Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias 5

The origin of grits: Cherokee Indians, native to the Southern region of the United States, first discovered grits trees growing wild during the thirteenth century. Chief Big Bear's squaw, Jemima Big Bear, is said to have run out of oatmeal one day, so she gathered the tiny grits growing from the grits trees and cooked them in water for Chief Big Bear. After eating the grits, Chief Big Bear ordered his squaw, Jemima, burned at the stake. ~ Lewis Grizzard, Don't Sit Under the Grits Tree with Anyone Else but Me.

The other day a coworker, a lady who is a native Alabamian, commented on how Northerners never really pick up Southern accents. We try, but we fail miserably. Anyone, even a non-Southerner, can immediately detect that hokey drawl, along with the incorrectly used “you-alls”.

(Note to Northerners who do not wish to embarrass themselves in Atlanta or Birmingham: It's “y'all” not “you-all”, and it's only used when referring to a group of people, not individuals. You don't say to an individual, “Have you-all been here before?”)

In fact, Northerners from heavily accented regions like New England or New York never completely lose their own distinctive, if somewhat abrasive, accents. My coworker noted that the opposite was not true. Southerners who move northward seem to lose their own accents, unless they happen to speak to other Southerners. I've witnessed this on my own. When I lived in Ohio, I knew a couple of relocated Southerners, and the longer one spoke to them, the fainter their accent got. When they were on the phone to a relative or talked to each other, though, their accents came back in force.

I think this has to do with the innate politeness that pervades the South. For example, when a Northerner is attempting a Georgia accent, the average Atlanta native will not start laughing out loud. The genuine Southerner will simply say, “You're not from around here, are you?” When the Southerner goes North, he or she is aware that the gentility of Southern speech stands out amidst the “youse guys” and “warsh your hands” of the locals (I was nine years old before I was sure that “wash” was not spelled with an “r” in the middle). So, the Southerner blends in, adding to everyone's comfort level.

Perhaps the one place they allow themselves to pull the Northerner's leg is the matter of grits.

When I first came to Alabama, the company where I worked was a division of a corporation headquartered in Erie, Pa. Whenever we visited potential vendors, one of us from Alabama would meet up with a buyer from Erie and go to the site. Generally, our vendors were located up North. On one such trip, I sat down at breakfast with Bert, the buyer, who looked at me sternly and said, “Don't you dare order grits!”

Of course, I knew better than to do that in Minnesota, but I was curious as to why. It seemed that Ed, one of my coworkers who also came from Ohio, had a penchant for tweaking the Erie buyers by ordering grits at every opportunity.

Now a real Southerner wouldn't do that. What a real Southerner does is confuse Northerners who come South.

I had moved on to another company down here that was regrettably owned by a Northern corporation. Periodically, we would be invaded by managers from New Jersey. One day at lunch, one of them commented on the fact that, when he ordered some bacon and eggs for breakfast, he was served a side of grits. I attempted to explain to him that grits are a staple of the Southern breakfast; if he had ordered coffee and a slice of pie, he'd have gotten a side of grits. That's just the way things are down here.

“Yeah, I understand that, but what I'm wondering is, what are grits, anyway?”

Before I could speak, our personnel manager, a native of Montgomery, spoke up and said, “They mine them.” At the manager's puzzled look, she launched into a fairly detailed discussion of the mining and grading of grits.

The next manager that visited got the grits tree treatment.

To be honest, I don't really know where grits come from, other than being reasonably sure that trees and mines aren't involved, but I do like them. I do, however, take a certain amount of abuse about the way I eat them. Traditionally, Southerners like their grits with a little salt and pepper and whole lot of butter. The might add cheese or bacon crumbles (real bacon, not those wretched things you sprinkle on salads), but they seldom sweeten them.

I prefer sugar on mine.

The first time I did this in the presence of some of the native-born folks, one of them merely rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed, “Yankees just don't understand grits.” Another one said to him, “Now don't get riled. At least he appreciates 'em, even if he doesn't know how to eat 'em properly.”

Then he looked at me and said, “You jest enjoy them grits any way that suits you.” And I did, and still do.

I do understand one traditional Southern favorite, though, and that's corn bread. I have actually seen recipes prepared by Northerners that contain sugar. Sweet cornbread is not real cornbread. If you're going to have cornbread with your jambalaya or barbecue, by golly you don't need sweet bread. I also understand that the only proper way to bake cornbread is in a cast iron skillet that's coated with bacon grease and preheated in the oven so that the batter sizzles when you pour it in.

I may eat grits wrong, but even my Southern friends will admit I understand cornbread.

Postscript: A day after I originally wrote this, I was walking by a local eatery which proclaimed as one of its lunch specials, "Fish and Grit". Just the one, but, man, it's huge.
More about being a Yankee Amongst the Magnolias (with links to earlier episodes)

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