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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Country, When Country Wasn't Cool

I don't know what it is, but lately I've been missing the place where I grew up.

Actually, I do know what it is. It's the holidays. And it's cold.

I wouldn't call this feeling I have being "homesick" because California is my home – specifically San Francisco. But after living here for so long I sometimes forget that I no longer have to unpack my winter clothes when the temperature falls below 55 (okay, maybe a heavier coat and a scarf). Or that when there's a chance of precipitation, there's likely a chance of snow – and likely a chance of busting your ass on a cold and icy sidewalk.

I guess most of all I miss the mountains I grew up near. Although I was born amongst the rolling hills of North Carolina, I grew up in the mountain town of Asheville (population 70,000 - not counting bad Floridian drivers).

My mother's family's (the side I'm closest to) history in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia goes back several generations. My grandparents, like their parents before them, came out of a mountain culture that was more diverse and interesting than most people realize.

100 years before "race mixing" was decriminalized in the South, my great-grandparents were the product of an interracial marriage between a Cherokee Indian man and a Scots-Irish woman.

And, contrary to popular misconceptions about Southerners and the Civil War, many Appalachian and Piedmont Southerners were not sympathetic to the secessionist cause and either fought for the Union or deserted the Confederate army (which they were often forced into). In my family alone there are stories, culled from memories and passed down from generation to generation, of when the Rebels came through the hollar, looting and pillaging homes and towns.

Later, when Johnson City (where my grandparents met) was known as "Little Chicago", my family was well accomplished in moonshining and rum running. In fact, it was rumored that Pop had a still hidden back in the woods 'til the day he died.

I only wish he could've taught me some of the tricks of the trade before he passed away.

Granma and Pop

Growing up, I came to know two sides of the South, best represented by my parents' families and the food they enjoyed. My mom's family represents the poor, but proud, mountain people who are a live-and-let-live, mind-your-own-business bunch; a people descended from the original Scots-Irish settlers, as well as folks from around the South who fled to the mountains to escape ethnic cleansing, slavery, religious persecution, or the law.

Politically they were Lincoln Republicans, as were most Southerners who had no interest in slave owning. Their accents are softer and rounder and in contrast to the harsh twang of what I think of as the plantation, cowboy, or Georgia peach farmer accent. They say things like "crik" for creek, "poke" instead of sack, "hollar" for hollow, and transform the "ah" sound in words to "aw" (ex: Grandma = "Granmaw") and the "air" or "eer" into "arr" and "err" (ex: hair = "harr", cheer = "cherr").

Their cuisine is whatever could grow in short seasons and could be preserved through the winter; things like Country ham and bacon, wild game (venison, boar, trout, snake, and yes possum), apple and blackberry preserves, corn, hot peppers, wild herbs and plants, grits, and lots and lots of pinto beans.

There was a period when I was a kid where my mother would cook - this was the first and last time she would ever remotely be interested in food. Besides plenty of French toast sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar for breakfast, and sometimes grits with butter and sugar, many a-evening was spent consuming large quantities of homemade biscuits and pinto beans.

I hated pinto beans. I hated the shape, the texture, and most of all, the taste. But what was truly repellant was watching my dad drown them in ketchup before shoveling them down his throat.

Had I known these were the glory days of my mother's cooking, I would've tried harder to like the bowl of cold beans set before me. Red flags should've been raised just by all the Tang we drank. How was I to know that a few years later if it wasn't microwavable or didn't require mixing a package of this with a can of that, it didn't come out of our kitchen?

I loves me some granmaw!

Lately I've wondered if my current interest in food stems from another facet of my upbringing that I'm still rebelling against. I hope not. I hope that this is something I truly enjoy, because rebellion is so tiring - even when it's warranted.

If my mom is truly the antichrist of homecooking, I want that to be her thing. Support, but not agree with. And not try to change.

Besides, I think she only felt she had to cook because it was expected of her – whether from herself or my dad's family.

Flying a kite with my dad behind pappaw's house.

My dad's family leans more to the side of the German settlers who populated much of the Piedmont area of North Carolina and is the reason I grew up Lutheran. When I think of what most people consider "Southern" – including some of the stereotypes – I think of my dad's family.

Politically they were Democrats, as was most of the South until the mid-20th century political shift in which Democrat became Republican and Republican became Democrat. Their accents are more flat and drawn out. They say things like "ah-ur" or "eye-ur" for hour, "caint" for can't, and over-emphasize and draw out "y" sounds in words by saying them as if their mouth was always smiling.

Unlike either side, I do not have an accent. I lost it long before I left the South, and was even accused of being from California by a stupid, white trash, oaf of a class bully while still in the seventh grade – as if it was an insult.

While I identify more with my mom's side of the family, it was with my dad's family that I spent many summers bailing hay, watched Pappaw skin a rabbit he'd trapped, listened to him holler for the cattle to come in, ate persimmons growing from a tree in his yard, strung beans and shucked corn for canning, and had many sit-down Sunday dinners after church, right before watching football on TV.

Pappaw, cousin Jason, and me at the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. This photo shows pappaw at his happiest.

Seasons in the Piedmont are slightly longer and warmer than those in the mountains. Here, the food is more abundant, more diverse, and the people are often better off financially than mountain folk.

The Piedmont and Coastal areas of North Carolina are what people think of when they think of most Southern food. Here you'll find plenty of cornbread, breaded and fried seafood, biscuits and gravy, livermush, pimento cheese, Cheerwine, Sundrop, sweet tea, pickled beets, fried okra and yellow squash, chow chow, Texas Pete hot sauce, Moonpies, hushpuppies, black eyed peas and collard greens on New Years Day, and of course, barbecue.

In North Carolina, barbecue is a regional thing divided by Eastern and Western styles. Not to be confused with actual geographic boundaries of the state, "western" barbecue in North Carolina falls into the ocean somewhere in the vicinity of Winston-Salem, which is in the middle of the state. The difference between Eastern North Carolina barbecue and Western North Carolina barbecue is the addition of one ingredient to the dipping sauce – ketchup.

Not coincidentally, ketchup is the only difference between Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina as well.

Ketchup-induced fit on pappaw's porch.

In Asheville, where I grew up, barbecue in my house was divided up by a pre-Applebees type of establishment called McHenry's on Tunnel Road where we would delight in the babyback ribs, and Little Pigs Bar-B-Q, a true barbecue dive up the road from Asheville High that served the typically-NC minced barbecue pork, baked beans, and cole slaw one would expect.

For the most part barbecue wasn't on my parents' radar, so whenever we ate out you could usually find us at Western Steakhouse or some fried fish shack with plastic, red gingham-patterned tablecloths and huge plastic pitchers of sweet tea in the boonies of West Asheville or Swannanoa. However, the few times we did go out for barbecue, Little Pigs was one of the places we'd frequent. Forever has it stood out in my mind as the quintessential Southern barbecue experience. Of course, those are childhood memories, so maybe I'm projecting a little too much on a place I haven't eaten at since I was 12.

Regardless, I can't tell you how happy I was to stumble on one of those goofy "sign generators" someone made using the Little Pigs sign.

I would be corny for me to say that finding this is "a sign" of things to come, so I'll go ahead and say it. I think this sign is a sign of things to come. More barbecue, more Southern food, calls from Mom, and a strong chance of a trip back to the South all seem to be in the cards.

For the time being, I'll stick to reminiscing – sans accent.



Blogger Lan said...

That was a fascinating post, combining many things I'm interested in - multiple heritages, food, customs, even language.

I'm in England (with a Scottish father), but also interested in Appalachian (and thereabouts) heritage and culture and, especially, the music.

Is that a Scots-Irish (or Ulster Scots as it's now called) T shirt, with the saltire and some words I cannae make out?

2:22 AM  
Blogger Dive said...


Here's stuff I've been listening to lately that I think you'll enjoy:

And it's a Grandfather Mountain Highland Games shirt (coincidentally over a "The Exploited" shirt). I swear I wasn't going for a Scottish theme that day.

If you ever make it to the area in time and you're interested in things Celtic, you should definitely visit the GMHG. It's an amazing experience (or was - I haven't been in 15 years).

8:07 AM  
Blogger Dive said...

BTW, that link is:

My faves on that are the Stanley Bros. song "The Story of the Flood" (I love the Stanley Bros. anyway), "Vance Song", and "Claude Allen".

8:15 AM  
Blogger Lan said...

Thanks a lot for the link. I do know the Stanley Brothers, but I'm sure I'll be unfamiliar with other artists, so it's always good to be introduced to 'new' music.

I enjoy your blog, but I've only been reading it for about six weeks.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Guy said...

Dang, that was most nicely done there. It was a pleasure to read, an junk.

Made me some Southern cornbread a few days ago, with duck fat. No flour and no sugar. Just cornmeal, fat, buttermilk, salt, egg and baking soday.

Loved the Hollerin' link too. I have in my hands a bitchen Hollerin' CD from Spivey's Corner, NC. As you prolly know, it's the home of the annual National Hollerin' Contest.


11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eastern North Carolina barbeque is one of the best things on earth.
Growing up in coastal southeastern Virginia close to the Carolina line I thought that this WAS barbeque. Woe unto me when I found out what others called barbeque.

I couldn't find good eastern NC barbeque while I lived in New Orleans and I most certainly can't find it here in Chicago.

My husband says he'll order me some off the internet for my birthday in February. :)

While in the Paulina Meat Market two weeks ago I got to listen to one northerner try to explain Smithfield country ham to another northerner. It was so cute!

Thanks for the post-it made me smile. :)

P.S. I was surprised that fried roe (my childhood nemesis), fried okra, and biscuits & gravy (sausage gravy) were not on your list.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my sisters moved to Fletcher a few years back. I must get to Asheville. Other than Chapel Hill, which I adore, it's probably the only other place a native Californian can relate to what's going on most of the time. :-)

A friend of mine from Goldsboro owned a shop for years. While the shop is now out of business, they still sell their eastern style sauce online. scottsbarbesauce.com you eastern types won't be disappointed. Hell, you've probably been there a time or two.

I still prefer Memphis style. Shoot me now. :-)

I love a good Kerrrliner BBQ war.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhhhhh livermush...

I live outside Nashville, but both my parents grew up in Charlotte. My dad's family were of German stock; they worked in the cotton mill in Lincolnton. Livermush = my grandmother Jones's kitchen. I recently took my new husband to the Biltmore for a couple of days and loaded up on 16 pounds of Neese's liver pudding to take home!!! Hee hee I love the stuff. And there's nothing, nothing, NOTHING like Carolina BBQ. Vinegar-based all the way! Thank you for this blog which I happened upon. You brought back some great memories for me!

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I lived in NYC for 5 years then moved to SF and lived there for 6 years before bolting for Tennessee... funny how you hate "livin' country" and then when you get older, that's where you WANT to live.

Not all Southerners sided w/the Confederacy just like not all Northerners supported the Union. My mother's side of the family up in West Virginia and Kentucky didn't agree w/slavery but supported the Confederacy b/c they felt the war was an issue of states' rights. But that just backs up what you said, just b/c you lived somewhere didn't mean you automatically sided w/one side or the other.

3:22 PM  
Blogger NcMysteryShopper said...

Asheville is heaven on earth! I live in Fairview and this is the comfort food capital of the US. LOL!
My favorite barbecue joint (phone in/take-out only) is called Bubba-Q - and let me tell you, these people KNOW how to cook! If you come back to the mountains you'll have to visit Bubba and while your at it... place an order for some of his wife's fried chicken! OMG! It just doesn't get any better then this!

6:38 AM  

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