In the South we pride ourselves on our produce, in case you haven’t noticed. In the summertime my mom used to make weeks and weeks worth of meals that consisted of just local, handpicked veggies. Steamed corn on the cob dripping with butter… boiled lima beans with my Gran’s chow chow on top … slices of huge, juicy tomatoes so big they could’ve doubled for a plate… Mmmmm… And, sure, you can get these things relatively locally at your grocery store (boooooo!) or at the always-bustling farmer’s market (the best part of waking up early on a Saturday) but everyone knows that the very best produce is the stuff you see in the back of a pickup truck or a trailer or a small shack on the side of the road.
Now, you have to be careful with what you choose to purchase from these entrepreneurs as not everything is safe. When purchasing from a mobile produce stand [read: Billy Bob’s pickup truck] it’s best to stick to the tougher, less volatile foods like watermelons, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, peanuts and maaaaybe zucchini. Believe it or not, a good tip to judging the quality of a mobile merchant’s produce is whether or not that person is present. I know this sounds strange but the best produce can be found at an unmanned stand with a coffee tin that reads “Honor System”. Because the farmer believes in the goodness of humanity and trusts you to do the right thing, you, in turn, trust him to deliver a quality product. And you will never ever be wrong about that. If you visit a mobile stand where the farmer is standing by, he has the option of changing the prices on you or pressuring you to buy more or breathing down your neck to make you uncomfortable so you buy a mediocre product in your haste to get away.
For the most part, produce sold in little rickety shanties with peeling paint and faded, misspelled signs is always safe. Clearly the stand has been there long enough to garner decent business over many years and obviously the local farmers have trusted the stand owner to sell their goods and be fair with the commissions, so you really feel like you’re a part of the community. The other thing about these places is that, unbeknownst to the throngs of tourists who happen to spot it while making a detour from the interstate, these are the pride and joy of many clusters of little farms because they are able to keep their produce local and give back to their small towns while building a reputation for themselves. If you hang out at one long enough, you’ll get it.
Oh! And one very important note about Southern culture regarding roadside produce: If you are on the way to a relative or friend’s home, it is extremely good manners to stop off at one of these stands and buy them a bag of fresh peaches, tomatoes or sweet potatoes (and sometimes corn on the cob if you’re well-established with your host.)
I tried to explain this to an Australian friend who was visiting the States and allowing me to be her tour guide around the South. She seemed confused, “So, if I’m going to a friend’s house and I stop at the Wal-Mart grocery and get her some corn that would be weird and unfitting but if you buy a heap of corn from a toothless man on the side of the road that’s good manners?”
Exactly. Not only is it good manners but it will elicit a reaction of elated surprise and the inevitable refrain of “Gosh, these are beeaaautiful!” and you will be the highest valued guest of any that week.
Unless someone brings a fresh produce pie.
How we Deal with “Cold” Weather
In the South it gets cold for a total of 10 days every year. When I say “cold” I mean “lower than 40 degrees”. During these ten days, Southerners will become completely consumed with this obvious crisis and will discuss it amongst themselves incessantly as if having cold weather during the winter was completely unpredictable. It is not uncommon for two Southern strangers to stop and gab about how cold it is for twenty minutes in the dairy isle of the Piggly Wiggly or gas station cashiers holding up lines of patrons. Excitedly, they will compare notes and firsthand accounts as to how this insufferable weather has affected their daily lives with stories about how their car took 15 whole minutes to warm up or how the pond in their backyard had a ring of ice around it that almost extended to the middle. Southern mothers of all ages will call their children on a daily basis make sure that nobody has caught pneumonia in these gales of 38 degree (F) winds.
FUN FACT: Because we rarely get snow, we have reappropriated the fun Yankee word “toboggan” (which means “sled”) to now mean “knit cap.” If you didn’t know better, one could easily suppose we were running around reminding each other to put sleds on our heads and the heads of our children forpity’ssake.
The regularity of snow varies between specific regions of the South, of course. If in West Virginia or Virginia, one can expect snowfall to start in mid-December and continue weekly until mid-February. In North Carolina, one can tentatively expect one or two snows every year (which are mostly ice storms anyway), while South Carolina gets 2 or 3 inches every 2 or 3 years. If you’re in Georgia and Alabama, you’ll probably only see a local snow 3 or 4 times every twenty years and, if you see snow in Florida or Louisiana it is time to start packing your bags and saying your prayers because the apocalypse is nigh.
Although to an outsider the Southern Snow Reaction may appear as mere pandemonium, there are, in fact, three phases to the event of a Southern snow. These phases still stand regardless of the amount of snow, although the elapsed time of each phase in a community is directly proportionate to the inches of snow the area receives.
PHASE ONE: Because we don’t get much of snow that actually sticks to the roads, we don’t spend our tax dollars on fleets of snow-removal equipment. With this in mind, any weatherman in the South has the power to incite riots simply by mentioning there is a 60% or more chance of snow on a following day. This news stimulates nerve receptors in the Southern mind that forces said Southerner to drop his or her immediate activity, grab his/her keys and coat and drive in a blind panic to the local supermarket. Within the hour, the dairy and bread aisles will be completely cleared of any inventory, leaving the empty-handed to walk around wondering if powdered milk is really all that awful anyway. Unfortunately, 86% of these predictions turn out to be false alarms which inevitably leave thousands of Southerners with a gallon of milk in the fridge that they now have no use for because they rarely drink it at all.
PHASE TWO: There are a lot of times to be terrified of gleeful Southerners, like if you’re in traffic when the “Hot Doughnuts Now” light flickers on at the Krispy Kreme. But there is no single event that blankets the South with a deliriously giddy, childlike glee as the arrival of snow. Other than in the parking lot after the victory of a local university’s football championship game, there is no other time that Southerners are entitled to publicly lose their minds like they do when snow flurries begin. Even if the snow lasts 20 minutes and never sticks to anything, a Southerner’s entire day will be monopolized with an obsession for snow. It will be all anyone can talk about as if the rest of the world has completely ground to a halt because of frozen precipitation. And, if this snow sticks to the ground, then all hope of a productive Southern society is lost for the next few days. Even if it’s the second or third snow of the year, Southerners of all ages will frolic outdoors all day, crafting makeshift sleds (because we rarely have them), allowing ourselves to be dragged behind pickup trucks, stripping down to our skivvies and making snow angels, etc.
PHASE THREE: This is the part that always lasts the longest. After the roads have been cleared and everyone goes back to work the topic of conversation for the next week will be about the snow and everyone’s experience of the sacred event. They will compare this recent snow with snows in their pasts, arguing over which year had more or the worst ice or the most power outages. They will talk about ice-related tragedies that struck various trees in their neighborhoods. They will post pictures of themselves in the snow on Facebook or send it to family members with hour-by-hour accounts of the event, citing scientific data for emphasis. And just when you think it really should be over, someone will mention on Monday morning that the news is predicting a 65% chance of snow on Thursday night and the whole cycle will begin again.
Bluegrass Jam Sessions
I don’t listen to bluegrass music. I don’t have a single bluegrass CD, I don’t know the names of any well-known bluegrass artists and I don’t know any traditional bluegrass songs by name. However, I could spend entire weekends at bluegrass jams if given the chance.
Bluegrass jams can be well-organized and can happen at convention centers or colleges, but they seem to lack the comfortable genuineness (that’s a word! Look it up!) that really makes the experience worthwhile. Witnessing firsthand a slap-dash gathering of bluegrass musicians in a small, off-the-beaten-path location (that’s usually rundown and has no amenities to speak of) is easily one of the most invigorating experiences a person could have. There’s something so magical about clapping along with a rogue group of old men and women who play continuously for hours on end, smoothly transitioning into one song after the other as if they’ve practiced this line-up for months. The music will literally last for five or more hours with the musicians and singers joining in or taking breaks as needed and the atmosphere welcomes anyone who wants to chime in, which is how I’ve been known to take 5-minute spoon solos. (A friend welds together antique spoons and gives them a thumb loop and a leather wrist strap, perfect for the professional spoonplayer.)
I literally could ramble about synergy and magic and not caring about the genre of the music but feeling like you’re connecting with people and history and all that for a few pages but, honestly, it’s one of those things you really have to see for yourself. And if you find a bluegrass fest being held at a small Southern community center, go ahead and visit; if you make a good impression, the old-timers will tell you how to get to the afterparty.
Southern porches are where magic lives. These are where stories are passed down through generations and where kids learn to whittle and weave sweetgrass baskets and catch fireflies in small jars. Southern porches are where women test drive sweet tea recipes until they find the perfect combination. They’re where friends come together to trade gossip and catch up on what’s happening in their community. Southern porches perpetuate the ideal spirit of the South.
Porch-sitting is an obvious Southern tradition that harkens back to the days when we actually labored to make the food we ate and the clothes we wore. After long, hard days in the sun or in the kitchen, Southerners would go outside to sit on the porch and enjoy the gradual decline in temperature. These days, the tradition continues in millions of Southern households every night, and, ultimately, the rules haven’t changed.
The Southern Front Porch is the preferred porch for evening-sitting as it is where the reclining parties can observe traffic. I realize how ridiculous that sounds but this, also, harkens back to when people sat on their front porches to watch and see who passed by their homes on horse-drawn carriages and carts. The porch sitters could get their news from the people traveling home after work and invite them to come sit for a glass of tea or a bottle of beer or a mason jar full of whiskey (depending on the era.) These days the tradition is the same in that, when a neighbor sees a family sitting on a front porch it is a welcome invitation to come and at least strike up a casual conversation. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Unless you’ve been to talk to a group of porch-sitters more than 5 times, you must not take a seat before being invited to do so!!)
Porch-sitting activity varies from day to day. One day the men of the family may be sharing beers, playing chess and talking sports while the next day a gaggle of Southern women may be crocheting and catching up on gossip. Small household tasks that are easily translatable to the front porch include (but are not limited to) shelling peas, shucking corn, plaiting hair, folding clothes fresh from the clothesline and rolling cigarettes for the week. Any leisure activity like cross-stitching, reading, finishing crossword puzzles, etc. are to be done ONLY if you are the only one on the porch or if you’ve just stepped onto the porch where the other person/people are engaged in private leisure activity.
Frankly, I don’t think a house or apartment is worth living in unless it has an outdoor porch from which to observe the sun setting. A wrap-around porch with Kennedy-style rockers are ideal but any Southerner can grit their teeth and make do with a deck or concrete patio if needed. Besides, it’s never about the condition of the physical porch so much as it is the events that take place there.
This concludes the Second Installment in the Things I Love About Being Southern” series. Join me next time when I will discuss:
Gospel vs. WASPel* Music
*WASPel is a copyrighted catchphrase, property of The Suburban Bohemian. If you should choose to incorporate this cool new word into your vernacular, you must report the reaction of your listeners to me as I’m still in the trial phases.