In the spring of 1997, a devastating tornado blew through Arkansas, and the governor, a Baptist minister and former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention named Mike Huckabee, refused to sign legislation that referred to it as an “act of God.” “It seemed unreasonable,” Governor Huckabee said, “that the one time government acknowledged God’s existence would be in response to something that killed twenty-five people. The brokenness of the world has had cataclysmic effects, which includes the weather getting bad. But a natural disaster does not mean that God says, ‘Today I think I’ll kill some twins in Arkadelphia and rip their bodies apart.’ ”
The governor apparently has not read chapters six and seven of Genesis, in which God Himself said He was sorry He ever made any of us and announced his intention to wipe us all, man and beast, off the face of the earth, after which “the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” There’s some more bad weather and a whole bunch of pestilence throughout the Old Testament, but Huckabee said he knew God wouldn’t do anything so “destructive.”
Members of the legislature disagreed and pointed out that the term “act of God” had been around ever since there had been insurance and maybe even before, and at first refused to change the language of the bill. They also got their feelings hurt by the implication that the governor was more holy than they, or at least more vigilant on questions of theology. “I’m just as much of a Baptist as he is,” declared Representative Shane Broadway, whose district had been particularly hard hit. In the end, nobody wanted to hear any more about it and “act of God” was replaced with “natural causes” so that the governor would go on and sign the bill and unleash some much-needed relief money to those people of Arkadelphia whom “the brokenness of the world” did not kill but whose homes it destroyed.
Now, I have to say that I am with the legislature on this one. Everybody knows that “natural causes” are those things that kill a person who is about ninety-eight years old in his or her sleep. “Natural causes” is not a phrase dramatic enough to describe what happens when a whole trailer park is blown across the county line. Furthermore, I think if I watched my trailer being blown across the county line, I would feel like what had happened to me was a definite, big-time act of God.
Of course, Southerners tend to think that pretty much everything is an act of God. It’s easier than trying to figure out why we lost the war, why we remain generally impoverished and infested with mosquitoes and snakes and flying termites, why there is in fact “brokenness” in our world as well as plenty of tornadoes and floods and hurricanes and ice storms and hundred-percent humidity levels. Hell, it’s easier than trying to figure out what made the battery go dead or who locked the keys in the car. In Mississippi alone there are more churches per capita than any other state; God looms pretty large. Also, most of us are disinclined to blame ourselves for anything.
A wise friend of mine from Louisiana once observed that Southerners can explain almost everything that is wrong with their bodies as well as their various machines and appliances with the phrases “backed up,” “shorted out,” or “blew out.” These usually will be followed by the words “on him.” As in, “You know, his engine just blew out on him.”
My engine blew out on me once at the drive-through window of a Steak ’n Shake in Orlando, Florida. After I pushed the car across the street to the Texaco, the man there asked me when was the last time I had changed my oil. I told him I’d never changed my oil—I didn’t know you were supposed to. After he had recovered sufficiently to speak, he looked at me and said, “Ma’am, if this car was a child, you’d be in jail.” He was not trying to be funny. The look on his face made me realize that when people asked me what happened to my car, I should under no circumstances tell them that it hadn’t occurred to me to change the oil in eight years. So instead I said, “You know, that engine just blew out on me.” And every single person I said that to would become immediately sympathetic, as though something exactly like that had happened to them at least once, and they’d say, “It did? It just blew out on you, huh?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it just blew out on me.” Then we’d shake our heads and wonder how such a thing could possibly have happened.
Another friend of mine once called me to tell me about a mutual acquaintance of ours who had almost died because “his blood just backed up on him and he liked to choke to death.” That is, sort of, what went on, but what had led up to that event was that the fellow in question drank a superhuman amount of whiskey for almost thirty years until his liver simply ceased to do what my dictionary says your liver is supposed to do, which is “act in the formation of blood.” However, my friend rather touchingly related the story to me—and indeed perceived it—as something that just up and happened as opposed to something that was brought on by years of living like a self-destructive maniac.
Sometimes, though, something does just up and happen that is genuinely hard to explain, like the fact that on May 11, 1894, in Bovina, Mississippi, a gopher turtle measuring six by eight inches and entirely encased in ice fell out of the sky along with the hail, an event my Mississippi almanac lists as the state’s all-time “most unusual weather occurrence.” Well, yeah. There is no point in trying to figure out how that could’ve happened. So we don’t.
By necessity, I think most Southerners subscribe to Keats’s concept of negative capability. They know that “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Yankees have a harder time with this. Ten years ago John Shelton Reed (no relation) wrote a hilarious column in which he offered “Reed’s Rule for Successful Adjustment to the South,” which was “Don’t think that you know what’s going on.”
If you are not comfortable simply “being in uncertainties” or figuring that God’s responsible for whatever’s going on, there’s always that old standby, the devil. He is most often employed immediately after you do something you know for sure you are absolutely not supposed to do. I was once at a ceremony in Washington, where, in a corny attempt to build a bit of goodwill with the powerful chairman of the Sen- ate Foreign Relations committee, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave then North Carolina senator Jesse Helms a T-shirt that said somebody in the state department loves me. When she presented it to him, the senator asked a flustered Albright to prove it—in front of hundreds of people—by giving him a kiss, which she did. When I saw Helms afterward, he grinned and said, “You know, the devil makes you do things.”
That is undoubtedly true, though it was not the devil who made twenty people from Floydada, Texas, shuck all their worldly possessions, including their money, their clothes, and their license plates, cram themselves into a 1990 Pontiac Grand Am, and drive to Vinton, Louisiana. When they hit a tree on Vinton’s main street, fifteen naked adults got out of the car and five naked children got out of the trunk. The driver, a Pentecostal preacher who was related to all the passengers, told the police chief the Lord had told them to do it. I wonder what Mike Huckabee would think about that. Me, I think it’s the only explanation. I’m certainly not thinking about searching after any fact or reason.
The other day I saw where John Egerton had said, “The South, for better or worse, has all but lost its identity as a separate place.” Well, first of all, it would certainly be for worse. But what really had me disturbed is that even though Egerton wrote The Americanization of Dixie, he also wrote the seminal Southern Food so he should know better. Our identity is safe. And anybody who has ever been to another place and tasted the food there knows it.
I was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and the first solid foods I remember putting in my mouth were a hot tamale from Doe’s Eat Place, a Gulf oyster on the half shell, a barbecue sandwich with slaw from Sherman’s Grocery Store, and a piece of hot-water cornbread from my grandmother’s kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, if I had been born anywhere else, these are not among the first things I would have been given. (Especially not the tamale. Don’t ask me why hot tamales are such a staple in the Mississippi Delta—all I know is that they took hold in the black community and, like most other things, spilled over into the white. Strangely, this is not mentioned in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which does manage to include all our other favorite foods, from Goo Goo Clusters to grits.) Also, if the South had really become so Americanized, I would no longer be able to eat any of these things as often as I do. (Although I do eat less of Sherman’s barbecue these days because Charles Sherman started serving it sliced rather than chopped, which is irritating, and Sherman’s is now a restaurant instead of a grocery that dished up food in the back, which I miss. However, it does still serve some of the best fried chicken in the world. Charles himself fried me 150 pieces of it for a party one New Year’s Eve.)
In the year I was born, 1960, nonfarm households in the South spent two and a half times the national average on cornmeal and twice the average on lard. I don’t know what the current numbers are, but I do know that we eat more of the following than anybody else: country ham, gumbo, grits, greens, okra, sliced tomatoes, tomato aspic, pimento cheese, chess pie, Lane cake, Lord Baltimore cake, Frito chili pies from Sonic, and Robert E. Lee cake. The “Americanization” crowd will point out that these days we also eat sushi and that even Naomi Judd’s short-lived restaurant in Nashville featured such Asian-fusion items as “grilled shrimp with lime ginger sauce” on its menu. And they will say that it is possible to get okra and greens and gumbo in restaurants in New York, but these are places with names like Live Bait, where the food is treated as a trendy oddity and is served along with bad mint juleps in phony Mason jars. (Another native son wrote that he didn’t think Southerners drank mint juleps much anymore except at the Kentucky Derby. I have never been to the Kentucky Derby, but in my refrigerator at this very moment there is a real Mason jar full of mint-steeped sugar syrup, which I realize is not the same as muddling fresh mint and sugar in a glass, but I like to be prepared for crowds.)
The point is that while our eating habits may have become slightly more sophisticated (as have the rest of the country’s), Southerners actually still eat okra and all the rest of that stuff all the time, and in huge amounts. We eat it at home or in restaurants with names like Doe’s and Jim’s Cafe and Mrs. Nick’s (Mrs. Nick’s, in Winona, Mississippi, sells the best barbecued pork chops I have ever tasted, along with phenomenally light hot cornbread and three vegetables, all for $2—or $3 for a “men’s portion”) or at the superlative Four Way Grill in Memphis. And to go with it, we drink a whole lot of iced tea. In high WASP strongholds like Nashville’s Belle Meade, housemen in white jackets still make tea with secret combinations of pineapple juice, orange juice, and mint. But most everywhere else below the Mason-Dixon line you have only two choices: sweet or unsweet. Sweet tea was once referred to by Hee Haw’s Reverend Grady Nutt as “forty-weight tea,” and it invariably comes in those oversize crinkly glasses, the kind that came in the Duz detergent boxes Dolly Parton used to hawk on the Porter Wagoner Show. Country musician Marty Stuart told me he was so worried he wouldn’t be able to survive without sweet tea while on tour in Europe, he had boxes of the fixings shipped over.
Waitresses in Portland, Oregon, or Belfast, Maine, will not ask, “Sweet or unsweet?” when you order tea. You may not even get tea at all. And if you were to go over to somebody’s house for a real drink in either of those places, odds are that you would not be passed a plate of cheese straws, that magical combination of Cheddar cheese, flour, butter, and cayenne pepper usually made by somebody’s aunt or maid or some local little old lady who layers them in waxed paper in white cardboard boxes tied up neatly with string. Also, if you are anywhere besides the South, you will probably not have the opportunity to consume an entirely gelatin-based menu. My mother once had houseguests for a week, and by the second day she had served so many congealed items that one of the visitors complained that his blood was starting to congeal in his veins. He had already eaten tomato aspic, crabmeat mousse, cranberry salad made with lemon Jell-O, strawberry mousse, and charlotte russe. In Gourmet of the Delta, a cookbook put together by the Episcopal churchwomen of Leland and Hollandale, Mississippi, there are seventy-seven salad recipes and fifty-eight of them call for either Jell-O or unflavored gelatin. I didn’t even count the desserts.
But it’s not just the food itself that is different, it’s our attitude toward it. This can best be illustrated by the names of Junior League cookbooks in the North—pompous, uptight titles like Posh Pantry (Kankakee, Illinois) or Culinary Creations (Kingston, New York)—compared with the unabashedly affectionate Talk About Good! (Lafayette, Louisiana) and Come on In! (Jackson, Mississippi). Cookbooks in the South outsell everything else but the Bible.
When Southerners are not cooking or eating, we’re talking about food, arguing about it, going to get it, taking it somewhere, or inviting people over to have it. I live part of the time in New York, and in all the years I have been there, I have been wined and dined in some swell places, but I can count on one hand the number of people who have actually cooked lunch or dinner for me in their homes, and two of them don’t count because they’re from the South. Southerners can’t stand to eat alone. If we’re going to cook up a mess of greens, we want to eat them with a mess of people.