Dori Sanders

 

 

Photographed by Layne Bailey. Used with permission of Dori Sanders.

 

 

 

Peach farmer Dori Sanders never dreamed that she would be a writer. The author of the acclaimed books Clover and Her Own Place grew up as one of ten children (five girls and five boys) in Filbert, SC, in York County[i]. Her father had once been a sharecropper, but he was the kind of man who planned for the future. Around 1915[ii], he purchased the land that his descendants still farm (Sanders, 2006). There were two houses on the original 81 acre farm, and the young teacher moved into one himself. He provided a home for his parents and his widowed sister in the other house. Later, he married one of his students and began a family of his own (Starr, 2003).

 

Like many families in the rural South, the Sanders’ house had no electricity and relied on kerosene for light. In spite of that, Sanders became a voracious reader who attributes her love of books to her good fortune in attending a Rosenwald School as a child. “I grew up reading,” she recalls (Sanders, 2006). In many ways, the home was unusual for the day and time. Both parents played musical instruments, and her mother, who “had a lovely voice,” taught the children to sing (Sanders, 1994). The children were exposed to classic literature at an early age. By the time they were teenagers they were bored with the everyday fare of  “the Grit newspaper and farming magazines.” One sister took her hard-earned money and joined a book club while a brother “subscribed to the Charlotte Observer” (Sanders, 1994).

 

Sanders also attributes her interest in books to her father, who served both as a school teacher and principal and encouraged his children to read. Sanders’ father, a strong man who once braved a “whites only” sign to obtain emergency care for his daughter from the only local eye doctor, also encouraged his children to write. He insisted that his large family write down their grievances before bringing them to him so he could keep track of what they had on their minds. Sanders later acknowledged that she often “honed my fictional skills” in the process. In 1924 her father wrote and published one thousand copies of a book that chronicled some local history (Norris, 1993). Years later, when a fire destroyed the family home, about a dozen pages were recovered from her father’s autobiography. It was then that Sanders learned, or perhaps remembered, that her father had once taken a leave of absence from his teaching position to re-enter college for further study (Sanders, 1994).

 

A favorite pastime of the Sanders children was storytelling at the “storytelling rock.” Dori recalls that her tales always had “happy endings.” But she was not too interested in school and attended a community college for less than a year. Briefly married and then divorced, she found fulfillment with a life on the family farm (Hubbard, 1993). She has remained there most of the time although some of her siblings left to make a life elsewhere.

 

Prior to the publication of her first novel, Clover, Sanders worked in the summers on the family farm and held a winter job at a Maryland motel helping to organize banquets in order to pay the bills. Over the years she wrote many short stories about farming for her young nieces and nephews, never considering publishing them. But her supervisor at the motel read some of her stories and encouraged her. She has said she submitted the stories to publishers only because her supervisor was so persistent. Her first novel was rejected, but the publisher encouraged her to write about what she knew.

 

She submitted part of what later became Clover, and the result was a best-selling book that made Sanders a household name (Norris, 1993). One reviewer noted that it appeals to both adults and teens, commenting: “Although Sanders offers entertaining, humorous comments, she presents challenging, serious themes of parental death and racial prejudice. Because the canon of American literature includes relatively few black women writers and few portrayals of interracial families, Clover would be a good choice in the classroom to encourage dialogue about both the unusual plot (a white stepmother raising a black child) and the theme of racial and cultural stereotypes” (Zaidman, 1995). Another stated: “Infusing her first novel with black vernacular as convincing as Alice Walker’s, imaginative metaphors that rival Maya Angelou’s and humor as delicious as Zora Neale Hurston’s, Sanders has created a refreshing new voice…Sensitive and amusing, the novel also delivers an oblique but provocative statement about race relations” (Steinberg, 1990).

 

Sanders’ imagination provided the spark for her books. She wrote Clover in 1990 after seeing two funeral processions pass by one day while working at her peach stand on her family’s farm. The young African-American girl who waved to her became Clover, the lead character in the novel. A white woman sitting in a car, crying into her handkerchief, became the basis for Clover’s white stepmother, Sara Kate (Sanders, 2006). The book won the Lillian Smith award, presented annually to significant Southern writers, and has been translated into a number of languages (Starr, 2003). In 1997, the film version of her best-selling novel was aired on the USA cable television network as a two-hour movie (Nye, 1997).

 

Sanders considers herself first and foremost a peach farmer. “I am good at farming. It is what I do.” She sees farmers as different from those who do not farm. Like most farmers, she worries about the weather, and she sees this as the great commonality among all those who farm, regardless of race. “All share a common experience and hardship…” she says, noting that as a peach farmer she has to worry about a late season hard freeze that will ruin the fruit. Sanders notes: “Farming has its own unyielding deadlines. Timing and discipline cannot be ignored at any stage or an entire crop can be lost.” Farming, she says, gave her the “sustained discipline so necessary for writing”(Sanders, 1994). Farming also provided the setting for both her novels.

 

She describes her second novel, Her Own Place, as “a woman’s story, totally a woman’s story,” that is about “struggle” (Sanders, 2006). She based the book in part on her own recollections of what the lives of African-American women were like during World War II (Norris, 1993).  One reviewer stated: “Told in simple prose with a country lilt, this novel by the author of Clover works a homespun charm that grows steadily more powerful…With this warm and winning novel, Sanders demonstrates growing mastery of the craft” (“Her Own Place,” 1993). Another said: “In her second novel, Her Own Place, Sanders continues to give ordinary people, black and white, a fresh spin, while shedding light on their lives…This is Dori Sanders at her best, showing emotional attachments in a totally believable story” (Moore, 1995).

 

Sanders has been asked what it was like to grow up in the South during segregation and what impact her experiences have had on her as a writer. Some critics have said that her work is “overly optimistic, minimizing the racial tension that still exists.” Sanders responds that she was well aware of racism, but “could not write…of hatred I had never experienced” (Norris, 1993). In a 1994 speech at the Southern Foodways Symposium in Mississippi, labeled Promise Land: A Farmer Remembers, Sanders describes in some detail the difficulties of growing up under segregation as well as the joys and hardships involved in farming, then and now. Although she described the sharecropper life in her work, she noted in a 1994 speech that her father “…didn’t have the sharecropper racial relationship that some others, of course, had with white landowners. There was no one to say, “Boy, plow the cotton today. Y’hear?” “ Sanders went on to say “I don’t mean to imply, however, that racial problems and tensions did not exist for us. Indeed they were everywhere. The segregated schools, buses, trains and movie houses that didn’t admit blacks at all. Drinking fountains marked “For Colored Only” ” (Sanders, 1994).

 

Food plays a key role in Clover, perhaps a precursor of things that came later in Sanders’ life as an author. She is also an accomplished cook and after she completed her second novel, her publishers asked her to do a cookbook. She humorously recounts that they asked her to send them 75 recipes. She sent them 150. The publishers sent the recipes back with detailed notes. They had lots of questions. Like many cooks, Sanders does not measure, but the publishers wanted to know what size pans she uses and how much she puts in the pans (she said it was based on “common sense”). They wanted to know how big the eggs were (she told them it depended on the size of the chickens) and how long she cooked the food (her response: “till it’s done”). The frustrated publishers finally brought in a food editor to work with her in order to quantify the recipes (Sanders, 2006).

 

For Sanders, who has spent a lifetime cooking, the experience was frustrating as well. In an interview, she remarked, perhaps only partly in jest, “That cookbook almost killed me…I will never do that again…a novel is 10 times easier than writing a cookbook” (Starr, 1995). But as Sanders notes, food brings people together. “In the end it’s food that’s universal” (Sanders, 2006).

 

Her cookbook, published in 1995 (with assistance from editor John Willoughby), has received accolades. One reviewer commented “Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking is full of warm-hearted, hearty, satisfying recipes” (“Grit Lit,” 1995). Another said that her “…buttermilk mashed potatoes…can’t be beat” (“Dash of This,” 2002).  Yet another stated “Narrative and cookery blend delightfully in this mix of recollection and old-fashioned family cooking…The heart here is in Sanders’ memories: the introduction to “Box Suppers” describes the set menu prepared by single women for the box…” (“Dori Sander,” 1995).  Still another said: “What might at first glance seem like just another country cooking compendium turns into a delightful crazy quilt of stories and recipes” (Jacobs, 1995). The cookbook appeals to native Southerners with her version of traditional recipes like fried okra and potatoes. She also adopted a number of southern recipes to introduce Northerners to southern cooking.[iii]  In that particular section she humorously notes that recipes like Yankee okra (which she says lacks the slimy texture that northerners dislike) will feed “4 to 6 northerners or 2 southerners,” while her fried grits “serves 6.” In an interview, she even had advice for Southerners who have moved on to colder climes. “Beneath their newly acquired taste for radicchio, what their taste buds really want is country cooking: field cress and poke-weed salad greens, buttermilk fried chicken…and hand-cranked peach ice cream” (Starr, 2003). Flipping through the cookbook, the reader will notice other intriguing chapters including “hog-killing time” and “Miss Hattie’s Hurricane Survival Fireplace Dinner.”

 

Sanders still works on the family farm, now over 200 acres, and can be found at the family peach stand in Filbert on highway 321 during the summer, although she has a home in Charlotte, NC, as well. In many ways, her life changed radically after Clover was published. She travels widely except during peach season. In 1997 she participated in a conference on Southern literature in Aero, Denmark, expressing wonder that people in such a faraway nation would be interested in her writing (Starr, 1997). She is a sought-after speaker at events like the annual South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia. She has lectured on food at the annual series presented by Historic Columbia as well as at numerous other events around the state and elsewhere (Wood, 2003). She has appeared on television, on the Food Network, discussing her recipes and answering questions from callers (Ward, 2001). The South Carolina Academy of Authors recognized Sanders for her contributions to the field of literature, inducting her in 2000. This is considered the highest honor for an author in the state. Sanders reaction was simply that she was “delighted” at the honor (Starr, 2000).

 

For Sanders, her life has always been about the farm. Farming has been the source of inspiration for her as a writer, “an occupation that is at once challenging and humbling.” It is, she says, “so appealingly mundane. Rural life, unhampered by the frenetic pace of city living. Hard work, but plenty of relaxation…” (Sanders, 1994). She embraces the challenge of trying to succeed, to outsmart the elements that leave a farmer without a crop. The fragile peaches are at risk from a late season frost, from rain, and from hail. Her appreciation of the luscious fruit and the labor it takes to make it grow shines through in the end: “One should never take for granted the perfect, blemish-free peaches we’ve grown to expect in our supermarkets” (Sanders, 1994). If it’s up to Sanders, we never will.

 

 

For more information on Dori Sanders, visit her website at http://www.dorisanders.com

 

Carol Sears Botsch

Associate Professor of Political Science

USC Aiken

carolb@usca.edu

 

Last updated 6/16/2006

 

 

Sources:

 

“Dash of This.” The State (Columbia, SC: October 9, 2002): D3

 

“Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking: Recipes and Stories From the Family Farmstand.” Publishers Weekly 242 (38) (September 18, 1995): 127.

 

“Grit Lit: Read ‘Em and Eat.” Newsweek 126 (December 11, 1995): 78.

 

“Her Own Place.” Publishers Weekly 240 (10): (March 8, 1993): 66.

 

Hubbard, Kim. “A farmer’s tales: after years of growing peaches, Dori Sanders tried writing – and her mind proved fertile ground (Interview).” People Weekly 40 (3) (July 19, 1993): 45-46.

 

Jacobs, Barbara. “Dori Sanders Country Cooking: Recipes and Stories From the Family Farmstead.” Booklist 92 (8) (December 15, 1995): 678.

 

Moore, Lenard D. “Her Own Place.” African American Review 29 (1) (Spring 1995): 166 (2).

 

Norris, K. Anthony. “Her Own Place.” American Visions 8 (2) (April-May 1993): 30-31.

 

Nye, Doug. “Sanders’ ‘Clover,’ A Unique Coming-of-Age Story, Airs on USA.” The State. (September 7, 1997). Accessed online at http://www.thestate.com on March 23, 2006.

 

Sanders, Dori. “A Writer from Filbert: Her Own Place.” Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting Address, University South Caroliniana Society, University of South Carolina, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC. 1994.

 

Sanders, Dori. Keynote address at Pickens-Salley Symposium of Southern Women, USC Aiken, Aiken, SC. March 15, 2006.

 

Starr, William W. “Novel Approach to Cooking – Lowcountry Writer Tries Her Hand at Creating Book of Southern Recipes.” The State (Columbia, SC: October 29, 1995): F1.

 

Starr, William W. “Southern Literature Gains European Accent.” The State (Collumbia, SC: September 14, 1997): F1, ff.

 

Starr, William W. “A Weekend to Treasure for Sanders, Book.” The State (Columbia, SC: April 23, 2000): F1-2.

 

Starr, William W. “Savoring Sanders.” The State (Columbia, SC: February 9, 2003): E1, ff.

 

Steinberg, Sybil. “Clover.” Publishers Weekly 237 (3) (January 19, 1990): 95(2).

 

Ward, Carol J. G. “Sanders’ Book-Signing Offers Taste of the South.” The State (Columbia, SC: June 20, 2001): D3, ff.

 

Wood, Donald. “Coming Up: SC Author to Lecture Sunday.” The State (Columbia, SC: February 5, 2003): B2.

 

Zaidman, Laura M. “A Sense of Place in Dori Sanders’ Clover.” The Alan Review 22 (3) (Spring 1995). Accessed online on March 23, 2006 at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/spring95/Zaidman.html

 



[i] Ms. Sanders prefers not to discuss her age, but the Library of Congress author information in her cookbook lists her year of birth as 1934.

[ii] Many accounts, including some by Dori Sanders herself, list the year that her father first purchased his land as 1916. At a 2006 symposium, however, Ms. Sanders stated that he purchased the land “around 1915.”

[iii] The author of this article had the opportunity to sample some of Ms. Sanders’ recipes at a reception that followed her speech at a symposium in early 2006. As a Northerner who has resided in the South for more than thirty years, the author is somewhat familiar with southern cooking although not a proponent of either fried food or some of the more exotic delicacies, such as the various greens. Her evaluation of Ms. Sanders’ recipes, however: delicious!