Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Southern Culture, Part 1...
In my continuing quest to become a certified redneck, I have been studying my new surroundings here in Charlotte, sorta-kinda to get the lay of the land, so to speak. It occurred to me very early on that in order to fit in and be accepted as a member of the community, that I would have to, in some cases, go native. When in Rome, yadda, yadda, yadda, right?

It became very clear, very quickly, that I had a lot to learn. There are major differences between northerners and southerners that have to be hashed out if one is to make a go of leaving one for the other --- you'd only expect that. What I didn't expect was the almost bewildering array of differences that I would have to adapt to. There were many starting points to be considered: language, dress, sports, etc. And it was very difficult to try to assimilate it all at once. So, I did what any rational person would do and narrowed it down to one subject at a time. And like any good Italian boy from New York, I narrowed my initial attempt to assimilate to what Italians know best: food.

According to Florence King, there are three keys to good Southern cooking: BBQ it, fry it or deep fry it in bacon grease. Some of that does hold true. The number of BBQ establishments, stores devoted soley to enhancing the BBQ experience, and even BBQ tournaments, is staggering. BBQ is almost like a religion here, and there are inevitible arguments over which style of southern BBQ is best. North Carolina BBQ seems to dispense with a lot of the spicy stuff (although you can find it) and tend more towards the saucy and sweet stuff. South Carolina BBQ consists of whatever one managed to run over on a back road and drag home that day, the sauce being not so important as hiding what the dish once was from the Fish and Wildlife people.

Fried food abounds. Fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, fried pork chops, bacon, etc, are staples. yet no one here has ever heard of the fried Twinkie (go figure!). One cannot walk twelve feet anywhere without the smell, sound or feeling that something, somewhere, is being fried. Bacon grease is hoarded here like a precious commodity, and can even be purchased in stores.

The lowly grit is the paragon of cullinary delight. Grits are served with everything, if you want them, and I can imagine that it won't be long before I find a place that serves them with chateau briand. I have never, ever, in my life had grits. The very look of them always made my stomach turn, and when I once encountered a short-order cook in New York City making them with lard, I decided that grits would never pass my lips. And I never knew just what grits were until I got here. Apparently, grits are a certain grade of corn (called hominy) that is not even suitable for use as feed for livestock. Yet, people will eat the hell out of them. Grits have a very tough husk, which is usually blanched off with lye or some other caustic material, rinsed, ground into smaller pieces and then packaged for human consumption. Not exactly a gastronimical delight, I agree. Yet there is not one person here that I have met, and discussed grits with, that has failed to say the same thing when I tell them I hate grits --- "You haven't had MY grits yet".

Apparently, every family in the south has a super-secret recipe for grits that has been passed down from generation to generation, and which is guarded even more closely that Saddam Hussein. One other word about grits: if you've seen what they do them at Waffle House (a sort of slum-like, cut-rate, truck-stop IHOP), you wouldn't consider eating them either. The only use for grits that I can think of is either as a substitute for spackle or maybe you can use it to repair tears in your hip waders.

Don't get me started on breads and pastries. They have a severe problem here when it comes to making such things, and it generally revolves around the fact that it is very difficult to get dough to rise. Everyone has a different theory, but the one that seems to make the most sense is the water. Charlotte municipal water is not fit for man or beast, and on a good day, you might think twice about mixing it with your antifreeze. It's pretty dusgusting, loaded with lime and other hard minerals and very often, requires a knife to safetly ingest. I fixed the problem with water filters, and it seems to have helped. However, I defy you to find a decent loaf of bread here. As for baking, southerners do know how to make pies and biscuits that are killer, but again, they hold these things as state secrets.

Now, once one gets beyond the local quisine, what's left? Well, fast food is the same the world over. One McDonalds tastes just like another. Although I have recently discovered Chik-fil-a, which is quite good in my opinion (every southerner I know says it's crap, but then again, these folks eat grits). Fast food is easy to understand and assimilate, and there was no special effort required here.

Where we run into a problem is with what one might call foreign food. It's foreign because it didn't originate here, in the south, never mind the United States. There are very few chinese restaurants in Charlotte (about a dozen, by my count) and probably even fewer orientals. They have a few places, usually run by Koreans, that pass themselves off as Japanese. There is one good Chinese place that I have found (although it's menu is heavily influenced by the Food Network), but it is certainly not what I am used to.

There is no such thing as a decent Italian restaurant in Charlotte. You can search high and low, pay informants to indicate the best possible location, you might even sacrifice a virgin (if you could find one here) in the quest for decent Italian food. Around here, ask someone to recommend an Italian restaurant and they will invariably direct you to a pizzaria that is run by some guy who had a cousin who once lived in Jersey. Some of this is changing, however, and I have to assume it's due to the influx of northerners, since most Southerners wouldn't know good Italian food if it was fed to them intravenously. I have found one (count 'em!) Italian specialty store where one could find all manner of delicacies from the old country: fresh mozzarella (no one here knows what it looks like, even if you point it out to them), pignoli nuts, real olive oil (not the refined, light-sweet curde stuff), prosciutto, mortadella, and, on a good day, real semolina bread. I had a conversation with a southern lady recently in which she told me that she loved to put cheddar cheese on her spaghetti. She probably also thinks that Ragu is ambrosia. The few people I have cooked for here, rave about tomato sauce made by hand, just like my mother taught me to. It's not their fault that they are deprived, after all, there was no call for this stuff until recently, but I still cringe.

The same can be said for Spanish food. While there are a good many Central Americans here, if one wants such food, you have to search it out. You have to trek to a certain part of town, and be prepared to order in Spanish, since it's very unlikely you'll find an English speaker. I know of one actual Spanish restaurant (that's Spain Spanish) and it's menu is lackluster, yet folks swear it's the best. When I do crave Spanish cooking, and make the trip, the people in the restaurants (or the pushcart) are amazed that I know something of the Spanish language, even if I mangle it. There are very few Carolinians that speak Spanish and know something about the food, and it's appreciated by the Salvadorans, Mexicans and Costa Ricans living here. It hasn't wrangled me a free tamale or burrito yet, but I'm working on it (wink, wink).

You can forget Thai. Indian restaurants are found only in the trendy, heavily-homosexual University and Uptown areas, and are avoided by most Southerners like a baptist minister in a whorehouse. These places tend to open, flower for a short time, and then close rapidly since there is not enough of a market for them. The trendy nuveau-quisine and California-style places seem to enjoy growth here for the simple reason that most southerners can identify just what is on the menu without resorting to a dictionary or a native guide. No Portugese, no German worth the name, and VERY few Kosher delicatessens. Greek restaurants abound, and the few I have been to are very good, but for the most part, while Charlotte has a huge Greek population (per capita), most of the restauranteurs amongst them run mom-and-pop-style cheeburger joints (shades of the Saturday Night Live skit). They know that their native quisine will not be a big seller unless they can get the upscale clientele.

So, what does one do when one comes from a cullinary Nirvana like New York and finds himself in the food-equivalent of the Mojave? Well, since I already cook for myself, I don't fret much about enjoying my favorties, although finding the proper ingredients is often like a trek up Everest. But then again, I knew when I came here that I was going to have to make some trade-offs, and this was one of them. I have to get used to not being able to have authentic Thai food delivered at midnight.

That's another thing. You cannot have many things delivered here, especially food. Dominos, Papa Johns and the B-list fast food joints will deliver, and that's about it. Everything else is take out (when it exists at all), and as I've said before, distances here are vastly increased. Who wants to travel six miles just for wonton soup made with Charlotte municipal water? I'll stick close to home and make my own, thank you, and probably save a bundle.

Next week, I think I will begin to try and decipher the southern fascination, nay, addiction, to gravy.

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