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

A POWERFUL HANKERIN’

Just say the word DIET and it triggers a Pavlovian response of Biblical proportions. I don’t really have to be on a diet when the word diet is used to trigger the response… a stupid comment, I’ve been on an eleven-year diet. On April 8, 2006, the day before my birthday, I stepped on my scales and they lied! My mind said, “There was no way I weigh in at two hundred and thirty-two pounds”, and then my mind realized I was leaning forward so I could see the scales. I was leaning forward to see over my belly. On April 9, 2006, I received a birthday present, a heart attack. A heart attack will get your attention.

I had battled my weight most of my life but now I was in a full-fledged war. Six months later I weighed one hundred and sixty-two pounds…and looked like a refugee from a famine. I immediately ate myself up to a healthier looking one hundred seventy-two. That’s the last time I was unconcerned about my weight…until just before Thanksgiving of this year when I decided not to worry about it until the first of the year. I weighed one hundred and eighty-five by January 1st. I had to think of that word again. Slobber, slobber, drool, drool.

The word causes me to feel hungry, 24/7/365. Before a meal, after a meal, in the dark hours of the night. The word “diet” gives me powerful hankerins’ for just about anything. Presently my hankerins’ is seafood. Not a McFish Sandwich kind of seafood, real live coastal seafood. The very thought takes me on a mental trip reminiscent of a storm-tossed sailboat without its rudder. You know you’re going somewhere, it’s going to be a wild ride and the outcome may include crashing against rocks.

Sara J’s seafood platter in Garden City, the Captain’s House oyster and artichoke stew at Myrtle Beach, Calabash shrimp anywhere in Calabash, North Carolina. Crabs at Hudson’s on Hilton Head, a brunch involving oysters and Bloody Marys at Shem Creek, shrimp and grits at the River Room in Georgetown along with anything fried at Aunny’s. I am racked with sorrow as I remember Oliver’s Lodge at Merrill’s Inlet will never serve me again because it’s now a private residence. Would they be upset if I just showed up at their door?

As my mental sailboat eased its meandering path with sleep, I found myself dreaming of an old college friend and a roadtrip to his Charleston home during a long college weekend. Bob Lemaster was better known as Renegade during his college days. He earned his nickname honestly with his dark Native-American appearance. Bob reminded me of the now socially unacceptable cartoon character “Injun Joe” in looks and a renegade in actions. Like most of us he matured, found the woman of his dreams, settling down to a normal life…and dropped Renegade for his given name, Bob. This trip occurred during his Renegade days.

The dream took me on a short drive down a long dirt road somewhere on Folly’s Island. Palmetto and scrub pine trees lining the road flew past the windows of Bob’s car like pickets on a fence. Once we arrived, I wondered about the hurry we had been in. Our destination was an old fishing shack or wreck of a house, take your pick, and for the life of me I can’t remember its name. I remember a small, sagging, wrap-around front porch and white paint so old it had grayed into a patina of sorts. I didn’t look for a health department grade and in the early Seventies it may not have been required…I doubt the fish shack would have been serving food had the health department gotten involved.

What the old shack did have was ambience. The wreck sat on a low hill close enough to the ocean for the sound of rollers crashing, the briny smell of the ocean and the touch of salt air, all to reach us and beguile our senses. An almost full moon rising above the horizon only added to the enchantment.

Seating was outside under patched funeral home canopies, on roughhewn picnic tables featuring a large hole in the center. There were no utensils or plates, just newspapers to cover the table and a roll of cheap paper towels. Menu choices were simple. Boiled shrimp, raw or smoked oysters and…well that was it. A short and stocky man with a swarthy complexion brought our choices of food to the table in large aluminum boiler pots and unceremoniously dumped them onto the newspaper covered table. “Bon appe’tit y’all.” Condiments included cocktail and tarter sauces in squirt bottles, a bottle of hot sauce, lemon wedges along with salt and pepper. Beverages choices were sweet tea or PBRs. Shrimp and oyster shells went through the hole in the table and into the trashcan underneath while our conversation drifted quietly with the breeze.

Simple food from the sea…and drinks from grain and hops. Quality seafood smells and taste like the sea and doesn’t have to be battered, seasoned or fried to be great, something the memory of this trip from long ago reminded me of. It also reminded me of a friend from long ago who is no longer with us.

Bob and I, along with several other college friends kept in touch until the early Eighties when a negative change in my marital and job status, along with the depths of clinical depression, made me reassess my life. I made a bad decision to cut people out of my life because they reminded me of the bad times they had no part in. Since Bob’s death I have reconnected with the old crew, Joe, Tim, and before his death, Tom. Bob’s passing persuaded me to reconnect, I’m just sorry I didn’t come to my realization before he died.

Bob, until the day I die, I will remember the no-named shanty, the food we ate and the stories we told. I’m sorry a powerful hankerin’ didn’t occur before you left us.

Just so you know, I weighed one seventy-three this morning and the severe diet is now over although the battle will never end. I think I’m going to get a couple of pounds of shrimp, boil them up in beer and Old Bay before serving them on my picnic table. Probably not going to drink PBRs. The sea and salt air won’t be felt but I can always pretend. Maybe Linda Gail will join me for a dance and I can tell her about one memorable night, an old friend and my powerful hankerin’.

POSTSCRIPT

It turns out my old buddy had us all buffaloed and despite his nickname and appearance, was not of Native American. It’s okay. I am imagining his deep laugh in the rainstorm thundering outside as I write this. Anyway, it’s my story and I’m going to stick to it. Thanks Bob.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf #ASMSG #IARTG #IAN