The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

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October 19, 2010

Roy Herron for Congress — Tennessee’s 6th district — as a litmus test for my adjustment here.

In today’s New York Times, a marvelous story about Southern Democrats quotes Roy Herron, who says in order to win, he has to convince voters here he’s a  “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, Gospel-preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.”

He poses on his campaign website with his mother in a photo that could be the inspiration for a Country Western ballad.  Loving your Momma and treating her right is more important down here — even if she’s (and I’m sure that Mrs. Herron is a lovely lady) an old battle axe.

The candidate and his Momma

Roy Herron served in the Tennessee State Legislature and State Senate for some years.  He is the author of three (I’m guessing self-published) books, including one called God and Politics.  Yet he is fighting an uphill battle in his district to convince people that he participates in the following activities — let me list them down here once more:

  • Truck Driving
  • Shotgun shooting
  • Bible Reading
  • Gospel Preaching
  • Crime Fighting
  • Family Loving

These sound not only like a list of things that people in the Sixth district of Tennessee might want in a candidate but a pretty good litmus test for Southernness in general, at least for a man.  Allow me to add a few more items:

  • Grits Eating
  • Elvis Adoring
  • “Y’all” yowling
  • Whiskey swilling
  • Football flinging
  • Yell whooping
  • Denim sporting
  • Hound-dog hoarding
  • Knee slapping
  • Neck reddening

I would like to propose the list above — Mr. Herron’s and my own — as a Southern Democrat’s litmus test.  I would like to go over it one item at a time to see how I’m doing at adjusting to living down here.

  • Truck Driving — As a woman, truck driving is optional.  Trucks are to manhood in the South what the Red Porche is to midlife Manhood in the North and the West Coast.  Hence, I’m going to substitute “pie baking,” a very traditional Southern women’s activity.  I have baked so many more pies down here than I ever did up North.  I give myself an “A” for that one.
  • Shotgun Shooting — Men and women both do this.  I am so willing to learn how to do this.  My future son in-law has promised to take me out to a place where I can fire off a few rounds, but this promise has yet to be fulfilled.  I give  myself a “D-” since I have not done it, but I get a couple of points for willingness.
  • Bible Reading — I read the Bible.  I even teach it in the context of courses at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.  I get an “A.”
  • Gospel Preaching — I have not, I admit done a lot of this, so here goes:  Everyone within earshot, know that Jesus loves you and died for your sins.   Accept him into your hearts and spend eternity in Heaven and the here and now in a transformational liberation from cynicism and bondage to sin.  There — okay, that’s a “C” effort.
  • Crime Fighting — I wonder what image Mr. Herron is trying to evoke here.  Is he the Sheriff at the OK Corral?  I have done none of this, but perhaps my ladylike womanhood allows me to substitute another activity — say, Home Decorating — my total  home makeover  in Vicksburg earns me an “A.”
  • Family Loving — Southerners, as I mentioned before, seem to love their families without questioning the dysfunction within them.  Bourbon substitutes for Freud.  I’m a New Yorker.  Years of needed therapy after dysfunction would give me an “F,” but loving my husband and my two step-daughters would give me an “A,” so I’ll average that out to a “C.”
  • Grits Eating — I aced this!  “A.”
  • Elvis Adoring — Although I really like Elvis, I have been getting a PhD approximately 75 miles from Graceland and have yet to visit.  I think I’ve got a “C-.”
  • “Y’all” Yowling — I am in remedial classes for this criterion.  I have graduated from “You guys” to “You all,” but “Y’all” remains out of reach and “All y’all” is a distant Willie-Nelson-Soundtrack dream. “F.”
  • Whiskey Swilling — Hello!  My Irish-American ancestry prepared me to excel in this area. I get an “A,” with a Summa Cum mention for Sour Mash Tennessee No. 7: I am eligible for the Jack Daniels dean’s list.
  • Football Flinging — This is a manly attribute, although women can participate.  I will substitute for “Football Player Tutoring,” which I have done — think Cathy Bates’ role in The Blind Side.  I’ve done that and am doing that. I get an “A” for this.
  • Yell Whooping — There’s a Rebel Yell and a Lady Rebel Yell.  I have just learned the Hotty Toddy Ole Miss Rebel Cheer.  I get a “B-” here.
  • Denim Sporting — Because of mud and dog slobber, jeans are a more practical choice in Mississippi in my wardrobe than black pants of non-denim material.  I get a “B+” here.
  • Hound-dog Hoarding — I now have a hound dog — a yellow lab named “Baby” by my Step-daughter.  I have a Daschund named Oscar.  Do two dogs constitute a hoard?  Just barely.  I get a “B-.”
  • Knee Slapping — I am indeed an afficionado of Southern humor.  However, I lose 200 points for using the word “afficionado.”  Hence, I get a “C+.”
  • Neck Reddening — Having fair skin and no sense at all when it comes to when I’ll be spending any time outside, I am actually, much to my horror, watching my neck turn red.  If I were looking in the mirror, I would have a red ring beneath my head from time spent at a Bill Clinton rally and a trip to the Mississippi State Fair.  I get an “A+” for this one, alas.

So what then are my mid-term grades for Southernness?  Add to the mix of  the above that I did some extra credit — I wrote a piece that got picked up on Y’all Politics and there’s a website for the book The Cracker Queen that has a link to this blog.  Combining these two, I give myself another “A,” and averaging it all out, my mid-term grade for Southernnness is: C+

I’m still a Yankee, but not a “Damn” Yankee anymore.

As for Mr. Herron in his Mid-term elections, I wish him every success on the first Tuesday in November.  He loves his Momma, and I’m just betting that lady will be voting for him.  Honestly, how many other people really might live in the Sixth district, anyway?  If he can get his cousins on board, I bet he has a real shot at Congress.

September 7, 2010

Breakfast as Haute Cuisine — Big Bad Breakfast, Oxford, Mississippi

Breakfast gets no respect — the Rodney Dangerfield of meals.  However, it is possibly the food that American cuisine does the best.  Can breakfast be an art form, handled by skilled hands with cast iron skillets?

If they serve Breakfast in Heaven, I think they use the recipes of Big Bad Breakfast of Oxford, Mississippi. Big Bad Breakfast is part of a food empire that is surely the best in the state of Mississippi — it includes a restaurant featured in Garden and Gun — Yes, you Yankees!  They have a magazine down here that sits on people’s coffee tables in the place where your copy of New York Magazine sits.  It is entitled Garden and Gun, sometimes with a photo of guns on the front cover:  Know it.  Deal with it.  Shudder, if you must — called The City Grocery.   The who’s who  — or should I say “who-all is who”? — of Mississippi comes to eat there, and boy, do they know their stuff.

Anyway, Big Bad Breakfast has a chef, Jason Nicholas, with a Fine Arts degree from Ole Miss.  They hired, for a place that makes breakfast as its chief fare, a charcutier.  His last name is Lovejoy.  If bacon is a joy, and if ham is a love, well — this guy knows what to do with it and how to do it.

They make grits that are better than anything I’ve ever eaten for breakfast.  The secret seems to be a bunch of butter and garlic.

And honey, the wait staff — they are a fantasy.  Each is cuter than the last, really, and girls, given that this is Mississippi, there’s actually a pretty good chance that at least some of them are straight.

Despite pretentious 1980s rock lyrics to a song called “Breakfast in America,” people don’t really consider breakfast a tourist attraction.  This is a great pity, for if it were, Breakfast in America would be worthy the way a Sacher Torte is in Vienna.

I say, all the air-kissing jet-setters should decide that Breakfast is the new little black dress and come air-kiss my grits here, or rather kiss the grits of this marvelous place.  Tapas was hip.  So was sushi, long ago.   I declare a vogue for buttermilk biscuits fresh out of the oven, handed over by some guy who looks like he stepped out of a teen heart-throb movie, while Roy Orbison plays softly in the background and you drink your freshly squeezed orange juice.

Come and get it, America!

Big Bad Breakfast, without a photo of the hot waiters

June 28, 2010

Southern Food — and my contribution to it

Selling fresh foods in Mississippi, one tomato at a time

In his book of Southern recipes, food writer James Villas (from down South), writes “Such is the sovereignty of Southern cookery to anybody (Reb and outsider alike) who has fully indulged in its many glories that comparisons with other American styles are almost ludicrous.”

To this, I shrug my shoulders and say, “ehh?”

I believe that a good Southern meal cooked just right is remarkable.  I once attended a funeral in North Carolina, and the reception the widow put on afterwards in her modest home was something of a revelation to me.  The dessert table alone, with a full twenty cakes, provided by every female cousin of the deceased, was an astonishment.  Ham — have any other people on the face of the Earth ever come up with so many ways to make a ham sing?  And the addition of bacon or ham to every legume on the planet makes them all palatable (and taste about the same).  I’m even a fan of grits now.  I particularly like the grits I get at a chain restaurant here called Waffle House.

That said, I boldly compare  — despite Villas’ admonition that I will appear almost ludicrous — the richness of the food down here to the food in New York City, where the world’s cuisine is really the city’s cuisine, given its unimaginably diverse immigrant struggle.  Cheap good food is made everywhere.

How I miss the food of my beloved city!

I drive down highway 59 toward Hattiesburg thinking of a chopped liver bagel from The Second Avenue Deli.  When I recently visited New York, and I stopped by the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli, I told the proprietors that I did this, driving in Mississippi, dreaming of their chopped liver on a nice plain bagel, and while my husband and I were waiting for a table, one of the owners of the restaurant offered me, while I was still in line, slices of bagel smeared with that delicious New York gritty mixture.  It was a return home at least as much as listening to the cursing on the street corner or watching the women hobble along in impossibly high heels with impossibly short skirts.

I miss Al Safah restaurant in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a Lebanese restaurant with food I used to eat at lunch with my friend Nada, a Lebanese woman who is something of an evangelist for her national cuisine.  How I miss their delicious babagounoush, their zatar, their fried onions with lentils and spices.

I miss the tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and olives from Rocco’s restaurant in Astoria Queens, Trattoria L’Incontro, where absolutely everything on the menu is impossibly delectable.  I met Rocco when he owned a Pizzeria, out of which he served things like wild boar and scarole a la braccia, grilled escarole with white canellini beans.  Now, he owns a restaurant where gangsters, politicians, star atheletes, and anybody with any sense at all, makes a pilgrimage to in the city.

I cook at home with the same gusto as James Villas’ Southern cookery cooks, and I am proud that as a newly-minted Southern wife, my future son in-law (a Cajun) apparently brings  my stepdaughter across state lines to see us in part in case, “Miss Anne,” as he calls me, is going to cook anything.  I cooked some chicken for a church social about two months ago, and while some people’s foods did not get all eaten, mine did.  Around here, that is a mark of distinction.

I don’t cook Southern food, though.  My food is different than the things I see in Mr. Villas’ book.  I wouldn’t fry a green tomato, and while I make ham, it is likely to have a port glaze on it, and the chicken isn’t fried with bread but stewed with white wine and marmalade.  In the midst of the real Southern cooks, I wouldn’t presume to make food that is not in my own idiom.  I would be a poor imitation of them, but cooking as I do on my own, I make food influenced by my upbringing in California, where I cooked the family’s meals for guests since I was an adolescent, my stint at Ecole De Cuisne La Varenne as an intern who translated in exchange for an intermediate certificate, and decades in the glorious mosaic of New  York City, where every tribe’s cooking wafts out the windows of the working class apartment towers.

In this spirit, I decided, while dealing with a serious bout of homesickness, to bake cookies for the farmer’s market of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I felt I had the blessings of my home town to do so.  After all, The New York Times recently wrote an article with the following beginning: “HOME COOKING FOR SALE — College-educated and unemployed, New York’s young home cooks hope to find a place in the food world.”

While not entirely unemployed — I teach part-time this summer at Belhaven University — I am partially unemployed, and while not that young, I am a home cook, as Julia Child would have said, a servantless cook, from New York.  And after all, the Times is the paper of record, isn’t it?

Despite having an intermediate professional certificate in French cuisine, obtained largely as a method of staying in Paris to remain a club kid in the Parisian club scene of the late 1980s, I had never attempted to sell my food or my cooking skills in any manner, despite certain people telling me I should, usually with their mouths full of something I had made for them.  In New York City, where the best food abounds, there is little room for the amateur.  In all professions, the best of the world have gathered there to compete with one another.

However,  in Vicksburg, the competition is not stiff.  People have a collegiality to them, even with competitors.  Southern manners are generally warm and acomodating.

I showed up several weeks ago at the Vicksburg market, having filled out the requisite paperwork, with a small concern I call Brooklyn Cookies.   Each week, I offer four different kinds of cookies — week one included double-chocolate biscotti, traditional Sicilian anisette cookies, oatmeal cookies snootified with amaretto and dried apricot, and sugar cookies cut in the shape of sea shells and coated with royal icing.  Each packet includes (because I am a better writer than a cook) a lovely story with the ingedient list  about a different neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I did not bring a tent to cover myself — I figured that the market was only from 8 am to 11 am, and how hot could a person really get, especially if she were wearing a baseball cap from the Original Nathan’s hot dogs?  A tent would have sent my profit margin down the drain.  However, the organizers of the market realized the Yankee girl had underestimated the power of a June Mississippi sun, even in the early hours of the morning, and they literally pitched a tent around me to cover me so I would not die of a heat stroke.  I must have thought I was selling cookies in Vermont or something, and they were right, and terribly, terribly kind, to take pity on me.

Now, I rent that tent from the market organization, and I spend several hours turning red — my neck is turning red, despite sunblock — and sell out of my glorious mosaic chocolate chip cookies, my East New York barred window bars with three kinds of jam, my peanut butter cookies with Jamaican spices.  People say they haven’t had these flavors together before.  Uncoached, children between the ages of five and ten pick up small pieces from my free sample plates and shout loudly, “Mommy!  These are great cookies!”

I am making a small profit each week, as if I were teaching an additional class at the university.

Southern cooking is delicious when perfectly rendered (which it is, most of the time), but it is a bit predictable, like a hug from Grandma.  It is love itself, but don’t expect to swoon from it.  I am bringing an embrace from the other woman, the desperate housewife, not the real one from New York, but the surreal one.  It is different, dangerous, naughty, even.  I am the immigrant from elsewhere, bringing my spice rack, my palate of exotic places, and a sense of the edginess of New York — now almost a myth.  I joke with people that if one wants to get mugged on the Coney Island Boardwalk these days, one needs to bring one’s own mugger.  However, these cookies might bring their own mugger. That might be a gun in their pocket, or they might just be, like a Southern gentleman, glad to see you.  In any case, they are selling well, and my culture shock is slightly diminished by them.

March 19, 2010

Gallantry Against Gall — on Southern Chivalry

Chivalry is not dead, not in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the ghosts of Civil War Soldiers are still occasionally spotted, where reenactments of the siege take place annually, where some of  the houses, alas, not mine, are straight out of a  Margaret Mitchell antebellum fantasy.

Chivalry is not dead.  It is not even really wounded.  It is not even stunned, the way a bug gets slightly stunned  by a pesticide it has already survived, by the poisonous culture of today.  However, chivalry is not alone in the South today.  Chivalry lives next to unimaginably bad manners, and perhaps it always has.

Chivalry is not dead in the historic town of Vicksburg

On one hand, the one that is getting kissed, perhaps, in this photo, men are still gallant.  Yes, I said gallant, not just because hand-kissing still exists once in a blue moon.

For some reason, I have always been the kind of woman who gets her hand kissed, even on the beach.  It started when I was twelve.  Throughout my young years, young adulthood, and then, now, in my — ahem — prime,  men have chosen that gesture to express their feelings about me, or maybe they thought since conventional methods to get me alone wouldn’t work, perhaps old-fashioned ones would work better.  Maybe I have nice hands.  Maybe I’m just too tall to kiss on the lips.  Whatever the reason, men kiss my hand.  Here, my husband kisses my hand.  I don’t know that he has ever performed that gesture with another woman — he doesn’t strike me as the hand-kissing type altogether, too modern, but with me, it feels natural to him to do so.

However, as I said, I am not just talking about hand-kissing.  I’m talking about real, unimaginably old-fashioned reenacted gallantry.

For instance, we had our electrical contractors, from a company called without a whisper of irony Joe Gay Electric, in the house installing new lights and making slight repairs.  I was in the house making sure my wishes were carried out.

One of the Joe Gay men, a sweet-faced guy named Pete, asked me very politely if I might not have a needle.  At that point, I had unpacked nothing, so I apologized that no, I did not have one.   The foreman asked him why he needed a needle.

“To drain the blood out of this thing.”

He held up  a thumb that had received some kind of significant trauma under the nail.  It wasn’t quite bad enough to go to the emergency room,  but almost, and he looked like he was suffering.

“You sure did bang up your thumb, Pete!” Said the foreman, examining it under a light, “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you scream none.  That must have hurt!”

“Well,” Pete said sheepishly, leaning his head in my direction, “I couldn’t cuss with a lady present.”

Because I was there, he felt he couldn’t trust himself not to curse  in pain, so he held it in — a wounded rebel soldier who would not offend his hoop-skirted hostess as the minie hit him.  I found myself uttering words I thought I would never say, not in the twenty-first century, not out of this Brooklyn mouth where such a construct does not linguistically exist:

“I thank you,  sir, for your gallantry.”

Such a phrase was surely uttered by Melanie Wilkes between the barbeque at Twelve Oaks and Sherman’s takeover of Atlanta.  Such a phrase would not have been uttered even by Scarlet O’Hara, who would have found it too mealy-mouthed, unless  she was trying to charm something out of someone.  Yet, it came out of my mouth, here in Vicksburg, in my own home.

Other men open doors, walk me to the place I am going  where I am lost, carry my  packages when I  am overburdened, this without expectation of any return but of perhaps some word of thanks.  Since moving South, I have been the recipient of some chivalry, and I’m not pregnant, not elderly, not infirm,  and not so luscious as I might inspire men to do anything at all to speak to me.  There are plenty of chivalrous men.  No, Southern chivalry is  breathing, walking around, and ordering grits for breakfast at Waffle House.

However, chivalry co-exists with some of the worst manners I have ever even heard of.

The flip side of the Confederate coin.

Remember that I come from Brooklyn,  a place where the signs welcoming one to the Borough say “fuggetaboutit,” instead of , “welcome, gentle visitors, to our humble abode.”

Men shove women out of the way in an effort to get a cab in a rain storm in New York City.  They bump into each other and don’t say, “excuse me.”   They complain about each other within earshot of each other.  At best it’s frank, but at other times, New Yorkers can be downright rude.

That said, I have come to understand that certain Southerners, the kind that end up on Jerry Springer throwing chairs, have worse manners than any I encountered in New York, and that’s saying something.

To the right of this text is a political illustration of a Southern representative in Congress in 1856 caning a Yankee congressman during a session.  Without going into what turned into a war between the states, that’s just bad manners, shocking, horrible bad manners.

A young man of my acquaintance down here recently lost his father.  An older man he knew and who did not like him took that particular moment as the time to tell this young man, while his father was dying, that his father was a no-good %&*%# who deserved to die.  If someone in New York tried being mean like that in a place where he could be overheard, even by strangers, he would find himself surrounded by people demanding an apology for the young man, even threatening him with violence if he didn’t apologize.  That didn’t happen in this case.

I remember reading in a short story by Allan Gurganus, the Southern writer, the following phrase, “Now there’s mean, and then there’s country mean.”

We’re talking country mean.

A woman I have some contact with had every reason to thank me.  I had done a large number of very nice things for her daughters, purchased them presents, treated them honorably, and generally showed them kindness.  Far from being grateful, she subsequently went out of her way to insult me in front of her daughters and my husband.

I was kind enough to get a young woman down here a designer purse from New York, precisely the kind she said she dreamed  of owning.  Not only did she not thank me, she insulted Yankees the next time she saw me.  Then she had the nerve to ask for another designer purse.

I can hear all  the Brooklyn girls wagging their heads, shouting, “Oh no she di-nt!”  Oh, yes, she did.  No one in NYC would ever expect a second act of kindness after a display like that of bad, bad manners.

So why do chivalry and Jerry Springer manners cohabit this region of the country in quite this way?  I have been pondering this.  Perhaps the people with really good manners are just too polite to tell the people with really bad manners where they can go.

Me, I’m from Brooklyn.  I’m a lady.  People kiss my hand, even on Coney Island Beach — seriously!  I think that the best of manners must be tempered with a measure of frank  confrontation.  No one should countenance bullies.  Bitchiness followed by the words, “bless her heart” is still bitchiness.  In Brooklyn, we tell people who are rude they are being rude.  Occasionally, it may come to blows, but not with me — I’m six feet tall, and I look like I know a good lawyer if my mere physicality doesn’t intimidate someone rude.  Most of the time, we don’t invite the rude people back, the way they do around here.  My husband was surprised that I would not invite the rude girl who insulted Yankees and wanted new purses from the Yankees she insulted to our wedding.  People down here, the chivalrous ones, they just keep the wheels turning, never confronting the ones who abuse the social system.  In Brooklyn, we call people out.  Then we either fight, or — we just fuggetaboutit.

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