What Was Scarlett Gnawing On?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column entitled “Why Gone With the Wind Still Matters.” It generated many lively comments after I posted it to Facebook. Some of the comments dealt with GWTW’s unrealistic depiction of slavery. Others bemoaned the fact that it romanticized the Confederacy. But the real discussion revolved around something I never expected.

What did Scarlett eat in the unforgettable scene just before the movie’s intermission?

In my June 21 column, I wrote about Scarlett’s return home to Tara after fleeing a burning Atlanta. She finds the house still standing but almost everything around it destroyed. It’s mid-November, and the sun is setting. Desperately digging in the dormant garden, a ravenous Scarlett uncovers a root vegetable and crams it into her mouth. Almost immediately, she vomits.

I called that vegetable a carrot. Big mistake, apparently.

Readers jumped right in. Several insisted Scarlett ate a turnip. (One remarked that eating a raw turnip would make anybody barf.) Others said it was a yam, or possibly a sweet potato, which in reality aren’t the same vegetable at all. Still others were positive Scarlett was gnawing on a radish. One jokester claimed it was bok choy.

The back-and-forth on Facebook was hilarious, but none of it was backed up with hard evidence.

In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I set out to find the truth. My first step was a YouTube search. I typed in “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” and up popped the very scene I was looking for, in Technicolor no less.

Darkness is falling fast and Scarlett is silhouetted against the sky. She bends over and yanks a vegetable from the ground. But because the food is covered in dirt and because she crams it into her mouth so quickly, it’s hard to tell exactly what it is. It’s long and cylindrical and pale orange in color, which didn’t convince me it wasn’t a carrot, no matter how many times I re-watched the scene.

So I took my well-worn copy of “Gone With the Wind” from the bookshelf and began searching. It didn’t take long to find the scene I was looking for. In Chapter 24, Scarlett is having a conversation with former-slave Pork, who has stayed on at Tara despite the Emancipation Proclamation. “I’m starving,” she tells him. “Is there anything to eat?”

“No’m, Dey (the Union soldiers) tuck it all,” he replies. Then Scarlett reminds him of the sweet potato hills. “Miss Scarlett, Ah done fergit de yams,” Pork says. “Ah specs dey’s right dar. Dem Yankee folks ain’ never seen no yams an’ dey thinks dey’s just roots.”

So yams is the right answer? Nope. The gnawing-and-gagging scene happens the next day, in Chapter 25, and not at Tara but at the charred remains of Twelve Oaks plantation. “Oh, Ashley,” Scarlett thinks as she surveys the devastation, “I hope you are dead! I could never bear for you to see this.”

Remembering that the Wilkes slaves had their own garden patches, Scarlett makes her way to the abandoned cabins. She discovers some straggly turnips and cabbages and beans. On page 392 we read these words: Close to the back step of one cabin, she found a short row of radishes and hunger assaulted her suddenly. Hardly waiting to rub the dirt off on her skirt, she bit off half a radish and swallowed it hastily. It was old and coarse and so peppery that tears started in her eyes. No sooner had the lump gone down than her empty stomach revolted and she lay in the soft dirt and vomited tiredly.

So there’s your answer. The movie got it wrong. The vegetable Scarlett ate on screen might have been a carrot. It might have been a yam. But it sure as heck wasn’t a radish.

(July 5, 2020)