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Sacred southern staples

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
Sacred southern staples

When it was time for me to introduce Dan to his future in-laws, news traveled fast, and he ended up facing a gauntlet of suspicious aunts and uncles as well as my parents. They had no objection to his Air Force uniform or his modest four door Ford, but you could almost see the word YANKEE hanging accusingly over his head.

Mother put him through the ultimate test. She cooked a 100% southern meal, starting with a generous helping of collard greens. When he asked for seconds, everyone’s face relaxed and the test was over. He had passed with flying colors. Collards are the sacred staple of a true southerner’s table.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone. As the son of a divorced, working Mother, Dan spent most of his time with his grandfathers, both of whom were Indiana farmers. Southern food is farm food and like everyone raised in a farm family, Dan was accustomed to the best food on earth, vegetables that are quickly moved from garden to table. 

Lest my parents suspect that his ancestors killed ours in the Civil War, he pointed out that his mother was from a long line of Methodist preachers, including the Reverend George Stafford of Staffordshire, Virginia, who served as a chaplain during the Civil war. Dan was also the fifth generation of only sons on the Curtis side, and during the Civil War, that ancestor, Levi Curtis, was told to stay on the farm, not just to feed his family, but to feed the army as well. That family history was understood and accepted by my Dad, who soon took his future son-in-law hunting and fishing. As Dan was clearly skilled at both, his place in our family was assured. 

I also had to be interviewed and accepted by Dan’s friends, one of whom, Gene Burnett, was from North Carolina. When we had breakfast with Gene at his favorite southern restaurant, I ordered two over-easy eggs with grits, which I mixed together. I was being fussy about my eggs. I told the waitress my eggs had to be just cooked enough to flavor the grits, but not so runny that the grits became soupy.  Watching me eat, Gene was fascinated.

“Dang! My wife won’t let me do that! She thinks its low-class to eat fried eggs, and makes me eat my eggs scrambled. Dan, you gotta marry this girl! She knows how to eat right!”

Dan replied that he had learned that you can take a girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of a girl. 

When we lived in southern California, I found it easy to find food from every corner of the earth, except the South. Grits were unavailable in every store in the town where we lived, but our next-door neighbor, Henry Austin, who was from Tennessee, told me about a nearby, smaller town which included a black community.  He told me it boasted a grocery store, complete with grits, pickled peaches, pickled beets, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens. Collards hadn’t made it that far, but you can’t have everything. I thanked Henry by inviting him and his wife, Helen, to come over for a southern dinner that included banana pudding for desert.

Henry impressed us far more than my food did by standing up at the table, and reciting the entire poem, Casey at the Bat, from memory. Hearing that wonderful tale recited in a southern accent was an unforgettable, heart warming experience.

His performance reminded me of the best thing about southern meals. They are usually accompanied by a hearty serving of story-telling as only southerners can do. Even routine neighborhood gossip seems more interesting when another southerner delivers it. I mentioned a recent divorce in the neighborhood, and Helen responded saying, “That wouldn’t have happened where I’m from. In Tennessee, we don’t have divorces. We have killings, but we don’t have divorces.”

Speaking of divorces, Gene and Betty ended up in a divorce court but after more than sixty years, Dan and I are still together. I can’t help wondering if Betty not allowing Gene to eat eggs the way he wanted had anything to do with their discontent. I don’t tell Dan how to eat his eggs. He does it my way anyhow. 

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