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The downside of Southernness. July 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben considers myself a Southerner at heart, despite living my entire adult life in the scenic middle of nowhere, PA. My father is a native Nashvillian, and has that classic Southern accent, as in “The bay-ah is ovah thay-ah.” (That’s “The bear is over there” for non-Southerners.) My mother was a native of Kentucky, and despite living her adult life in Tennessee, maintained a distinctive Kentucky twang when she spoke. To this day, our friend Ben’s brother speaks in a somewhat more magisterial Southern accent along the lines of our father’s (I’m sure his super-exclusive Southern prep school had something to do with this), and my sister bears the heavy Alabama accent she’s acquired after a lifetime in Montgomery.

But our friend Ben never, ever had a Southern accent. This continues to confuse me to this day. After a lifetime of being mocked by my fellow Southerners for “talking like a Yankee,” and by my fellow Pennsylvanians for “managing to lose the Southern accent,” our friend Ben is no closer to figuring out why I grew up with what’s apparently perceived as an upscale but neutral accent. (When I first moved to PA, people continually accused me of being from England. Speechless at first, it finally dawned on me to say blandly, “No, I’m from the South,” which apparently was considered as exotic as England and brought the whole matter to an end. Until the time that a store clerk piped up with, “The South of England?!” Sheesh.) Our friend Ben has wondered if, as a child growing up with television, I simply adopted a neutral television-announcer accent, but since that was hardly an advantage among my fellow Southerners, it seems unlikely. I still don’t know where my accent came from. And I still wonder.

But to repeat, wherever I am, however I speak, I still consider myself a child of the South. If I didn’t think it would get my windshield bashed in, I’d get one of those bumper stickers that says, “American by birth. Southern by the grace of God.” And yes, I do have a tie-dyed Lynyrd Skynyrd tee-shirt.

However, I’m drifting from the point here, so let’s try to get back to it. Silence Dogood, who as you all know loves cooking more than life, discovered a few choice books for $1 at a library benefit sale last week, including a history of cooking in the Fifties and autobiographies of food gurus Ruth Reichl and Paula Deen. Silence decided to dig into her massive stack of books with Paula Deen’s autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’. She was reading along, updating our friend Ben about the melodrama that was Paula’s life, when she suddenly turned up at my computer with the book and a very serious expression. I asked what was going on now.

Now, Silence and our friend Ben both salute Paula Deen for being just who she is: an overweight, sixty-something, white-haired Southern cook who tells it like she sees it. Bravo, Paula!!! But Silence was deeply disturbed by a sentence in Paula’s autobiography. She declaimed the whole paragraph aloud, beginning with “I never want to get so uppity that I forget who I am and where I came from.” Vintage Paula, right on, hooray. But then, three sentences later: “Food that is rooted in Southern history, food that Stonewall Jackson’s momma might have given him.” Ending the paragraph with “That’s what I want to serve my family and friends.”

Many Civil War historians believe that Stonewall Jackson was the South’s most brilliant general, and that his ludicrous death—shot down by his own troops returning to his camp from a reconnaissance mission—proved the death knell for the South. Our dear friend Rob, a Civil War buff from the North with ancestors in Puritan New England and no inherent Southern sympathy, is convinced that Stonewall Jackson would have won the war for the South had he lived. And that, later, slavery in the Confederate States would have died a natural death much as the British Empire was forced to relinquish its hold over its territories, including India. But of course, then the States would not have remained united, and no great nation would have risen from this soil to play its part on the world stage. General Lee was a great man, but simply not the great general that the eccentric, less charismatic Stonewall Jackson was. General Jackson’s death doomed the Confederacy.

By now, you may be saying okay fine, so what’s your point? Our friend Ben’s point—and Silence’s point in bringing that passage to my attention—is this: How can Southerners continue to be so oblivious, so hurtful?! Paula Deen begins her autobiography by talking about segregation, how she grew up with it but wasn’t aware of it. She apologizes for her oblivion before returning to her life story. All right, we forgive her… until that sentence about Stonewall Jackson.

Our friend Ben and Silence were lucky—segregation was history by the time we were growing up. Woodstock was a movie, psychedelic drugs were illegal, “free love” was a naive, archaic concept like the Beatles, Go-Go Boots and Twiggy. Vietnam? History. Race Riots? History. JFK’s assassination? History. We grew up assuming that integration was a fait accompli. And we probably would never have thought otherwise had our more aware friend, Susan, not pointed out that in her home state, Virginia, the Confederacy was still alive and well.

Say what?!! We’re not talking about the KKK or even rednecks here. Our friend Ben and Silence had visited Virginia many times, staying with our dear friends Cole and Bruce, enjoying the delights of Charlottesville and Front Royal and Monticello, Ash Lawn, and Montpelier. Until Susan’s wake-up call, we hadn’t noticed the Civil War holdovers. Our own native Nashville didn’t have even one. We’d assumed the Civil War was ancient history. But Susan drew our attention to the many Southern generals immortalized in county names, city names, street names, and so on in Virginia. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson figured prominently, as we saw for ourselves the next time we went down there. Yikes!!!

Of course, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves what black Virginians must think when confronted by the names of Southern generals on their schools, counties, and capitals. Not to mention the rest of the South, the Deep South, and our own proud heritage. Oh no, oh no!!! How humiliating. Like Paula Deen, we all have been oblivious. But our friend Susan awakened us.

The next time we headed South, we too saw the Confederate military heroes enshrined all around us. And sheesh, these guys must be people’s ancestors, too, a source of pride for them just as our own Simms and Semmes and Wall and Merritt and Montgomery and Mattingly ancestors are for us. We know Stonewall Jackson was married, but we don’t know if he had any progeny. Is any descendant still alive who’d be thrilled that Paula Deen chose Stonewall Jackson as her example to epitomize Southern cooking? Couldn’t she have chosen a more neutral example?

Our friend Ben and Silence adore old-time Southern cooking. But, no matter where we go in the South, we have a hell of a time finding it. Our best hope is to find a soul food restaurant. It seems to us that white folks just can’t bear to cook good old traditional Southern food, at least not in restaurants or for publication. I guess they think fried chicken, biscuits, corn cakes, cole slaw, real iced tea, grits, and the like is declasse. Silence has looked at endless Southern cookbooks, and found generic “upscale” cooking, except in parody cookbooks like the Sweet Potato Queens’ and Ruby Ann Boxcar’s books. When we go home, we’re desperate for real Southern food, and damned if we ever find it. Heartaches, and nothin’ but!

Our friend Ben and Silence love our Southern heritage. We love Southern cooking. But oh God, we hate the thought of hurting Southern blacks—who after all are as Southern as any of us—by grinding the Southern Confederate generals in their faces. Can’t we be a little more sensitive?! Our friend Ben can’t help but draw an obvious parallel: What if you were Jewish and your hometown had streets, schools, and other public buildings named for Hitler and his minions? Ugh.

Perhaps we Southerners and Southern cooks could make more of an effort to recognize the contribution that Cajun, Native American, African, and other cuisines brought to our unique culinary efforts. And perhaps we could also bring a bit more sensitivity to that acknowledgement.