Several seemingly unrelated thoughts have been nagging at me over the past week in a disjointed fashion. Oddly, or perhaps appropriately, enough they came together the other night as I dodged a possum. I was passing through a very rural area, on my way home late at night when a huge possum walked into the road. It was nearly medium dog sized! I swerved and it turned back. My first thought was that it would make someone a very good supper if it doesn't get run over before hunting season. My thoughts drifted to memories of roast possum and sweet potatoes, a true southern meal that few in our era have experienced. The fresh, cleaned and trimmed possum is slowly roasted with sweet potatoes so that the potatoes slowly become yams in the rendered fat. The meat is rich and tender... hinting at both pork and chicken. The gravy is actually indescribable.....
As I was pondering how just few people these days have ever tasted possum, it occurred to me that perhaps just as few have tasted speckled butter beans or the odd cuts of pork in which southerners delight. I began to wonder if there could ever be true, traditional southern food divorced form its roots in (for what I will call for lack of a better term) rural-ism. We have several large cities in the south - like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville - but even in these steel and concrete jungles, the southerner delights in finding little produce stands with home-grown vegetables and little mom and pop restaurants that specialize in regional family foods like "chicken and pastry" or fried catfish just beyond the constant roar of the belt-line highway.
The foods southerners crave, celebrate and make legendary are rural. They are the heirloom vegetables, the livestock raised with care, the wild game and fish, the old family recipe for a special pie... even a sip of moonshine or home made wine. This is our raison d'etre. This is what we seek on the weekend or take an out of town guest to experience. This is our heritage and we hold it dear. Can this heritage exist should we loose our agrarian, outdoorsman and craftsman culture?
Can one cook traditional southern food with only the tasteless, imported produce and anemic beef/pork/chicken to be found in the modern grocery store? Truly, we live in an age of abundance an convenience. There is a bounty at our fingertips... but does it satisfy? My local grocery stores are very upscale, and even have some ownership in my home state, but the foods they sell are not the foods of my youth on the farm. If I crave a small "pickling" cucumber, should I have to satisfy for a bloated, wrinkled, cucumber from the grocery store? If I crave pork, should I have to settle with the malodorous product of the largest pork producer in America.... which now rests on what was once my family lands and fouls the river my people fished and boated for centuries? I can drive 20 miles to shop at a small, independent grocery store in a nearby town that buys from local farmers or shop at a produce stand or farmer's market. But, well... I "know from good", as they say. I also have the mobility and time to seek out good food. Many do not, nor do they know they should.
I wonder if real southern food can exist without the agrarian, rural nature of the south. The small, family farmer, rancher or craftsman has no ally in modern politics. The Republican and Libertarian parties see him as a relic, who should be retrained for a more modern, efficient means of making a living. They push "free trade" deals in which nations negotiate and assign people to jobs like pawns on a chess board. Their concept of farming is the huge agricultural multinational corporation, not the old man in over-alls. The quality and taste of the food produced does not factor into a purely economic equation. The Democrats, Greens and Socialists view the traditional southerner as everything they despise and fear. He is the man who "clings to his guns and religion", works hard, provides for himself and his family and goes to church on Sunday. He wants nothing from the government other than national defense and the rule of law, and wants to pay as little as possible in taxes. They see the traditional southerner as a dangerous primitive, who should be either eradicated or re-educated. Perhaps anyone who is arrogant enough to believe that they can shape human events sees them self as an elitist puppet-master, manipulating the masses to create their own utopia. Perhaps the simple man who is free to believe in unpopular things and lead an inefficient life in pursuit of his own idea of the American dream is destined to be the eternal enemy of the elitist political master.
I find little solace in knowing that our Founding Fathers, men like Jefferson, Madison and Washington were agrarian southerners, because modern politics and culture has abandoned their principles. These great patriots envisioned a nation of small farmers and craftsmen, who would care for their own properties and provide for their own families, and that government should only exist to protect and regulate the mutual and beneficial arrangements between farmers and craftsmen. This vision, enshrined in our founding documents drew millions of immigrants who sought the promises of those original words, "life, liberty and the pursuit of property"... property for framing, ranching, hunting and fishing. They believed that "Nature's God" gave man the right to pursue nature's bounty and that there in lay our "happiness".
I fear that "ruralism" has slipped away... perhaps too far to retrieve it. But, I will again quote William F. Buckley in saying that my mission is to "stand athwart history, yelling stop!" Although, we will likely end up like the possum - a primitive, even pre-historic creature caught int he headlights of the oncoming rush of of what may be best described as fascistic modernism, I invite you to join me in Reclaiming Southern Food! Succeed or fail, at least we will eat well.