An Affront to my Southern Sensibilities

“I’m always sketchy of people who don’t like grits.” – Author: Jaycee Ford

I have many Yankee friends along with those from other parts of the country.  Good folks are good folks no matter where they come from…except when it comes to food…or harping on perceived Southern backwardness which, unfortunately includes our Confederate past and the original sin of slavery and the Jim Crow that came after it.  Don’t pontificate because Southerners wrote the book on pontification and when you speak to me about fried food or our original sin you are preachin’ to the choir. 

If it is backward to revere the callused hands of our forefathers then, yeah, we are backward, but most of us are not the repressive, inbred, missing more teeth than we have, morons we are portrayed to be. 

We have a gracious plenty of those repressive, inbred morons and I’m missing a few teeth myself, but for most of us, Southern identity has more to do with food, accents, manners, and music than our Confederate flag flyin’ past. I did date a distant cousin once upon a time but only because pickins’ were slim… The emphasis should be on distant and not on cousin. We did not inbreed nor did we breed in the backseat of my ’63 Ford.

In my circle of friends, Southern identity is open to all races, a variety of ethnic groups, and people who move here.  It incorporates more than “South” Alabama or Texas but includes Southern France, Southern Italy, Southern Asia, and any other country you can describe as “South” anywhere. West Africa, which is south of the South, made an even greater contribution I should add especially when talking about food and music…or our original sin.   

In all honesty, I believe the repressive morons are just the most vocal as they watch their way transition to the chamber pot of life.  They are not the most numerous. It’s just the rest of us are silent, sitting quietly thinking, “Well, bless your heart.”  We should be more vocal and drown them out and the “bless your heart” in this case is a negative comment.

Still, my Yankee friends, there are limits to my Southern sensibilities, mostly those limits involve food…especially this time of year.

I am a day from the first of my three annual physicals and food is on my mind.  October, the fright month, and I’m not speaking to the horror of Halloween and candy corn.  I’m speaking about the blood work that will be done, the weigh-in, the blood pressure check, the electro-cardiogram with its ice-cold electrodes applied with Gorilla Glue, the body scan to see if any more skin cancer is eating me alive.  It will be the yearly reckoning and one that has me tighter than a tick on a fat dog.

I’m a week away from “paying the piper” for a lifetime of excess.  Platters of “Southern” fried chicken and catfish, oversized cathead biscuits smothered in creamy sawmill gravy, salty pork rinds, cigars, and brown liquor.  Since my heart attack in 2006, my diet has been limited to mostly leaves and cardboard, the seasonings removed from the angelic hands of my ancestors and replaced with a bit of shaken Mrs. Dash. 

Little fried, little creamy, little salty, limited cigars and little brown liquor…well, brown liquor can be used for medicinal purposes, and I light the cigar to smell it more than I smoke it.  The keyword is little as in much less than I might wish, so, my sensibilities are affronted when my Yankee friends try to school me on “good” food. 

It could be I’m just amid a  bacon grease withdrawal. For instance, and in no particular order:

Throwing away the aforementioned bacon grease instead of using it as a “flavorin’.”  Blasphemy! Bacon grease should be stored in a coffee can right on the stovetop for easy access.  Bacon grease is culinary “gold.” Eggs fried or scrambled in bacon grease, greens or beans sautéed in bacon grease and then cooked to death. Bacon grease cooked in bacon grease.

Biscuits and creamy sawmill gravy are most certainly a main course and biscuits running in butter and honey are a dessert. To say otherwise could end a friendship.

It is Duke’s Mayonnaise, or it is nothing. If I have a choice between Hellman’s or Miracle Whip, I’ll look for mustard to put on my tomato sandwich.  Yuck.  Sidenote, tomato sandwiches should be served on soft, white bread.  Save your multigrain for Reubens and such.

Also, I am well-read.  I know a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable in every state of the union save one.  It is a vegetable in South Carolina by legislative decree. As if my legislators have no better use of their time.

Don’t serve grits from those little brown packets that you microwave with water and then gripe about how bland they are.  Grits are a blank canvas.  They should be stone ground, cooked with cream, and at the minimum contain cheddar cheese and butter.  And please, just serve me the box that the packets of “flavored” grits come in.  Addendum:  Grits should never be served with sugar. 

I’ll drink water from a stagnant, primordial swamp before I will drink unsweetened tea.  It should be served sweet with lemon slices to sour it up. Southern paradox?

Instant tea? Just shoot me.

Chicken fried steak and country fried steak are not the same.  Chicken fried involves an egg batter, country fried a dusting of flour only.  Note to prospective cooks, I’ll eat either and smile.

Don’t ask me to come for the barbecue and then serve hotdogs and hamburgers.  That’s grillin’.  A barbecue is not a place. Barbecue is slow-cooked pig parts over wood coals.  Barbecue is a noun, not a verb.  Note:  If you want to serve some of those German sausages in addition to the slow-cooked pig parts that will be fine with me.  Put it in a bun and you can pretend it is a hotdog and I’ll be okay.  I’ll even eat one. 

Mac and cheese should not come from a little box that contains everything you need to make it taste like noodles and Velveeta and nothing else.  Good mac and cheese is not orange in color.  It is a cheesy crisp brown on the outside and at the corners and creamy and pale on the inside.  It contains more than just mac and cheese. Addendum:  It is also perfectly acceptable to list good mac and cheese on the vegetable menu of your local ‘meat and three.’

Side note: Good cornbread doesn’t come from a package or a box and “nanner puddin'” should not be made with instant pudding.

Finally, viewing Southern food as only fried chicken, pork, or fish and biscuits is a great over-simplification. The Southern food of our forefathers was plant-based.  Granted, many of those plants were fried or flavored with bacon grease or fatback and very well seasoned. Staples included stewed okra and tomatoes, whole-grain cornbread, winter greens, corn, butterbeans, sweet potatoes, and both winter and summer squash. Fried meat, poultry, or fish served daily is a modern contrivance. Certainly, there are Southern dishes that are indulgent, but indulgent food is found in any cuisine.  Beef Stroganoff anyone?

Postscript: My first battery of test came back great. My cholesterol was 121. Biscuits and gravy here I come. I’ve got a year to work it off.

Don Miller’s newest book is live on Amazon and may be purchased in paperback or download at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09GNZFXFT

The Morning I Woke Up Crazy

“When you are crazy you learn to keep quiet.”― Philip K. Dick, VALIS

I remember waking up crazy.  It was a summer morning in the late Seventies or early Eighties.  I know it was the summer because I didn’t have to go to school that day… maybe it wasn’t summer, maybe a weekend day. Sometimes you just don’t know if you are loopy. Probably a good thing on the day you realize you are going insane.

You do realize, I didn’t just wake up and say “Well Don, you are insane…around the bend, looney, as crazy as an outhouse mouse.”  I had to get used to it, ease into it, take my time realizing I was looney-tunes.

I know now my deep slide didn’t just happen overnight.  But this wasn’t now, this was then. Then, I just thought I awoke one day with a mind like a broken kaleidoscope.  All the pieces were there, they just didn’t fit together anymore. Now, I realize it occurred slowly over time until one day it was “Wham-oh, Change-oh” I have gone off the deep end.

I was functioning despite my madness. There was such a stigma during this time.  You didn’t even whisper you were having problems.  People were still being locked away in asylums.  Electroshock Therapy was still used.  Remember “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”  There was the proof. 

No one could know I was crazy.  No one could know all I wanted to do was lower the blinds and draw the covers over my head…forever.  There was no one I could talk to…well, there were plenty of people I could have talked to if I had been willing to tell them my secret.  The stigma!  “Hey Bud, how are you doing?” “Well.  My television seems to have lost its vertical hold, can you help me?”

All I wanted to do was sleep…except when I tried to sleep, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t focus. When I was awake I was like a Mexican Jumping Bean. I didn’t want to be awake.  

Depressed, anxious, sad, melancholy…more than just a “bit blue”, I was suicidal.   That’s when I knew.  I had a great life, why was I contemplating removing myself from it.  I had a great job, a home, a wife…a wife I was driving away…drove away. 

I hated the questions I asked myself.  “Am I depressed because my marriage is bad or is my marriage bad because I’m depressed?” Well, that certainly worked itself out now didn’t it?  Any question beginning with “Why?” drove me even crazier.  Can a crazy person be driven crazy?

I didn’t want to be around people.  The more people the more anxious I was.  I remember putting on my happy face as I met my classes later in the year.  Every minute was like fingernails on the chalkboard.  I lived for my planning period.

I lost weight, I had no energy.  I was worthless, lower than whale poop in the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean.  I wanted to die.  Worse, I worried someone might find out.

One evening I sat on the foot of my bed.  A tiny 32 caliber pistol in my hand.  I remember the oily feel of the weapon.  I remember emptying it, reloading, spinning the chamber.  I remember the fear I felt realizing what I was contemplating.  I called my doctor the next day.  Stigma be damned!

I talked, cried a bit.  I answered a questionnaire and he talked with me at length.  Blood work and more talk.  Clinical Depression. A chemical imbalance in the brain.  We’re going to try Elavil, “better living through chemistry”, and therapy.  I also decided to tell someone.  It wasn’t as bad as I expected. No one showed up with a white jacket with belts.

It has been over forty years and I still have bouts of depression.  I’m not cured but I’m off of the drugs.  Every time I begin to slide I worry I might stay there.  I still become unfocused, my mind wanders but one thing I can concentrate on. “I know what it is.  I know I can climb out of the valley.”  Knowledge is power.

I know I’m not alone.  There are others just like me, and I know it is a disease just like any other. It is not something we asked for, it just is.  It is not something that would go away if we were built of sterner stuff.  Yeah, some idiot told me that and suggested it was a weakness in character. 

I don’t worry about stigma, I don’t worry about people knowing because I tell all who will listen.  Stigma kills people and there should be no stigma.

Today is World Mental Health Day, an international day for global mental health education, awareness, and advocacy against social stigma.  The one day of the year that we set aside to make people aware mental health. 

The other three hundred and sixty-four, we kind of ignore it…unless there is a school shooting.  On those days we spin platitudes expressing our concern over mental health to deflect from discussing gun violence until a couple of days or weeks pass and something new has taken over the news.

We don’t talk enough about mental health and the stigma that causes people to die.  Nationally, the suicide rate increased 25.4% from 1999 to 2016, with increases occurring in every state, save for Nevada. In 2018, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts and more than 48,000 deaths by suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Firearms were involved in half of all suicides, and there were more than twice as many deaths by suicide than by homicide during the same period. In 2020, suicides decreased by five percent to a bit less than 45,000.

Men are over three and a half times more likely to commit suicide than women. Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have the highest rate of suicide.  Older adults have higher rates than younger adults, LGBTQ adults and youth are more likely to commit suicide than hetero counterparts.  Veterans are one and a half times more likely to commit suicide than nonveterans. 

So, on World Mental Health Day let us all pledge to destigmatize mental health.  Let’s pledge to be a friend to the bullied, to accept LGBTQs as first and foremost, as people and call out bullies.  Let’s cut out a couple of Tomahawk missiles and provide the mental health services our veterans need.  Above all, let’s try empathy, something we once had but seems to be in short supply.

The national suicide helpline number is 800-273-8255. Use it! The number is manned twenty-four hours a day.

Don Miller’s new release, “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” maybe purchased at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3NeUQc6vEYiJm1P_3pB-pn0LHPonVrvst95cfhs4HxF5jNjIkwp6mO2q0

What Ever Happened to Burma Shave?

Hinky, dinky…parley voo…cheer up face…the war is thru…Burma Shave From 1930 Burma-Shave signs found along the roadside

I just saw a FaceBook post, one of those that have become too frequent.  “In the last week have you seen….”  It was about advertising some good or service and it caused me to think about advertisements from the past. 

A unknown poster asked the question, “What Ever Happened to Burma Shave?” I had no clue but a twisting pig trail led me from Burma Shave to “See Rock City” to the Eagles’ song, “Hotel California”, and back again.  Yes, it twisted but for some reason, the path made perfect sense to my twisted mind.

It was about advertising methods before there were slick, computer generated commercials. It was about low-tech jingles that included “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or croaking frogs saying “Bud…wise..errrr“ or stomachs jiggling to “No matter what shape your stomach is in.” You might have to do a bit of research on those. It was when beer, liquor, and cigarettes were sold in prime time. It was about a simpler time but my thoughts went further back,…some might have been a little dark.

“On a dark desert highway…Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.”  In my fragmented brain, the light was shimmering in gaudy neon.  Red and green, it flashed, maybe flickered as if a neon tube was going bad, “Welcome to the Hotel California.”  Below would be another sign advertising “Vacancies” or “Rooms to Let.”  “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,” sings in my head.

For some reason, I’m drawn to the gaudy neon.  Old signs flashing in green, pinks, yellows, and red.  “Cold Beer”, “Cigarettes Here”, red and green Coca Cola signs.  Seems you could advertise better with neon…or more brightly.

I associate neon with the hole-in-the-wall places where I spent too many hours during the misspent youth portion of my life.  There seemed to be a bit of the nefarious associated with neon…if not criminal, wicked at least.  If I were creating a scene it would be in a backroom of a pool hall or a bar advertised by harsh neon. Hard men with fedoras pushed back on their heads and Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes hanging on a lip. They squint to see their cards as smoke circles their heads. Women that Andy of Mayberry would have considered fast “fun girls” in tight shimmering gowns watch the game. Maybe a bit past their prime…trying to hang on for table scraps.

Maybe it was the signs that advertised cold beer and live music, “Girls, Girls, Girls” or the martini glass with a naked young lady in it.  I never liked martinis but girls were another thing as was cold beer and music. Somehow they seemed to be related in the dim light of my past. 

I am reminded of late-night road trips through small towns with darkened streets except for flashing neon. The themes of Perry Mason and Peter Gunn reverberate in my mind in black and white but I see the neon flashing in color.

In a “lighter” time, I remember family vacations, rolling through the twisting and narrow roads in the Blue Ridge and seeing barns on hillsides.  Slab barns with metal roofs with “Visit Rock City” or “When You’ve Seen Rock City, You’ve Seen it All”  painted on them. Sign painter Clark Byers painted over nine hundred barns advertising Rock City after it opened in 1932.

Some thirty years after it had opened, I found Rock City atop Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and remembered standing in line to step to a spot where I could see seven states, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Alabama.  I might have been ten or so. I also remember a rope bridge I wanted no part off.

On other trips, roadside signs ranged from professionally done to hand-lettered.  The hand-lettered ones, the work of someone who felt strongly about his religion or his politics. Strongly enough to pound them into the ground on the side of the road.

Weathered red paint on whitewash. Single words or phrases spaced over the road’s shoulder.  Many foretold of doom, “Repent…our…time…is…nigh”  or “The…end…is…near…REPENT.”  Quite ominous for a pre-teen raised in a strict home.

Others advertised Alligator Farms, the best fried chicken, Stuckey’s Candies, or Big Gulps. Sometimes all four could be found in one building.

Then there were the Burma Shave signs and the post that began my wanderings.

The Burma Shave signs weren’t as ominous and were professionally done but many displayed lessons to be learned.  More than a few displayed bullet holes as if someone took offense to them.

Burma Shave, at one time the second-largest producer of “brushless shaving cream”, was famous for its advertising gimmick of posting humorous rhyming poems on small sequential highway roadside signs. The company sold out to Philip Morris in the early Sixties but their signs lived on and were culturally impactful in TV, movies, and literature. They were culturally impactful to me it seems.

Burma-Shave - Wikipedia

One of their advertising sequence of signs read, “Cheer up face…The war is past… The “H” is out…Of shave…At last…Burma-Shave”, another “A shave…That’s real…No cuts to heal…A soothing…Velvet after-feel…Burma-Shave.”  I don’t know what the “H” in the first one stood for. I know the war it referred to was the First World War.

During World War Two they joined the war effort with rhymes like, ‘Let’s make Hitler…And Hirohito… Feel as bad…as Old Benito…Buy War Bonds…Burma-Shave’ and “TOUGH-WHISKERED YANKS…IN HEAVY TANKS…HAVE JAWS AS SMOOTH…AS GUYS IN BANKS!” Oh the humor.

A lesson to be learned, hopefully before a crash occurred.

TheClassicCar.com

The last Burma Shave rhyme landed in 1963, well before I began the daily scrapping of my facial skin. “Our fortune…Is your…Shaven face…It’s our best… Advertising space…Burma-Shave”. 

Until my next pig trail please remember, “Train approaching…Whistle squealing…Stop…Avoid that run-down feeling…Burma-Shave.” Here are three more on the signs that adorned many roadsides. The one on the right fits me perfectly.

Don Miller’s newest release, “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” is live on Amazon. It may be purchased in paperback or download. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09GQSNYL2