I’ll always remember sitting at the table in my grandparents house and the smells that would float through the room as my grandmother whipped up food for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I distinctly remember the salmon cakes and the vegetable soup. However, the one treat that always makes my olfactory nerve and taste buds perk up, sending electric impulses to my brain and triggering a feeling of nostalgia, are sausage balls during the holidays. I’d put them in the refrigerator, causing them to get cold, and once they got to the right temperature, I’d open the door, pull a few out, pop them in my mouth, and be content. When my wife and I make sausage balls, they’re not the same. They are minuscule by comparison, and the Bisquick seems non-existent. Yet, whenever I eat them, I think about my grandmother. I connect with her, across the span of time.
This connection of generations through recipes, the passing down of stories, and the tangible material objects of the past is what Nate Powell’s “Conjurers” deals with. The story links three generations together over a recipe, and as Powell puts it, “Sometimes it seems that the act of re-creating a recipe of the deceased is a magic of sorts. It’s the closest we can come to summoning their distinct, intangible properties, and does seem to truly carry magical properties allowing us to transcend the limitations of our existence.” It serves as a tangible connection to our ancestors, whether we ever met them face to face or not. It connects us, across time and space, linking us in the ether through nostalgia, reminisces, memory, narrative, or more.
“Conjurers” begins with a young girl and her grandmother, Rose, preparing to make fried chicken. Rose, as she pours the flour into a measuring cup, tells her granddaughter, “Your great-gran fried up the best chicken. She might as well be right here next to us.” The act of making the fried chicken and teaching the process to her granddaughter brings about the presence “great-gran,” Rose’s mother. We don’t see her in the kitchen with the two cooks, but she is there, especially when the grandmother goes over to the counter a removes a card from the recipe box, a box that looks exactly like the one we have from my grandmother with her recipes.
As she takes the card out, she says, “She never did jot one
I remember when I would take students from my English classes at Auburn to the archives for projects. I’d have collections available for them to look through, and since it was an American literature course through 1865, the collections typically focused on the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. As well, they mostly consisted of enslavers from the region, and each of the collections had bills of sale, ledgers, and more. I’ll never forget students telling me the impact that seeing and touching bills of sale for human beings had on them. They could pick up a singular piece of paper, torn and frayed on all sides, that contained calculations on one side that totaled to “$1,042” and the words “Bills of sales for Negroes” on the other side, and feel a link to the inhumane treatment of the nameless individuals who existed as nothing more than numbers to those who owned them. This physical connection did more for them than simply reading from a textbook. It drove home the fact the reality of slavery.
The recipe card does a similar thing, bringing Rose back to her own mother and connecting the granddaughter to a woman she never met. It serves as a bridge. Rose tells the young girl that she’ll have to teach her the same way that her mother taught her, and the granddaughter responds, “but I never knew great-gran.” To this, Rose says, “And now you can know her through me.” The conduit is Rose and the recipe, linking the past to the present, bringing them into conjunction with one another across the constant movement of time.
The story then jumps forward and we see the granddaughter, grown up and married, on the phone speaking with her husband about the recipe and commenting that she wishes she wrote it down. When she hangs up the phone, two panels show her picking up a picture of her grandmother. In the first panel, Powell shows Rose’s portrait in a frame, and in the second panel, we see the woman in silhouette holding the picture as she looks at it. As she tries to remember the recipe, the woman looks at the uncooked chicken on the counter and thinks, “I will remember. I’ll start by carving through the layers.”
This thought triggers a shift in the narrative to Rose, as a young girl, looking up at the screen in a movie theater as the woman asks herself, “How would great-gran do it?” We see, in the next panel, that Rose watches a futuristic movie with skyscrapers, cars, and more, projected onto the screen. It’s as if she’s looking into the future, connecting with her granddaughter, a woman not yet-born. Comics provides a unique medium for just such shifts that link the past, present, and future together. The use of images and texts overlapping in their depiction of different temporal moments allows us to think about the interconnectedness of our lives, even the ways that we connect and relate to people we have never met.
In the next post, I want to pick up on this thought because throughout the rest of “Conjurers,” Powell utilizes the connective tissue of text and images to bring the three generations together. Until then, what are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.