Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chick-fil-a, Krispy Kreme, and Sunshine

I arrived in Phoenix for a work meeting (and a couple of days with family here) and was quite happy to be greeted by this sign:

So I enjoyed Chicken Minis and a hot Krispy Kreme for breakfast this morning. It was loverly! And I must admit, it is one way in which the whole franchise-driven suburb phenomena doesn't seem quite all bad. When a regional specialty can be reliably exported, a bit of home can follow (or precede) me. Krispy Kremes were invented just a few miles from where I was born in North Carolina, and Chick-fil-a has its roots in Georgia. Both are now somewhat common across the country (though not in Chicago), but they've kept their Southern values. They've kept Southern. They do something simply realy, really well, and I've been quite happy to find a bit of the South in Arizona.

That, and the sun.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 1. A Big Table

Thus begins a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

The table pictured is a little over the top to be ideal, but at minimum, the table should be big enough to seat twelve – and fourteen to sixteen if you’re squishing. I don’t have such a table, but I am fortunate to have a dining room big enough to hold one. So I currently make do by pushing together two tables – one of them my roommate’s and one of them borrowed – that completely don’t match. With that configuration we can seat twelve (and more if we’re squishing). My previous roommate had a nearly ideal table – one that would seat six with slide-under leaves on either end that doubled its length. But that table moved on into married life with her and is now blessing their home with its lovely versatility.

The ideal table has leaves so that a cozy dinner of two or four is not overwhelmed, but extends to embrace a dozen. It’s not a table you fold away in the garage or basement – that table’s an exception. It is a table that makes a space for family and friends every day. It’s also a solid, pedestal table, so that more can be squeezed in without concern for knocking knees with table legs. It’s solid wood, but made so that bangs and spills don’t so much damage it as give it the warm patina of enthusiastic and welcome use. No one should have a moment’s nervousness sitting down to this table. I remember a table I saw in a store once years ago – it looked like it had come out of a medieval monastery or working castle. Not fancy, but solid and well-used.

And that’s the important thing about the big table – how you use it. I am rarely happier than when my table is filled with too many friends, too much food, and too much laughter, because I really don’t think there’s any such thing as too much of any of those things. A big table should be like an open door – always ready to welcome. One of my pastors in North Carolina had a big table like that. Actually he had two – the second one took up one side of their huge front porch. When it was time for dinner, anyone who happened to be around was welcome. Keeping Southern is knowing how to extend that welcome. It doesn’t have to be fancy – maybe no more than a big pot of beans and a cake of cornbread, but it’s as warm and good as friends together. As a smile in the eyes that says I’m glad to be here with you right now enjoying this moment.

Maybe you don’t have a big table (or even two smaller ones you can push together), but you can pretend. The spirit can precede the table.

Note - Closely associated to the big table is the big pot. I mean a really big pot. The kind you can make Brunswick stew for thirty in. I don’t have a pot like that. I have a friend with a pot like that, but he’s moving it to Orlando. I have pot-envy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hummus and Cheerwine, or One More Reason to Love Chicago

A couple of months ago several friends and I attended a conference on diversity at North Park University. If there's anywhere to have a conference on diversity, North Park has got to be the place. It's located in Albany Park, a neighborhood in the city with the third most diverse population in the nation. At least forty languages are represented in its public schools. Swedes, Lebanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Eastern Europeans, and many more rub shoulders on the sidewalks there every day.

The conference was "Diversity 101" for college students, so apart from the keynote by Brenda Salter-McNeil, it wasn't the highlight for me. The best part of the day came at lunch, when two friends who attend North Park Theological Seminary took us to one of their favorite lunch spots, Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen.

The first time I can remember having Middle Eastern food was a falafel pita from a street vendor in New York City on a trip in high school. It was amazing, but I was hard-pressed to find much that was similar back home in Chattanooga. So the wealth of Middle Eastern options in Chicago has been a wonderful treat - from Pita Inn for one of the best short order traditional menus on a budget, to Noon O Kabob for Persian home cooking, to Roti Mediterranean Grill for a fresh Middle Eastern take on the Chipotle concept. Hummus has been one of my main staples for several years now. It's healthy, easy to make (though I'm still perfecting my recipe), and delicious, especially the roasted red pepper variety which I think of as a healthy, Middle Eastern version of pimento cheese. I spread it on toast for breakfast, eat it with carrots or pretzles for a snack, and spread it on sandwiches for dinner. Very few days go by when I don't eat hummus.

The great thing about Middle Eastern food is that at its heart, it's really just terrific home cooking. When it comes to keeping Southern, that's really what it's all about - not refusing to eat beans if they weren't cooked with a ham hock and served with cornbread, but relishing the simple, homey dishes that have been perfected by daily practice. If tradition becomes a boundary I won't venture beyond, life is small. I'd rather see keeping Southern as both a compass point by which I can orient myself on the journey and the tools that help me discover all the wonders to be found on the way.

Which brings me back to Dawali. The hummus is some of the best I've had, and the falafel is terrific. But the real surprise came when I walked over to the soda fountain to get my water and glanced in the drink cooler next to it. There beside the "vintage" glass bottles of Green River and Bubble Up was Cheerwine. Yep. Cheerwine. It doesn't get more Carolina than Cheerwine, my favorite "coke"* for as long as I can remember. We used to bring it back to Tennessee when we'd visit family in North Carolina, because you couldn't even get it in Chattanooga.

And here, in a Middle Eastern restaurant in the middle of Albany Park in Chicago, was Cheerwine. I immediately took one over to the man at the register, put it on the counter, and just said "Cheerwine?!?!?!?" He just grinned and said, "We love it, so we had to have it!"

Chicago. I've gotta love it. Where else would I find a bit of Southern in a neighborhood with pretty much everything but!

*In the South, all soft drinks are "cokes," like all facial tissues are "kleenex."

Monday, January 11, 2010

New year - new blog

So I'm finally breaking down. I'm going to blog. Why now? Mostly because I was talking with friends this past weekend and stumbled over a name that inspired me. Or maybe more accurately, a by-line. My friends (and not a few strangers) have heard my "barbecue-is-a-noun-not-a-verb" rant many a time in the past few years. But "keeping Southern" that just exploded the idea to something a lot broader than food (not that I have a thing against food - I have no doubt food will be a prominent feature on this blog). And while it's something that really resonates with me, it's also a lot bigger than me. "Keeping Southern" is a way of living, a way of embracing life. I won't come anywhere near covering its geography here, but I can delve in.

But just to be clear - keeping Southern is not about griping about Chicago. I love Chicago. It's not perfect (no Chick-fil-a, the Cubs), but neither is the South (no crazy-multi-ethnic grocery stores, the Braves). Living here has made me sift through what it really means to be Southern. That holy Southern trinity of food, faith, and family are a big part of it, but they look a bit different here. The barbecue's not Speedy's, my church doesn't have Sunday night services, and while I've still got my Southern family, I have a family here that's a lot more diverse. I think it's going to be fun for this Southern girl to explore up North and who I am becoming here.

It's one thing to be from the South. It's another thing to keep Southern.