In the spring of 1997, a devastating tornado blew through Arkansas, and the governor, a Baptist minister and former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention named Mike Huckabee, refused to sign legislation that referred to it as an “act of God.” “It seemed unreasonable,” Governor Huckabee said, “that the one time government acknowledged God’s existence would be in response to something that killed twenty-five people. The brokenness of the world has had cataclysmic effects, which includes the weather getting bad. But a natural disaster does not mean that God says, ‘Today I think I’ll kill some twins in Arkadelphia and rip their bodies apart.’ ”
The governor apparently has not read chapters six and seven of Genesis, in which God Himself said He was sorry He ever made any of us and announced his intention to wipe us all, man and beast, off the face of the earth, after which “the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” There’s some more bad weather and a whole bunch of pestilence throughout the Old Testament, but Huckabee said he knew God wouldn’t do anything so “destructive.”
Members of the legislature disagreed and pointed out that the term “act of God” had been around ever since there had been insurance and maybe even before, and at first refused to change the language of the bill. They also got their feelings hurt by the implication that the governor was more holy than they, or at least more vigilant on questions of theology. “I’m just as much of a Baptist as he is,” declared Representative Shane Broadway, whose district had been particularly hard hit. In the end, nobody wanted to hear any more about it and “act of God” was replaced with “natural causes” so that the governor would go on and sign the bill and unleash some much-needed relief money to those people of Arkadelphia whom “the brokenness of the world” did not kill but whose homes it destroyed.
Now, I have to say that I am with the legislature on this one. Everybody knows that “natural causes” are those things that kill a person who is about ninety-eight years old in his or her sleep. “Natural causes” is not a phrase dramatic enough to describe what happens when a whole trailer park is blown across the county line. Furthermore, I think if I watched my trailer being blown across the county line, I would feel like what had happened to me was a definite, big-time act of God.
Of course, Southerners tend to think that pretty much everything is an act of God. It’s easier than trying to figure out why we lost the war, why we remain generally impoverished and infested with mosquitoes and snakes and flying termites, why there is in fact “brokenness” in our world as well as plenty of tornadoes and floods and hurricanes and ice storms and hundred-percent humidity levels. Hell, it’s easier than trying to figure out what made the battery go dead or who locked the keys in the car. In Mississippi alone there are more churches per capita than any other state; God looms pretty large. Also, most of us are disinclined to blame ourselves for anything.
A wise friend of mine from Louisiana once observed that Southerners can explain almost everything that is wrong with their bodies as well as their various machines and appliances with the phrases “backed up,” “shorted out,” or “blew out.” These usually will be followed by the words “on him.” As in, “You know, his engine just blew out on him.”
My engine blew out on me once at the drive-through window of a Steak ’n Shake in Orlando, Florida. After I pushed the car across the street to the Texaco, the man there asked me when was the last time I had changed my oil. I told him I’d never changed my oil—I didn’t know you were supposed to. After he had recovered sufficiently to speak, he looked at me and said, “Ma’am, if this car was a child, you’d be in jail.” He was not trying to be funny. The look on his face made me realize that when people asked me what happened to my car, I should under no circumstances tell them that it hadn’t occurred to me to change the oil in eight years. So instead I said, “You know, that engine just blew out on me.” And every single person I said that to would become immediately sympathetic, as though something exactly like that had happened to them at least once, and they’d say, “It did? It just blew out on you, huh?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it just blew out on me.” Then we’d shake our heads and wonder how such a thing could possibly have happened.
Another friend of mine once called me to tell me about a mutual acquaintance of ours who had almost died because “his blood just backed up on him and he liked to choke to death.” That is, sort of, what went on, but what had led up to that event was that the fellow in question drank a superhuman amount of whiskey for almost thirty years until his liver simply ceased to do what my dictionary says your liver is supposed to do, which is “act in the formation of blood.” However, my friend rather touchingly related the story to me—and indeed perceived it—as something that just up and happened as opposed to something that was brought on by years of living like a self-destructive maniac.
Sometimes, though, something does just up and happen that is genuinely hard to explain, like the fact that on May 11, 1894, in Bovina, Mississippi, a gopher turtle measuring six by eight inches and entirely encased in ice fell out of the sky along with the hail, an event my Mississippi almanac lists as the state’s all-time “most unusual weather occurrence.” Well, yeah. There is no point in trying to figure out how that could’ve happened. So we don’t.
By necessity, I think most Southerners subscribe to Keats’s concept of negative capability. They know that “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Yankees have a harder time with this. Ten years ago John Shelton Reed (no relation) wrote a hilarious column in which he offered “Reed’s Rule for Successful Adjustment to the South,” which was “Don’t think that you know what’s going on.”
If you are not comfortable simply “being in uncertainties” or figuring that God’s responsible for whatever’s going on, there’s always that old standby, the devil. He is most often employed immediately after you do something you know for sure you are absolutely not supposed to do. I was once at a ceremony in Washington, where, in a corny attempt to build a bit of goodwill with the powerful chairman of the Sen- ate Foreign Relations committee, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave then North Carolina senator Jesse Helms a T-shirt that said somebody in the state department loves me. When she presented it to him, the senator asked a flustered Albright to prove it—in front of hundreds of people—by giving him a kiss, which she did. When I saw Helms afterward, he grinned and said, “You know, the devil makes you do things.”
That is undoubtedly true, though it was not the devil who made twenty people from Floydada, Texas, shuck all their worldly possessions, including their money, their clothes, and their license plates, cram themselves into a 1990 Pontiac Grand Am, and drive to Vinton, Louisiana. When they hit a tree on Vinton’s main street, fifteen naked adults got out of the car and five naked children got out of the trunk. The driver, a Pentecostal preacher who was related to all the passengers, told the police chief the Lord had told them to do it. I wonder what Mike Huckabee would think about that. Me, I think it’s the only explanation. I’m certainly not thinking about searching after any fact or reason.
The other day I saw where John Egerton had said, “The South, for better or worse, has all but lost its identity as a separate place.” Well, first of all, it would certainly be for worse. But what really had me disturbed is that even though Egerton wrote The Americanization of Dixie, he also wrote the seminal Southern Food so he should know better. Our identity is safe. And anybody who has ever been to another place and tasted the food there knows it.
I was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and the first solid foods I remember putting in my mouth were a hot tamale from Doe’s Eat Place, a Gulf oyster on the half shell, a barbecue sandwich with slaw from Sherman’s Grocery Store, and a piece of hot-water cornbread from my grandmother’s kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, if I had been born anywhere else, these are not among the first things I would have been given. (Especially not the tamale. Don’t ask me why hot tamales are such a staple in the Mississippi Delta—all I know is that they took hold in the black community and, like most other things, spilled over into the white. Strangely, this is not mentioned in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which does manage to include all our other favorite foods, from Goo Goo Clusters to grits.) Also, if the South had really become so Americanized, I would no longer be able to eat any of these things as often as I do. (Although I do eat less of Sherman’s barbecue these days because Charles Sherman started serving it sliced rather than chopped, which is irritating, and Sherman’s is now a restaurant instead of a grocery that dished up food in the back, which I miss. However, it does still serve some of the best fried chicken in the world. Charles himself fried me 150 pieces of it for a party one New Year’s Eve.)
In the year I was born, 1960, nonfarm households in the South spent two and a half times the national average on cornmeal and twice the average on lard. I don’t know what the current numbers are, but I do know that we eat more of the following than anybody else: country ham, gumbo, grits, greens, okra, sliced tomatoes, tomato aspic, pimento cheese, chess pie, Lane cake, Lord Baltimore cake, Frito chili pies from Sonic, and Robert E. Lee cake. The “Americanization” crowd will point out that these days we also eat sushi and that even Naomi Judd’s short-lived restaurant in Nashville featured such Asian-fusion items as “grilled shrimp with lime ginger sauce” on its menu. And they will say that it is possible to get okra and greens and gumbo in restaurants in New York, but these are places with names like Live Bait, where the food is treated as a trendy oddity and is served along with bad mint juleps in phony Mason jars. (Another native son wrote that he didn’t think Southerners drank mint juleps much anymore except at the Kentucky Derby. I have never been to the Kentucky Derby, but in my refrigerator at this very moment there is a real Mason jar full of mint-steeped sugar syrup, which I realize is not the same as muddling fresh mint and sugar in a glass, but I like to be prepared for crowds.)
The point is that while our eating habits may have become slightly more sophisticated (as have the rest of the country’s), Southerners actually still eat okra and all the rest of that stuff all the time, and in huge amounts. We eat it at home or in restaurants with names like Doe’s and Jim’s Cafe and Mrs. Nick’s (Mrs. Nick’s, in Winona, Mississippi, sells the best barbecued pork chops I have ever tasted, along with phenomenally light hot cornbread and three vegetables, all for $2—or $3 for a “men’s portion”) or at the superlative Four Way Grill in Memphis. And to go with it, we drink a whole lot of iced tea. In high WASP strongholds like Nashville’s Belle Meade, housemen in white jackets still make tea with secret combinations of pineapple juice, orange juice, and mint. But most everywhere else below the Mason-Dixon line you have only two choices: sweet or unsweet. Sweet tea was once referred to by Hee Haw’s Reverend Grady Nutt as “forty-weight tea,” and it invariably comes in those oversize crinkly glasses, the kind that came in the Duz detergent boxes Dolly Parton used to hawk on the Porter Wagoner Show. Country musician Marty Stuart told me he was so worried he wouldn’t be able to survive without sweet tea while on tour in Europe, he had boxes of the fixings shipped over.
Waitresses in Portland, Oregon, or Belfast, Maine, will not ask, “Sweet or unsweet?” when you order tea. You may not even get tea at all. And if you were to go over to somebody’s house for a real drink in either of those places, odds are that you would not be passed a plate of cheese straws, that magical combination of Cheddar cheese, flour, butter, and cayenne pepper usually made by somebody’s aunt or maid or some local little old lady who layers them in waxed paper in white cardboard boxes tied up neatly with string. Also, if you are anywhere besides the South, you will probably not have the opportunity to consume an entirely gelatin-based menu. My mother once had houseguests for a week, and by the second day she had served so many congealed items that one of the visitors complained that his blood was starting to congeal in his veins. He had already eaten tomato aspic, crabmeat mousse, cranberry salad made with lemon Jell-O, strawberry mousse, and charlotte russe. In Gourmet of the Delta, a cookbook put together by the Episcopal churchwomen of Leland and Hollandale, Mississippi, there are seventy-seven salad recipes and fifty-eight of them call for either Jell-O or unflavored gelatin. I didn’t even count the desserts.
But it’s not just the food itself that is different, it’s our attitude toward it. This can best be illustrated by the names of Junior League cookbooks in the North—pompous, uptight titles like Posh Pantry (Kankakee, Illinois) or Culinary Creations (Kingston, New York)—compared with the unabashedly affectionate Talk About Good! (Lafayette, Louisiana) and Come on In! (Jackson, Mississippi). Cookbooks in the South outsell everything else but the Bible.
When Southerners are not cooking or eating, we’re talking about food, arguing about it, going to get it, taking it somewhere, or inviting people over to have it. I live part of the time in New York, and in all the years I have been there, I have been wined and dined in some swell places, but I can count on one hand the number of people who have actually cooked lunch or dinner for me in their homes, and two of them don’t count because they’re from the South. Southerners can’t stand to eat alone. If we’re going to cook up a mess of greens, we want to eat them with a mess of people. We like to talk while we eat so we are forever asking people to stay for lunch, stay for supper, sit down for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, or a drink and some sausage cheese balls.
Last week I was in New Orleans, where I also live, and I hadn’t been there for an hour before my friend Peter Patout called me up and asked me to come over and eat. He had bought some shrimp by the side of the road and boiled them with corn and onions and potatoes. We covered the table with newspapers, fixed a drink, and ate. The next day he called again and asked if I wanted to eat the rest of those shrimp in some Creole sauce for lunch, and I did. While we were eating lunch, Peter’s cook, Grace, was cooking chicken stew to leave for supper (it is seriously one of the best things I have ever eaten) and enjoying her own lunch of fried skins off the chicken. She gave me a bite and I remembered why I eat fried chicken. If I hadn’t had to leave town, I would’ve gone back again for the stew.
Sometimes I wonder how people have time to do anything else. We cook for fun, we cook for love, we cook to show off, we cook when we flat just don’t know what else to do. My father tells a story about a Sunday just after he and my mother had gotten married and they were driving past a new warehouse that he had built. He noticed that it was flooded, so he pulled the car over, jumped out in the rain, and yelled at my mother to go on home. My mother’s own father was not given to many sudden acts and had a normal job as an insurance executive, so she got nervous, and by the time my father got home (after much sweeping of water and passing of a bottle), she had made two pies.
I called off my wedding once and a friend of my mother’s, who didn’t know yet whether the cancellation was good news or bad, simply brought her a hot loaf of bread. We use food to sympathize and to celebrate. We give it as presents and peace offerings. Everywhere else in America people use cash, but we use food to bribe people. I once got out of a speeding ticket in Beulah, Mississippi, by promising to bring the justice of the peace there a pecan pie from Sherman’s. As every Southerner knows, a good pecan pie, especially hot with some whipped cream or ice cream melting off it, is better than money.
My mother can sound downright sexual talking about pecan pie, as most Southerners can about most food. My friend Simpson Hemphill from Carrollton, Mississippi, recently ended his description of a dessert of soda crackers and melted chocolate that his mama used to make him with the words “Oh my Lord, it would make you hurt yourself. Oh Lord, it was good.” It wasn’t like we were hungry. When he lapsed into the memory of “that little salt on those crackers with that chocolate candy,” he had just served us a lunch of fried chicken, chicken salad, salmon salad, cucumbers and onions that had been soaking in vinegar and sugar, tomato tart, homemade bread-and-butter pickles, stuffed eggs, and Dr Pepper. But food leads to memories of more food, and if you’re too full to eat anymore, you might as well keep talking about it.
The other day my mother and I were lying on the beach. Since we were both attempting to be on diets, we entertained ourselves by talking about the fried apricot pies and sliced tomato sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise on white bread cut into rounds that her childhood cook Eleanor used to make, and the shad roe on toast that her grandfather ate every Sunday it was in season. That reminded me of the creamed chicken on toast my grandmother used to make me on Sunday nights, and the coffee ice cream and homemade chocolate sauce that hardened on it for dessert, and then we just had to stop.
In Albion’s Seed, a terrific book about the early British settlers in America, David Hackett Fischer writes that “among both high born and humble folk, eating was a more sensual experience in Virginia than in Massachusetts. There was nothing in the Chesapeake colonies to equal the relentless austerity of New England’s ‘canonical dish’ of cold baked beans.” Hell no, the Virginians were busy eating chicken fricassees made with “a pint of claret, a pint of oysters and a dozen egg yolks” instead. Fischer primarily concerns himself with the “foodways” of the eighteenth century, but a quick glance at the current Junior League cookbooks of Massachusetts and Virginia reveals the same contrast between austerity and sensuality today. In A Taste of New England, produced by the Junior League of Worcester, Massachusetts, the desserts include pumpkin bars and Grape-Nuts Pudding. The Richmond Junior League’s Virginia Seasons, on the other hand, offers chocolate chess pie, brown sugar pie, Martha Wash- ington’s Great Cake (among its sixteen ingredients are a pound of butter, ten eggs, and a cup of brandy), and My Aunt Margie’s Better Than Sex—layered bar cookies made from Philadelphia Cream Cheese, instant chocolate pudding, instant vanilla pudding, Hershey bars, Cool Whip, and pecans. The prepared foods in that last recipe are what Damon Lee Fowler, in his scholarly and wonderful Classical Southern Cooking, says has contributed to the watering down—indeed the “destruction”—of the cuisine of the Old South. However, just because it is not “classical” doesn’t mean it’s not Southern. Southerners do very different things with those packages and bottles than Yankees.
Take Triscuits and cream cheese. Triscuits are a Yankee invention, and the cream cheese I buy has Philadelphia in its very name, but these two items are mainstays of the Southern larder. Not long ago I was talking with my friend, the writer Henry Allen, who was born in New Jersey but is nonetheless extraordinarily brilliant on most subjects, and somehow we got on the subject of Triscuits, which he said he loved with cream cheese as much as I did.
So I asked him what he put on it. “Put on what?”
“The cream cheese, you idiot.”
And there was a pause before he said, “Nothing.”
I was stunned. You would never see a naked block of cream cheese in the South. It will always be coated with one of at least three delicious things: Pickapeppa Sauce, Jezebel Sauce (pineapple preserves, hot mustard, apple jelly, and horseradish), or pepper jelly. I told him this but he clearly had no idea what I was talking about, which is not surprising when you consider that he also contends that catfish and grits have no taste. I explained that when you put those two things together on your fork and all the grease and butter and salt starts to run together and the crunchy cornmeal crust of the catfish mixes with the creamy texture of the grits, there are very few things better. He said, “You mix them up?”
Certainly you mix them up, but this is another thing. Yankees like stuff (everything, not just food) discrete, clear, easily identifiable—black and white, not gray. Southerners are more comfortable with mystery and mingling (except historically, of course, in matters of race). Witness Huck Finn’s dissatisfaction with the Widow Douglas’s proper supper: “Everything was cooked by itself.” He preferred it, he said, when “things got mixed up and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.”
It is fear of things like unadorned cream cheese (or, indeed, lack of sweet tea) that motivates Southerners to take their food with them wherever they go—or at least to try and replicate it. Displaced Southern people are always getting together to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, and turkey with cornbread dressing on Thanksgiving in countries where no one’s ever even heard of Thanksgiving. On the other hand, I once brought a whole black truffle from Manhattan’s Dean & DeLuca home to Mississippi, and shaved it into some mashed potatoes. Nobody even noticed, and I realized the futility of trying to outdo what was already perfect. So these days I only tote things out: Doe’s tamales tied in bundles and stored upright in their “juice” in old coffee cans, frozen one-pound packages of crawfish tails packed in dry ice, real cornmeal and not that nasty mix. A few summers ago a friend and I had a party in the English countryside at which we served daube glacé with homemade mayonnaise, shrimp étouffée, crawfish rémoulade, and Paul Prudhomme’s three-layer mocha chocolate cake with sugar and Karo syrup. It wasn’t easy but we did it. My cohostess, from Atlanta, has been known to travel around with dried red beans and grits and Zatarain’s filé in her suitcase, and I don’t blame her. The last time I had a dinner party in New York I had to go to seven grocery stores before I found some black-eyed peas, and I never did find any ladyfingers. The dinner was in honor of my friend André Leon Talley, who is originally from North Carolina. André lived for a time in Paris, at the Ritz Hotel, and he still regularly lunches with various Rothschilds, who, I imagine, must have some pretty good chefs, but all André ever wants me to make him is fried chicken and squash casserole and black-eyed peas with rice.
The night before it closed for good, a friend of mine from the Delta had dinner at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in Paris. It was considered one of the best restaurants in the world, so I asked her if her meal there was the best one she ever ate. “Nope,” she said. So I asked her what was the best meal she ever ate, and she said it was years ago at her grandmother’s house: sliced homegrown tomatoes and hot cornbread with the mustard-and-Jerusalem-artichoke pickle relish that her grandmother and her aunts put up every year. There is a famous story about William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter dining at a swanky restaurant in Paris. After draining the burgundy and the port, Faulkner fiddled with his glass and said, “Back home the butter beans are in, the speckled ones.” Katherine Anne Porter stared off into the middle distance and said, simply, “Blackberries.”
This is a foolproof exercise. If you ask any Southerner to name the best meal he ever ate, he will invariably recall something that his mama or grandmama or his mama’s or grandmama’s cook fixed at home. If you ask a Yankee about the best meal he ever ate, he will invariably name a four-star, impossible-to-get-into restaurant and usually not even mention the actual food. I put the question to a famous Yankee novelist and he said he couldn’t decide between Daniel in Manhattan and a restaurant neither of us could remember how to pronounce in Florence. Now Daniel is unquestionably a remarkable restaurant, and I absolutely love to be taken there. But I’m on the side of the novelist’s ex-wife, who is from Nashville. When I asked her the same question, she said, “Smothered chicken, hot-water cornbread, and fried corn.” Hot-water cornbread is cornmeal mixed with hot water and shaped into patties and fried in lard, and fried corn is not actually fried at all but scraped off the cob straight into an iron skillet and boiled (this is the archaic use of the word “fried”) in grease and its own milk. Some cooks let a crust form on the bottom and then stir the crusty bits into the corn. Either way it is delicious, and I interrupted my friend to comment appreciatively on that fact but she stopped me.
“I’m not finished. For dessert there was caramel cake and custard pie.”
I called my editor in New York and asked, “What’s the best meal you ever ate?”
“Daniel, on my birthday.”
“Yeah, but what did you eat?”
“Um, lamb shanks, I think.”
So I called my best friend Jessica in Greenville, and she remembered exactly what her favorite meal was because it was the one she had just finished eating: “Fried catfish, okra and tomatoes, corn on the cob, turnip greens, lima beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread, sliced tomatoes, green onions, and tea.”
“Jesus. Who made it?”
“Mama, Granny, and Malvina.” Her mother, her grandmother, and the cook.
Then her daddy got on the phone. “Baby, you gotta come down here and taste my beer chicken.” Stupidly, I asked him how he made it. “You just gotta come down here and see.”
So I called Jessica back later and asked her about the chicken, which I figured must be marinated in beer. Nope. Beer chicken is a whole chicken rubbed with Cajun spices and “stuffed” with a full, open beer can. The beer can, with a sip or two drunk from it so it won’t spill over, is inserted upright into the chicken’s cavity, at which point the chicken looks like a fat old man sitting on a stump. Then the whole thing is placed on a grill with the hood closed until the chicken is done. “It’s really good,” Jessica said with complete seriousness, explaining that the beer steams the chicken from the inside. “It makes the chicken really tender.” It is so good, in fact, that her daddy, the inimitable Howard Brent, got a guy to make a contraption that will hold six beer cans in a circle to fit on the grill. Now Howard grills half a dozen chickens at a time. I can hardly wait. “Only a man could’ve invented that,” said Jessica.
I corrected her: “Only a Southern man.”
From the Hardcover edition.