Friday, March 20, 2009

Dixie Montage

"Mama's little baby loves shortnin' shortnin', mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread." My father would slap his knee as he sang. If I ran into the kitchen to fetch a pair of soup spoons, he would put them back to back and clack them together, good as any member of a washboard band. He'd do "Swing Low," "Dry Bones," "Old Man River." George Jones, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Alan Jackson. When I talked to my grandparents on the phone, they called me "sugar"; they asked "when're  y'all fixin' to come down and visit?" When we visited, there was always a trip to Morrison's Cafeteria. Southern vegetables are cooked within an inch of their lives. Collards and pot likker; string beans, okra, and black-eyed peas. Butter your corncob using a slice of white bread. Cornbread dropped in a glass of buttermilk, dug out sopping with a spoon. For a while, our northern kitchen boasted a set of heavy, cast-iron pans for corn sticks; long fingers of cornbread, crisp golden-brown crust with a kernel pattern baked right into it. Red-eye gravy. Pork rinds, pork belly, pig's feet. Salt pork. Hickory smoked barbecue and the great barbecue debates: wet or dry rub? Memphis or Carolina? Pies: pecan, sweet potato, fresh peach. Strawberry pie with gelatin. Cool Whip. Apple pie with a slice of American cheese melted on top. Bacon-flecked Crisco crusts. Breakfast: biscuits and gravy, country ham, scrambled eggs, hominy grits. No trip was ever complete without a stop at the dilapidated roadside shack where the man in the white cotton Hanes sold fresh boiled peanuts, soft with their salty juice squirting out onto the newspapers we spread on the table or the floor, if we could get them in the house before gobbling them up. Regular, dry roasted peanuts were for pushing through the thin neck of a glass Coke bottle: salty-sweet fizz to drink down quick. Krystal's square burgers and a box of fries. There was more than food. There were dogwoods and honeysuckle; fruit trees, magnolias, and the mottled bark of the crepe myrtle. Slow talkers, slow walkers. Baptists and Methodists. Manners. Hospitality. Gun racks and Confederate flags, the shame of slavery and segregation. Not being Dixie-born myself, I have the luxury of pick-and-choose, own and disown. I never heard my father's accent, only sometimes when he'd travel south and then call home. Living on my own in Chicago, friends would ask "Where's your dad from?" if they heard his message on my answering machine. "Alabama," I'd say, reminding myself. I'm only half Yankee, after all.

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