Monthly Archives: July 2018

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 7


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 7

That weekend introduced me not only to a hospitable family, it brought a new cuisine into my life. Ms. Helene would never have spoken about her southern food as a cuisine even though she had honed her cooking with creativity and a simplistic down home presentation. I have a long list of foods she shared with me over the next few years of my life. I was 19 when I first sat down at her table often centered by an arrangement of Black-eyed Susan’s or Queens Ann Lace in a small room that opened into her kitchen. It was there we broke homemade bread and sipped coffee many times. If Ms. Helene was cooking I wanted to arrive in time to eat.

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I grew up on farm food. It was ample and scrupulous. I thought Mom cooked everything in just about every way. Truth was I had no idea what tastes existed outside the state of Iowa, and certainly little from countries like India, Thailand, Mongolia, China, Korea or a host of other countries that cooked with spices rarely found or used in the Midwest. But, I fell in love with Southern home-cooking from the first meal. I can’t remember wine being served with a single meal in those days in homes in the south except for an aperitif in a home in Nashville while in seminary.

Pa Williams  loved to offer up his homemade grape wine mixed with coke, “just so no one would get intoxicated.” A faithful southern gentleman of the Methodist persuasion loved to slip away to his basement for a little afternoon relaxation away from Mom Williams and he loved my company for those little adventures.

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There are cooks and then there are cooks, just like there are preachers and there are preachers. Some preachers have golden tongues, but others preach with a super-natural additive provided by the Holy Spirit. So some sermons tickle the ears and others touch the heart. Ms. Helene had something special that got stirred into anything she put on the table. Who could describe that additive? Her touch upon a dish was almost divine. It certainly wasn’t because she had knives from France, cookware from Sweden, or a Chinese wok. No, her cooking transcended spices, prime cuts of beef, or organic vegetables. I always felt it exuded from her heart of love, joy, compassion during the preparation, plating, and serving. Others could take her recipes and prepare the food with similar ingredients, but anyone that had eaten her food would be disappointed with the result. Best I remember, Ms. Helene seldom sat down at the table, she busied herself making everyone comfortable, initiating points of conversation, and keeping hot biscuits on the table.

 

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A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 6


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 6

A Confederate general, named Nathan Bedford Forrest, fascinated me. My interest was held captive by Forest. I found him to be an anomoly in my mind because he professed to be a Christian and yet owned and traded many slaves. I had also read that he was the first grand dragon of the Klu Klux Clan. At that point I had no idea that slavery was endorsed by many Christians that owned plantations or had the money to buy slaves for their businesses or homes. I would never have guessed as a teenager that I would someday walk the high points above the Tennessee River where Forrest had ridden and killed people to protect his freedom to deny black men, women, and children their freedom.

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A college friend and I studied his military tactics and recognized his prowess and intelligence in the art of raids. Forrest would appear with his calvary when least expected, strike with overwhelming power, and then disappear into the dense forests not to be seen until his next attack. I became convinced the South would have been much wiser to avoid huge battles with the Union, and instead rely on the strategy of Forrest–the use of small bands of committed Calvary trained in the tactics of surprise and retreat. Fortunately for the unity of the republic, it didn’t and the Confederacy couldn’t compete with the numbers, resources, and leadership forwarded by the Union.

My getaway involved five days in the home of a friend’s family. I was comfortable going to a tobacco and cattle farm because my parents were sharecroppers on a large farm in Iowa. I ogled the house as we came up the driveway. It was so big. It appeared three-times larger than the Iowa tenant house of our four member family. A few towering oaks and maples hid part of the view of the long ranch style house. White columns stood elegantly across the front porch. I guessed many a cup of iced tea had been consumed while relaxing on the inviting porch swing. Despite the fact that Mr. Mark raised tobacco, I would never see a  cigarette or pipe smoked within view of the house. However, I did learn that the Grandma living in the house often snuck away to her bedroom for a dip of snuff—a habit that no one else found tasteful. Few tobacco farmers realized or took seriously that their tobacco plants held a strong potential to lead to mouth, throat, or lung cancer.

 

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 5


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 5

I was on pins and needles since I was traveling to the Wilson Family Farm to visit Ms. Helene and Mr. Mark. I considered myself a bonafide “Yankee” and wondered how I would be received by people with their roots in the Confederacy.  I had been a student of the Civil War since high school through the books of Pultizer Priize winner Bruce Catton. It was apparent that resentment toward the Union still existed among some families, and vice-versa. Much of the war was fought in the cities and on the farms of Tennessee. Only Virginia experienced more battles. Few people still remember that Tennessee was one of the border states that sent large numbers of men to fight on both sides during the War. A sizable part of the male population — 187,000 Confederate and 51,000 Federal soldiers — mustered in from Tennessee. Just as distrust and bias existed between African and Caucasian Americans, resentment and anger also simmered in the hearts of many people that still had bloodlines back to soldiers that fought for the Union or the Confederacy.

 

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Photos of Civil War Reenactments

 

 

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The farm I visited was in close proximity to where Americans fought Americans to the death in numerous battles at Shiloh, Nashville, Franklin, Ft. Donelson, and many others. Over two percent of the population of the United States died in the Civil War. The war was bizarre. Americans slaughtered one another with apprehension but abandon. The battle orders read “Kill or be killed.” Some men wore blue and gray while one or more of their siblings slipped into gray uniforms. A few siblings or cousins are said to have conversed openly around a campfire in a temporary place of peace at night and then fought blindly by day. Some men born in Robertson County probably died in the same county, never seeing another county or state. Much of the history of war was never written. The impossibility of writing about one’s last battle leaves most of the fear, despair, and last moments unrecorded. It was only passed through the oral stories and even that was forgotten or contaminated with time. No one will know the full truth. Even scholars argue about the motivations and details of most of the battles.

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 4


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 4

My first introduction to Southern food came from the hands of primarily black cooks in the college cafeteria. They prepared the food with a limited budget. Making a meal to feed 200 hungry college students led to generic products far from the unique food they prepared for their family. The fact we were eating a meal around a table with peers frustrated with institutional food led to an initial misconception of southern food. The same meals became less appetizing as one semester flowed into the next. And, then, during the spring break of my junior year I was invited to the home of Ms. Helene and Mr. Mark. They lived thirty miles north of Nashville, Tennessee, and a significant part of their income came from tobacco farming. 

The narrow winding rural roads of Robertson County in Middle Tennessee often passed small weathered barns that smoked as if on fire but were never consumed. I would later learn the reason. The next corner might open into a mystical forest with the trees on both sides of the road hidden by the terrible noxious kudzo. Most of the trees had lost their shape and looked more like animals out of Jurassic Park. This weed was first introduced to the United States by the Japanese in 1876 in a Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia. Touted as a way for farmers to control erosion, it gradually migrated from one area to another and choked out entire timbers in the South with its prevailing vines. 

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I was on pins and needles since I was traveling to the Wilson Family Farm to visit Ms. Helene and Mr. Mark. I considered myself a bonafide “Yankee” and wondered how I would be received by people with their roots in the Confederacy.  I had been a student of the Civil War since high school through the books of Pultizer Priize winner Bruce Catton. It was apparent that resentment toward the Union still existed among some families, and vice-versa. Much of the war was fought in the cities and on the farms of Tennessee. Only Virginia experienced more battles. Few people still remember that Tennessee was one of the border states that sent large numbers of men to fight on both sides during the War. A sizable part of the male population — 187,000 Confederate and 51,000 Federal soldiers — mustered in from Tennessee. Just as distrust and bias existed between African and Caucasian Americans, resentment and anger also simmered in the hearts of many people that still had bloodlines back to soldiers that fought for the Union or the Confederacy.

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 3


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 3

A simple result of segregation caught me by surprise when I tried to buy a cheaper balcony seat at the Park Movie Theatre in McKenzie. Two other students in line for a ticket snorted and quipped, “The n…..s sit up there.” That identification marker stunned me. I knew it’s demeaning significance, but hadn’t heard it voiced. Later, when I applied for my Tennessee driver’s license and saw separate restrooms and drinking fountains for “colored” and “whites” outside the courthouse, my mind struggled to find a place in my experience in which to file such concepts of hate, disrespect, and alienation. The exclusive nature of segregation appeared so pointless. Most white owned restaurants wouldn’t allow black people to eat in the restaurant proper, but hired them to touch and cook the food as long as they entered through the back door. The black employees could do anything they wanted with the food except eat it in the presence of whites. It just didn’t make sense. And, I often wondered why the black workers didn’t retaliate by “accidentally” dropping the food on the floor, stomping on it, and then continuing to cook it as if nothing had happened. 

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Ironically, black maids fed and occasionally wet-nursed white babies. What could be more intimate, more precious? Those same white families using blacks to nurse their babies distrusted, sometimes hated, every black except those they considered their own—meaning the black servants that lived or served in their home or on their farms. 

The few boldly racist students at my college, when confronted, tried to explain and justify their poisoned position based on the teaching of their parents and the community bias of friends. Some even through out a few scriptures to defend their untenable positions. I wondered if I would have felt likewise, had I been taught differently by my parents, or frequently observed the lack of mutual respect between different races. Regardless, all of this repelled me, and seeds of discontent over these injustices began to germinate in my heart and mind. But, I was too timid and afraid to engage people harboring such a prejudice in anyway more than a heated bull session in a dorm room. Few whites, if any, willingly mounted any serious attempt to challenge segregation in McKenzie. Racial antagonism was not the only difference I noticed between Iowa and Tennessee. People ate different foods and used different idioms in the south.

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 2


A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food — Part 2

Segregation was still a powerful force in almost every town and city in the South—People fought passively or aggressively on one of two sides, to maintain a segregated society or tumble it. Bethel College’s demographics in the 60s included an influx of students from the Northeast, many of whom sought educational deferments to avoid the draft and Viet Nam. Most of the students from the South were gradually shedding the racial bias that had dominated the social beliefs of their parents and grandparents. Bethel College enrolled its first black student in 1962, and I arrived the following year. Attitudes about race definitely differed between the college community and the general population; unfortunately, few people who believed in racial equality moved beyond passive involvement. This left a broad arena for the strongest of the racists to continue to control the community policies through threats and intimidation. 

Only whites walked the streets of my hometown in Iowa, while blacks and whites carefully avoided even touching one another on the sidewalks in Tennessee. I didn’t personally know one black person during the first seventeen years of my life. I was so jejune about the fear, bias, untruth and hatred that fired segregation. In fact, the only non-Anglos in my high school were two native-Americans. Certainly, racism existed in the rural Midwest, but it was seldom voiced or manifested in a public arena. Even though my grandmother grew up in Tennessee, she spoke little of her learned prejudice. I say “learned” because prejudice in not innate. I discovered her hidden bias while watching a basketball game and hearing her say, “I don’t understand how those white boys can share the same towel to wipe their sweat with those colored boys! That should never happen.” This caught me by surprise, but I couldn’t bring myself to discuss with Grandma how perspiration or body odor were the same among races. Grandma, although a devout Christian had never appropriated the Biblical truth…”There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)—into her social view.

A Midwesterner’s Introduction to the South and Southern Food


Intro to the South and Southern Cuisine–Part 1

I chose to attend college in Tennessee and that decision caused me to experience a mild culture shock, primarily because of the racial bias so prevalent in the hearts of many people in the South when I moved in 1963. When I moved into my college dorm and walked the streets outside my new home, I found an unexpected race struggle, heavily and unfairly weighted on the side of Caucasians. I was not used to the blatant discrimination against another person because of the pigmentation of their skin. The successful practice of isolating blacks from any intimate contact with whites left me without any way to justify such practices. Although slavery had been abolished for 100 years, blacks still worked for inferior salaries doing mostly doing work in the service sector. They lived in an unfenced, but confined area of their town or city.  I soon learned blacks didn’t study in white schools. Blacks were expected to always take their place at the back of line and the bottom of all lists concerning benefits available to people. One place you could often find black women was in the kitchen. And, my college was no different except for the fact that the Christian leaders of Bethel College insisted white students treat all maids, cooks, and other workers with respect.

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I had read the cold facts of subjugation, slavery, abolition, and racism, but I had not witnessed the black/white antagonisms in restaurants, theaters, churches, schools, and nearly every social arena of the community. Much of West Tennessee, particularly farming communities and small towns, remained stymied by the causes and effects of slavery, the Civil War, abolition, and carpet bagging. Hate and resentment still hid in covert corners, ready to burst forward to protect personal position and perspective. I couldn’t tell whether people were fictitious or hopeful when they boasted, “The South will rise again and slavery is not dead.!” Did most Southerners really believe that blacks were genetically inferior and would some how dumb down the world if races shared the same living space or chose to marry and birth a child of mixed races? Did they think that the hearts of African and Caucasion Americans pumped different colors of blood. Could a sociological conflict that occurred one hundred years previously still dominate a community’s self-concept, racial interaction, understanding of faith, and economy? 

Nearly, 60 years later, I stand amazed that prejudice still influences all societies and over time prejudice against Hispanics and Moslems receive more and more focus. When will it ever end…I am realistic enough to know it will never end but I pray it can at least improve.