Sunday, April 3, 2011

Frankly My Dear, I Would Like Another Glass of Sweet Tea

In one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, there is a line that I have always related to: "When God made me born a Yankee, he was teasin'." Although I have not spent a lot of time in the South, I am endlessly fascinated by the complex history and culture of the world below the Mason-Dixon Line, and have often felt that my soul belongs in a warm, coastal place, illuminated by the blossoms of magnolias and rocking chairs on breezeways.

Due to the fortuitous intersection of the anniversary of the Civil War (or, depending on who you ask, the War Between the States) and a national history conference that my department was sending someone to attend, I just spent several days in Charleston, South Carolina, a city I have been desperate to visit.

Like a genteel Southern lady should, Charleston seemed to welcome me in like an old friend, and within hours, I was thoroughly entranced by her rows of historic homes, bright vegetation, pervasive connection to 300 years of history, and the lilting accents of the natives. Although my non-history-nerd relations might laugh, there were moments when I closed my eyes and could almost sense the wide-brimmed hat and sweeping skirts, or at different moments, hear the calamity of war and horrific sounds of a slave market.

Amidst moments of imagination, there was a reality of Southern life that came alive for me in the form of the local cuisine. I am not one to turn down any type of local fare, but the food in Charleston elicited a reaction of familiarity and instant infatuation that I have rarely experienced. The cuisine is a mixture of European, African and Caribbean that has marinated for three centuries and emerged as intensely flavorful and comforting, a source of great local pride.

The first night, I ate fried green tomatoes, followed by catfish with cheesy grit cakes and okra, quite possibly the most Southern meal I could have imagined. The grits were nothing like the runny, grainy mess I had imagined; they were creamy and buttery and seemed to belong to the okra, as if they were part of the same plant. The second night, I had she-crab soup (quite a difference between he and she crabs, according to the locals), with crab cakes, Carolina red rice and collard greens. The greens, like the grits, were a food that raised suspicion, but I discovered in the hot, wilted greens an unexpectedly rich flavor of vinegar, hamhocks and garlic. The final night, I gave in and ordered fried chicken, which was so beautifully crunchy that I almost forgot that it was absolutely unhealthy.

My constant companion, throughout this culinary adventure, was a glass of sweet tea. For Midwesterners, iced tea is served unsweetened, unless you add a packet of Sweet and Low or Splenda yourself. But in the South, sweet tea is brewed sweet, and the result is perfect companion to the spicy, buttery, or peppery meal on your plate. I think I drank five or six glasses each day, reveling in the knowledge that no matter where we were in Charleston, the sweet tea would be waiting for me.

Although the Yankee in me to too strong to suppress at this point, I will always feel an overwhelming desire to be intimate with the South. Maybe it is the history, or maybe it is the natural elements, maybe it is the fact that I would wear a hoop skirt to clean my house and stroll down Summit Avenue, if such behavior was not viewed as completely weird. Or maybe it is the allure of how all of those elements meld so seamlessly in something as simple as a bed of grits or a glass of sweet tea.

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