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Friday, September 12, 2008

Some thoughts on Southern food writing

I just came across this, an excerpt from a longer blog post by Russ Marshalek, who recently wrote a post for us on ketchup. I thought it was an interesting point of view about the direction of Southern food and food writing:

This desire/thought of putting things from my head and my past onto paper or into a file to be saved has its’ very, very recent origins in a few places, but I can really point to one. I recently wrote a very, very short piece for Atlanta news and entertainment weekly Creative Loafing condensing my history with Ketchup. This, I thought, placed me firmly amongst those southerners who connect weird food concepts, ideas and issues with a very specific place and time (because, really, the American South has more food identity-as-history than anywhere else, and I will argue and fight this ‘til the last breath). This, I thought, made me a southern food writer.

Insert pounds and hours of laughter here.

No, seriously, don’t worry: if I had more than a momentary aspiration of being a Southern Food Writer (also all with capital letters), I had it taken away very recently.

Last weekend, I was privy to a panel on Southern Food Writing starring (yes, starring, as though ‘twas Southern Food: The Film) legendary, acclaimed etc etc John T. Edge and his Cornbread Nation alumnus of hot-as-hell-right-now poet guy Kevin Young, oh-yeah-that-guy-who-will-be-selling-Coke-soon-he’s-so-damn-famous Roy Blount, JR. and Candice Dyer. The sheer and utter seriousness with which they all took themselves, and this idea that Southern Food needs capital letters and utter silent reverence as though there was a church of it somewhere made me feel completely at odds. At odds with them, at odds with grits and cornbread, at odds with my birthplace. How many of them, I wondered, grew up in a trailer park? I was suddenly so struck with a feeling of inferiority that I didn’t dare tell Candice, whose essay “Scattered, Smothered, Covered and Chunked: Fifty Years of the Waffle House” appears in the newest volume of Cornbread Nation, that I had recently won third place in the “write a short essay about your waffle house memories” contest and was formally honored and recognized by Waffle House, Inc. That matters not compared to having the John T. Edge bump.

This threw me for a loop: what, then, had I come to ravenously enjoy about penning the piece for Loafing, if not the food? Then it hit me: the strange, crazy, freaky nature of my childhood and adolescence, the fact that I come from serious redneck heritage far too off-the-radar to yet be honored by weekly specials at Watershed. For me, my southern-ness lies in things like accidentally pulling the lawnmower onto property belonging to the neighboring doublewide and getting accosted for it, in growing up in believing that “Oriental Food” was a delicacy and also could potentially kill you and was probably made of dog.

That’s my upbringing. That’s where I come from. And that’s NOT the tip of the iceberg. Rather, said iceberg is inhabited by the sorts of culture that doesn’t get the gilded shine of being about screen doors and sweet tea, and it’s stuff that I think, probably very, very wrongly, needs to be talked about.

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