Maybe it’s because I’ve been eating a whole lot of cornbread or maybe it’s because I’m reading The Help, but I’ve been feeling particularly southern as of late. Though I’ve been in the Carolinas for eight years now, I’ve never felt a particularly strong sense of place here.
Make no mistake, I am southern by blood and that blood runs thick. I was born in Kentucky and educated in South Carolina. My mom and siblings are original Kentuckians, too, and my dad was born in Georgia. We have accents and cast iron skillets and ties to the Confederate Army. Though we moved to Illinois in 1988, my parents made a point of raising us on sweet tea and grits and beaten biscuits right there in the Chicago suburbs.
Living as a southerner in suburban Chicago has, I believe, made me somewhat bicultural. After all, they are two very different worlds, these regions of the country. And while I appreciate having an insider view and understanding of each, the dichotomy of my upbringing has always left me feeling a little… lost? Too liberal for the South, too conservative for the North, I’m not sure I ever quite fell into my groove, if you will, in either place.
So this week celebrating the Carolinas through local food has been really interesting in that it has me feeling more connected to (or at least more respect for) my southern heritage, which, no doubt, has my parents flipping cartwheels of joy through the cornfields of Illinois. They still live up there, you see.
Food is a powerful thing. At its most basic level, food fuels our bodies. It keeps us alive. But food is also a lot more than sustenance; it’s emotion and history and culture and love, definitely love. One of the hardest things about my move and subsequent breakup has been adjusting to cooking for myself and eating alone. Food is definitely something to be shared.
So I’ll share with you, dear Internet.
Last night I made a straight up feast of Southern proportions. I had baked-not-fried okra, grilled corn, lima beans and rice and steamed chard. The people of the South are a notoriously deep-fried-loving demographic. They’re also heavy-handed with the butter… and the mayonnaise… and the lard… and the… fat back. But it’s easy to make minor adjustments to traditional Southern cuisine to make it a little less, uh, heart attack-inducing.
For me this involved battering and baking my okra, spritzing my corn with olive oil rather than drowning it in butter and steaming my greens rather than simmering them for hours in bacon fat. It’s the little things, y’all.
The South, like any other region, has it’s problems. Obesity and poverty and illiteracy run rampant. Sometimes it’s so hot you can’t move and so humid you could practically swim down the sidewalk. We have bugs the size of squirrels. But I’ve learned (and felt) this week that there’s so much more to the area. There’s a gentleness about the South. It’s a little bit slower and a little bit calmer and a whole lot nicer than other places I’ve been in the world. Also… biscuits. Biscuits like you would not believe.
You can make and eat Southern-style food anywhere in the world, but I think it takes total immersion to really get it. And, finally, after 26 years, I think I get it.
Y’all come visit, ya hear? (I don’t talk like that.)