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