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!

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.

December 6, 2009

Packing

In this picture, note her balletic foot position and her determined expression.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…” — Isaiah 54:17

Watch out, New York — I am packing.

I am loading up boxes, I admit, rather than loading my Winchester rifle,  but a woman could do worse for a role model than plucky show-girl-with-a-gun Annie Oakley.  She was a pioneer in her field, if not a true Western pioneer.  She — well, she aimed high.  Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the pun.

Even putting her picture on my blog feels like a delicious rebellion against the values with which I was raised.  My mother is turning over in her grave.

I was not raised with what Jerry Fallwell would have called family values, but my family had values.  My parents were earnest on several topics — they supported civil rights, they opposed, without protesting, the Vietnam War, and they thought guns should not be privately owned.

Although my parents were not hippies, they sent me and my brother to a school run by hippies, to a socially conscious day camp, and there were certain family rules.  My cousin Doug, for instance, could upset his mother by saying loudly he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, because after all cops were all fascists.  My mother would not allow me to own a baton because I was supposed to be in the game, not the sidelines.  And my mother made my brother write a conscientious objection letter when he was in Elementary School so he could get out of any future draft by demonstrating he was against violence and guns.  The idea that I might own a gun ever– even if it was used, say, to free draft dodgers from jail — that would make me a family pariah, in my mother’s way of thinking.

I was always on the edge — one step away from pariah purdah — for things like my spiky leather punk bracelets and spiky hair, for any number of artistic expressions not in keeping with the family party line, for resisting attending yet more Joan Baez concerts — we tended to go to three per year, more often than we saw grandparents, and finally, what made me utterly untouchable — I became a Christian.

Gun ownership would have launched an Amish shunning from the group, but that ship has sailed.

My fiance, concerned for my safety on my new job, which will involve teaching night classes and driving home alone late at night, said, “Hon, when you’re down here, I think we’d better think about getting you a firearm.”

I was at once shocked and utterly tantalized.  A gun is either the final step toward family excommunication or the first step toward my eventual red neck perdition, a perdition about which some of my New York cohort are already taking bets, I’ll warrant.  I think the odds are running in that pool toward my turning Daisy Ducal in less than three years, perhaps, because of my age, with nether-cheeks covered, but nonetheless, with an overly broad smile and derriere, leaning over a table with two long-necks in hand in some honky tonk, a gun rack in my truck.

Not known for my half-measures, I say bring it on.  I’m too intellectual for that picture, and I’m frankly more likely to turn into Eudora Welty than Daisy Duke, but guns — I am curious yellow.  I am pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun control bi-curious about guns.

When I was living as a club kid in Paris (and not yet saved), I once made out in a restaurant hallway with a man I had met earlier that evening.  He was packing.  I discovered mid-kiss the heavy steel handle tucked in the small of his back, and I found myself grabbing him tighter, kissing him harder.  I took him home that evening.  Living in a city as a young woman, not even old enough to order a drink in America, with no family on the entire continent, felt dangerous, and having a guy in my apartment who could shoot at the door if something went down — it didn’t matter that the firearm was illegal and that I had no known enemies — felt like the safest thing I could do.   I did not fall in love with him, this international man of mystery, but I did find myself passionately entangled.  I imagined him enacting all my unladylike rages, personifying the angry part of me.  It never once occurred to me that I should own a gun personally.  My mother had told me that women who own firearms find themselves overpowered by their attackers and find the weapon meant for their protection used against them.  I didn’t mind the overpowered part, not with my sexy, gun-toting man, but the weapon — would it always be pointed the other way?  And I was so angry — angry at unfairness I would later come to understand as feminist issues — I had already been attacked and excluded from things boys took for granted — could I trust myself not to go postal?

I joined the women’s movement, wrote speeches and organized demonstrations for them — I also did stand-up comedy.  I had a whole routine about Thelma and Louise blocking a Senate hearing and demanding an apology at gunpoint from the committee.  I found legitimate outlets for my decidedly unladylike anger — there’s nothing like screaming at the White House and doing what they said we could never do.  I largely forgot about guns until I saw this:

Some mother-daughter time

Understand I don’t agree with Ms. Palin about anything, but here was this marvelous image of a woman doing something we were surely told we could never do, although any honest historian will tell us that women have had to pick up guns and use them since the beginning of this country to defend and to feed their families.  I began to wonder — where are these moose-hunting women congregating?  Not Manhattan, I can  tell you that much.  Could I fill up a flask with some Jack Daniels, find a lonesome mountainside with them, and could we get buzzed, laughing softly as we crouched in the snow, fire off a few, and bag a buck?  Could I in my wildest dreams convince three other city-dwelling amateurs like me — think of it as a bridge party — to rent a SUV in some remote location, borrow some rifles, and try to get some venison?

Understand I’ve never had a problem with the morality of hunting anything one eats or wears, endangered species excepted, of course.  I’m roasting a chicken as I type this blog, and while I’m delighted it wasn’t my responsibility to kill it, I assume that as an eater of meat, I am just as liable for that Chicken’s blood-spattered execution as if I had bitten its neck at some PLO terrorist training camp.  Hence, hunting seems natural and right to me.

My city girlfriends smiled at my request that we form a hunting party, and while they thought it was an awfully good joke, full of spirit, they had no more real interest in going out in the woods with a shotgun than they did in chasing a bat out of an attic.  Besides, coupled with my small-p-pentacostal leanings and my unframed, square-shaped glasses I used to have, I was suspiciously Palinesque and might have caused a stir in certain circles had I not had a leftist literary track record.

I still want to go hunting,  at least for the drinking part of the hunting.

However, my fiance wants to get me a gun to protect me from attackers, not to get dinner.   One of my colleagues asked me if I could ever shoot someone.  In self-defense, I could.  However, I am not convinced — yet — that a gun would really protect me.

One time in Paris, shortly before I met the man who was packing, I was walking home in spindly high heels at 4 am — something I loved to do.  Paris is largely a safe city, and the streets are only really empty then but for the fishmongers pouring ice into their cases and the occasional couple kissing against a wall.  I loved to feel I was alone in all the beautiful architecture, to hear the water lapping against the quais as I crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts.  I loved the smell of bread baking as I passed small bakeries.  However, one night, I was walking home in my clubbing dress, covered in sequins, my absurd heels, my hair sweaty from too much dancing, and a man started to follow me down the Boulevard Saint Michel.  I took note of him, heard him cursing under his breath, and as I turned down narrower and narrower streets toward my apartment, he still followed me more and more closely.  I lived on a block where there were only old people, no cops, and I realized that if I ignored him, he would likely follow me up to my apartment door and hurt me.  He was stammering insults about bitches and whores.  He seemed twitchy, such as I could hear him behind me.

I decided that I would risk confronting him before he cornered me.

I turned and walked forcefully up to him, shouting, “You!  Stop following me!  Why are you bothering me?”

The guy, who was even more twitchy to the view than I had imagined while listening to him, pulled out a knife.

“You looked at me funny!”  He mumbled as he unbuttoned his clothes.

He clearly had intended to corner me and rape me, possibly to slit my throat.

I took two steps back, and even though my heart was pounding, I changed my tone to a conversational and utterly calm one.

“You know,” I said with an actual smile on my face, “a girl could get the wrong impression from you.  I mean, here you are following me, and I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

How would I hurt him — with a heel to the eye?  with a spiky bracelet to the nuts?  I had no game.

“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” I repeated authoritatively — where this air of confidence came from, I had no idea, “but you need to leave me alone.”

Twitchy man looked confused.  He had counted on my fear — maybe that was the thrill.

“You shouldn’t look at people funny like that!” He shouted, sounding frightened himself, “do you need me to cut you up to teach you a lesson?”

As calmly as a mother talking to a baby in a crib, although my eyeballs were pulsating from the adrenaline, I intoned, “No.  I don’t need to be taught a lesson.  Here’s what’s going to happen.  I am going to walk that way, and you are going to turn around in the opposite direction and leave me alone, because I don’t want to have to hurt you, because if I have to hurt you, I will.”

I started down a steep cobblestone street backwards in stillettos.

“Here I go.  Don’t make me hurt you.  I’m going now.”

I walked about twenty yards backwards downhill, and then I turned around walking calmly but more quickly.   I did not hear footsteps, but I wanted to know if he had followed me.   I turned to see where he was.

“What did I tell you?  Do I need to cut you up?”

“No,” I repeated calmly, “I’m going now.”

When I turned the corner, I ran home.

Horrified as I was, I realized that if I held a hairbrush with enough attitude in a shadowy place, an attacker would think it was a nuclear weapon.

So do I need a gun?  I haven’t decided.  I like the idea of shooting a tin can, of being competent with a piece of cold steel, of defying yet another stereotype.  I am of two minds on the subject, and anyway, I don’t have to decide today.  Today I’m only packing one way, the way with the cardboard boxes, the way that might include chasing a bat out of my attic apartment, although that’s more the cat’s job than mine.  I have so much to pack, so much baggage from the past, I am tempted to blow it away.

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