Four Foods That Helped Me Realize My Southern Identity

featured image via Tammy

I’m moving this week! I will be leaving my rural-ish hometown in North Carolina for the beautifully gay Bay Area, and I’m stoked as all hell. But here’s the thing — I feel like I can tell you this because you were so great the last time I shared my feelings — I’m having unexpected emotions about leaving North Carolina. Last time I left, it was for college, and I felt nary a twinge in my heart. I didn’t have time to form a Southern identity; I was too busy struggling with my Asian-American identity and trying hard not to think about my emerging queer identity. For the longest time, when asked where I was from, I’d say, “I was born in Rhode Island.” Now, I say it to head off the usual follow-up, “No, where are you really from?” But at the time, I was childishly trying to avoid admitting, “North Carolina.” It’s been pointed out that red states are more of a purplish color, but my hometown is in a distinctly red part of the state, surrounded by evangelical churches, tobacco fields and bless-your-heart tolerance. I didn’t wanna claim it. I lived in the South but I wasn’t Southern, I’m not gay you’re gay, etc.

via Taber Bain countryroadstakemehome.mp3

via Taber Bain
countryroadstakemehome.mp3

My change of heart was inspired, of course, by a girl. I had moved back in with my parents two years after graduation, and girl was a transplant from Boston who wanted to understand, among other things, exactly what we ate ’round these parts. She’s also a vegetarian.

There are many wonderful things to eat in the South: country ham so salty it stings your tongue, cheese biscuits that are 90% gooey cheese and 10% biscuit crust, chicken ‘n’ pastry, sweet potato casserole, collard greens, corn bread sticks, hamburger steak with onion gravy and potatoes… but unless you make it yourself, very little of it is vegetarian or vegan friendly. The most delicious, flaky biscuits are made with lard, vegetables are often flavored with bacon or bacon byproduct and soups contain animal stock. In an effort to experience my hometown the Alternative Lifestyle Way, I became a new tourist of Southern culture.

via inspiredbites.blogspot.com "sweet potato casserole: dessert or side dish?" a Thanksgiving tale

via inspiredbites.blogspot.com
“Sweet Potato Casserole: Dessert or Side Dish?” a Southern Thanksgiving tale

Through her, I met more queer women and allies who were happy to introduce this Northerner to the way we lived. I finally found a community in North Carolina. I could talk about social justice on more than a basic level. I had buddies to go to the once-a-month dive bar drag show with. Best of all, I didn’t have to explain what Autostraddle was. We gathered around food, the planning, the making, the eating, and then the debriefing of what a great meal we’d made. Yay us, the queer vegetarian Southern food punks!

I suspect it’s the food that makes me sentimental now. Even though I ate it every day at my k-12 school cafeteria, I never grew attached to Southern cuisine. It was, like the rest of the South, part of the nebulous America that was outside my Asian home. When I get homesick, I miss my parents switching between Mandarin and Shanghai dialect. I crave my mom’s watercress and tofu soup, and when I’m sick I want her to make me pao fan with a salted duck egg. I don’t have an equally visceral connection to North Carolina, but revisiting certain dishes this year made me realize that some of the strongest feelings I have about food come from, well, being Southern. No matter how much I used to deny it, the truth is the South helped raise me to be the raging queermo with a slight drawl that I am today.

There are four foods in particular that bring out my unequivocal Southernness:

Sweet Tea

The most universally Southern thing. There are times when North Carolina really fucks up, and I’m reminded of every other fucked up thing it’s done, and it makes me want to apologize for it even though I can’t possibly speak on its behalf. I will never apologize for sweet tea. That’s a non-negotiable. It’s the perfect drink to pair with a biscuit. It’s the perfect amount of sweetness to end a meal at Cracker Barrel. It’s the perfect non-fizzy pick-me-up at 3pm on a Monday. The more region-neutral term would be iced tea, I guess, but here you have the wonderful option of, “Sweet or unsweet?” Sweet, sweet, a thousand times sweet.

Grits

Shrimp and grits are having a moment in brunches across America, but just the grits are a staple foodstuff. Grits are like polenta, but made with a different (better) type of corn. With maple syrup and a bit of cinnamon, they’re easier to swallow than oatmeal. Make them a little runny with some salt and an egg, and they’re a great alternative sick food to pao fan. And cheese grits — y’all, cheese grits. Grits are the perfect vehicle for cheese. Together, they’re comfort food heaven. Do you sometimes wish mac and cheese were gluten-free and had amazing texture? Then what you’re really wishing for is cheese grits.

Just the Grits will be the name of my next girlband

via Randal Cooper
Just the Grits will be the name of my next girlband

Barbecue

If you’re Southern, you have an opinion on barbecue. I rarely eat meat anymore, but I’ll still vehemently defend the Eastern North Carolinian variety to any unfortunate being who mentions barbecue in my presence until they regret bringing it up or meeting me or ever having an opinion about meat. Just writing about it makes me want to vehemently defend it now. Forget chicken or brisket. Real barbecue is pulled pork that’s been cooked for hours until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender. I’m a stereotypical Southern gaymo, I love a green tomato and I guess a ripe tomato is great too, but tomatoes have no place in barbecue sauce. A good sauce needs exactly five ingredients: vinegar, Tabasco hot sauce, salt, your pepper of choice, and brown sugar. If ever you were curious just what kind of Southerner I am, I’m the Evangelizing About Eastern Carolina Barbecue kind.

via serious eats sometimes "barbecue" is a noun, and this is its definition

via serious eats
sometimes “barbecue” is a noun, and this is its only definition

Okra

The most Southern meal I had in the last year (besides the odd lunch from Bojangles) was an Okra is Delicious, Lean Into the Slime dinner for my okra-hating Yankee girlfriend. In a tradition familiar to the rural South and also to Shanghai, there was no main course, only side dishes: sweet corn, field peas, mashed potatoes, cornbread, okra succotash (the prettiest and most delicious summer dish) and fried okra, because the best way to deal with a food you dislike is, yes, to cover it with cornmeal and fry the hell out of it. It’s a failsafe way to disprove an okra hater. Reader, my girlfriend stood corrected, and my little Southern heart was content.

the very table where okra had its redemption

the very table where okra had its redemption

Fellow Southerners! Did this list arouse any deep-seated feelings in you? Dissenting opinions? What’s your favorite Southern food?

Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. I just moved to NC from the Northeast and I’m kind of totally obsessed with grits. I grew up eating polenta, but I think I have to admit that grits are just way better. I mean, grits and goat cheese. Great breakfast or the greatest breakfast? I mean, besides biscuits. Biscuits are probably the greatest thing for every meal ever.

  2. A few thoughts from a Texan:

    1. Step OFF brisket. Pulled pork bbq rules, but nothing (*nothing*) in the world is quite as dreamy as a sliced brisket sandwich (except maybe a chopped brisket sandwich).

    2. Do you have a vegan biscuit recipe?! Or at least a lard-free biscuit recipe?

    3. Okra forever, slimy queen of my heart.

  3. Not gonna lie, I actually teared up reading this article. Apparently the combination of PMS and southern cooking feels turns me into a weepy mess. I know that ultimately my girlfriend and I will move somewhere more liberal and women’s-health-friendly, and Louisiana cooking is what I know I’ll miss most.

  4. Never realized quite how much of a southerner I was until I went to school in Vermont and cried about the lack of cornbread.* Literally cried. And don’t even talk to me about BBQ pulled pork with collards on the side, or jambalaya, or Guthrie’s sauce, or fried squash, or fresh heirloom tomatoes in the summertime sprinkled with just a little bit of salt and pepper…

    PS There’s a diner called Primo’s in Jackson, MS, that sells shirts that say “Biscuits are like bagels, except they’re soft, warm, and taste good.”

    *Our dining hall had this terrible sweet dry crumbly stuff that was an insult to what cornbread is meant to be. A few restaurants nearby tried to make cornbread but it was a bright yellow substance (with whole corn kernels in it!) that I regard as highly suspect.

  5. I never thought that I had an opinion about barbeque until I moved OUT of the south. Sorry, California. I love you, but whatever it is that you’re callin’ barbeque is NOT barbeque!

  6. Midwesterner here, not southern, but I feel like we have a decent amount of crossover, depending on family migration. I also got pretty damn emotional reading this article – totally hear you on trying desperately to get out only to get pretty damn nostalgic once you’re on a coast or somewhere else.

    My contribution to the food conversation is biscuits & gravy. Biscuits have been mentioned, but biscuits with a good, thick gravy, Jesus Christ, is there anything better?

  7. I feel like y’all are listing all the foods that make me feel like a bad southerner. don’t like sweet tea, hush puppies, sweet potato casserole, grits; I kinda think biscuits and gravy is weird… I’m super down with lots of barbecue varieties, though Bren is spot-on about the fact that what people call barbecue outside of the south is frequently not anything that counts at all.

    I’ll second catfish, ribs, and Cajun food.

    I tell you what no one has mentioned is fried chicken. that is a subject I have some strong feelings about. I feel like my mom’s is probably the best in the world. I didn’t realize I was so biased til I had a friend make fried chicken the way her mom does it, and in my head I was just like “nope what is going on here!” (I didn’t verbalize that though because I’m not a complete jerk.)

    anddd, yes. yes this aroused a few deep-seated feelings. one or two.

      • to be fair, it’s not that my friend’s was bad by any means, but it was weirdly heavy with breading. there was a lot of crisco going on.

        I guess it’s just funny to me how much tradition and recipes can vary even within a region.

  8. Yes. Perfect. All of this, yes. I will never, ever, ever leave North Carolina, and I’m not going to say barbeque and biscuits with lard are why, but BARBEQUE AND BISCUITS WITH LARD ARE WHY. (Okay, among other reasons. But mostly those.)

  9. I can’t say I am from the south, but will admit I am a big fan of southern boiled peanuts, specially when they boil it in the shell with cayenne pepper. Sooo good. And I know it’s a different part of the south, but I am big fan of Creole Gumbo and Jambalaya(both of which I have had with meat and in a vegan variant).

  10. I was born and raised in North Carolina (still live there too), but I have always hated okra. Besides that, you’re spot on! You just need a section about fried chicken, more about biscuits, and maybe a mention of Cheerwine. If your goal was to make me hungry, you certainly succeeded!

  11. I need queer vegetarian Southern food punks in my life!

    As a Texan who went to college in North Carolina and now lives in Georgia, I really hope Texas won’t disown me for preferring Eastern North Carolina barbecue. However, when I first tried it I thought I had ordered chicken and then thought it was the weirdest beef ever.

    Since neither of my parents is from the South and Austin is not typical Southern (b/c Austin is not typical anything), I didn’t develop a Southern identity + love of Southern food until I was in North Carolina, and now this list is making me crave all these delicious things!

  12. I received mostly weird looks and occasional gag noises whenever I ordered/cooked grits in Indiana, but here in [Asheville,] NC they are served EVERYWHERE. And not just plain, but smokey and/or cheesy and/or spicy. <3

    Also, I swear it seems easier to find vegetarian options here, which I was also not expecting. If only I could bring my taste buds around to sweet tea and sweet potatoes…

  13. I’ve never been to the US but my dream, before going to NYC and walk along the Bowery, before visiting Disneyland or my family in LA, is going to the South and try its cuisine. I eat mainly vegetarian -I plan to go vegan, but I’ll break the diet If I ever have the chance to go!

  14. To me iced tea and sweet tea are or were two different things.
    Iced tea has just been sweetened some is all and sweet tea is like tasting sweetener with some tea.
    I’m from the Cajun parts sorta and my mom’s mom is a first generation Sicilian-American so uh something that are Southern and still regionally apply kinda don’t here and there.
    Regionally I identify with drop biscuits, but not biscuits and gravy or cut out round looking biscuits.
    Now grits are good a winter breakfast on a lazy Sunday other than that never had it growing up because working parents are busy people who need to make breakfast fast for sleepy little people who can’t be trusted to cook yet.
    As for frying things my momma only ever used our mini fryer to fry shrimp during Lent and that was until Katrina. My dad is the only one who would fry things in a pan, mostly fish.
    I grew up hating pie because family only ever made apple which still tastes awful to me as does all pie but citrus ones and chocolate ones. Still not from the pie part of South so eh it’s not a biggie. We do fruit based icebox pies in these part except during Thanksgiving which is aforementioned apple, sweet potato pie or mirliton.
    Now I have a trusty pie recipes, that’s how much I’ve made pie as an adult.
    Can’t remember anybody really doing fried chicken growing up, but I remember “crunchy chicken” in the oven. I however do fried chicken in the pan with the Sicilian influence when I do it my choice of frying oil is olive oil. Garlic, and basil always being a part of the spice mix. Leidenheimer’s french bread makes the best coating for frying.
    We don’t really barbecue here but I will defend all forms of Southern barbecue because that is a heritage worth celebrating.
    Also red beans man do I identify with red beans and rice. I mean I like jambalaya just red beans and rice are my soul.

  15. I too had the “but I was born in Connecticut…” as a part of my standard introduction. I grew up in a solid RED county in NC but was a 40 min drive outside Charlotte. Now I’m a super queer at college in Massachusetts.

    I’m a pulled (NOT CHOPPED EW) pork gal who likes it with vinegar-based sauce. I’ve never been able to get into okra unless it’s fried, which just shows you the power of a fryer. ALSO COLLARDS. Once in the dining hall they mislabeled collards as swiss chard and I threw a fit. I actually said “Do not question me – I am from the South; I know my greens!”

    Also, when flying to go back to school this year, I walked to the opposite side of the airport so I could have my last meal of a Bojangles’ Cajun Chicken Biscuit and sweet tea.

    I girl from Georgia and I are conspiring to make sweet tea throughout the year mwahaha!!!!

  16. I’m not from the south but my mom’s whole family is from Tennessee. So there are cultural things that I am still a part of and love. It isn’t summer until I’ve had iced tea. Biscuits aren’t just some little side thing like some people may think they are. Biscuits are so important! Weirdly, my mom and I sort of have a synced up clock of fried chicken cravings. We know instinctively when it is time to make fried chicken again.

  17. Firstly, thank you for clarifying what NC BBQ sauce is, because I had it once and I thought to myself ‘This, this is not disgusting in the least, like most gloppy sauces.’

    Secondly, your article gave me a lot of flashbacks to Dorothy Allison short stories and books. If you haven’t read her, do. Her work may be dated for the current queer, but the storytelling is timeless and gives me such an interest in Southern culture.

  18. Yes!!! I have so many feelings about Southern food in general but especially the four you listed here…
    Sweet tea: I grew up with a pitcher always in the fridge, and I’m addicted to the stuff the way other people are addicted to coffee. I get irrationally angry when restaurants don’t have sweet tea. Getting unsweet and then trying to stir sugar in is NOT the same!
    Grits: Reading all of those different grits options almost made me cry over how perfect of a food they are.
    Barbecue: I gotta say, I’ve never had Eastern North Carolina barbecue. It sounds delicious, but…I live in the Barbecue Capital of the World (aka Memphis, TN) and barbecue makes up a way bigger part of my diet than it probably should. What I like about barbecue is how proud each city/region in the South is of its own barbecue.
    Okra: okra okra okra. The best vegetable in the world. That dinner you made sounds like exactly what I want to eat every night for dinner in the summer.

    I have a lot of complicated feelings about Southern identity, but when it comes to sweet tea, grits, barbecue, and okra, that’s one area where I can be wholeheartedly proud of where I come from.

  19. As a southernrer (and fellow North Carolinian. Hello!) one of my proudest accomplishments is getting my uber-Northern best friend to like okra. When we first became friends she was totally grossed out by the sliminess, but I managed to get her to actually try some that had been cooked *just* right and she loved it. It’s her favorite food now, and I think she might actually like even more than I do, which is a lot.

  20. This post has made me incredibly sad and incredibly nostalgic… I have spent my entire life trying to disavow any connections I might have to the South. Over the years, I have actively altered my behavior and hidden certain knowledge, interests, and aspects of my history to appear more Northern as well as more middle class.
    A combination of internalized classism and regionalism at its best…
    When I am with my family or am alone behind closed doors though, I occasionally allow myself to feel like the Southern, lower class queer that I am. I am vegan, so I can rarely partake of the foods I grew up eating, but occasionally, something is incidentally vegan or it can be made to be vegan and still be delicious. I always miss my mom’s dinners (what I would have called ‘supper’ years ago). Collard greens, goulash (my favorite!), mashed potatoes, beef-n-noodles, peas, shucky beans, biscuits with chocolate gravy, and cornbread. There was ALWAYS cornbread. In the evenings, my dad and I would put cornbread in our milk and eat it in front of the television while watching terrible shows like Walker Texas Ranger. There were vegetables from my parents’ garden, iced tea with lemon wedges, peanut butter pie or pecan pie, and my absolute favorite dessert was my mom’s raspberry dumplings. We didn’t get to have it often though because we never bought the raspberries. We always picked them off the bushes in the woods out back, so we were reliant on good growing weather. When the season was right, we could also hunt for the morel mushrooms that grew out there and fry them in pancakes…
    I love these memories, but I avoid talking about them with friends and acquaintances because I do not want them to know about my Appalachian background, and yet, I have actively disassociated myself from my cultural heritage so effectively that when I interact with other Southerners (or specifically Appalachians), in their eyes, I am not Southern enough.
    It is an odd feeling to long for the memory of things you’ve also taught yourself to despise so effectively…

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