The Card Carrying Southerner
A mini-guide for those from someplace else
By Nan Graham
I was once asked to teach a class on how to be a Southerner. After picking myself off the floor and recovering from hysterical laughter, I respectfully declined.
But it makes me think that there really is a need for a card for newcomers to our part of the world . . . those “from someplace else,” as I like to call them, since I consider the “Y” word unkind. Laminated, this card could be carried in your wallet like your driver’s license or how-to-tip card.
The card would be a ready aid for those unfamiliar with Southern mores and customs. You could refer to it discreetly as needed. Learn to palm this card and pretend to cough when you glance at the appropriate Southern reference.
Southerners could easily adopt the Malaysian culture, whose greeting is not, “How are you?” but instead, “Have you eaten?” I believe that salutation could be right up there with, “How’s your Mama?” which is usually the second thing Southerners say after their opening shot. We do love our food. Foods you eat, serve and discuss in detail:
Watermelon . . . how to select, how to cut, how to eat. Thumping a melon is akin to tire kicking in the automobile world. It may not tell you anything, but it sure makes you look like you know what you are doing. The trick is to flick your index finger off your thumb and strike the surface of the watermelon. Bend your cocked head toward the melon and listen intently. The best watermelons will have a distinct hollow sound as opposed to a flat, non-resonant sound. Even if you can’t tell the difference, pretend you can.
Always cut the melon long-ways. Like the deviled egg or asparagus spear, watermelon is considered a finger (or hand-held) food by some. Eating with a fork is permissible if you prefer not to bury your face in the juicy crimson crescent.
Know when to say barbecue and when to say pig pickin’ (remember, it is essential to drop the final g).
Understand that grits is never eaten with sugar. It is a cardinal Southern sin. Butter, salt and pepper, please. Grits is a singular collective noun . . . never refer to it as they or them. You will never meet a single grit as they always hang out in an inseparable crowd. “Yes. Grits? I will have some more of it.” . . . Never them.
When speaking of produce, be sure to use the specific name. White corn will not do; say “Silver Queen” or “Peaches and Cream.” Same goes for tomatoes. It’s “Better Boy” or “Best Boy.” This specificity gives you that air of agrarian authority we Southerners love to affect.
Okra is a quintessential Southern food. Overcoming the dreaded slime factor is essential for the okra indoctrination. Start with fried okra and graduate to pickled okra and gumbo.
Deviled eggs are required at most Southern gatherings. It is imperative that you have a platter designed and designated specifically for the deviled egg. I claim deviled eggs my long suit. Refusing to call them “stuffed eggs,” I consider them a staple of every Southern party and picnic: the gastronomical treat that’s hard to beat. And catnip to all men.
I have Mama’s hobnail glass deviled egg plate, a must for any Southern soul serving deviled eggs at home or abroad. I was shocked to learn that my friend Jane, planning to take the ubiquitous eggs to her family reunion, did not possess such a plate . . . that round glass or china platter with a dozen half egg-shaped wells encircling it. In the flat center, you can put more eggs or sliced tomatoes and cukes, pickled okra or some such. I bought Jane this necessity as an early Christmas gift. She can now avoid being the object of muffled snickering at the family gathering.
My own egg plate once ventured out to a WHQR Public Radio Board and Commentator party. I covered the to-die-for eggs garnished with cherry tomatoes and basil with Saran wrap, parked on an unusually busy Front Street and headed out, eggs elevated shoulder-high on one hand to maneuver my way through the crowd to the destination a block away.
I got to the address and read the sign. It was a hookah bar. I thought the Board had really kicked over its traces with a fresh and interesting choice of venue. I sailed through the incense, deviled eggs on high, toward a bearded man. Like a stout, elderly Blanche DuBois, eternally dependent on the kindness of strangers and poor lighting, I asked if this was the place for the WHQR party.
The bearded gentleman inside could not have been nicer . . . or more confused. His usual clientele is rarely an ancient woman carrying an egg plate aloft in one hand, waitress-style, and clutching an email with the address and phone number in the other.
“No, no WHQR board meeting here,” he assured me. I showed him my email. “Yes, this is the same address.” Always prepared, I had no cellphone with me.
“Can you call this phone number for me?” I asked. He returned from the phone with another address on Third Street. “Your host was wondering where you were . . . with your deviled eggs.”
I thanked him warmly, trudged back to the parked car to drive around the block. When the party was over, I took my empty egg plate to go home. Too bad the deviled wonders were all gone . . . I really would like to have left a few with that lovely Hookah gentleman.
Loving our pests and critters:
Never show a fear of waterbugs, aka, roaches. Like a horse, a roach can sense your fear. It might become aggressive. Genteel South Carolinians call them Palmetto bugs. “Palmetto bugs” doesn’t really work for this Carolinian. I suggest you give them individual names and pretend they are family pets. Frisky or Big Mo. Saddle them up and have the younger grandchildren ride them.
Do not attempt this familiarity with the no see-ums or even the see-ums native to this part of the country, a species of tiny insects clearly too size-challenged to be wrangled or too ornery to be domesticated.
Use lots of similes and metaphors in your colorful narrations. Make hyperbole your best friend: “Most politicians are as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
“South Carolina is too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.”
My favorite from the late Doug Marlette: a little Southern “town so backwoods even the Episcopalians handled snakes.”
Giveaways to avoid: Never say soda instead of soft drink or cola. Only north of the Mason Dixon is it soda or pop.
And our glorious, long-gone Wrightsville Beach beachfront pavilion . . . wondrous, blazing with lights “like a Baptist window,” as Truman Capote once wrote. It’s called Lumina, not the Lumina.
Never use the article to speak of the historic building. It will reveal you as an outlander.
*Note: Two references to Southern authors, Doug Marlette and Truman Capote, establish the fact that you are familiar with regional literati. Name dropping is encouraged.
Do not say “Hi” instead of the requisite “Hey” upon meeting a stranger on the street. Do not revert to omitting any greeting at all. In the South, if it moves, you speak to it.
Boykin spaniels, Plott hounds, Labrador retrievers or any hunting dog . . . no Maltese or Yorkies or combo lapdogs (peekapoos) will do. Not manly enough. Even a couch potato mutt must affect the nonchalant air of a sporting breed. And please have a story and breed name for that rescue dog. “Oh, that’s Thurston. He’s a Fuquay-Varina Spaniel. Very rare, but a fine hunter. Comes from a Southern breed that accompanied General Beauregard at the launching of the Hunley submarine in Mobile?” (The question mark at the end of your sentence is said with a lilt, which indicates it is not really a question, but a reassurance that surely your listener already knows these facts.)
Get some. This is essential. Portraits are available in all antique stores. Also check consignment stores. Hang in your living room and make up outrageous stories about your newly purchased eccentric. “This is great-aunt Hettibelle. She was one of five sisters whose folks named each daughter with ‘belle’ at the end of her name: Lulabelle, Marybelle, Annabelle and Corabelle. Unfortunately the name did not prove prophetic as you can plainly see by Hettibelle’s portrait. Notice the artist included a feathered fan in the portrait.” (Wave your hand gracefully toward the painting.) “This is the artist’s nod to Hettibelle’s passion. She raised chickens, which she named after Biblical characters and trained to do a sort of nineteenth century line dance. General Sherman was so enthralled with the hens’ performance that he left the ‘Big House’ standing but did gallop off with Bathsheba and Esther, two of Hettibelle’s favorites, tucked under his blue jacket.” Your story can continue, unless your listener’s eyes appear to have glazed over.
Invent one. They are as essential as ancestors. Bill Slocumb from Goldsboro was nicknamed Suicide Slocumb. Unfortunately, his occupation was commercial airline pilot. My husband always said if the pilot ever came on and announced “Hello, this is your pilot, Suicide Slocomb,” that I was to deplane immediately. I have a feeling I would have company exiting the plane.
There you have it. Your own mini-guide to transforming yourself into a Southern local. Simple. And just in time for the tourist season!