On Being Southern

Please welcome my guest blogger, Nancy Tuten, a modern-day Southern belle if ever there was one, bless her heart. Please let her know how much you enjoyed her post by visiting her blog Writing Midlife.

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For months now, my friend the Carolina Yankee has been nagging me — or, as we like to say here in the South, pesterin’ me — to write a guest post for her blog. She writes from the perspective of a transplant. I, on the other hand, am a dyed-in-the-wool, born and bred Southerner — one who has lived here since day one, for over half a century. Her request set me to thinking about what it means to me to be Southern:

Southern by birth, I love grits (when they are cooked right: long and slowly and with plenty of milk, salt, and butter) and magnolias (especially when it comes time to decorate the mantle and the mailbox for Christmas), and children who say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am,” “yes, sir” and “no, sir” (until they reach young adulthood, at which time their deeply ingrained politeness makes me feel old). sunset

Having grown up on the coast, I cannot imagine a summer without a vacation at the seashore, chasing ghost crabs and smelling pluff mud (though I despise the feel of it between my toes). I crave the visceral pull of the moon as tides rise and fall, but I know crabbetter than to get caught in a city below sea level when high tide and the full moon and a heavy rainstorm converge.

Truth be told, I have a love-hate relationship with the South. Since this is a lighthearted blog spot, I will refrain from ranting about Southerners’ obsessions with guns, hunting, college football, beauty pageants, and the Confederate flag or about our having way more than our fair share of sexists, racists, and homophobes. And don’t even get me started on the subject of Southern religion, politics, and education. I’ll just end up in a bad mood, and you will, too. So we won’t go there.

Food is usually a safe topic — unless it sparks a debate over whether barbecue sauce should be vinegar-, ketchup-, or mustard-based (the right answer is mustard). And while I’m on the subject of barbecue, let me share with the uninitiated that “barbecue” is something you eat, not something you do or something you cook on. When we cook over gas or coals on a grill, we are having a cookout.

To be sure, my love-hate relationship with the South includes its food and some of the rituals that surround it. Besides grits, I love cooked collards (fresh, that is), fresh peaches, boiled peanuts, my momma’s macaroni pie (which in no way resembles a pie), fried okra, red rice, butter beans, sweet tea, and bread pudding.

But there is no food-related practice quite as disturbing to me as a Southern tradition known in these parts as a pig pickin’, an event during which a whole pig pigis skewered (who actually RUNS that spit through the poor pig anyway?) and roasted over an open pit full of special wood that smokes the pig for hours — during which grown men feel obliged to hold vigil and drink a great deal of beer and after which otherwise civilized people nonchalantly “pick” the cooked meat right off the poor pig’s bones while making small talk about the most recent hurricane, the price of tobacco, or cousin Martha Louise’s rheumatism. I am not making this up.

Oh, and while I’m blaspheming, let me go ahead and admit that my gag reflex can’t stand oysters, even during months with the letter “R” in their names. oysterOysters aren’t unique to the South, but oyster roasts are are a big deal in Southern coastal towns. I have nothing against the events themselves; they are fun events, and I will happily shuck oysters all night long for other people to eat. But there is nothing about the chewy texture and slimy surface of a raw or roasted oyster to suggest that I should be putting it in my mouth.

So when it comes to life in the South, I’m not exactly “all in.”

At certain times, though, I am reminded that despite the many things about the South that trouble me, I am, nonetheless, Southern to my core.

At no other time of the year am I more aware of my deep Southern roots (and I’m not talking about the hair variety — this is still my own God-given color, shoethankyouverymuch) than I am between Labor Day and Easter Sunday, that time of year when I maintain a steadfast commitment never — and I mean not ever – to wear white shoes.

Never mind the fact that in September it is still hot enough to melt the mascara off your eyelashes or that Easter falls on a different Sunday every year having nothing whatsoever to do with the temperature outside. I am confessing to you right here and now that I am slave to a fashion rule that is illogical and impractical. And Southern. So be it. I am standing firm (in properly colored shoes).

And while we are on the topic of the heat of summers in the deep South: typically in August, by eight o’clock in the morning it’s impossible to walk from the house to the car without glistening (Southern women don’t sweat). We expend as little energy as possible, scurry to the coast to find an ocean breeze, or curl up in the air conditioning with a good book.

For much of this summer, the topic of conversation around the water cooler at work (and, I’m guessing, at the pig pickin’) was the fact that we had made it all the way to August with the temperatures only rarely reaching 95 and never hitting 100.

Until last Monday. High of 96. Low of 76. Lest we get soft.

Enduring the heat of most Southern summer days is a process not unlike childbirth: you forget just how painful it is until it cranks up again. Every year I am as surprised by the intensity of the heat as if I had just moved here from Iceland. I’m talking about nap-inducing, car-like-an-oven summer days when you can, quite literally, see waves of heat rising up from the pavement. Patience runs short, everyone is cranky and whiny, and tempers are, well, hot. The smallest tasks are an effort, and showers are a waste of time.

Most of us really aren’t as dim-witted as the rest of the world thinks we are; it’s just that we have become accustomed to slowing down everything from our movements to our speech — and, admittedly, sometimes even our thought processes — in an effort to stay cool. The infamous Southern drawl is a natural consequence of the heat and has nothing whatsoever to do with generations of brain damage caused by our forebears’ conviction that a little sour mash was a good antidote for teething.

But the heat is a small price to pay in exchange for winters when we wear a coat only once or twice and for Christmas afternoons when our children can go outside in short sleeves to ride new bikes. We endure the heat because we can’t imagine life without riots of honeysuckle and Spanish moss and kudzu, without thick stands of Loblolly pine trees, without lightning bugs or Palmetto trees.

When you get right down to it, who could object to the heat while bobbing on a dockfloating dock and watching a blue heron cross a cove in Lake Murray while the sun sets?

Or while sitting in a chair a few feet from the surf at Folly Beach or at the Isle of Palms or at Litchfield Beach or at Daufuskie or Edisto or Kiawah or Pawleys Island?

And P.S., if the only South Carolina beach you know is Myrtle Beach, then you don’t know pea turkey about South Carolina beaches, bless your heart. That’s like going to Epcot and saying you’ve been to France (with apologies to Epcot, which has far less neon and traffic than Myrtle Beach and, to my knowledge, not a single wet T-shirt contest).

Being Southern, then, is like most things in life: a paradox, an enigma. We take umbrellathe bad with the good. In the end, truth be told, I wouldn’t trade being Southern for a whole closet full of white shoes and permission to wear them year ’round.

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