Southern Delicacies: The Hushpuppy

NOTE: The Southern Delicacies subseries will be intermingled amongst full-size entries.*

The Hushpuppy

Most commonly seen at local fried seafood houses and barbecue joints, the Southern hushpuppy is among many unsung culinary treasures in the South. Originating during the Civil War, hushpuppies were small nuggets of leftover cornbread, carried in the pockets of Confederate soldiers to feed to their dogs in order to keep them silent on the warpath. (Hence the name.) Now, they’ve morphed into a combination between cornbread, cake and a doughnut and are simply divine when still steaming and dunked into a dish of soft honey-butter. Strangely, hushpuppies aren’t usually seen in homecooked meals but are sometimes found at high-end seafood restaurants in attempts to boast an authentic Southern atmosphere. This effort is usually successful if the restaurant owner or sous chef is a native of the South but any attempt to make hushpuppies by a Yankee will be severely scorned unless his or her parents are Southerners, due to the strict I-Know-Your-Mama/Who’s-Yer-Papa clause.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ILoveBeingSouthern.com

Just a note to my readers:

As of tomorrow, this blog will be directed to ILoveBeingSouthern.com, where I’m going to start development to make it look, you know, professional and or presentable so you can have something decent to tell your friends and family about when you’re sitting around talking about how wonderful this is. :)

Oh, and check us out on Facebook, too.

I’ll be back to posting again soon. I promise.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Rich History and Pride of Southern Food in Corporate America

Look, I’m as anti-corporation and overspending as Rev. Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping as I hate how the big superstores are wrecking and sapping the character out of small town America and treating their employees like slaves and outsourcing labor to underpaid poverty-stricken villages. However, there are a handful of Southern-based food corporations that are just plain doin’ us proud and that, frankly, I don’t ever want to live without.

Now, the obvious go-to Southern corporation is a little mom-and-pop company called Coca-Cola you may or may not be familiar with. Oh, good lordy, I’ve never seen a group of people so excited to scream their name repeatedly across the globe for the sake of indoctrination (well, other than Disney… and McDonald’s… and America… but still!) and, honestly, the marketing has gone from cute and innocent to outright ridiculous. For example, if you should ever have the time/money you’d like to dump in a sewer, you may want to visit Coca-Cola’s museum, located in the beverage’s native town of Atlanta, Georgia. There, you’ll learn about the “rich history” of this admittedly delicious drink and be exposed to more hyper-sentimental advertising than you can possibly imagine. Coca-Cola proudly shows montages of their archived ad campaigns, where they subtly claim to have inspired greatness, unified cultures and genuinely changed the world for the better since their founding. You’ll see images of WWII soldiers coming home from war, being greeted with a Coke at the door and Special Olympians breaking the ribbon at the finish line just before enjoying a fresh Coke and shoeless African children smiling with glass bottles of Coke in their hands and, oh! It’s just so special and powerful and makes you want to buy seven cases and hand them out to new friends on your way back to your car.

Here’s the secret: Southerners aren’t that impressed. I mean, we love Coke and all but we don’t brag about it being part of our culture the way we do with other things. And, yes, Georgians love Coke because it’s part of their specific heritage and it brings a crapload of income to their state but the rest of us just think Coke has gone and gotten “too good for its raisin’” and we don’t take kindly to that.

Same goes for Pepsi, although they have more fun in their advertising, so we let them slide.

FUN FACT: In every blind study since the company was founded, RC Cola has beaten both Pepsi and Coke in taste tests. True story.

Let’s get to the good stuff. This particular entry is dedicated to Southern foodie corps in the restaurant realm.

First up is a small company from my original hometown of Burlington, NC. Now, the company isn’t huge, per se, but they’ve far surpassed the multi-million dollar mark and are growing exponentially. If you know of Biscuitville then you “get it”. You’re already wiping drool from your chin and thinking about the sting those flat, spicy sausage patties leave on your tongue. However, the legendary biscuits are an old secret from a family my dad’s parents are apparently close friends with. The story goes that, when the grandmother of Biscuitville’s founders passed away she allowed the brothers a choice: One could have the farm and the other could have her biscuit recipe. (My dad rolls his eyes at this, but it makes for a great marketing angle.) Now, the company owns over 50 restaurants in NC and VA (that are PACKED from 7-10 every day of the week) and has no plans to slow down.

But no Southerner is dumb enough to try to compare Biscuitville with the holy institute of Bojangles. The North Carolina-based company sells roughly 3 bajillion “Cajun-style” spicy chicken breasts on warm, buttery biscuits every year to thousands of Southeasterners who have no idea whether or not it tastes like anything from America’s Cajun community and really don’t even care. While you could treat yourself to a side of “Botato Rounds” (tater tots) or “dirty rice”, you might as well experience real bliss by getting their spicy seasoned fries, which will make you contemplate selling your home/car/children to afford bulk quantities of. Top it all off with a bucket of their award-winning sweet tea (it’s the best fast-food sweet tea out there as far as I’m concerned) and you’ve entered nirvana, my friend. (Silly Buddhists and their silent fasting - don’t they know the same effect can be achieved in a deep-fried-with-a-side-of-sugar-water format?) And, much like sweet tea at an afternoon picnic, a tailgate party just isn’t a real tailgate party without a Bojangles Tailgate Deal (or two) in tow. Kentucky Fried whatwhonow?

Alright, say what you want about KFC and their world domination tactics (they have them in Australia but nobody bothered to tell those poor people what “KFC” stood for. Sacrilege!), they don’t deserve half the credit earned by the illustrious, hallowed Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A started as a mall-vendor-style franchise and began breaking off into freestanding restaurants… um… sometime. Anyway, now they have some 1,500 restaurants in 38 states and are only growing, slowly but steadily. Chick-Fil-A makes the best effing chicken sandwiches you will ever experience in your whole life, with chicken coated in a secret mix of spices and flour, fried and laid atop two signature pickle slices between two freshly buttered buns. Naturally, they offer this chicken in nugget form, although the chicken strips are made by soaking the chicken in buttermilk overnight before fryin’ ‘em up the next day. Pair this with their monstrous waffle fries and a giant lemonade and it just may be the best day of your life. (The lemonade is all freshly squeezed by hand, by the way. I know this because I used to do it. See the next FUN FACT below.)

Chick-Fil-A is run by the single creepiest-looking old guy you’ll ever see in your life, who likes to boast about his generosity and altruism a LOT. Much like Coca-Cola, the company looooves for customers to believe that they’re the patron saints of the South, giving to the needy, sending college kids to school, building summer camps for special needs kids, etc. And, sure, they do some charitable work but, more often than not, their loud self-promotion far outweighs the progress or impact they actually make. (For example: In order to earn the Chick-Fil-A scholarship - $1,000 - a high school employee must have worked at the restaurant for 30+ hours every week for at least a year AND must have a 3.5 GPA… which is - of course - impossible if his/her life is being monopolized by working at a fast food joint for $6 an hour.)

Oh, and Chick-Fil-A has also had this ongoing ad campaign that involves cows pleading with the public to “EET MOR CHICKIN”, in order to spare their bovine hides from human consumption. Sure, it was an adorable concept in 1995 when it first launched, eliciting microscopic chuckles from those who noticed, but the humor flew the coop (see what I did there?! hilarious!) some 10 years ago and now it’s just painful to deal with, like a 6 year old who milks a joke (again! I’m on fie-yah!) until you want to lock them in their rooms for the afternoon. (I guess they’re beating the dead cow on this one. Ba-ZING!)

FUN FACT: My first part-time job was working the drive-thru at a Chick-Fil-A across from a whorehouse, just a few roads over from Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach, SC. And I highly recommend you never ever eat at that one, as the poor management lead to a group of guys bleaching their hair over the food prep station one night, breaking into co-ed fights over the fry station/in the freezer/in the back office, and a whole array of other unspeakably revolting acts that happened routinely. (I’m really not exaggerating.) The rest of the Chick-Fil-A’s in that town are manned by another guy who’s impeccable with his managerial tactics, so those places are safe.

Oh, and once when I worked there, a male stripper asked us to borrow our cow costume for a new routine he had in mind. We said “Um, how about no.” and men in cow costumes have bothered me ever since.

Southerners are not completely obsessed with the varied art forms of preparing fried chicken, however. Sitting humbly off hundreds of truck stops across the Southeast, Waffle House is one of those Southern staples that elicits feelings similar to those associated with that one weird cousin you have who doesn’t bathe every day and brings questionable company to family gatherings. (Or, in my family: me.) I believe one stand-up comic [whose name escapes me at the moment] really hit the nail on the head when he described Waffle House as “a truck stop bathroom that serves food.” Don’t get me wrong; the place has substantial breakfast foods and can whip up a mean omelette but nobody will ever stumble in there for a fine dining experience or even a classy Sunday brunch. Everybody knows that Waffle House was established for the delight and convenience of truckers and drunk people. This point is vindicated by the fact that the restaurant’s menus include illustrations for those unable to enunciate their orders.

However, no matter how sober, fatigued or starving-and-desperate you are when you find yourself in one of the 1,600+ Waffle House’s in the U.S., you’re never going to leave without having experienced the franchise’s own brand of magic. Of all the great Southern corporate restaurants, Waffle House is unique in its ability to display the most character and authentic flavor of Americana. Despite the industrial, sterile, hard lines and black-and-white tiles of the diner, Waffle House brims with color, brought in fresh by the incredible diversity of those who eat there. I don’t know why there’s a website dedicated to the freak show that is Wal-Mart clientele when there isn’t one for Waffle House. At Waffle House, there is an equal level of insanity but with a few ounces of Shady stirred in. You’re not likely to see anything too crazy in the morning hours but, after nightfall, any Waffle House in the country becomes a blossoming hub of ethnographic exploration. There is no singular demographic for the late-night Waffle House customer base. You may see a pimp with three of his… um… employees sitting at a booth right behind four middle-aged women with towering hair and Day-glow eyeshadow getting coffee on the way home from their Baptist Women’s Trio rehearsal. Truckers strike up optimistic conversations with strippers who are just off the clock or drunken sorority girls whose dates have gone to the bathroom for a suspiciously long amount of time. The real party begins when someone has the courage to walk up to the diner’s jukebox and play one of 12 Waffle House-themed ditties that nobody will ever learn the words to. Yes, if you want a thorough study of contemporary Southern humanity, don’t waste your time doing field work going door to door in small rural towns; just pick out a corner booth at their town’s Waffle House a little before dusk and wait for the magic to happen. And feel free to enjoy the coffee refills while you’re there.

FUN FACT: Waffle House sells more steak than any other American restaurant franchise. I don’t know how I know this.

I would be written out of my family’s will and cast out of society if I forgot to mention Krispy Kreme in this article. Simply put, Krispy Kreme doughnuts are the second best thing God has ever given us.

As I’ve mentioned before, the only time you should really be terrified of Southerners en masse is when the Hot Doughnuts Now sign flickers to life when you’re in traffic. Like a beacon of rapture and acceptance, the glow acts as a homing device for anyone within 4.39 miles of the restaurant, signaling to Southerners that the time for joy is now! Happiness and fulfillment is just a few quarters away!

The Krispy Kreme formula is a simple one: fried dough + sugar = magic. The empire started in the small-ish city of Winston-Salem, NC in the late 1930’s and, while you’d think that there would be dozens of similar corporations, somehow Krispy Kreme was the one that created The Perfect Doughnut.

At some of the older restaurants you can see the doughnuts being made, although I should warn you, it’s both an erotic and spiritual experience, which may be disruptive to anyone who isn’t fully stable and prepared for such a disconcerting event. You can watch an endless stream of circular dough float through a canal of oil, being gently rotated by loving, angelic automatic arms and then bounding up onto a conveyor belt where it bounces along toward a cascading curtain of glaze, shimmering in the early-morning sun. I’ve been brought to tears by the majesty myself.

FUN FACT: There’s actually a Krispy Kreme museum, by the way. I believe the theme is “Heaven: Behind the Scenes”.

In the last few decades, Krispy Kreme has really taken off and is now an international franchise, much to the amusement and slight smugness of Southerners.

A few years ago Southern writer Celia Rivenbark wrote a hilarious diatribe about how KK has gotten too big for it’s britches and is now just another trendy accessory seen in the hands of celebrities, not unlike the pocketbook poodle or windshield-sized sunglasses. She balked at the audacity of the company to put reheating instructions on the side of the box, declaring, “Reheat?!?! Everyone knows you don’t reheat Krispy Kremes! You eat them at the cash register while you’re fishing change out of your pockets and trying not to burn your fingers!” (If you’re Southern and you’ve done that, clap your hands. ::clap! clap!::)

But, unlike Coke (or “Ko-Koler”, depending on how far South you are) Krispy Kreme is still something that we cherish and proudly call our own here in the South. Maybe it’s because the company isn’t claiming to be saving the world - although it very well may be - or maybe because it hasn’t sold out and tried to change its image to something more relevant or maybe it’s because eating there makes us feel like we’re getting a hug from God, but, whatever the case, we take pride in being the people that are giving the world the gift of The Perfect Doughnut.

And, while their coffee may be pretty great, no self-respecting, moral Southerner would ever admit to enjoying Dunkin Donuts as anything other than a last-resort substitute.

A lot of Southerners have been screaming that “The South Will Rise AGIN’!” for decades, but nobody else expected us to come up so stealthily. We’ll call America ours one day as we slowly climb toward world domination, one Waffle House at a time.

MUAHAhahahahahahaha!!!

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NOTE: Anything that didn’t make the cut wasn’t important enough (in my opinion, of course, ‘cause I write these) to qualify as part of the Southern corporate culinary canon. Oh, I know there are some great ones out there but I don’t have time to get into specifics; I need to educate the outsiders on the imperative knowledge before their attention wanes. Maybe if this series goes on long enough I can incorporate some of the smaller companies. We’ll see.

Monday, April 12, 2010 — 6 notes

Gospel vs. WASPel Music

Gospel vs. WASPel* Music

Lemme just put this one to rest up front: White people suck at gospel music.
There. I said it.

I don’t care how successful Elvis’s gospel albums were. I don’t care how beautiful Anne Murray or Alan Jackson sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” White people gospel (Or WASPel, as I like to call it.) is boring.

White people suck at worship music in general, when it comes right down to it. Traditional hymns are the most depressing, slow-tempoed, brooding melodies you’ve ever heard, sung with reluctance by old people who are just singing it -and insisting that everyone else sing it - because they did when they were kids. Even the “upbeat” tunes like “He Lives!” are sung in apathetic monotone in every traditional church across the South. There is no joy. There is no inner reflection. Frankly, there’s not really even any worship going on when you get right down to it. Even if you go to these contemporary church services, there are a handful of white people clapping on the 1-and-3-counts while singing along to a seemingly endless soft-rock ditty that’s just dripping with sentiment (Usually the lyrics sound like they were written by a 13 year old girl with a crush on her older brother’s best friend.) while everyone else stands awkwardly by, mouthing along with the words and thinking about where they’re going to have lunch. It’s the same “Schmeh”-attitude-singing that came from the last generation, just with some guy playing the drums instead of the organ. If anything, I think we’re boring God to tears as much as we’re boring ourselves. 95% of what white people crank out and call “gospel” is a grave insult to the entire genre, considering gospel’s incredible roots and what it stands for today.

Gospel in it’s truest form is the single most amazing phenomenon to come out of the South, in my humble - yet loudly proclaimed - opinion. As you may or may not know, original gospel music was borne of African slaves, both in their native country during the occupation of the missionaries and then later, working on plantations in the deep South. These beautiful people, in the midst of horrific living conditions that included being beaten, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, and having their children stripped from them while working tirelessly in sweltering heat, developed the roots of gospel music which, unlike the white people’s worship songs, wasn’t melancholy or forlorn but, instead, was raucous, joyful, hopeful and damn fun to sing along to.

There’s nothing in the world more inspiring and invigorating than a Sunday morning at a predominantly African-American church. The joy of the message and the music paired with the symbolic, historic integrity it stands for is enough to strike awe into the heart of even the most devout non-believer. Tight harmonies and simple melodies of this centuries-old tradition invite participation with reckless abandon, enabling church-goers to lose themselves in the excitement of such an incredibly rejuvenating experience. (Which is probably why these churches don’t get out until way after the white folks have eaten, gone home, gotten out of their church clothes and taken a nap.) The sounds facilitate joy, perpetuate hope and invite the loud, unabashed praise that I think God really appreciates the most and that gives a sense of fulfillment and recharged energy for anyone who dares to join in. There’s a sense of community in the songs - everyone admitting that we’re flawed but are working to be better every day, all of us singing praises and gratitude for our gifts and our lives, no matter how miserable things may be in our current situations… There’s the understanding that God is loving and caring, walking along beside us, expecting us to serve him by serving others and rejoicing with us - things that are rarely celebrated in the music of white churches with any form of enthusiasm.

I think the main difference between African-American gospel and white-people gospel is the pure emotion found in the former. Singers and performers of African-American gospel don’t hold back from clapping along or singing out or dancing or yelling out praises as the emotions wash over them. Meanwhile, I can’t remember ever seeing anyone so much as crack a smile while singing in the Caucasian churches I’ve been to. If people are comfortable being boring, that’s one thing, but there’s this overwhelming feeling of inhibition and preoccupation with the rampant solemnity in tradition, even though the creed specifically states “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” As Eddie Izzard noted, it seems so ridiculous to listen to white people sing “Hallelujiah” when they look like they’re on the brink of crying themselves to sleep.

I like the joyful noises and the “Amen!”s screamed back at the minister and the ever-accelerating tempos of gospel music as the crowd reaches a frenzy. I like the feeling of being part of something and actually giving back to a worship service as much as I’m taking away from it. I like the idea that people together create a synergy as opposed to congregating to have one person create a holy atmosphere. I like a whole crowd of people seeing each other as real, flawed people and singing about an other-worldly hope and divinity that pushes us forward.

That’s what Gospel music is about. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the closest thing to Heaven that exists in the South, aside from peach cobbler a la mode.

*WASPel is a trademarked colloquialism of the Suburban Bohemian’s blogs. If you’d like to use it, you must report reactions of your audience to me as I’m interested in seeing how well this works.

Thursday, April 8, 2010 — 1 note

The Fine Art of the Word “Honey”

Before it was adopted by drag queens snappin-in-a-”z”-formation and domestic, suburban housewives, the term “Honey” was a term of endearment coined in the South.

The CARDINAL RULE for using the term “Honey” is that you are never, under any circumstances, permitted to address someone in this fashion who is 10 or more years older than yourself especially if the person with whom you are speaking is a relative. It will be taken as an incredibly disrespectful gesture and can have you branded as “rude”, a label that does not wear off with time in the South. This is the sort of event that can cause a chain reaction within your family that can lead to things like being written out of a will. I’m not exaggerating. I can think of maaaaybe 2 circumstances in which this sort of language would be okay but they are all extremely subjective situations and are not intended to be navigated by a novice. To be safe, just stick to the rule.

Also, the only people who are socially allowed to use the term “honey child/chile” are those of African-American descent. Everyone else looks ridiculous saying this, unless they are being ironic, which they will never do in the presence of an African-American.

These days, “honey” has a vast array of uses and an enormous variety of social connotations, so those who are unfamiliar with the intricate politics of the word must be very careful when talking to a Southerner, lest they come across as an arrogant, patronizing Yankee.

There are few words that have the power to be condescending, comforting, humorous, self-depreciating, friendly or reassuring - depending on the implementation - like the word “Honey”. Allow me to give a few basic examples:

“What can I get for you, honey?” ~ In this case, the word “honey” is meant to put the speaker’s target at ease. This type of phrase can most often be heard in the presence of grandmothers or matronly waitresses at local diners. The connotation establishes the speaker as an emotional or physical caretaker and is very very seldomly used by a male figure.

“Oh, honey, you’re telling me.” ~ In this case, the speaker is attempting to show empathy and express a sense of camaraderie with the person he or she is addressing. This immediately gives the conversation a tone of understanding and mutual respect with a playful, familiar atmosphere. This version of the term can be seen in a conversation with a gas station clerk as easily as it can between old friends. In both, the intent is identical.

Ohh, hooonney…” ~ If this sentence is not immediately followed with “I’m so sorry”, then the apology is automatically implied. Using the term “honey” as a means to comfort someone is acceptable so long as the misery of the other person is not your fault. If you are the cause for someone else’s unhappiness, calling them “honey” will only belittle them and act as an underhanded power play. (This is often used in long-term relationships as a way to say “I’m sorry, but I’m still in charge here.”) The comfort-mode “honey” can be used with many different people, from acquaintances to close friends to children to complete strangers, again, so long as that person is NOT 10+ years older than yourself.

“Oooh, honey!” ~ This exclamation is a means to congratulate someone and offer them encouragement. It can be heard prefacing such statements as “Look at you all dressed up/climbing the corporate ladder/landing yourself a good-lookin’ man/driving that fancy car.” (This is when the term “honey child” is most likely to come into play.)

“Oh, honey, no.” ~ This particular usage is a backhanded way of insulting someone’s intelligence. By masking his or her disapproval as caring sympathy, the speaker creates a tone that allows him or her to insult someone else’s choices without deeply offending them. (ex: “Oh, honey. No. That dress looks like you let your cat play with it for an hour before you put it on.”)

“Oh, honey, I wouldn’t @#$! with me if you knew what was good for you.” ~ This is the implementation of “honey” that is meant to be both ironic and condescending. By calling an opponent “honey”, the speaker is making light of a situation, inferring that he or she is superior to the other person and able to take on such an inferior foe without much effort or emotional investment. Although “honey” is usually used to show affection, this ironic use leans more toward the “honey” that signifies pity. The practice of “honey” in this snide connotation can be used with close acquaintances, complete strangers, younger family members and annoying little brats but is never used in arguments between close friends unless the friendship is close to inevitable demise. (It’s hard to recover from this sort of demeaning remark when used in a legitimate argument.)

Honestly, I could go on and on with examples, although the differences in the utilization of the word will become very situation-specific and are likely to confuse readers who are completely foreign to this practice. However, I think the above examples cover most of the general effects “honey” is capable of.

All this being said, I strongly believe that, unlike learning a foreign language, a novice to the practice of using “honey” in everyday speech should spend a copious amount of time observing the art of implementing this term. Because of the delicacy of the term’s social implications, a potential user should be sure he or she knows all the subtle nuances of the language before engaging in participation.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fine Art of Sweet Tea: House Wine of the South

When I studied abroad I met some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met and decided to throw myself a farewell party and cook my friends a Southern feast. I made fried chicken, biscuits (the Paula Deen recipe. Duh), green beans slow-simmered with a ham hock, marinated summer veggies and a few other things that escape my memory at the moment. (I do remember a lot of gawking at the required portions of butter and sugar necessary for these delicacies.) Additionally, I made two giant pitchers of sweetened iced tea, one in regular flavor and the other in peach or raspberry or something. Needless to say that my guests completely ignored the wine on hand in favor of the brewed confection and drained both pitchers within the first half hour.

My mother called sweet tea the “house wine of the South” and I can honestly never remember a time when there wasn’t an old milk jug full of it in our home. As in almost all Southern households, it is the first thing offered to guests (my mom would even give it out in to-go cups to Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on her door as a consolation prize of sorts for not being able to convert her) and is present at at least one meal every day. To say that sweet tea is a staple is a bit misleading; in truth, it is an essential part of the Southern lifestyle.

Before I go any further, let’s get two things straight right here and now:

1) Sweet tea is not cold tea with some sugar stirred in. This is a form of blasphemy in the South. You can always tell a Yankee who’s trying to dip their toe in Southern culture by their habit of stirring Sweet ‘N Low into a cold glass of unsweetened tea. (bleuck!) Every self-respecting Southerner knows that any sweet tea worth drinking has the sugar (or Splenda. See? We can keep up with the times!) boiled in just before you steep the tea and remove the pot from the heat. The fusion is what gives sweet tea that smooth, sweet taste that doesn’t bite or have a grainy texture like undissolved raw sugar tends to.

2) The sweet tea you get at loud, crowded seafood houses or independent pancake houses in the South is NOT what we drink on a regular basis. This is Karo syrup with water and dye mixed in and is so sweet that most Southerners can’t even finish a glass of it without copious amounts of lemon juice and a few extra cups of ice.

Sweet tea is a time-honored tradition that seeps into every orifice of Southern culture. Many women spend time perfecting their recipe and are filled with more joy and pride when complimented on their unique brew than they are when receiving praise for their tangible possessions, household, sartorial choices, childrens’ intelligence, etc. And, although you’d think that sweet tea is more or less the same, women will INSIST on telling you their “secret” to the perfect pitcher the very second you show your approval of their artistic expression.

However, if a hostess chooses to serve a flavored tea (usually raspberry or peach, although I have seen currant, orange and blackberry) at a gathering it is considered a bit of a novelty and each guest will take a small glass of it to sample, not unlike what is done at a wine tasting. Guests all inherently know that it is important for everyone to try the “special” tea before going in for seconds or even a full glass, although all these rules are negated if the hostess admits to using a prefab tea mix. (This is only permitted without judgment if the hostess has a full-time job, more than one child or is over the age of 65.) Additionally, there will ALWAYS be a pitcher of regular sweet tea on the table as per the norm, because a flavored tea or special brew is regarded as a casual cocktail, whereas sweet tea is a simple accompaniment to a meal. Much like the Japanese regard rice, a Southern party (particularly those held during the summer) is considered incomplete or an outright failure if there is not sweet tea somewhere on the spread, even if nobody drinks it. However, this is not something a Southerner would ever admit out loud and is usually not something that is even discussed. But when there is no sweet tea at an afternoon or evening gathering in the South, each guest will leave with a dull ache in their stomach and the feeling that something just isn’t quite right, although they probably couldn’t put their finger on what it was exactly.

Finding one’s personal sweet tea preference is the equivalent to finding one’s True Self in the South, often becoming a spiritual journey that takes years of soul-searching and meditation through dozens of phases and evolution. What your signature sweet tea tastes like says a lot about you as a person. Maybe you like yours watered down with more lemon, maybe you boil your sugar for exactly 2.5 minutes before steeping the tea, maybe you prefer using 7 Lipton family-size teabags for every quart you make… it all directly defines who you are and how you feel about life.

Me personally? I’m a bit off the map, really. I like to brew African rooibos with some cinnamon and Splenda, let it cool in a covered pot overnight and then put it in the fridge the next morning. It’s both warm and cool at the same time and tastes like a hug. That’s my sweet tea.

Monday, April 5, 2010 — 1 note

Country Roads

I’m not a John Denver fan at all, but the man was a marketing genius when he penned “Country Roads”, as discussing the song’s subject matter is a surefire means to tweak at the hearts of anyone who’s lived outside the metropolitan South. (And, no, “metropolitan South” isn’t an oxymoron.)

Now, this is not to say that country roads are all magical, wondrous vistas filled with beauty and flawless romanticism. There’s a lot of crap going on on the side of most country roads, like run-down trailer parks and abandoned gas stations with boarded up windows and overgrown parking lots. But even the idiosyncrasies are what make taking the “scenic route” worthwhile. As weird as it sounds, I really like looking at century-old tobacco barns and houses that are still standing although long-abandoned as I feel like they add a great deal of character to an area, and tell a story of progress and hope. (I know. I can hyper-romanticize a can of tuna if you’d let me.)

However, a lot of these unique country attributes demand that travelers adhere to the Southern rules of the road, of course. For example, in the summertime, you have to be careful around sharp turns and coming over hills so you don’t rear-end a slow-moving tractor or the occasional herd of cows being transferred to another pasture. You must drive slowly in densely-wooded areas at night in case you come across a deer, a possum or a hunting dog (although, if you’re like me, you’ll want to load the hunting dog into your car and take it to an animal rescue shelter - no animal deserves to be spray-painted and sent out to work at night.) In fact, you should really drive as slowly as possible at all times while in the country as there’s always the threat of running across chickens, dogs, children, horses, funerals, schoolbuses, churches being let out, early-morning farmer’s market patrons or old people cruising around for their “Sunday afternoon drive” (which is apt to happen any afternoon of the week). But, if you remember nothing else, for the love of God, don’t honk at anyone’s driving mistakes when you’re out in the country; Southerners take a reprimanding carhorn as a personal offense and you’re liable to get an entire town to turn against you if you hold down your horn for longer than 1 second - especially if you’re in the “downtown” district, which may be no larger than a blinking stoplight and a Quickie Mart.

It isn’t hard to get to a “country road” from anywhere in The South, although it’s significantly more difficult to get to one that’s particularly enjoyable. This has a lot to do with subjectivity, however, as every Southerner has his or her idea of what really makes an ideal country passage. For the redneck off-roading set, the muddy, unpaven routes or the hilly, rocky enlarged mountain trails are the most beautiful aspects of Southern terrain, perfect for flinging chunks of mud and scaling jagged, pointy boulders in a wild, testosterone-injected variation of a four-wheel-drive SUV. For the farm families, it’s long, straight roads constructed of curved dust that line miles and miles of flat, treeless fields.

I prefer a variety of Southern journeys, in all honesty. When I get into the Lowcountry, I love finding myself on narrow landbridges tunneling through quiet, forgotten swamps, shaded by a canopy of Spanish moss dangling from cypress. In the North Carolina Piedmont, I’ll load my daughter into her carseat and let the gentle waves of country hills lull her to sleep while I smile at the endless display quaint, storybook farms and houses that look like something out of old model train sets.

Of all the Southern country roads, however, the ones I love the most are the ones in the Appalachian. When making my ascent, I’ll roll down my windows to inhale the deep musk of rhododendron and fern. Even on the interstate, there’s a serenity that seems to settle on every traveler and compels them to gaze out over the endless landscape of ancient mounds that fade gradually into a blue haze. I’ll even roll my windows down when I’m riding through the mountains in the snow, listening to the hushed settling of acceptance as the trees get reacquainted with the rare bite of frost. But in the summertime, I love to hang my head out the window like a dog, watching the sun cut green columns through the blankets of leaves and feeling the humidity pool on my hairline, where the smell will stay for days if I’ll let it. I love reaching the fields in the valleys where the brooks topple over worn stones and cows lumber about on great hills where it looks like they should go sliding off any minute. I’ll honk and wave at farmers on tractors or kids tubing down the river or old folks shelling peas at their roadside produce stands. (Assuming I’ve already stopped for a bushel of apples.) I really get into my mountain roads and always insist on stopping at least once every 30 minutes to take in an overlook or mosey around a tiny village, usually to the chagrin of whomever I’m carrying as a passenger.

But, usually, by the end of the trip, anyone in the car is a convert to the simple majesty and elegance of the Great Country Road. Unless said passenger is my husband, who has seen “The Hills Have Eyes” and is terrified of anything other than interstates. Poor guy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Front Porch Sittin’

Southern porches are where magic lives. These are where stories are passed down through generations and where kids learn to whittle and weave sweetgrass baskets and catch fireflies in small jars. Southern porches are where women test drive sweet tea recipes until they find the perfect combination. They’re where friends come together to trade gossip and catch up on what’s happening in their community. Southern porches perpetuate the ideal spirit of the South.

Porch-sitting is an obvious Southern tradition that harkens back to the days when we actually labored to make the food we ate and the clothes we wore. After long, hard days in the sun or in the kitchen, Southerners would go outside to sit on the porch and enjoy the gradual decline in temperature. These days, the tradition continues in millions of Southern households every night, and, ultimately, the rules haven’t changed.

The Southern Front Porch is the preferred porch for evening-sitting as it is where the reclining parties can observe traffic. I realize how ridiculous that sounds but this, also, harkens back to when people sat on their front porches to watch and see who passed by their homes on horse-drawn carriages and carts. The porch sitters could get their news from the people traveling home after work and invite them to come sit for a glass of tea or a bottle of beer or a mason jar full of whiskey (depending on the era.) These days the tradition is the same in that, when a neighbor sees a family sitting on a front porch it is a welcome invitation to come and at least strike up a casual conversation. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Unless you’ve been to talk to a group of porch-sitters more than 5 times, you must not take a seat before being invited to do so!!)

Porch-sitting activity varies from day to day. One day the men of the family may be sharing beers, playing chess and talking sports while the next day a gaggle of Southern women may be crocheting and catching up on gossip. Small household tasks that are easily translatable to the front porch include (but are not limited to) shelling peas, shucking corn, plaiting hair, folding clothes fresh from the clothesline and rolling cigarettes for the week. Any leisure activity like cross-stitching, reading, finishing crossword puzzles, etc. are to be done ONLY if you are the only one on the porch or if you’ve just stepped onto the porch where the other person/people are engaged in private leisure activity.

Frankly, I don’t think a house or apartment is worth living in unless it has an outdoor porch from which to observe the sun setting. A wrap-around porch with Kennedy-style rockers are ideal but any Southerner can grit their teeth and make do with a deck or concrete patio if needed. Besides, it’s never about the condition of the physical porch so much as it is the events that take place there.

Sunday, April 4, 2010 — 1 note

How We Deal with “Cold” Weather

In the South it gets cold for a total of 10 days every year. When I say “cold” I mean “lower than 40 degrees”. During these ten days, Southerners will become completely consumed with this obvious crisis and will discuss it amongst themselves incessantly as if having cold weather during the winter was completely unpredictable. It is not uncommon for two Southern strangers to stop and gab about how cold it is for twenty minutes in the dairy aisle of the Piggly Wiggly or with gas station cashiers, holding up lines of patrons. Excitedly, they will compare notes and firsthand accounts as to how this insufferable weather has affected their daily lives with stories about how their car took 15 whole minutes to warm up or how the pond in their backyard had a ring of ice around it that almost extended to the middle. Southern mothers of all ages will call their children on a daily basis make sure that nobody has caught pneumonia in these gales of 38 degree (F) winds.

FUN FACT: Because we rarely get snow, we have reappropriated the fun Yankee word “toboggan” (which means “sled”) to now mean “knit cap.” If you didn’t know better, one could easily suppose we were running around reminding each other to put sleds on our heads and the heads of our children forpity’ssake.

The regularity of snow varies between specific regions of the South, of course. If in West Virginia or Virginia, one can expect snowfall to start in mid-December and continue weekly until mid-February. In North Carolina, one can tentatively expect one or two snows every year (which are mostly ice storms anyway), while South Carolina gets 2 or 3 inches every 2 or 3 years. If you’re in Georgia and Alabama, you’ll probably only see a local snow 3 or 4 times every twenty years (unless you’re in the mountains) and, if you see snow in Florida or Louisiana it is time to start packing your bags and saying your prayers because the apocalypse is nigh.

Although to an outsider the Southern Snow Reaction may appear as mere pandemonium, there are, in fact, three phases to the event of a Southern snow. These phases still stand regardless of the amount of snow, although the elapsed time of each phase in a community is directly proportionate to the inches of snow the area receives.

PHASE ONE: Because we don’t get much of snow that actually sticks to the roads, we don’t spend our tax dollars on fleets of snow-removal equipment. With this in mind, any weatherman in the South has the power to incite riots simply by mentioning there is a 35% or more chance of snow on a following day. This news stimulates nerve receptors in the Southern mind that forces said Southerner to drop his or her immediate activity, grab his/her keys and coat and drive in a blind panic to the local supermarket. Within the hour, the dairy and bread aisles will be completely cleared of any inventory, leaving the empty-handed to walk around wondering if powdered milk is really all that awful anyway. Unfortunately, 86% of these predictions turn out to be false alarms which inevitably leave thousands of Southerners with a gallon of milk in the fridge that they now have no use for because they rarely drink it at all.

PHASE TWO: There are a lot of times to be terrified of gleeful Southerners, like if you’re in traffic when the “Hot Doughnuts Now” light flickers on at the Krispy Kreme. But there is no single event that blankets the South with a deliriously giddy, childlike glee as the arrival of snow. Other than in the parking lot after the victory of a local university’s football championship game, there is no other time that Southerners are entitled to publicly lose their minds like they do when snow flurries begin. Even if the snow lasts 20 minutes and never sticks to anything, a Southerner’s entire day will be monopolized with an obsession for snow. It will be all anyone can talk about as if the rest of the world has completely ground to a halt because of frozen precipitation. And, if this snow sticks to the ground, then all hope of a productive Southern society is lost for the next few days. Even if it’s the second or third snow of the year, Southerners of all ages will frolic outdoors all day, crafting makeshift sleds (because we rarely have them), allowing ourselves to be dragged behind pickup trucks, stripping down to our skivvies and making snow angels, etc.

PHASE THREE: This is the part that always lasts the longest. After the roads have been cleared and everyone goes back to work the topic of conversation for the next week will be about the snow and everyone’s experience of the sacred event. They will compare this recent snow with snows in their pasts, arguing over which year had more or the worst ice or the most power outages. They will talk about ice-related tragedies that struck various trees in their neighborhoods. They will post pictures of themselves in the snow on Facebook or send it to family members with hour-by-hour accounts of the event, citing scientific data for emphasis. And just when you think it really should be over, someone will mention on Monday morning that the news is predicting a 65% chance of snow on Thursday night and the whole cycle will begin again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 — 1 note

Roadside Produce

Roadside ProduceStraight from the cart

In the South we pride ourselves on our produce, in case you haven’t noticed. In the summertime my mom used to make weeks and weeks worth of meals that consisted of just local, handpicked veggies. Steamed corn on the cob dripping with butter… boiled lima beans with my Gran’s chow chow on top … slices of huge, juicy tomatoes so big they could’ve doubled for a plate… Mmmmm… And, sure, you can get these things relatively locally at your grocery store (boooooo!) or at the always-bustling farmer’s market (the best part of waking up early on a Saturday) but everyone knows that the very best produce is the stuff you see in the back of a pickup truck or a trailer or a small shack on the side of the road.

Now, you have to be careful with what you choose to purchase from these entrepreneurs as not everything is safe. When purchasing from a mobile produce stand [read: Billy Bob’s pickup truck] it’s best to stick to the tougher, less volatile foods like watermelons, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, peanuts and maaaaybe zucchini. Believe it or not, a good tip to judging the quality of a mobile merchant’s produce is whether or not that person is present. I know this sounds strange but the best produce can be found at an unmanned stand with a coffee tin that reads “Honor System”. Because the farmer believes in the goodness of humanity and trusts you to do the right thing, you, in turn, trust him to deliver a quality product. And you will never ever be wrong about that. If you visit a mobile stand where the farmer is standing by, he has the option of changing the prices on you or pressuring you to buy more or breathing down your neck to make you uncomfortable so you buy a mediocre product in your haste to get away.

For the most part, produce sold in little rickety shanties with peeling paint and faded, misspelled signs is always safe. Clearly the stand has been there long enough to garner decent business over many years and obviously the local farmers have trusted the stand owner to sell their goods and be fair with the commissions, so you really feel like you’re a part of the community. The other thing about these places is that, unbeknownst to the throngs of tourists who happen to spot it while making a detour from the interstate, these are the pride and joy of many clusters of little farms because they are able to keep their produce local and give back to their small towns while building a reputation for themselves. If you hang out at one long enough, you’ll get it.

Oh! And one very important note about Southern culture regarding roadside produce: If you are on the way to a relative or friend’s home, it is extremely good manners to stop off at one of these stands and buy them a bag of fresh peaches,  tomatoes or sweet potatoes (and sometimes corn on the cob if you’re well-established with your host.)

I tried to explain this to an Australian friend who was visiting the States and allowing me to be her tour guide around the South. She seemed confused, “So, if I’m going to a friend’s house and I stop at the Wal-Mart grocery and get her some corn that would be weird and unfitting but if you buy a heap of corn from a toothless man on the side of the road that’s good manners?”

Exactly. Not only is it good manners but it will elicit a reaction of elated surprise and the inevitable refrain of “Gosh, these are beeaaautiful!” and you will be the highest valued guest of any that week.

Unless someone brings a fresh produce pie. Then all bets are off.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010