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Friday, August 1, 2014

Mission Statement

Although this blog is brand new as of today August 1, 2014, its genesis was actually about 10 years ago.  My uncle had recently passed away.  He lived our family's farm with my grandmother.  Shortly thereafter, my grandmother had a heart attack and needed constant care.  My mother returned to the farm to care for her and I withdrew from classes at my beloved University of Georgia and moved to the farm to help.

It was November and the first frost had brought its flavor to the greens.  The three of us had visited the type of greens field that used to be quite common in the rural south - an honor garden.  This was an unattended field of collards, mustard and turnips down a back road.  You picked what you wanted and left the appropriate amount of money in a box by the road.  The only watchful eyes were the chickens pecking through the field, doing their job of pest control, before returning to roost at the farm several acres away.  We filled the back of my pickup truck with heads of collards ("cabbage head" collards, which were the only collard my grandmother would allow in her kitchen and the main reason we had sought out the greens field), a few dozen turnip plants (roots and leaves all together) and a dozen or so pillowy plastic grocery bags, stuffed with the tender leaves of mustard.

The next few days were spent cleaning, trimming and cooking greens (and the turnip roots, which are among my favorite foods) for both eating soon and freezing for later.  My grandmother sat in the kitchen, in her wheelchair, overseeing the entire operation.  This was a very enjoyable time for us all.  The greens were very smelly, but the incredible aroma of frying fatback and cider vinegar (infused with hot peppers) made the aroma appetizing and the family time was truly "quality".

The next day, a few older black ladies dropped by after church to visit and collect pecans.  My grandfather planted the pecan trees decades earlier, after he and my grandmother cleared the land by hand and built their home.  People from the community would often come by during pecan season and collect buckets of pecans.  They would either shell them and return half to us, or as these ladies planned, bring us one of the pecan pies that they would bake.  It was lunch time for us, and my grandmother invited them to join us - she invited anyone and everyone who "came to visit" to eat with us, no matter the time of day or night or what we may have prepared.  The ladies declined, as they were  going home to prepare meals for their own families.  I had just fixed my plate, as they came in and I excused myself from the conversation to eat before the meal cooled.

I had a large plate, piled high with collards and turnips (both greens and roots), pan fried pork chops, filed peas with snaps, potatoes boiled with onions, several patties of fried corn bread and a big slice of sweet potato pudding!  This feast was not rare - it was just how we ate on the farm most days... and still do in my home.  Return trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds was expected, and during the season, a platter of freshly sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers would accompany the meal.  Pies, cakes, puddings or hand-churned ice cream would follow as desert.

I was vaguely aware that the ladies were smiling at me while I was eating, but as I would join in the conversation when appropriate, I didn't think much of it.    One of them finally exclaimed, "It does my heart good to see a boy your age eat greens!  My grandchildren won't touch them!"  I was shocked.  "What do they eat," I asked?  "They only eat McDonalds and KFC", she replied.  "Don't you cook greens," my grandmother asked.  "Sure," she replied, "but they won't touch them!"

We continued chatting, jovially, about all of the old recipes - from greens to (pork) liver pudding - talking about all of "the old foods" we all used to eat and how good they were.  It made a big impression on me, although I didn't say so at the time.  Were these foods, that I grew up on, that I loved so much, were not being enjoyed by people my age and younger?

Years passed.  We lost my grandmother and the family farm was sold with a great deal of sadness.  Life took us all far away.  Several starts and stops in various careers introduced me to many people of various ages throughout the south east.  In the back of my mind though, the question still nagged and I would often engage strangers in conversations about the foods they ate.  I learned that people like to eat, like to talk about food and yes, sadly, I have reached the conclusion that despite the best efforts of many, our southern food traditions are being lost.

This was best exemplified by a conversation with a girl I met in a grocery store in Pinehurst, NC last year.  She was a cashier, working the summer before her freshman year at college.  She was intelligent, attractive and from a rather affluent family (golf and equestrian people) and a native southerner (rare in Pinehurst).  She asked what I planned to do with the several pounds of tender, young, yellow "crooked neck" squash that I was buying.  I told her that my mother would "stew" them, meaning to cook them in a frying pan with bacon fat and onions.  I asked how she liked squash prepared and she told me that she had never tasted squash.  It was a slow time at the store, so we had time to talk for a few minuets.  I asked her about a variety of vegetables and meats, curious about this strange creature who had never eaten squash.  I finally asked her, only somewhat in jest, "What do you eat?"  "Mostly junk food," she replied.  "My mother doesn't cook.  We eat out a lot, but mostly just eat junk food at home."

To say the least, my jaw dropped.  I was actually disgusted by what she said, but since she was a pretty girl, and I enjoyed her company, I didn't show it.  I stayed in the area for a while, due to my job.  The cashier and I had many more conversations, resulting in her asking me to teach her to cook.  Well, time and circumstances did not permit.  Based on this experience, I had many more conversations with other folks in the 18 - 30 age range, and found the results much the same.  They liked to talk about food, seemed to have a deep hunger for good food, but did not cook and had no access good home-cooking.

Many factors have attributed this sad state - working mothers with little time to cook, divorce and fathers whose absence leaves and even greater burden on mothers and less time to cook, distance from grandparents, urban and sub-urbanization taking people away from the farm, lack of instruction in gardening, hunting and fishing, loss of southern food traditions in general as large corporate grocery stores and restaurants increasingly dominate and homogenize our culinary lives and perhaps especially, so called "healthy diets"... that are anything but.  I don't intend to address or argue about all of these, and other, causes.  The purpose of this blog is to preserve, propagate and reclaim our southern food traditions, at least, as seen through my eyes.

On this blog, you will find my family's food traditions.  That is all.  I do not claim to speak for all of the south or for anyone other than myself.  I only mean to, "stand astride history, yelling stop", as the destination it seems to be taking it is repugnant to my senses and abominable to southern soul.  My opinions are strident and often politically incorrect.  I do not suffer fools gladly (and I include in that criteria, anyone who lacks respect for southern culture and traditions, who believes in "better living through science", or who disdains butter, lard, salt, meat, etc).  I only mean to share the knowledge that I am so very privilege to have garnered from my mother and grandmother to help you cook and enjoy a good meal.  In the words of Washington Georgia native, Joe Barnett, "You only live once.  But, if you live in the south and you do it right, once is all you need!"

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