I am relieved to report that after four days in Arkansas and Tennessee I have gained only one pound. The southern states are
not good for my waistline. In addition to the entire south, I also find myself weighed down when visiting Wisconsin (cheese) and Pennsylvania (German cooking.)
Southern cooking lures me. One of the main things I learned in college (along with a little psychology and history) was how to cook...southern style. This was because my grandmother lived near the university and I ate many meals at her house. While getting my formal education in the classroom I was simultaneously studying southern cooking in her kitchen.
This dismayed my mother, who has always been a petite woman and quite persnickety about our health. When she discovered that I was learning how to cook from her mother-in-law (who was
not a petite woman,) she started to worry. That was about the same time that she had to start taking something for blood pressure and cholesterol. I always thought I'd rather die from mashed potatoes and gravy than anxiety.
This recent trip to Arkansas and Tennessee was a pilgrimage. The church van packed out at 15 people and we visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and Little Rock's Central High School (National Historical Site.) The pilgrimage featured conversations and budding relationships with our fellow travelers. And it included meals together.
Our only so-so meal was the first night, on the road, at a Wendy's fast food. But the rest of the restaurant stops were tops. On the way down we ate a family style chicken dinner at the
Giant City Lodge south of Carbondale, Illinois. While in Little Rock we ate lunch at
Three-Fold Noodle and Dumpling, an authentic Chinese restaurant on Center Street. And in Memphis it was all B-B-Q or soul food. We discovered
Central B-B-Q on East Butler Avenue, the
Soul Fish Café off Cooper Street, and the
99 Cent Soul Food Express on Main Street. Our pilgrims (Chinese and American) give all these places Five Stars.
Soul food and southern food are similar but not quite synonymous. Soul food started in Africa, salved the bodies and spirits of American slaves, and sustained the Civil Rights movement. It includes okra and yams and black-eyed peas introduced from West Africa. It features dishes from the family garden: kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, corn, green beans, and potatoes. It makes use of those animal parts left for poor folk: the foot, the neck, and the jowls...cooked and spiced and smoked until edible. Peaches and pecans picked off local trees provide pies and cobblers. Whatever fish can be caught from the nearby river or pond are quickly fried. And you never know when a squirrel, a rabbit, or maybe even a possum will pop up in your pot. And for a treat, the cook might fry a chicken, whip up some banana pudding, or open a jar of pickled watermelon rind.
Southern cooking includes soul food, but it also is heavily influenced by the poorer Scottish and Scotch-Irish who settled in the south. They brought macaroni and cheese with them. And they also believed in a BIG: biscuits and gravy, grits, eggs, bacon, ham, griddle cakes, etc. etc. etc. The sheep (found in Scotland and Ireland) sensibly gave way to pigs. (They flourish more in the southern United States than heavy wooled sheep.) Pork became a staple of southern cooking.
And because ovens aren't very pleasant in hot climates, the outdoor B-B-Q pit became THE place for cooking meat.
In the south, everything gets some sort of flamboyance to make it more interesting: a drawl makes the English language more colorful, a psychological buzz makes mainline religion more seductive, and all the add-ons make southern vegetables more palatable.
In the south, you never let vegetables sit naked in a bowl. It's
fried green tomatoes and
buttered mashed potatoes. Greens are slow-cooked with ham-hocks. Corn is baked in eggs and cream. Beans are stewed with salt pork, clove, and sugar. Okra is pan fried with corn meal, salt, and bacon grease. Squash is slathered in butter and brown sugar and topped with marshmallows.
As a pastor, sometimes I wish I could mere cook for people (and dispense with so many sermons and meetings.) And if I did that, I'd surely cook southern food for them, just like my grandma used to.
But if that's
all I had to offer, I'd eventually be pretty busy burying a bunch of my congregation: like I wrote up yonder, I'm relieved I spent four days in Arkansas and Tennessee and only gained one pound. Lord have mercy.
Thanks be to God for Soul Food. And thanks be to the fruit of the Holy Spirit that gives us self-control.