A tribute to the Charleston-born and -bred best-selling novelist who died in September
After a speaking engagement on Hilton Head several years ago, our friend and fellow novelist Dottie Frank was coming to visit our Fripp Island home for dinner on her way back to Charleston. My husband, Pat, was excited—which wasn’t always the case when we entertained other writers. He liked Dottie, whom we’d known since he blurbed her first book, Sullivan’s Island, and he especially loved teasing her because she always had a comeback.
Pat’s enthusiasm was for another reason altogether: he wanted to show off in the kitchen. On a recent trip to New York, he and I had stayed with Dottie and her charming husband, Peter, at their home in Montclair, New Jersey, where Dottie had served us a spectacular meal. As I had learned with my culinary efforts, Pat, a snobby foodie, wasn’t easily impressed. But Dottie’s home-cooked meal of perfectly roasted lamb had wowed him.
Pat fretted about the menu, which I gladly turned over to him. My contribution was a simple frozen lemon custard that I thought Dottie would like. Dinner, Pat decided, would be May River oysters on the half-shell and local flounder with Carolina Gold rice—“A feast!” he exclaimed.
“Fried flounder?” I asked. Pat gave me a look of sheer horror and said, “Of course not! Dottie’s coming for an elegant dinner. It will be sautéed, with wild mushrooms and capers.”
Dottie arrived in an Armani suit, a silk scarf, and heels, which she kicked off coming in the door. The scarf went next, then the suit jacket. Barefoot, she untucked her blouse and went straight to the sink, where Pat was shucking oysters. “What’cha cooking?” she demanded, inspecting the pots on the stove. “I’m starving.”
Pat’s face lit up. “I made up a shaved-ice mignonette to top the oysters. About to sauté the flounder in butter, add wild mushrooms and cream. And lots of herbs for the rice.” He gestured toward the porch. “We’re eating out there. Join my bride for a glass of wine, and I’ll bring the oysters out.”
Dottie inspected the flounder. “Beautiful! Got any cornmeal?”
“In the cabinet,” I called from the porch. “And fine as silk.”
“Peanut oil?” she asked, and Pat looked at her with alarm. “I’ve got this, Dotted One,” he said. “Pour yourself a glass of wine, and I’ll be right out.”
Unfazed, Dottie elbowed Pat aside. “Get out of my way, Fat Boy. You’re not messing up that beautiful flounder with your fancy crap. This Geechie girl makes the best fried flounder this side of paradise.”
And she did. I ducked my head to hide a smile as Pat stood helplessly aside, watching her wide-eyed. Dottie maneuvered around our kitchen as if it were her own, laughing and joking as she produced yet another spectacular meal.
Pat Conroy didn’t turn his kitchen over to just anyone, but this time he kept his mouth shut and watched Dottie at work. To my further astonishment, he obeyed when she dished up our plates and ordered him to deliver them to the porch. “And hurry up,” Dottie added, “or we’ll miss the sunset.”
That evening will be ingrained in my mind forever. Now, I like to think when Dottie left this world to enter the heavenly realm, Pat was waiting to greet her. After a big hug, he wouldn’t be able to resist teasing her. “Guess they let just anyone in these days,” he’d say. “Apparently so, Fat Boy,” Dottie would respond. Then he’d lead her to a banquet table stretching as far as the eye could see, all the way to the setting sun.
“A lot of folks are waiting to meet you, Dotted One,” he’d tell her. “So I fixed us something special.” And sure enough, he’d bring out platter after platter of her fried flounder, the best anyone has ever tasted, in this world or the next.
Best-selling novelist Cassandra King Conroy resides in Beaufort, South Carolina, where she is honorary chair of the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Her latest book, Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy (William Morrow) was released in October 2019.
Photograph courtesy of the Frank family; collage by Jennifer Christian