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Southern By The Grits Of God

Musings on hick cuisine

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Picture me: I'm sitting in the parking lot of a rundown convenience store - a "Stop ´N' Stab," as a friend of mine calls such establishments - eating a shrink-wrapped pimento cheese sandwich and quaffing from a 20-ounce Coke. Not haute cuisine, to be sure. Not-so-haute cuisine, more like it.

As I sat there and chewed the sandwich — made of that processed pimento cheese spread author Reynolds Price claims tastes like bug spray — my repast came back to haunt me. Not that the sandwich was so bad, mind you. What bothered me is why I ordered the sandwich in the first place. There were plenty of ham-on-ryes, "Italian" subs and other hermetically sealed goodies to choose from. Yet, I bought a pimento cheese sandwich, so bland in its entire packaging, taste and preparation that I cannot think of a single adjective — the food writer and the pornographer's favorite part of speech — to describe it. It simply existed, a Sartre of sandwiches.

I bought it, I decided, out of guilt.

Telling someone you're from the South instantly used to cause people to view you with red(neck)-tinted glasses. Now, it's a foot in the door, a book deal, a record contract, a cooking show.

As far as I can tell, this languid love affair is a matter of "authenticity," a tenuous concept people will usually eagerly gobble up no matter how hackneyed the premise or the packaging. As marketing slogans go, it's one of the best.

Of course, the American South has always been portrayed as a fertile delta when it comes to matters of artistic "authenticity" — it's why there are "Southern Lit" sections in bookstores across the country (usually right beside another rather segregated section, that of African-American literature) and graduate degrees in Southern Studies at many major universities.

Yes, we're painted with a pretty broad brush. Thing is, like Tom Sawyer, we've learned how to turn chore into "cha-ching!" Like Tom, we've managed to turn whitewashing a fence into whitewashing our friends.

What we discovered is this: We can fleece these Yanks! Pop a paint pen in that old gas station attendant's hands. Folk art! You grew up in a trailer? Write a memoir! You make a pretty decent pork shoulder, and people call you Mama? Open a café! (Just make sure the façade is appropriately "weathered" and you offer sweet tea. Always sweet tea.)

Food, by God, is the last frontier. Just the other day I heard Emeril Lagasse inform his Pavlovian audience that he just loooved him some pimento cheese — oh yeah, babe! — and that the concoction was in fact so good that he could, and I quote, "eat it on a tire." (Whether he would eat it shrink-wrapped from a convenience store cooler is another question entirely.)

An admission: I love pimento cheese. I love it on brown bread, I love it on Ritz crackers as a midnight snack. I love grits, too, whether with eggs and sausage or topped with shrimp in true "low country" style. I like livermush (fried only), Red Velvet Cakes, and Cheerwine and Sun Drop and Dixie beer. And, God knows, I love me some barbecue.

It's just that, sometimes, you gain a reputation and you can't shake it. This is never good, even when the reputation is a positive one. You can't be truly yourself once you gain a reputation, because at that point you've already begun to serve what we here in the Bible Belt call the "two masters": you and the idea of you.

Steve Almond, in his great sweets-heavy book Candyfreak, says this: "I do know an unfortunate number of Southerners as a result of attending a university in North Carolina, and virtually all of them, when I mentioned candy bars, assumed that the Goo Goo Cluster would be at the top of my list. It was not. Part of the reason for this is that candy bars are not often grist for literary culture and thus have been spared the relentless invocation of other such Southernisms as kudzu, moonshine, Co-Cola and Shiloh."

Someone buy that man a Moon Pie.

I can't complain, really. I get calls when there's a Southern Story to be penned, and I usually don't turn these opportunities down. However, my prose is often switched midway through the editorial process to a "first person" narrative — authenticity! — and I do sometimes notice a few more "ain'ts" and "shoots" and "doggones" on proof sheets than I originally remembered writing. I don't usually fight it, preferring to let the publication get the story they want, provided I'm not turned into some sort of quasi-Bo Duke savant who just happens to be able to type purty when I'm not mouth-breathing.

However, like the many painters and artists and writers down here, I am a battler. The battlefield? Restaurants and art galleries and blues halls, bookstores, universities and record stores. We don't win too many fights around here, as a little conflict about 150 years back will attest. We're good at turning the tables, however. Would you like sweet tea with that?

Timothy C. Davis' food writing has appeared in Saveur, Gastronomica and the web portal eGullet.com, from which some of this column has been taken.

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