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Aunt Bee: The Best Cook in Mayberry

June 27, 1991|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If one television series epitomized Small Town America, it was Mayberry, N.C., the idyllic setting for the popular, long-running "The Andy Griffith Show." During the eight years the CBS series was on the air, 1960-68, the show was never out of the top 10 in the ratings. Still widely syndicated, the 249 episodes--together with spinoffs "Mayberry, R.F.D." and "Gomer Pyle, USMC"--created a mythical world that captured the country's imagination and still retains a tenacious hold on fans. The series created a following that verges on the cultish; today there are nearly 600 chapters and 20,000 members of "The Andy Griffith Show" Rerun Watchers Club, which sponsors events ranging from seminars and cast reunions with bit players to theme cruises of the Caribbean.

Based on Griffith's real home town of Mount Airy, N.C., Mayberry was in many ways a precursor of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, minus the Midwest radioland's darkness and melancholy. Like Lake Woebegon, the Griffith show has spawned a veritable cottage industry of merchandise, including videos of about a third of the episodes, a scholarly study by a University of Tennessee professor, a fans' handbook, a one-volume encyclopedia, a calendar, lollipops, T-shirts, caps, gym bags, posters, buttons, bumper stickers, badges and arm patches, greeting cards, limited-edition mugs and ceramic plaques, hand-crafted wooden figurines and several series of trading cards.

The most recent addition is "Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook" (Rutledge Hill Press: $12.95). Built around the character played by the late Frances Bavier, the book is dedicated to her memory. The book contains 334 recipes, most of them contributed by members of the fan club, the rest by cast members. There are no Bavier recipes, however. In addition to the menus and recipes, the text is seasoned with dozens of stills from the series, trivia quizzes and what appears to be every bit of food-related dialogue from the series.

Many remember the show as a celebration of traditional family values. But it also offered one of the first of television's non-traditional families, with Griffith playing the primary role in raising his young son Opie, played by Ron Howard. There was a mother figure, of course: Aunt Bee. The embodiment of the notion that "food is love," Aunt Bee provided the cholesterol that helped cement the family structure--as well as providing meals for jail inmates. In the words of Opie, Aunt Bee was simply "the best cook in Mayberry."

Much of Aunt Bee's wisdom about life was dispensed while serving food to her family and assorted local characters, in her endearingly ditsy manner. Over time, the cookbook reminds us, she:

* Started a Chinese restaurant in Mayberry called Aunt Bee's Canton Palace;

* Hosted a television cooking show called "Mayberry Chef" in nearby Siler City;

* Bought a large freezer to save money on meat, only to have it break down and force her to ask the butcher for the loan of his meat locker;

* Won a variety of household appliances on a television quiz show--by answering a food question--while visiting Los Angeles;

* Won a trip to Mexico in the Tampico Tamale Contest.

As one might expect, given the show's rural, Southern setting, the recipes rely quite heavily on sugar, dairy and pork products, and the odd marsupial. But they fit comfortably in the folksy/cutesy genre created by Ernest Matthew Mickler's best-selling 1986 "White Trash Cooking" (Ten Speed Press: $12.95) and Michael and Jane Stern's "A Taste of America" and "Roadfood and Goodfood."

The Mayberry recipes, many based on food served on the show, include Thelma Lou's Cashew Fudge, Baked Goober Beans, Nip It in the Bud Spuds, Gomer's Guacamole, Opie's Lemonade Pie and Andy Pasto Spread, Coca-Cola Pork Chops, Briscoe Darling's Hoot Owl Pie, Old Man Kelsey's Barbequed Raccoon, Ernest T.'s Possum and Sweet Taters, Orange Chicken Helen (Corsaut), Aunt Bee's Kerosene Cucumbers and, of course, her Gooseberry Pie.

"The Andy Griffith Show," appearing in the midst of the turbulent '60s, offered an American Brigadoon--a time-warped world that was prosaic to the point of pastorality. No living character in Mayberry ever died in the eight years the show ran, and the dead, like Opie's mother, were rarely spoken of.

It didn't matter that the entire series was shot at Desilu Studios in Hollywood, that even the quaint exteriors were filmed in Culver City and Coldwater Canyon. Despite the North Carolina setting, there were no black people in Mayberry, ever. Thus, while Mount Airy, the model for Mayberry, had a significant black population and did experience racial upheaval, in Mayberry there were no segregation problems, no civil rights demonstrations and--especially--no brutal sheriffs. On the show, Aunt Bee and other women characters--with the exception of Elinore Donahue, who lasted only six episodes--were deferential to men, if not subservient.

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