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This past June marked the eighth anniversary of my move to Maryland from my home in the deep South – long enough to have adjusted to my new surroundings. Here, I have family and friends. My home is comfortable and convenient. There is a nice balance between the career me and the writer in me.
When I traveled back to Birmingham a few weeks ago to meet with the members of BAWG and the southern contingent of From Women’s Pens, I shared with denise hays, author of the hilarious mystery, bloodhound by denise hays, just how much I miss the cadence and flow of the South. There are times when my mind wanders back, and memories long forgotten have their way with me – particularly when I think of southern families and conversations among their members.
Oh, how can I make you understand?
You see, conversation in southern families centers on only two subjects:
Death – those who have died, those who are in the process of dying, those who have escaped death, and those who are wished dead, and
Food – that which is being blessed, that which is being consumed, that which has been eaten in the past, and that which will be consumed in the future, how it is grown, how it is cooked, how it should be cooked, and how someone else cooked it but wouldn’t share the secret.
Obviously, the ultimate southern family conversation combines the two, i.e. a complete discussion of the food that was brought, served, and consumed before, as, and after someone has died.
Such a funereal repast would most certainly include a ham, preferably Smithfield in origin, that has been scrubbed, baked, scored, glazed, poked full of cloves, and possibly stuffed with collards before being allowed to “rest,” while its preparer continued the preparation of its suitable accompaniments.
Served with potato salad, coleslaw, greens, beans, cornbread, sweet potato pie, banana pudding, coconut cake, and lots and lots of sweet, sweet tea, such a ham can fuel the fires of southern familial gossip for a full Sunday afternoon beneath a moss draped live oak, while the remains of the repast lie protected under a sheet on the picnic table from whence it was served.
This practice of never removing the dishes to the kitchen until the last bite is gone is undoubtedly responsible in and of itself for the demise of more than a few southern family members, thus perpetuating the conversational circle.
In New Orleans, as they so often do, they take everything above a full step further, most funeral homes in the city offering restaurant seating for over a hundred to accommodate food brought in to all day viewings at which family members of the deceased and friends alike commune and consume, while discussing the deceased’s favorite foods, ups and downs, talents and failings.
There are, of course, other means of developing a conversation in the South.
One can, for instance, mention a friend or a distant relative, who passed on just after having eaten a specific food. This can almost always be counted on to invoke further lurid tales of food poisonings, allergies, misplaced fish bones, and underdone meat offerings.
Children who sickened and died as a result of foregoing mother’s milk too soon, children who never grew because their mother’s milk was too weak, and children who choked on solid foods served too soon can spark a bevy of tear-filled memories lasting long into the shadows of a late southern evening.
The important thing about southern families, though, is not that they speak of Death or Food or both together in some strange and compelling combination.
The really important thing is that they talk, together and continuously, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, passing on the traditions and togetherness and the caring and the love of Death and Food and Southern Families.