Tag Archives: south

The Prodigal Blogger Returns

13 Nov

Dad and me after eating pecan pancakes at Cracker Barrel

Dad and me after eating pecan pancakes at Cracker Barrel

When I embarked on my tour of the South this past Spring, I was full of hopeful anticipation. I thought I’d soak up my surroundings, explore new places, and snap copious photos. I’d fall in love with the South all over again. Then I’d return to Seattle eager to tell y’all all about my adventures.

That didn’t happen. Not exactly.

I did venture to cities I’d never seen, reconnect with old friends, snap a few pictures, and eat roughly half my weight in biscuits (not in one sitting). I soaked up Southern culture in the manner of a Bounty paper towel. I did not, however, fall in love all over again. In fact, I kind of wanted to break up.

When I write about the South from my home here in Seattle, my posts are filtered through a lens of nostalgia. I write from selective memory, mainly about the aspects of Southern culture I miss the most (chicken and dumplings, this means you).

When I’m actually IN the South, it’s a whole other story. One I’ve been reluctant to tell. Still am, but here goes…

Being immersed in Southern culture makes it impossible to ignore the things I dislike about my homeland. Substandard education. Widespread poverty. Morbid obesity. And racism that cuts both ways.

I’m among the first to saddle up my high horse and ride when folks start badmouthing Southerners as a whole. As if we all don pointy white hoods, inject Wesson Oil straight into our veins, and can’t be bothered with no fancy book learnin’. Which is absolutely not true. Or at least mostly false.

I like to pretend that the South is all caramel cake, chivalry, and cute expressions. But when I spend time back home, my rose-colored glasses become clear as a jar of moonshine. I see dirty kids in tattered clothes being threatened with a “whoopin.” I hear that the once-upscale shopping area has been “taken over by the blacks.” I witness a black customer who feels slighted accuse a sales clerk of racism. I see a list of fourth grade spelling words that includes “people” and “often.”

What bothers me more than any of this is finding myself in line behind someone who’s arguing with the checker that she ought to be able to buy a jumbo jar of cheese puffs with food stamps and thinking “Get a job!” and also “Stop feeding your children garbage!” Like I am one to judge, as I charge a tub of Blue Bell Ice Cream on my Capital One card.

I cringe when I hear a Baptist preacher lump the words “Hitler,” “homosexual,” and “Osama bin Laden” in the same sentence. But I’m in line at Chick Fil A bright and early on Monday morning. (By “bright and early” I mean around 10 a.m.)

To sum up: I am conflicted.

I’ve spent more time in the South this year than I have since I moved away nearly two decades ago. I attended three conferences, visited eight cities, drove my dad’s Lincoln Town Car nearly 2000 miles, feeling like an airport limo driver the whole way.

I visited with relatives I haven’t seen in ages, saw my brother buried, and drank margaritas to ease the pain.

Celebrating the life of my brother at Hal & Mal's

Celebrating the life of my brother at Hal & Mal’s

I packed in less than an hour to catch a hastily booked flight and prayed that my father would still be alive when I landed. And I thanked God when he was. I spent hours with my dad each day, listening to his stories, walking his dog Happy, and sitting together reading silently. I extended my trip another week, and my sister mocked me when I wore my White Lily Save the Biscuit t-shirt again. And again. And again.

I made buttermilk biscuits and cheddar grits, while Jenna made sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and sausage gravy. We sat in front of the TV with her husband and two boys enjoying breakfast for dinner, each bite better than the next.

I whipped up another batch of biscuits for my dad, stashing extras in the freezer for later. Even though I botched the amount of baking powder and failed to achieve the proper flakiness, both Jenna and my dad pronounced them the best biscuits ever. And I beamed because these are people who KNOW their biscuits.

Three of my all-time favorite people: Jenna, Jackson, and Eli

Three of my all-time favorite people: Jenna, Jackson, and Eli

I laughed approximately 18 million times. Dreamed up half a dozen new business ventures to start with my sister. And began missing my littlest nephews before even embarking on my return flight.

I hate that I can’t be there with my family. But not quite as much as I love Seattle. I just this minute admitted that to myself, even though it’s been true for a long time as evidenced by my choices.

Now that I’ve settled back into life in my adopted homeland, I’ve had time and distance enough to fill up pages with posts about everything from hats and hair bows to sweet potato casserole and Coke. I’m looking forward to telling y’all all about Stuff Southern People Like and hearing what you think.

Friends, I have missed you. And I’m glad to be back.

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115. Crisco–It’s Digestible, Y’all!

9 Nov

Surely this can’t be true, y’all. I’ve expounded on 114 topics and have yet to discuss Crisco? In my defense, I’ve lived outside the South for nearly two decades and have encountered this Dixie staple just about as often as I’ve seen folks back home wearing sweaters in July. (Not counting anybody in my sister’s house where the air-conditioner’s always set to “Arctic.”)

I’m happy to note that during my time as an expat, I’ve never once had a run-in with Crisco’s ugly step-sister, Butter-Flavored Crisco. While friends and longtime readers probably already know this, I feel I should mention that I’m vehemently opposed to butter-flavored anything that doesn’t derive said flavor from actual, made-from-cow-milk butter.

Don’t forget to add Crisco!

Oh, but I must fess up and admit that this wasn’t always the case, as evidenced by a recipe I ran across the other day. (Part of my ongoing family recipe collection project–after 10 years, I’m still in phase 1.) I found a chocolate-chip cookie recipe that called for Butter-Flavored Crisco, which I’d attributed to myself! My shock and horror was twofold: A. That I’d once considered BFC an appropriate ingredient and B. That I’d copied the recipe from someone and slapped my name on it, seeing as I “wrote” the recipe long before I started baking as a professional hobbyist.

Whoever I fed those cookies to, I apologize. My bad. My very, very bad.

But back to Crisco, regular flavor. As far as I know, Crisco mainly serves two functions in Southern kitchens: deep frying and pie-crust making. That’s why you’ll often find a photo of crispy chicken or a double-crusted pie on the can. I can see how picturing just a glob of Crisco on the label might be detrimental to sales.

White wedding:
courtesy of Crisco?

Some folks even substitute Crisco for part or all of the butter in frosting and have the nerve to call it “buttercream,” but I try not to think about such unpleasant things. I know people will argue that it looks/holds up better, so let’s just agree to disagree. When it comes to food, I choose flavor over beauty every time. And for the love of Pete (whoever he is), please don’t use clear vanilla flavoring just so the frosting will be as white as the bride’s dress. Most likely, she’s not that pristine herself. But I’m not one to gossip.

Recently, I listened to a podcast that talked about the history of Crisco (not for research or anything, just because I’m nerdy like that). Turns out that two factors greatly contributed to its invention: Sinclair Lewis and the light bulb. The popularity of Lewis’ The Jungle (an expose on the meat packing industry disguised as a novel) made folks a bit leery of lard with passages such as:

They worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor…. their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting, sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!

Yum! And the light bulb? Thanks to that handy invention, Procter and Gamble’s candle sales were flickering out, and they had an abundance of cottonseed oil nobody knew what to do with…

Until! A German chemist named E.C. Kayser showed up with a ball of fat he’d concocted in a lab. Yes, folks, this was the start of hydrogenation.

From Better Homes & Gardens, December 1934

After a few failed attempts at naming the product (“Krispo”–trademark issues; “Chryst”–um, maybe not, y’all), P&G settled on Crisco, an abbreviation of crystallized cottonseed oil. The ad guys knew better to tout this as some sci-fi food-like substance. “From our lab to your table!” Nope, they played off folks’ fears of accidentally ingesting uncle Bob and pushed the healthy, all-vegetable angle. Ads featured recipes and benefits galore: flakier crusts, lighter cakes, less expense, all natural, and my favorite “It’s digestible!” Really, y’all, they used that one a lot.

100 years later and folks still rely on Crisco for frying, baking, greasing up
pigs at the fair and whatnot. As Loretta Lynn told us in the 80’s “Crisco’ll do you proud every time!”

Do you use Crisco? Tub or sticks? What for? Please keep it PG, people.

Photo credits: Crisco can circa 1970 by RoadsidePictures, Flickr Creative Commons; cookie dough by Sara R, Flickr Creative Commons; wedding cake by Graceful Cake Creations, Flickr Creative Commons

112. Waving at Strangers in a Hospitable Manner

19 Sep

On my first date with Geoff, after dining at a former brothel and before my favorite jug band hit the stage at Sunset Tavern, we had time for a stroll along Ballard Ave. As we passed the window of a restaurant, we noticed a group of about 8 to 10 people waving at us most enthusiastically. I didn’t recognize anyone, nor did he, and eight years later we still haven’t a clue what that was about.

Of course, had said incident occurred in the South, I most likely wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Ok, perhaps a second, possibly a third, but definitely not a 37th (Who WERE those people? Oops! Make that 38th). Unlike eating tofu, waving is just one of those things Southerners do. It’s like we breeze through the “Wave bye-bye to mommy” stage and master “Wave hello to that guy mowing his lawn” before we can even walk.

I haven’t studied any data on the subject, but I believe the frequency of waving depends on the size of the town. The smaller the population, the greater one’s likelihood of becoming a wave-ee.

I’m not even counting:

• Waves of recognition from folks you know (because they usually skip right on past waving or handshakes and go straight for the hug).

• Waves from automobiles to indicate A. “Thanks for letting me in your lane, kind driver” or B. “Oops! Sorry, I’m a dumbass, not an asshole.” (Like when you almost plow into a pedestrian–theoretically, of course).

• Beauty Queen-style waves from parade floats. (There’s a mnemonic device for this, which starts with “Screw in a lightbulb, touch the pearls…” Sadly, I’ve forgotten the rest. Can anybody help me out?)

• Waves from anyone dressed as food, wearing a sandwich board, or holding a sign. Either they’re being paid or hoping to, preferred currency being cash or occasionally attention.

I’m talking about random acts of waving. Like when a lady planting an azalea in her yard or an elderly gent taking his daily stroll to the mailbox takes a moment to look up, smile, and offer a friendly wave. As if they’re saying, “Hello, fellow human, nice to share the planet with you.” Or else possibly they’re being swarmed by gnats or mosquitos. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

One night when I was in college, my friend Sandy and I were driving around aimlessly when we took up the notion to start waving at folks we passed in a vigorous, insistent way, not necessarily in a “Your left rear tire has burst into flames!” manner, but more along the lines of, “Elvis!! You’re alive!!” or “Hey, Ed McMahon, come on over to my doorstep!” Probably, those folks were just as perplexed as Geoff and I were following our walk-by waving incident. Come to think of it, perhaps all my former random wave recipients decided to hold a reunion in Seattle and turn the tables.

Anyhoo, if you happen to be in the South and find yourself on the receiving end of a seemingly random wave, the proper response is to smile and wave back. Just remember to use all your fingers.

How do you feel about exchanging hand gestures with strangers?

Photo credits: Adorable waving elf by GoodlookinVintage available here, Food Dude by yasa_, Flickr Creative Commons.

106. Recliners–For Lazy Boys and Girls

13 Apr

Y’all might not think that my acupuncturist’s office here in Seattle could have anything in common with the average Southerner’s living room, but I’m here to tell you it does. Namely, recliners. In fact, it has more recliners than I’ve ever seen gathered together in one place. That would be eight. I reckon eight is enough.

Most of my Seattle friends would be horrified at the prospect of having a recliner in their home. Unless it was one of the schmancy zero-gravity ones that cost almost as much as, say, back surgery. Nevertheless, we’ll happily pay a sliding scale fee of $15-$35 (and be poked with needles) for the pleasure of napping for an hour or two in a cradle of cushiness.

If there’s a common trait among all Southerners, it’s this: We like to be comfortable. And let’s face it, y’all, recliners are comfortable. But, alas, they are also terribly unattractive. Not unlike some popular wardrobe staples such as t-shirts and “athletic” shoes.

Unless you're a broke-ass college student...

In my first apartment, my roommates and I had a minimalist design aesthetic. Not on purpose, mind you, but because we were A. broke and B. not qualified gimmicky furniture store credit offers.

A month or so after we moved in, our living room furniture consisted of a TV stand/bookshelf fashioned out of milk crates and a seating area that bore an uncanny resemblance to what some would call the floor. Then one day our honorary (but not rent-paying, not that I’m still bitter) fifth roommate showed up with a ratty-old green recliner from I know not where. Despite our protests that we could so be “choosers,” the recliner settled in. If I recall correctly, it had to be supported by the wall because it had the tendency to fall over when one attempted to recline.

It was kinda like this, only uglier.

Despite its hideous and less-than-sturdy nature, the recliner quickly became the coveted prize in our endless game of musical chairs. Minus the music. And also the other chairs.

When my sister was pregnant with her second son, she called to inform me that she’d broken down and bought a recliner. It was ugly, she said. But very comfortable. Except that she couldn’t operate the lever. And then her cat peed on it. But other than that, it was great. Even better once she covered it with a down comforter in an effort to discourage her cat from adopting it as his new litter box. (Sadly, no luck.)

In her cat’s defense, I’ll say that she’d recently switched his ordinary litter box with a newfangled “robot” one, which any animal might develop a healthy fear of, myself included.

Three of my favorite people: Jackson, Jenna, and Eli



When Eli was born, I stayed with Jenna for a couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s definitely one of the most comfortable chairs I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting in. Not because it cushions you with plush pillowy-ness or because it leans back into the perfect TV-watching/nap-inducing angle. But because it’s roomy enough to cradle Eli on one side and Jackson on the other and rest easy in a cocoon of unconditional love.

94. Camping (Not That I’m Happy About It)

14 Apr

Disclaimer: Everything I have to say about camping in the South is based on my personal experience way back in the 1970’s. Here goes:

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a scathing expose on camping and got to read it in class. Everybody thought it was hilarious. I can’t remember what all I said, but the gist of it was: I hate camping. I really hate camping. Also, camping sucks. Which is why I hate camping. So much.

This was the first time I truly realized the power of a number 2 pencil and Trapper Keeper-compatible loose leaf paper. My highly unscientific hypothesis was: People like to laugh. I can make people laugh. Therefore, people will like me.

I wish I had a copy of my essay on camping, but it has most likely disintegrated by now, considering how many times I read it to a captive audience. (By “captive” I don’t mean “fascinated by” so much as “prevented from fleeing.”)

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people see camping as a way to loosen the shackles of society, commune with nature, catch a rare glimpse of a star-filled sky, and sleep in tents. That all sounds great (apart from the sleeping on the ground aspect), but unlike any camping I’ve ever experienced.

Our campsite looked kind of like this,
only smaller and with plastic fruit lights.

When I was a kid, my dad would hook our pop-up camper to the trailer hitch on the car and away we’d go to the KOA Campgrounds in uber-exotic Wiggins, MS. Once we’d parked in our assigned spot, we’d set up camp. This involved popping up the camper and erecting a tarp cover to shade the picnic table, complete with a snazzy string of plastic fruit lights. (My mother never met a place she couldn’t decorate.)

My first order of business was scoping out the nearest bathroom facilities (some things never change). If we were lucky, there’d be a sketchy looking building with toilets and showers fairly close to “home.” One of the stereotypes of Southern folks is that we don’t have running water. Well, I’m here to tell you we do. In the wilderness, no less.

The ones in Wiggins, MS,
were slightly less grand.

The next item on my agenda was chasing squirrels. Not for supper. Just for fun.

One of the selling points of the Wiggins campsite was that it featured a lake with sandy beaches. Since I’d always associated sandy beaches with oceans, I once tried to teach myself to surf using the lid of a Styrofoam cooler. I made a valiant effort, but, alas, it was not to be. Turns out that surfing requires, well, surf.

Me, Jenna, and her creatively named doll, "Denna."

I can’t remember what all we ate when camping, but I do know that our food was cooked on my dad’s trusty propane Coleman Stove. As it turns out, a propane stove can be quite useful in a crisis. When Katrina knocked out the electricity at my parents’ house, my dad used his to cook up ham and eggs, and more importantly, coffee. “Eggs?” I asked. “Where are you keeping eggs?” My dad: “In the cooler.” Me: “Of course.”

Seeing as I’ve never been a fan of dirt, insects, public showers, and propane-tinged food, the only thing that made camping remotely bearable was when we brought along our portable color TV. My dad claimed that my sister and I were the only people in the entire history of camping who couldn’t stand to leave the TV at home. What? Other folks were content to miss an episode of “Mork and Mindy”? Seriously?

I do understand why people might choose to stay at campsites to economize while traveling on vacation. But, y’all, the campsite WAS our destination. I still can’t fathom how cramming four hot, cranky, occasionally TV-deprived people into a pop-up camper constitutes a vacation. Now that I think about it, maybe my dad was trying to give us an idea of what Hell might be like so we’d do our best not to wind up there.

Somebody ought to
buy me this.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear people in Seattle planning weekend camping trips. They make it sound quaint, enticing, blissful even. Which starts me thinking, “Maybe it would be different without the scorching heat and 1000% humidity. I’ve long-since cured my TV addiction, and it would be nice to see actual stars again.” I might just be persuaded to try again, if it weren’t for this one thing: I hate camping.

Did you go camping as a kid? Would you voluntarily go now? What’s the one item from civilization you’d find it most difficult to part with?

Photo Credits, Flickr Creative Commons: Camping sign by Susan Hunt, Bathhouse by Amy the Nurse, TV by Eric Albee

I Love Not Camping luggage tag by Anne Taintor available here.

70. Red Velvet Cake (Accept No Substitutes)

16 Feb

Photo by Sharyn Morrow
Flickr Creative Commons

It might surprise y’all that I’ve EVER met a cake I didn’t like, but it’s true. And before you call me a blasphemer and start extolling the virtues of this traditional Southern delicacy, allow me to explain:

I grew up eating a fair amount of red velvet cake, seeing as it turns up everywhere from church socials to meetings of the Local Heathens Society. (Yes, I just made that up, but it sounds like just the sort of group somebody ought to start.)

Barring the occasional groom’s cake, most red velvets I sampled were homemade, probably using somebody’s grandmother’s hand-me-down recipe. Or in a pinch, consulting the recipe book of the (name of town) First Baptist Church. (Yes, these actually exist. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, so stay tuned.) So for the first 24 years of my life I LOVED red velvet cake. Then I moved to Southern California, and later, Seattle.

I’m here to tell you that there is not one good red velvet cake to be found in either of those places, or anywhere in between. I reckon you probably won’t find decent red velvet cake west of Texas or north of Virginia, but I haven’t conducted scientific research. And don’t intend to.

Yummy? Probably.
Red Velvet? No.
Photo by awhiskandaspoon
Flickr Creative Commons

Some say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If so, someone ought to sic the folks with the white jacket on me, because I cannot resist trying red velvet cake whenever I encounter it here. And I am ALWAYS at best disappointed, at worst disgusted. Even when I purchase said cake from bakeries/cupcakeries I know and trust. This means you, Cupcake Royale (disappointed) and Macrina Bakery (disgusted. Couldn’t even finish Macrina’s version. And I have NEVER disposed of a half-eaten cupcake. To be fair, I had never before disposed of any half-eaten Macrina item. They make AWESOME cookies, cakes, breads, pastries, etc. Which is why I was so shocked at the quality, or lack thereof, of their red velvet cake.)

So I used my friend Linda’s Golden Globes/craft-making party as an excuse to attempt my own red velvet cupcakes. I spent a fair (ok, indecent) amount of time comparing recipes, trying to determine what might be wrong about Yankee velvet cake, so that I didn’t end up disappointing myself (or–as Southerners say–myOWNself).

After the cupcakes were baked and cooled and properly frosted, I tasted one. Hallelujah! I now know at least one place to get honest-to-goodness Southern red velvet cake in Seattle.

My ought-to-be-patented
recipe filing system

I used this recipe for the cake (But used 3 tablespoons of cocoa instead of the chintzy 1 teaspoon the recipe calls for. Actually, I probably used close to 4 T, adding a bit at a time till the batter tasted right.)

I frosted the cupcakes with:

Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese (softened)
1 stick butter (softened)
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
¼ t salt

Directions: Use the mixing appliance of your choice to cream butter and cream cheese with powdered sugar. (On low at first so you don’t sugar coat the entire kitchen). When sugar is incorporated, switch mixer into high gear. If you are mixing by hand, stop. Go to your nearest mart store and pick up a hand mixer, already.

Add vanilla and beat until the frosting reaches your ideal spreading consistency. If too dry, add a splash of milk. If too wet, add more powdered sugar.

Finally, add salt and beat some more. (See why I told you to get yourself a mixer?) I add additional salt a pinch at a time till the frosting loses that hurt-your-teeth-sweet quality.

Frost and enjoy! Save the beaters and near-empty bowl for someone you love who loves to lick the frosting. You love yourself, right?

Sadly, I didn’t photograph my pretty, delicious cupcakes, as I was running late (shocker!). I guess I’ll have to bake them again…

Everyone enjoyed the cupcakes, and I was most impressed when my friend Julie (who’s from Texas and presumably knows red velvet cake) went for seconds.

Epilogue:
I was picking up a sandwich the other night and noticed a fetching-looking red velvet cake (complete with Valentine’s themed heart on top). I’m happy to report that I was not lured in. Maybe I’m learning from my mistakes, after all.

Also, if you’d like a more in depth analysis on RVC, check out the taste test conducted by The Bake More blogger.

Do you have a go-to recipe for red velvet cake? Or know of a good place to buy a tasty premade one?

69. Gone with the Wind (Frankly, We Give a Damn)

15 Feb

Do Southerners prefer the book or the movie? Yes. We prefer both the book AND the movie to most of the nonsense that passes for entertainment these days. I mean, would you rather witness the catty shenanigans of the True Housewives of Atlanta or ogle Clark Gable? No contest.

I must admit that I hadn’t read Mitchell’s masterpiece until four years ago. Who has time to read a 1,000 page novel? Someone with sciatic nerve pain who’s essentially couch-ridden for a month, that’s who. While I would never choose to be immobilized, it was a great excuse for catching up on my reading. (Alas, I was still unable to make it through Wuthering Heights and Anna Karenina.)

At first glance, Gone with the Wind doesn’t seem like something I’d want to read at all. War + Romance + Melodrama = Gag. But from the first page, I was hooked. Why? Mitchell employs the Dickensian cliff-hanger better than Chuck himself. Sleep? I don’t need no stinkin’ sleep. I need to know WHAT HAPPENED NEXT! (This is the very reason I watched the first five seasons of “Lost” in about a week. And, no, I don’t consider myself obsessive. Thanks for asking.)

Doggone with the Wind
Photo by Carol Vinzant
Flickr Creative Commons

Mitchell populated her novel with cast of deeply flawed characters: Scarlett, the self-centered, calculating belle. Rhett, the unapologetic rogue. Ashley, who is hopelessly wishy-washy. And, yes, even dear, sweet Melanie, who is far too nice for her own good. Some might argue that “wishy-washy” and “too nice” aren’t character flaws. But they would be wrong.

I fear this post is heading into research paper territory, and since I’m not being graded (or paid), I’m jumping off the train before that happens. If you want to know more, you can find a copy of GWTW at your nearest library, book store, or possibly garage sale.

While some of the old ways of the South are not exactly “gone with the wind,” I know of at least two that are:

1. The notion that proper ladies shouldn’t be seen eating in public, which leads to…

2. You’re unlikely to encounter any Southerner with a 17-inch waist. Except maybe a toddler.

Do you prefer the book or the movie? Ashley or Rhett? What’s your favorite Southern novel?

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