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

As American as BBQ

“Forget baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.  For a Southerner, it is barbeque.”

Let’s clarify immediately and with great fervor, barbeque is not an event; it is a dish. I don’t care what our Northern neighbors say.  It is not a backyard gathering.  You don’t go to a backyard “barbeque.”  You go to the backyard to eat barbeque. Barbeque is a dish created by the soft whispers of the angels who trod before us and is as close to heaven as I wish to get until death.  Good barbeque is a gift from heaven…it is not a place. Be reverent my children.

It is the morning of July 5th and as I write this, I’m in a barbeque coma courtesy of Carolus’ ribs and Jamie’s pulled pork…and potato salad courtesy of Carol Ann.  Other significant coma contributors included blueberry cobbler and brown liquor.  There were many other contributors and only contributions I would have added would have been mayonnaise and vinegar slaw and hash over white rice but that is a personal choice and not a coma breaker.  It is a tip of the hat to my roots where barbeque came with mustard sauce and helpings of hash over rice.

It was the first Bennett family Fourth of July backyard cookout in two years.  The Bennetts are our adopted family and I’m not sure who adopted whom.  It was good to see folk we hadn’t seen in two years even though there was a bit of “post-Covid” trepidation.   Sitting outside under shade trees and swapping stories soon reduced my anxieties…or maybe it was the brown liquor.

Backyard cookout.  See how I said that?  A backyard cookout.  You go to a cookout…not to a barbeque.  You don’t even have to serve barbeque at a cookout, you can grill things like pork, chicken, beef, roadkill, or tofu.  But grillin’ ain’t barbequin’.  Barbeque is slowly cooked animal parts, pork in my part of the world, over wood coals.  Slow-cooked until the meat just gives up and shreds easily with two forks or falls off of the bone without any help from anything other than gravity.  Sometimes eating high on the hog involves parts found low on the hog.

There is a certain barbeque etiquette.  None etched in stone, and it varies from place to place but it would behoove you to learn the area’s rules before attending a cookout serving barbeque.  See how I said that? 

Generally, the rules involve sauces, rubs, or sides.  It can involve the meat, Texas is mainly beef, for instance, other areas might be a goat or lamb, yuck, but here in South Carolina, it is pork.  I reckon we all eat chicken and you can slow cook yard bird.

There are sauces and then there are sauces.  Nothing to argue over.  Pick one or experiment. Sauce varies here in South Carolina.  Vinegar base, pepper base, both together.  Mustard base, light tomato base, heavy tomato base, depending on the area.   In the home of my mother, the general rule was a mustard sauce with pork, tomato sauce with chicken.

The mustard base is considered by many to be truly South Carolina’s sauce…may be.  German immigrants brought it from the Fatherland to the midlands.  Our new visitors told the older inhabitants they were from Deutschland, which was mistaken as Dutchland, and the reason the fork between the Broad and Saluda Rivers became known as the Dutch Fork. Dutch Fork…Deutsch Fork…”You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe.”

The mustard sauce changes to vinegar and pepper sauces on the coast, light tomato, which is vinegar and pepper with tomato added, in the Pee Dee area, heavy tomato in the West and Northwest portions of the state…with a bit of brown sugar, root beer, or brown liquor added…sometimes.  People are mostly steadfast in their allegiance to one sauce although I admit to experimentation on occasion.  If a person serves you an exotic barbeque sauce like that Alabama White Sauce, thank them even if you don’t like it.  It is the Southern way and good etiquette.

Steadfast allegiance but I’m not willin’ to fight a Civil War over it.  No one should argue over sauces.  It is almost like arguing about politics except with politics no one wins.  With barbeque, everybody wins.  Just don’t drown the meat in the sauce.    It is meant to enhance the flavor, not cover it up…unless it is bad barbeque.  One rule etched in stone: Never pre-sauce a sandwich.  The amount of sauce is a personal choice.

Sides?  I’m guessing we could argue all day. In the South, potato salad is a must.  Corn on the cob, fried okra, baked beans, and dill pickles are quite acceptable.  I fancy the pickled medley that includes pickled cauliflower and pearl onions.  Just don’t call it giardiniera.  Sounds too fancy for barbeque and you can leave the pickled carrots out of mine.

To slaw or not to slaw, that might be the question?  I think slaw is a genetic thing.  You are born to put slaw on your pulled pork sandwich, or you are not.  Kind of like sugar or vinegar or mayonnaise in your slaw.  Me…vinegar and mayonnaise and yes, I want it on my sandwich.

Hash or Brunswick stew?  It is pretty much Brunswick stew everywhere other than the Carolinas. Once again, everywhere else is wrong.  It’s hash always.  Unrecognizable pig products cooked with potatoes and onions until they meld together with certain spices passed down by the ghostly hands of our past. Served over rice…white rice of course.

What is not up for debate, fellowship.  You shouldn’t eat barbeque with someone you don’t like which brings me back to the Bennett clan.  I like the Bennett clan.  I taught with the patriarch, Carol Ann, and coached and taught her two sons Jamie and Carolus.  Through them, my bride and I have become members of their extended family.  I’m honored to have been invited to their July 4th celebration. Barbeque reminds me of home and the Bennett clan reminds me of family.  It just doesn’t get much better than that.

I need to take a nap.  My barbeque coma is about to win out.

Barbecue or Barbeque.  I spelled it barbeque because it is a bit archaic, like me, and because it was spelled that way where I grew up.

For books by Don Miller https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3xEUv3gUa4wrDNp0oXEa2Rbv1hcunRf64Zlr3wl2hNbsCYZwGlgIDwNqw

Spinnin’ in Her Grave

I’m sure my grandmother is looking down from the great beyond and shaking her head.  I’m guessing what is left of her earthly body is spinnin’ in her grave.  As soon as she heard that can opener, I visualize a side eyed look below her furrowed brow.  Not only am I cooking canned black-eyed peas I’m serving canned collards to go with them.  If she were still alive, I’m sure I would be disenfranchised. 

My grandmother, Nannie, was not known for her cooking.  She wasn’t into exotic food…I don’t think I ate a pizza until I went off to college.  Pizza…exotic?  Cooter Stew was about as exotic as she got.  But there were lines she would never cross and peas with collards from a can was a line in concrete. 

Peas and collards fit right in with her idea of utilitarian food, with cornbread and a raw onion of course.  Oh, and some of Aunt Alta’s chow chow. Bless my soul, I had forgotten that. Nannie’s meals were made to fortify you for a long day in the field.  Exotic foods weren’t known to stick to your ribs.

In her small kitchen dried black-eyed peas from her fields would have been put in the Dutch oven to soak the night before, picked over to remove shells or gravel that might have “snuck” in.  Drained and rinsed, they would have returned to the Dutch oven along with onions, ham hocks, and seasonings and allowed to slow simmer in water and get to know each other for the next four or five hours.  When the ham hocks were tender, they would be removed, and the meat picked from the bone and fat and returned to the peas. 

Well before the pickin’, fresh collards from her garden would have been washed and rinsed repeatedly, chopped awaiting placement into another Dutch oven.  There they would join up with sauteed, in bacon grease, onion and chopped ham, some broth, apple cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes.  These would hang together until cooked to death. 

An hour before the meal was ready, a cast iron frying pan with a dollop of Crisco would be placed in the old stove to become screaming hot before corn bread batter was poured into it and put back in the oven to cook and brown.  I can remember the sizzle the batter made when it hit the grease and have a mental vision of a tanned and creased, flour-streaked cheek.  I also remember the corn bread to be a tad dry but something to mop the pot likker from my bowl with. 

Tea so sweet it made your teeth ache or fresh buttermilk would wash down the meal.

All told, she spent the better part of half a day to get the meal on the table…which is why I will open a can.  My bride will cook her special brand of cornbread, better than my grandmothers, moister at least…and I’ll mop up my pot likker with it.  I’ll keep the collards and peas a bit healthier and a lot less tasty, all-in hopes of seeing another New Year’s Day or two. We may oven fry some pork chops…the other white meat.

It is about traditions, I reckon Southern traditions in this case.  It is about honoring the past.  As I have quoted before, William Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Peas swelling as they cook for luck, greens for money, pork because hogs are always moving forward as they forage, and cornbread for gold is a long running tradition…as is cornbread running in butter. 

In the South, how the tradition began involves two stories of note. Not sure either is true. According to one, during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, “bummers” left behind peas and salt pork thinking it was nothing more than animal feed.  Southerners gave thanks for having even that gracious little to get through the winter.  I have my doubts about the story.  It makes no sense to leave even animal feed behind.  It does make for a good story and a reason to celebrate.

According to the second, and I find this more likely, black-eyed peas were a symbol of emancipation for African Americans who were officially freed on New Year’s Day, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation.  As the story goes peas were all they had to eat, and it became a symbol.  Again, I am unsure of the story but know former slaves initiated the idea for adding rice to the peas along with bacon, onion, and spices, giving us Hoppin’ John.  That is a good thing whether the story is true or not and has become a favorite Southern tradition of mine.

Yes, the South does have traditions we are not likely to allow to die.  Some I wish would.  Peas and collards isn’t one of them even from a can.  Be sure and eat your peas and collards. 

I hope you have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Visit Don Miller’s Author’s Page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR12bCTU7L4-4kWnHyS1zoacryFywuXQm_mLnMXCkCldT08Goh0UKW8dkZY