05 April, 2006

Food and the South

This column was written by a visitor to the "Deep South," but much of it rings familiar to me, having grown up in the southern rural areas of Maryland and Delaware, and having spent many years in southern Indiana (which has more in common with Georgia than it does northern Indiana). The author shares some of the things he learned after serving fora while as what he calls a "relief chef" in a church kitchen:

_ Dessert is not a culinary afterthought so much as a second entree no less filling than the first.

_ Some Southern concoctions seem to defy explanation: "I'm making two chess pies," a woman from the Long Beach Church of Christ informed me one morning in the church kitchen.

"What's a chess pie?" I asked.

"It's like pecan pie without the pecans," she explained.

"What's the point?" I asked.

_ If the recipe includes buttermilk, the cook learned it from her grandmother. If it includes Cool Whip, she got it from Mom.

...I learned that catfish can be prepared by a Southern cook in such a manner that its taste rivals lobster's; that the consistency of a good hush puppy should be just this side of angel food; and that far more differences can be cleared up in the kitchen than, I would guess, in the bedroom.

Mostly, I learned the truth of the words of my favorite country sage, brother Will Campbell: "In rural Southern culture, food is always the first thought of neighbors when there is trouble. That is something they can do and not feel uncomfortable. It is something they do and not have to explain or discuss or feel self-conscious about. 'Here, I brought you some fresh eggs for your breakfast. And here's a cake. And some potato salad.' It means, 'I love you. And I am sorry for what you are going through and I will share as much of your burden as I can.'"
He's absolutely right on all counts, of course. Reading this article brought me right back to my childhood in rural Maryland and Delaware... it's a rich tapestry that is hard to describe. Food tied us all together, created pecking orders and allowed bragging rights, marked rites of passage, welcomed the New Family, and spoke when words could not. Recipes followed family trees, and everybody knew without having to discuss it who made the best apple pie, roast, potato salad... and who had taught her how.

The author, Mike Harden, recognized what I knew from living among people like that for so many years: for all their cultural and social faults (as we all posses), there is an abiding and pervasive sense of caring, connection, and community that marks them as Good People. And food is how they do it. I miss them...

I wonder if it's still like that where I grew up, or if the pull of modern life has reached them, too. But just for a moment, I felt it again...