Imagine a map of the United States. Now, based on that map draw a mental circle around what you would consider to be “The South.” If I asked 10 different people to describe their circle, I would have 10 different answers, especially if those 10 people were all from the south. Does geographical landscape, culture, food or accents form our opinion about the south? Did you include Texas? Florida? Where do you draw your boundaries? And what makes the south “The South?” Until I moved from my thick roots of Louisiana to the knee-deep culture of Alabama, I really didn’t appreciate the differences myself.
I didn’t travel much whenever I was young. I lived in a circle that reached as far as Houston is to New Orleans. You should have seen my reaction whenever I found out that the whole country did not partake in Mardi Gras or eat boudin from their local gas stations. I lived in a world where French was many peoples’ first language and taking your curlers out of your hair in the morning was an option, not a necessity. There were not many conversations you could have with someone you just met without asking them, “Who is yo’ mama?” Almost everyone was Catholic and making a roux was in your blood. Dinners were excuses for everyone to get together. Men spent their pre-dinner time around the trucks, knees against the mud flaps, talking about LSU football. Women gathered like hens in the kitchen, quickly prepping the fixings while “catching up.”
The food is humble, reflecting its people. Louisiana food, like almost all Southern food, imitated what was on the land. Crawfish, rice and roux showed up on nearly every table of my childhood. No one had much, but they appreciated what they did have. Everyone’s lot looked about the same, and I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about it. Good food and family remained consistent in my life. As far as I knew, those were the only two things you needed to be happy.
Going from crawfish ponds to cotton fields was a completely different Southern experience. I went from ever-flat terrain to hills. Actual hills! North Alabama landscape changes with the seasons. Many people take this for granted, but for me, this was a first. In Louisiana, a lot of the trees are evergreen, so watching the majestic ridge by our house transform from grassy green, to soft amber, then to a fiery red was magical. I felt myself get as giddy as a schoolgirl at the turn of the seasons.
On the subject of fare, there is one thing that I was made aware of very quickly: pig is king. Barbecue is a way of life in Alabama. Whether the inspiration is Cherokee, Floridian, Appalachian, Mississippian, Georgian, Texan, Tennessean, or just plain Alabamian, barbecue can be found all over the state with significant distinctions. And these Alabamians have it down to a science: to the kind of wood to smoke with, kind of sauce to baste with, and how long to cook it.
History still peeks its head around the corners of the old homes in the Alabama country. Silverware that was buried during the Civil War remains in drawers lined with black velvet. Rocking chairs and tables are passed down from generation to generation. Great wealth was not part of my culture. It was unfamiliar to me. It reminded me of a great European family, where things are not bought, they are inherited. Therefore, pieces of history are kept close to the heart and the mantle like treasures. One of those treasures came in a frame: a photo of a sweet, elder black woman who was a member of the family.
I gathered around the pimento cheese and pickles one afternoon and listened to native Alabamians pour over these black women that served as guideposts in their lives. There seemed to be a deep respect and love that each one had for the other. These women were considered as part of the family. It was as if they were second mothers to many. This relationship, again, was unfamiliar. Growing up, I never heard stories of anyone having servants or any kind of help other then relatives or friends. Sure, there were racial tensions that I witnessed, but I never had that deep, emotional experience that these women underwent. It was like a different world. A world somewhat tinged with guilt but great pride for these women.
Through the South’s many differences, the two bonds that seem utterly Southern are food and family. No matter what the food or family looks like, these are the bonds that seem to tie us together in the beautiful, broken, hospitable, proud place we call “The South.”
*Photo Credits: Louisiana Landscape (author’s own), Cottage Path (etsy.com),The Yard (Jesse Harding), Cotton Field (auntpeaches.com), Spanish Moss (gardenandgun.com), Southern Spread (southernliving.com)