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

October 10, 2015

Southern Food Curated — the Food Museum at Miss Mary BoBo’s Boarding House

America is a strange place to eat.  More than one third of us are obese, and nearly one seventh of us go hungry at least part of the time.  We have plenty of food, but we don’t share it equitably.  We overspend on processed foods that contribute to the diseases that kill us — heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and we underspend on the foods that would benefit us most — greens, beans, and fish.  We value convenience, and with some reason.  In order for families to economically survive, most households have both parents working outside the home, so the days of a cook making dinner over a slow flame over hours where the pot was periodically stirred, those days are over for most of us.  Therefore, McDonald’s serving us McMuffins all day sounds like a mighty benefit, as lots of us don’t quite get around to breakfast before dinner time.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

At odds with this culture of convenience is a strange cult of food, one that creates an audience for cooking as a form of entertainment. We have all-day networks devoted to watching other people cook, and the people who watch are not all watching to imitate.  The tradition of American food preparation is that anonymous women did most of the work.  Wives prepare Thanksgiving, and the thanks for two days’ cooking goes to God mostly, rarely to the women who burned their wrists taking the turkey out of the oven.  Where households could afford to do so, servants were relegated to the kitchen, as kitchens before air-conditioning were miserable places to spend a day during the summer.  Big Southern households built kitchens  in separate buildings from the big house because the heat was unbearable and with kitchens being the most likely source of a house fire, it made sense to put the kitchen in a free-standing structure that could burn to the ground without burning the home as a whole. The people who sweated, and kneaded, who plucked feathers and gutted fish, those people were not celebrated.  In the traditions of the South, they went unpaid, as they were slaves or wives.  While wives were not slaves (exactly), they were not free, enfranchised, or able to choose other occupations than that of home maker for the majority of the history of this country and for the entirety of the history of the Confederacy.  So why are we watching now the cooks on television who make food into a spectator sport?

"all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. " -- John Updike

“all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. ” — John Updike

We seem to have begun the celebration and idealization of cooking as a thing to watch with the industrialization of our food production.  After the Second World War, women who had worked for a few years in factory jobs were corralled back into the kitchen to prepare elaborate meals for G.I. husbands who would take their place as industry captains.  Meals went from something to grab on the fly to a proof of good housekeeping and feminine skill. Companies selling industrial food products — margarine, corn syrup, and cheese in a can — started having contests for housewives to compete like athletes, and this to promote the factory of food they ran.  County fairs had pie contests before, but national contests with television spots for winners — that was a 1950s idea and part of the myth of the happy housewife that would be rendered joyful by soap called Joy, by soup in a can, by floor wax that made a shine in which she could see her happy face reflected.  Suddenly, it became possible to make cooking aspirational, part of the American dream. A perfect pie, with meringue peaks just browned lightly — this was now a national source of comfort.

With the exit of women from the kitchen and into the workplace, food changed again.We became increasingly dependent on prepackaged goods, on restaurants that mass-produce food, and we became less healthy than before.  We stuffed ourselves mindlessly in front of the television with our potato chips rather than consider eating a discrete episode where family members looked each other in the eye, where fresh ingredients comprised the whole of the meal, where the meal ended, and we did not eat again until the next meal.  We became a nation of lonely snackers overly engaged in video games and sports events where we neither lifted a ball nor even donned a jacket to venture out of our living rooms to sit on a bleacher and cheer. We became spectators instead of participants in the leisure of our own lives.

So why do so many of us slouch on couches watching the cooking shows and then drive to eat Big Macs?  I attribute it to a longing for authenticity.  When the unsung women used to cook us meals the slow way, we took them for granted, but we felt loved.  The food smelled like something.  Our lives felt like we needed to be awake for them. We talked like connected people to one another around the table. The food nourished us. We were fed.  We don’t know when dinner is any more.  Nobody has the time to make dinner, not a real dinner.  Thirty-minute meals are possible, but they require somebody to invest time in a premeditated trip to the supermarket. No distractions had better arise, no pets had better run away not to be found until the next day  No family arguments had better explode, and no demands for additional overtime from overbearing bosses had better get voiced for all of us to make it to the table, for the family cook to get to her post chopping the carrots an hour before meal time.

This problem of authentic food and family time is particularly poignant to Southerners.  Momma’s biscuits are a source of nourishment as important as mother’s milk.  To eat grandma’s tea cakes is a partial living out of Southern identity. Food served at Southern funerals is a reason for the bereaved to stay alive. The home-cooking of Southern tradition is a way of Southerners knowing precisely who they are.  But mothers in Atlanta have no more time than mothers in Chicago to cook a four-course meal by sundown. Women in the South are working just like women in the North. Men in the South have not learned to cook any better (with the exception of the honing of seasonal barbecue skills) than men in the North have. Daughters no longer learn with the same frequency the skills requisite in the heirloom recipes of their family heritage.  Those foods are usually all advised too fatty by the doctors, anyway, and who has the time?

One of my friends in the South has a traditional recipe of a thin-layered cake of multiple tiers, and it takes a good day to make it.  She is a neurobiologist.  She can either concentrate on cake-baking, or she can try to find the root of a cure for ALS.  To her, the cake is a pleasure, but it is a distraction.  She feeds her experiments’ fruit flies, rather than the initiates at any Junior League.  That she can make the family cake, which includes home-made fondant (!) is impressive, but it is hardly the most impressive thing she does — she can clone insect brain cells, something her grandmomma never did.  Authenticity and tradition often get trumped in today’s South by forward-thinking and long work hours in double-income homes.

So today, if one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the makers of Jack Daniels — and in typing these words, I feel compelled to salute sour mash whiskey and its salutory benefits to those who  are ailing from heart-ache and underexposure to tear-jerk Country music ballads — I sigh deeply and try to remember what I was saying.  What was it? Oh!  If one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, one can visit a historically preserved boarding house, something which used to be a fixture in the Southern Landscape before the advent of post-war motel chains.  Miss Mary Bo Bo’s boarding house in Lynchburg was particularly known for its good food.  She received guests, it seems mostly traveling salesmen (and during the Twenties, bootleg distributors), and she served old-school Southern fare — baked apples, creamy macaroni and cheese, turnip greens wilted in pork fat, fried chicken of the kind that rarely gets made in private homes any more, and a delightful variety of pies.  A visit to Mary BoBo’s boarding house means one’s small family sits at a big table with others, and at each table for each meal, a hostess explains like a museum curator the significance of each dish within Southern cooking.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Today, the house (which is run by the Jack Daniels corporation in conjunction with its distillery tours) attracts many people from outside the South, and the strategy of this table d’hote is essentially to stage a reenactment of the Southern meal, not unlike a historic reenactment of the Siege of Vicksburg.  Nobody down South eats a Mary BoBo-sized meal more than once or twice a month, and even then, nobody cooks all the dishes for such a meal except on the rarest of occasions.  The Mary BoBo meal is still eaten after funerals and at church socials, and those events are potluck — each cook does a fraction of the work.  Perhaps on an occasion as grand as a family engagement one might see such a meal served.  Alas, today’s Southern eaters can neither produce nor consume this level of Southern authenticity alone.  Paul Prudhomme is gone to his celestial spice rack. Paula Deen, bless her heart (and I mean that in the most Southern of ways), is on a low-carb diabetic diet if she doesn’t want to risk foot amputation and blindness (apart from blindness to her own racism). The rest of the South is hurrying to get home, but when we get there, the kids are playing Minecraft and whine if you ask them to set the table, even though they will be punished for it.  The husband got home and fed the dogs, gave the kids each a bag of raisins and a juice box, and he is on Facebook.  The wife lugged in the bag of groceries, set a slab of margarine to bubble in the pan, and she is flouring up the pork chops as fast as she can.  She wants to catch her breath — work was hard today, but now the baby has started to cry, and she runs, yells at her husband to watch that nothing burns, and picks up the littlest one to see if he has shoved one of his brother’s toys up his nose again.

Who has time to cook?  Who can look a loved one in the eye without wanting to cry?  Where is grandmomma’s multi-layered cake, momma’s biscuit, daddy’s barbecued ribs?  Is this our current tear-jerk ballad, and do we sing the lyrics of the song together?  Or do we sing it in rooms with closed doors, pretending it’s all fine?  Where is Miss Mary Bobo, the uncurated one who fed smiling bootleggers and excluded black visitors from her table?  We miss her, not for her personality or her moral compass, but for her roasts, the kind that comforted the diner, that said that all was well whether it really was or not. We are sentimental and crave comfort food.  Kardashians are tramping around on television.  The Internet announces apocalypses, scriptural and zombie.  We feel empty inside.

What’s for dinner?  What should we really eat for dinner? What will really satisfy us, North and South?

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February 20, 2011

Fiddle-dee-disempowerment — Why every feminist should watch the movie SOUTHERN BELLE

Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while.  The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly.  The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul.  She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact.  My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.

This girl is beautifully dressed for her disempowerment lessons

Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.

The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South.  The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South.  However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation.  Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery.  He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861.  Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps.  It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place.  New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond.  Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.

Again, I say don’t misunderstand me.  Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture.  However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts  to behave as Scarlett O’Hara.  Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes.  Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.

Once they have laid the foundation of  a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.

Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood.  Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South.  Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights.  If I were a relative of  hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now.  The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions.  The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has  learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.

That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.

Why do I take this so personally?  Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.

When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls.  On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association.  She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies  do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit.  Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.

This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today.  She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”

What a vivid turn of phrase!  Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.

I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me.  On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights.  On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing  but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy.  However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of  the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too.  I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club.  It was the wingless valkyrie rave.

I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century.  It clarified a bundle of things.

I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.

I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too.  I have never  been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery.  I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find  them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid.  I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.

Every feminist should watch this film.  The fight isn’t over.  The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled.  If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.

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.

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