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Archive for January, 2013

The University of Alabama, in addition to the many other academic and social activities it offers its students, fields a varsity football team.  Perhaps you are already aware of this, for they have played admirably over the years.

You also may be aware that a great many people in and from the state of Alabama – including a sizable number who did not, do not, and will not matriculate at the University – care very, very much about the fortunes and performance of the students who made the cut to play on this varsity football team.

Soon that team will meet the varsity football team fielded by the University of Notre Dame in a pre-arranged contest.  (Notre Dame’s varsity football teams also have played very well over the years, until the last several years when they did not, until this year when they rather suddenly did, again.)  The winner of this game will be acknowledged, somewhat arbitrarily, as the best out of all the football teams, supported by institutions of higher learning, that compete at the varsity level in the United States.  It’s quite an honor.

Old Football

OK, I’ve ridden that conceit into the ground.  Writers are always tempted to turn big games, especially championship games, into palimpsests with bigger meanings about bigger issues than just the game itself.  This year’s BCS title game is such a semiotic playground, is so loaded with Backstory! and Import!, that it would have turned Borges into a college football fan.

The Crimson Tide against the Fighting Irish!  The two most storied football programs in the land!  The Bear versus Knute Rockne, All-American!  Roll Tide Roll and Shake Down the Thunder!

The champions, the victorious mechanisms, through which marginalized populations gained a purchase in the American mainstream while staking out and maintaining a cohesive group identity!

(Put that on a t-shirt!  I dare you!)

Dixie Babble will post updates leading up to Monday’s championship game, because this game is evocative of an important part of the South’s history and culture, and because this game is a very big deal to a very big portion of Southerners.

Also, because that ‘very big portion of Southerners’ includes Mrs. Babble, and Dixie Babble – despite occasional evidence to the contrary – is not dumb.

Over at the Birmingham News (through al.com), Bob Carlton is running a Pop Culture Championship between Alabama and Notre Dame, starting at the movies.  Pick your favorite cinematic football player: the Crimson Tide’s All-American kick returner Forrest Gump (fictional), or Notre Dame’s benchwarming tackling dummy Rudy (pretty much fictional, it turns out).

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Partly because we should cherish what little college football we have left in this season, and Clemson and the University of South Carolina played two of the most exciting bowl games we’ve seen.

Partly because the Tigers and the Gamecocks both won, with guts and drama, and my friends in and from the Palmetto State deserve to celebrate.

Partly because South Carolina’s many, very passionate football fans, normally as bifurcated and bitterly opposed as any, can, for once, be happy at the same time.

Partly because these are the sorts of games you would show someone who doesn’t yet understand the pull and hold of sports in general, and football in particular.

But mostly because I wanted an excuse to watch this again.  And again.  And, maybe, again.

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Only one thing drew me away from the bowl games today: cooking the turnip greens.greens

(Speaking of the bowl games – Jadaveon Clowney, oh my good Lord.)

Though my wife fancies up the black-eyed peas into Texas caviar, I like my greens straightforward: some bacon, some salt, a quarter-hour of hard boil, an hour of simmer.  My father taught me to cook them that way, as he learned from his mother.

Have the years that I began with greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread been luckier and more prosperous than those that I did not?  Well, yes, by and large, as best as I can remember.  Do I really believe that this meal has mystical powers?  I’d say I believe it for the same reason I believe in ghosts: it’s so much more fun than not believing.

Better yet, I’d say I believe for the same reason I toss a pinch of spilled salt over my left shoulder, or remind myself – only every so often, and only in certain company – to say “might could.”

The folklore holds that eating this meal on New Year’s Day became lucky right after Sherman’s March, when black-eyed peas and greens were all the Yankees left Southerners to eat.  (Though some say Sephardic Jews brought the black-eyed peas custom with them to Georgia in the 1730s.)  In the standard telling – as far as there is such a thing – the peas stand for coins, the greens for bills, and the corn bread for gold.

This symbolism would have come as a surprise, once upon a time.

“The great triumvirate of southern vegetables was made up of turnips, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes,” quoth the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.  “Turnips were often planted in an open space near a pioneer’s house site before he had built the house, because they could be planted in late summer and would produce turnips and greens before a freeze ruined them.  The greens were more valuable than the turnips themselves, and in the spring they met the residents’ almost desperate need for a green vegetable.

“Cowpeas were of many varieties.  [Ed.’s note: including black-eyed peas]  Better green but good dry, peas were boiled with a piece of fat salt pork.  With corn bread they provided enough calories and enough protein to sustain a hard day’s work, and that was what the southern farmer needed.”

blackeyedpeasFor all but a few, the hardscrabble life of the Southern frontier gave way to the hardscrabble life of Reconstruction, sharecropping, mill and factory working, and generations relied on the same cheap, durable foods.  The daily fare of most of the South didn’t change much until after World War II.

I suspect that the notion of greens, peas, and corn bread bringing luck on New Year’s really began – or really took hold – around this time, too, and I suspect that the notion was less about the stated purpose, less about looking ahead to the new year, than looking back to some notion of a purer, poorer, prelapsarian South.

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