An unforgettable meal celebrating an unforgettable man: Ernest Mickler

The strong spirit of the late Southern cookbook author Ernest Mickler captivated writer and photographer Michael Adno. Researching the man who helped reshape how America saw people from the “deep South” led Adno all over the country. But the chance to sit down for a meal with Mickler's former partner and friends is a memory he won't soon forget. Here Adno recalls that special evening and shares a recipe for one of the dishes they enjoyed.

Written by Michael Adno.

Last June, I set out to work on a story that at its outset was something I felt both honored to work on and yet haunted by. It was a story about Ernest Mickler and his work, namely his celebrated anthology “White Trash Cooking.” It soon morphed into a story about Mickler’s life and the indelible mark he left on this world after his 1988 death from AIDS, at the age of 48.

Quickly this story consumed me. I found myself retracing his footsteps all over Florida, from the backwoods two-tracks near his childhood home in Palm Valley, all the way down to the flora-laden haunts in Key West where he cooked, and then back up I-95 to the quiet, out-of-time community in Moccasin Branch, near St. Augustine, where he spent his final years. Beyond Florida—our mutual home—I felt like I’d followed Ernie all over the world through his correspondence, photographs, and ultimately his spirit.

More than any one thing though, this story connected me with so many folks who would change my life: both Ernie’s intimates and those who were moved by his work like I was. Helen “Petie” Pickette took me back in time around North Florida. Another road led to Andrew Holleran in Keystone Heights, Florida, who made me better understand how Mickler helped me and so many others discover our roots in a place we called home, but where we didn’t feel we quite belonged. Whether we were gay, straight, Jewish, or first-generation immigrants—Ernie helped us find our place.

The menu featuring Mickler’s recipes from “Ernie’s Celebration Dinner.” Photo by Michael Adno.

Another road led to New Orleans, where this February, Bill Fagaly, Mickler’s former partner and former deputy director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, hosted a memorial dinner in honor of Ernie. Elizabeth Shannon, Dawn DeDaux, Fagaly, and I ate, drank, told stories, and most importantly laughed in a way that celebrated Ernie. We cooked recipes from “White Trash Cooking” and shared stories over a farm table hemmed into a Spanish villa in the French Quarter. We were living as Ernie would—as though Ernie were still here—because in so many ways he was.

On a pew-like bench beside the table—which Ernie had found on the streets of New Orleans almost 40 years ago—a framed portrait of Ernie and Fagaly watched over us. The portrait reminded us of those we had lost and what we had found in their absence. I’d found a whole network of “White Trash” I’m honored to know, and I went home that night with a jaw sore from smiling and a gut near bursting from the three Oreo desserts we shared.

And like Ernie, that is something you just don’t forget.

A portrait of Ernest “Ernie” Mickler and his partner Bill Fagaly. Photo by Michael Adno.