Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts

A senior editor at Discover magazine and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger is a smart journalist who writes with the polish and wit of an accomplished novelist. His is a clear-eyed talent that makes this collection of eight masterfully crafted essays on American backwoods subcultures a joy to read.

Like Dr. Oliver Sacks, the writer with a penchant for bizarre medical cases, Bilger plumbs the depths of the new South for chapters on everything from coon hunting in Oklahoma and legal chicken fighting in Louisiana to the Dukes of Hazzard-like battle between moonshiners and the ATF in Virginia, squirrel hunting and mad-cow disease in Kentucky, and the origins of soul food in Martin Luther King’s childhood neighborhood in Atlanta.

Besides the accessibility of the writing, the greatness of these essays derives from the wonderfully vivid characters Bilger was able to accompany on these memorable field trips. Whether eating squirrel brains or breeding frogs, Bilger never takes a condescending tone in his writing, while the characters are at turns disgusting, beautiful, inspirational and sad. When taken as a whole, the essays—also full of interesting historical bits—emphasize the intensity of Bilger as an exemplary journalist. An ex-Southerner himself, he affectionately chronicles these undeniably American characters and their dying customs with skill, insight and, perhaps most important, the trust of those who let him into their worlds.