conclusion of letters to intimates, usually women, usually writers. They convey an authenticity about her observations of the passage of season and event, as though they were entries in a Georgia version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

An oddity about the striking frequency and enthusiasm of the references to fowl is that while the letters are full of mention of chickens of one sort of another, the stories, on the other hand, are full of references to breakfast, traditionally in the South a heavy meal built around eggs, yet the two interests, birds and eggs in the letters and breakfast in the stories, never quite mix. The letters aren’t about meals at Andalusia; the stories are about many breakfasts, but almost no eggs or anything else specific to eat. Despite all the talk about fowls in her letters, it is not the functional, useful guinea she favors, but the birds of great beauty, of aesthetic value only, the pea fowl, and later the swans. Though she is Southern fiction’s most intense ironist, O’Connor’s interest in the fowl is not as authentic as her irony is unerring. The stories, on the other hand, use the traditional breakfast setting with almost utilitarian regularity as the starting point for each new day’s great activities.

O’Connor’s stories almost all take place at home, usually on the farm, and are all devoted largely to the simpler, mostly necessary functions of life. So it is not surprising that mealtime figures significantly in them. Yet O’Connor was not especially interested in food or cooking or recipes or favorite dishes of the people she wrote about. Every story but two—“The Turkey” and “The Geranium”—of the thirty-one in Collected Stories, involves at least a little eating, and often a complete meal. But the paucity of details about those meals suggests that, like her beautiful pea fowl with their utilitarian eggs, while mealtime itself was important to her, food was not. O’Connor’s great interest is her characters’ motivations for why they do the things they do, and motivation just happens to arrive as often at mealtime, especially breakfast, as at any other time.

The reader familiar with the rural central Georgia settings of most of Flannery O’Connor’s stories might have expected some excesses with food and eating and drinking. O’Connor’s people are the bizarre, the maimed, the aberrant—those characters and characteristics often labeled “grotesque,” or “gothic”—all people who could easily have been shown to have the exaggerated tastes of the traditional rural lower middle class—in short, the tastes and preferences of the Southern redneck, and that could easily have included the traditional cuisine of the South and less than flattering scenes of dining. She might easily have more widely used a table fare better known to Americans since the presidency of one of O’Connor’s not too distant neighbors. So if O’Connor had been intent on the aroma of collard greens boiling in fatback, it could easily have been arranged by and for her characters. Table settings of corn pone and grits and catfish and fried green tomatoes—even chitterlings—would not have strained credulity. But despite expectations, such scenes remain only implied in these stories, and sometimes not even implicit. Ruby Hill (“A Stroke of Good Fortune”) has not cooked collard greens in five years, and wouldn’t be doing so now if her brother Rufus hadn’t just returned from the war in Europe with a hunger for some fresh greens. Furthermore she won’t be buying or cooking such again, either; she “would have thought that after two years in the armed forces Rufus would have come back ready to eat like somebody from somewhere; but no. When she asked him what he would like to have special, he had not had the gumption to think of one civilized dish—he had said collard greens.” Not even a season in France can change the habits of some Southerners when it comes to eating. O’Connor could have made much of such propensities, but chose not to, though she did little to sophisticate them and found it humorous when they left home and acquired sophistication beyond their origins.

One reason for the lack of sophistication these characters show concerning food is that they are, for the most part, country people, and they nearly always dine at home. Only a few of her characters spend any time worrying about restaurants and menus. Enoch Emery’s trips to the Frosty Bottle for a chocolate malted milkshake (“The Heart of the Park”) and to the Paris Diner for split pea soup and yet another chocolate milkshake (“Enoch and the Gorilla”) nearly double the number of restaurants patronized in thirty-one stories, though he is not even properly a short story character, having appeared in stories before they were gathered as chapters into Wise Blood. Besides Enoch, Tom Shiflet abandons Lucy Nell Crater to her ham and grits at the Hot Spot on the road to Mobile (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”), and Harry Ashfield knows his mother and father will be “out cold until one o’clock, and that they would all have to go to a restaurant for lunch,” which is not for him sufficient reason to delay his own self-administered second but ultimate baptism in “The River.” Surely the most memorable restaurant meal served in Flannery O’Connor’s terrain is the barbecued sandwiches served to Bailey and his wife and mother and the children, June Star and John Wesley (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), at Red “Sammy” Butts’ restaurant, The Tower, in a clearing near Timothy, Georgia. Mr. Head and Nelson (“The Artificial Nigger”) reflect the typical response of the O’Connor character. They don’t eat on the train or while in Atlanta. Their only meal of the day, despite the predawn departure of their train, is at home, an early breakfast, before setting off on a memorable journey.

A special mention should be made of the “Co-Colas”when Red Sam sends his wife, “a tall burnt-brown woman with hair and eyes lighter than her skin,” back to the kitchen for them. To put a Coke in the hands of a character can make the scene as authentically Southern as a martini can identify a Broadway theater scene, or tea on the table can authenticate a Devonshire vicarage. But for a writer very much concerned with eating and drinking in a Southern locale, O’Connor little avails herself of one of the most enduring signs of the Southern countryside, an opportunity Bobbie Ann Mason wouldn’t have passed up. O’Connor’s world is Coca-Cola country, USA. Mr. Head and Nelson, coming into Atlanta by train, could see the signs of much good Southern cooking in the billboards for “Southern Maid Flour,” “Patty’s Peanut Butter,” and “Southern Mammy Cane Syrup.” They doubtless passed right by the world headquarters of refreshing Coca-Cola, but it must only have been observable from a window on the opposite side of the train, or they surely would have mentioned seeing it. And a few other folks drink Coca-Colas. Mrs. Cope brought all three of her dubious young visitors Cokes with their plate of crackers (“A Circle in the Fire,” 181), and John Wesley is at the Coke machine before and after Sally Poker’s graduation from teacher’s college in a record-breaking heat, in life and in death for his hapless charge, the redoubtable General Tennessee Flintrock Sash (“A Late Encounter With the Enemy”). Even Mr. Head, on the very streets of Atlanta, suggests to young Nelson that they get a “Co-Cola somewheres.”

These stories are about meals and mealtime, but not very much about food. Beyond a few drinks, four or five restaurant meals, and the occasional Coca-Cola, O’Connor writes often of meals, but little of food itself. A few characters enjoy candy. One of the “Temples of the Holy Ghost” brings a plastic pistol filled with candy home from her date at the fair. Harry Ashfield takes a transit token and a roll of Life Savers from his mother’s purse, and shortly thereafter observes Mr. Paradise having an orange drink, but Harry does not see Mr. Paradise get a peppermint stick “a foot long and two inches thick, from the candy shelf, and st[i]ck it in his hip pocket.” Mrs. Cope’s three visitors refuse guinea with their sandwiches, just as Mary Fortune refuses Grandfather Pitt’s offer of ice cream (“A View of the Woods”). John Wesley and June Star’s Granny was courted by Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia, who once brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon, until an innocent little boy mistook Teagarden’s initials for directions. The melon didn’t help Mr. Teagarden win Granny, but O. E. Parker won his wife, first with apples, then with peaches, and finally with cantaloupe, only to discover her a very mediocre cook. Surely the most bizarre snack is the aphrodisiac cigarette that Mr. Shortly appears to eat for Mrs. Shortly, but it works: in fact, “it nearly drove her wild every time he did it, she wanted to pull his hat down over his eyes and hug him to death” (“The Displaced Person”). Rufus Johnson, beneficiary of Sheppard’s largess, offers both the saddest, searching alley way garbage cans, and the most appealing of snacks, sending Norton to the kitchen for a ham-on-rye and a glass of milk (“The Lame Shall Enter First”).

Revealing as these snacks are, they cause little change for O’Connor’s characters. As a good mother might have warned them, before the era of transient school children and omnipresent fast-food outlets, snacks will do little for the real appetites. The food of these snacks is at times more picturesquely specific than meals, but it is at mealtime, whatever the menu, that the lives of these people undergo change. Mealtime often highlights the more dramatic moments in the lives of members of the family. Thomas eschews the comforts of dining at the table at home with his mother when he must appear to embrace “Star Drake” as his companion at the table (“The Enduring Chill”). Pitts always beat Mary Fortune after “rising slowly from his place at the table.” But eating is just eating, food is just food. Mealtime, on the other hand, is ritual and, like other rituals, it is from the moments spent ritualistically at mealtime that these characters’ lives take direction.

Flannery O’Connor lived in a simpler, less urban South, at a time when dinner was served at noon, and lunch hadn’t been invented. Supper was then the only evening meal, before dinner became a meal all Americans, Southerners as well as all the rest, eat in the evening; it was a time before supper became a breakfast that theatergoers eat after the play. She wrote of a time before the ascendancy of the antepenult turned advertisement into advertisement, Caribbean into Caribbean. It was a time before every destination in the South required a change of airplanes in Atlanta. It was a time before “breakfast” was a verb, but Bissel still was a verb, before the Bissel floor cleaning would itself give way to “Hoovering,” once the widespread availability of electricity in private homes popularized the vacuum cleaner.

Dinner at noon was an occasion, even when it was only a picnic. Mr. Head packs biscuits and sardines, the symbolic loaves and fish, but forgets and leaves them on the train at Union Station in Atlanta, where they satisfy the hunger of another. Mr. Head and Nelson then go all day with nothing to eat, smelling the dinners cooking in the Negro quarters they traverse on their way into town. On another picnic outing, Mrs. Connin takes a basket of food to the healing service on “The River,” but pushes her boys away so they won’t “linger by the food.” Others aren’t as careful with their picnics as Mrs. Connin. After the Ordinary has married them, Tom T. Shiflet and Lucy Nell drive back by the house to pick up the lunch packed for their honeymoon, but “she had eaten the lunch as soon as they were out of the yard.” John Wesley and June Star are hungry soon, too, on the road to Florida, and eat the picnic lunch when they finish reading their comic books. Mrs. Cope is in a hurry, too, and “ate her dinner hastily” when the boys don’t leave on time. The reader must lament what might have transpired on the picnic with Hulga Hopewell and Manley Pointer if she had actually packed a lunch. O. E. Parker’s artist is so pressed to finish his masterpiece that he skips dinner altogether. Mr. Fortune announces the sale of the “lawn” at dinner one noon. Still, dinner is not the all-important meal of the day. Most of O’Connor’s folks miss it altogether, by choice or circumstance. For the most part, only children and mutes are privileged to eat it. The struggling Pitts family must endure the harshest of news at the dinner table. Miss Kirby, one of the few characters observed eating, “blushed and carried her fork to her mouth with one pea on it” when her landlady’s daughter suggests at dinner that “Cheat” would be an ideal playmate for the Temples of the Holy Ghost.

And if the noon meal is largely an unconsummated act for most of O’Connor’s characters, supper, the evening meal, produces little more. Peas figure here, too, as food seldom does at Flannery O’Connor’s tables. Hulga watches Manley Pointer prevent “his peas from sliding onto the table by blocking them with a piece of bread which he cleaned his plate with.” Sometimes supper is violent: Mrs. May’s request for butter leads to upheaval between Wesley and Scofield. It can offer some pause for reflection. Mrs. Cope thinks her three visitors, hitchhikers from Atlanta, “Looked as if they were used to being hungry, and it was no business of hers.” But supper is not usually an altogether carefree time, such as the supper arranged in the backyard for the two Temples before Wendell and Cory take them to the fair. It can be a fairly momentous event. Sheppard rejoices that he has acquired the prodigal as his own son when he goes in to check on Leola’s supper. At supper Thomas, for the first time, confronts Star Drake, who will rearrange for them all the “Comforts of Home.” Thomas and his mother have just finished supper when Star Drake’s landlady calls, frantic, setting in motion the end of the comfortable life at home. Mrs. Cope thinks she is rid of her three unwanted charges, and “everything was quiet for the rest of the afternoon, but at suppertime” Mrs. Pritchard arrives to report overhearing the evil laugh coming from the hog pen. Mr. Fortune is on his way to supper when he can finally “see” Mary Pitts’ “view of the woods.” Very little food is offered in scenes of some moment in the suppers of these characters.

But while dinner and supper may or may not be important, and few snacks are offered between meals, lives change when these people sit down to their breakfasts. There is apparently something about an old-fashioned, high-cholesterol-era Southern breakfast that gives O’Connor’s characters the wherewithal to resolve what must be done. Thirteen of the thirty-one stories reveal people at breakfast making sometimes almost fierce determinations about certain courses of actions.

The courses of action resolved upon at breakfast do not, however, usually come to fruition. Like the myth of the uncompleted tasks undertaken by heroes of old—Moses leading all the way to but not finally into the Promised Land, Ahab’s failure to destroy Moby Dick even after an arduous and finally disastrous search, or Galahad’s valiant but fruitless quest for the Holy Grail—O’Connor’s characters often come to a high point of resolve, but do not see their quest through to fruition. Perhaps in her mind they were less like Moses or Galahad and more like Christ, who did see His destiny through to Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Transcendence, but left the realization of the Kingdom of God to the efforts of the individual human heart and conscience. Wherever the greater likeness lies, many of O’Connor’s characters exhibit a common point of departure, at home, at breakfast, but also a common failing to achieve the course of action resolved.

Miss Willerton can’t start a short story until after breakfast, which was “in that house . . . always an ordeal” (“The Crop”). Between the pressures of Garner’s Agar-Agar on Cream of Wheat and her own “three spoonfuls of pineapple crush,” the morning meal is sufficiently trying that “It was a relief to crumb the table” afterwards. For “crumbing the table gave one time to think, and if Miss Willerton were going to write a story, she had to think about it first,” and she does think about it, all the way through several possible topics, from bakers to teachers to sharecroppers, and finally hits on her protagonist, Lot Motun, and does her usual best work on a first sentence. But Miss Willerton does not, despite all the inspiration a thorough crumbing after breakfast can provide, finish the tale of Lot Motun, but gives up and rushes on to an improbable tale of the Irish, a story destined never to come to fruition.

W. T. Tanner decides that “Judgment Day” has come for him when, one morning after breakfast in their New York City apartment, he hears his daughter and son-in-law arguing about him. Tanner’s post-breakfast mission is to parcel post himself to Corinth, Georgia, for burial. It is not a mission he realizes, though he is, we are told, finally to be exhumed from his New York grave and re-interred in Georgia. Tanner, in his concern for a mission he is not himself destined to see through even to his daughter’s promise of fruition, illustrates an important Southern motif, a fastidiousness about one’s final resting place. Like the stereotypical Southern gentleman, he would not inquire nosily of the stranger, What do you do?, thus betraying a Yankee American Protestant work ethic perspective, or even, Where are you from? Instead, the answers to all important questions about home and values the Southerner learns in the answer to the one question asked of a stranger, Where does your family bury? Tanner knowingly exchanges a dwelling place for a resting place, and resolves right after breakfast to achieve it.

Sheppard is one of the few among these characters whose breakfast offers an experience of both a beginning and an end. Sheppard tells his son Norton at breakfast, as the child busies himself preparing a feast of chocolate cake with peanut butter and ketchup dressing, that he has seen Rufus again, which is the beginning of the final episode in Sheppard’s compulsive odyssey to adopt the prodigal. Similarly, it is once again at breakfast that Shepard recognizes the end of his reservoir of compassion, the end of his failure to become a father to Rufus.

Asbury Porter Fox, sick with an “Enduring Chill,” refuses breakfast upon arrival in Timberboro, Georgia, from New York; he subsequently does not die the beautiful, lingering death of the artist, the production nearest artistry of any conceived in his imagination. Thomas and his mother are enjoying the comforts of the breakfast table when she first sees “Star Drake’s’’ picture in the newspaper, and sets off on her odyssey to recover Star’s wasting life. She is genuinely good: “The experience of Sarah Ham had plunged the old lady into mourning for the world,” a mourning to be compounded by the further adventures of the breakfast table, including the death of her husband and the pronouncement of Thomas’s ultimatum—“her or me”—though standing, not seated, at the breakfast table.

Breakfast is a time for dramatic resolutions in these stories, and resolve usually takes the place of the action of eating. But at one breakfast table, in the house of Joy and Mrs. Hopewell, perhaps because both at least presume themselves to be women of fairly rigid resolve already, breakfast is more like the time of cooking and eating that it is for most of us. Instead of resolve, Mrs. Hopewell resorts to clichés. Hulga stomps about the kitchen, cooking eggs and carrying them to the breakfast table, but instead of resolve, or even the nihilistic philosophy she professes to Manley Pointer, at breakfast she seems only to swallow her rage with the next spoonful of egg. Breakfast at the Hopewell house, The Cedars, is, at the moment, not an occasion for resolve, but an opportunity merely to deliver Carramae’s morning vomit report.

Elsewhere, however, breakfast is the occasion for the strongest resolve, if not the completion of any resolution. On the morning of his baptism, Harry Ashfield has breakfast on the lap of Mrs. Connin, imitative of a madonna tableau. On the following morning his incredible breakfast of crackers and anchovy paste and ginger ale, of raisin bread heels with peanut butter and chocolate milk, is followed by his even more incredible resolve to baptize himself, to find “the Kingdom of Christ in the river.” When at last he knows “the river wouldn’t have him,” he gives in to the current, his resolve gone, for “all his fury and fear had left him,” his desired goal unrealized.

Mrs. McIntyre requires two mornings at breakfast, each one filled with resolve, before she brings herself to seek out Mr. Guizac for the purpose of firing him, only to be thwarted at the last moment by the untoward, the tractor slipping its gear and sparing her from having to bring her resolve to bear. Mrs. Cope tries to ameliorate her fear of fire in her woods by offering the three young ne’er-do-wells perhaps the only invitation offered to breakfast throughout these stories. But they “got plenty of our own food” and “don’t want nothing of yours,”so her desire, “out on the porch after breakfast” to make sure they quit her place, is accomplished only in the conflagration she dreads above all earthly ills. Mr. Head wakes at two in the morning to race young Nelson to the cooking, eager to commence the trip he thinks will teach Nelson the most impossible of all lessons to learn, “to be content to stay at home for the rest of his life.” The elegant breakfast served the coffee colored Blacks on the train, eating buttered muffins in splendid isolation from all others behind “a saffron-colored curtain,” only serves to remind the reader more of the hopelessness of Mr. Head’s earlier breakfast-time resolve to teach the unteachable lesson.

Old Tarwater dies at the breakfast table, young Tarwater looking on “in a kind of sullen embarrassment, as if he were in the presence of a new personality,” a personality that will try to teach him the lesson of lessons, a lesson that cannot be learned, that “every day is Judgment Day.” Mrs. May is not herself eating but is feeding breakfast to Wesley and Scofield when she instructs Mr. Greenleaf to shoot the bull. It isn’t clear whether on her fateful morning it is with or without benefit of breakfast that she sets out, finally resolved to destroy the bull. But it is the bull’s last breakfast, as Mrs. May wakes for the last time—for both of them—to the sound of his munching her green leaves, before she sets off at exactly eleven o’clock, unaware that despite her resolve to take him in destruction, she is about to give herself to him.

What appears to guide these characters, if not grits and eggs and ham, is the ritual of breakfast itself. The food is so unimportant in comparison with the meal as an event, all dozen or so of these breakfasts end up very nearly without mention of the one essential ingredient, practically the only breakfast indulged by many, and that is coffee itself. Hulga drinks a cup; too full, Nelson has some cold, out of a can; Thomas misses the comfort of fresh cream for his coffee; others of these many momentous breakfasts are utterly devoid of coffee. Food is not important on these tables, for no meal here is ever really eaten. While nearly everyone works on a farm, these farmers produce little to be consumed. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are digging “evil-smelling onions” when they watch Manley Pointer disappear, so they are obviously not Georgia’s world-famous Vidalia onions, or O’Connor would surely not have ridiculed one of the few food crops of any kind mentioned on these pages.

Mealtime is a ritual of human behavior, not an opportunity for this otherwise realistic author to heap on a surfeit of helpings of delicious sounding details. Like the kitchen and refectory of the medieval abbey—a house of spiritual women—O’Connor’s kitchen and dining room must surely have hummed with bustle and activity. Yet though the house of Regina Cline and Mary Flannery O’Connor may, too, fairly be called a house of spiritual women, its reflection in these stories offers very little cooking or eating directly observed. These stories are about a hunger that won’t be satisfied at the kitchen table, not even at breakfast, but at another, more important feast, when food becomes elemental, sacramental. Theirs is a hunger best exemplified in the unrequited longings of such devout seekers and questers, hungerers and thirsters, as O. E. Parker, Ruby Turpin, Manley Pointer, Harry Ashfield, and the Misfit, none of whom would likely have been satisfied by ordinary food or drink.