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Archive for January, 2013

This doesn’t have to do with the South, specifically.  But, you know, bourbon . . .

milkpunch-ingred-600x450AFR photo by Michele Kayal , courtesy American Food Roots

Bourbon: we’re milking it

http://www.americanfoodroots.com/features/bourbon-were-milking-it-2/

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Well, that was anticlimactic.

Deprived of an exciting game to discuss last night, ESPN’s Brent Burgundy Musburger filled a few minutes (and blew up Twitter) by . . . um, lavishing praise on the girlfriend of Alabama QB A.J. McCarron (she’s also Miss Alabama, because of course she is).  Just before his drool ajsgirlfriendshorted out the mike, he urged “youngsters in Alabama” to go throw a football around the backyard with their dads, apparently so that each and every one of them could someday have a good-looking girlfriend like A.J.’s.

Nevermind (for now) the antediluvian sexual politics at play in that statement – does Brent really think there are any Alabama “youngsters,” at all inclined and capable, who aren’t already tossing a football every chance they get?

Much has been and will be made about the various ridiculous streaks that the Tide continued last night.  The University of Alabama has now won two straight national titles, and three out of the last four; the state of Alabama, however, has won all four in a row, since the Tide’s streak was interrupted only by their rivals at Auburn.  An SEC team has won the last seven BCS championships in a row, but that’s misleading: no one’s seen Kentucky, Vandy, and Arkansas contending for the big prize.

Only four SEC teams, each from a Gulf Coast state, have won those seven straight titles: Florida, Louisiana State, Auburn, and Alabama.  If you throw in Texas from the Big 12, then schools from Gulf Coast states have won the last eight straight national championships.  Throw in Miami and Florida State, and the Gulf Coast has won 11 of the 15 BCS Championship games played since 1998.  Remember that Tennessee won the very first BCS title, after the ’98 season, and you realize that the South has NOT sent forth the best college football team in the country only three times since Bill Clinton was president.

This isn’t extraordinary; this is cotton-pickin’ ridiculous.  This threatens to make college football a regional niche sport, if it keeps up.

alabama-routs-notre-dame-wins-2nd-straight-bcs-titleNor is this a case of big programs importing the best talent from all over the country.  This is, with one major exception, a homegrown phenomenon.  My quick, unscientific survey (i.e., finding the rosters online and counting) finds that of the 116 players on the Crimson Tide’s official roster, 48 are from the state of Alabama, and a whopping 104 are from the South (including Florida and Texas, but not Maryland).

Heck, Notre Dame’s roster includes 29 players from the South (most of them from Texas, Florida, and North Carolina), compared to 34 from the Fighting Irish’s traditional recruiting grounds in the Greater Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

Much has been and will be made about how and why football is such a big deal down here, how and why we apparently do “do football better down South”; there’s a lot of words about pride and fear, and a lot of metaphors involving forges and furnaces.  All that is true and has its place – that place usually being the bright and hopeful start of the season – but in the cold light of another SEC championship, the more prosaic answers look more right.

This ‘Outside the Lines’ article, from nearly a year ago, sums up most of the reasons why the South keeps playing such fine football, but only touches briefly on two of the most important:

One, it’s warmer here.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  Spring starts earlier; fall lasts longer.  As fun as it is to play tackle football in the snow, better weather makes for more practice.  Maybe global warming will level the playing field by melting the snow off of it.

Two, the Rust Belt is, you know, rusting.  The population is shifting South, and has been for a long while now.  Houston is the fourth-largest city in the nation, and is gaining on Chicago.  The kids who grew up playing football in the shadows of steel mills and auto plants have moved to Florida and Texas and the Carolinas, and their kids are growing up playing football in the shadow of the SEC’s dominance.

Charlotte, for instance, with no real native football tradition to speak of, suddenly has become a hotbed of high school football and college recruiting, with players from the Charlotte metro seeing significant playing time for both the Tide and the Irish.  Much of this is just a question ofboystacklefootball numbers: the population of the Charlotte area grew by 64.6% from 2000 to 2010, and more people means a better chance of more and better players.  Some of this, though, is the unintended consequences of the football culture.  The Carolina Panthers joined the NFL in 1995; since then, it seems like every time I listen to Charlotte sports talk radio, I hear about another retired Panther who’s stayed in Charlotte and volunteers to help coach a youth or high school team.  Nine-year-olds in Charlotte are getting coaching tips from former pros.  Repeat that pattern all over the region, and imagine the head start these Sun Belt kids have.  Imagine all the Alabamians not yet born, who will learn the game from coaches who are learning the game from Nick Saban.

Today – probably right at this moment – footballs are filling a thousand pockets of the Southern air, tossed and caught by kids who love the game for the game itself, with or without a shot at Miss Alabama.

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Once I was soldiering through a rough summer, jonesing for college football more than usual, and since I’d already read all the preview magazines, and since there are as yet no biographies of Wake Forest football coaches, I bought a copy of The Last Coach, Allen Barra’s acclaimed biography of Bear Bryant.  From this book I felt I learned a great deal not just about Bryant and Alabama football, but about the South, and America in the middle of the American century.  Hell, a couple of times I even felt like Bryant was giving me a pep talk from beyond the grave, asking me what I was made of, challenging me not to quit.

And now I might as well tell you the rest of this story, which I promise you is true: About a month after I finished the book, I met a beautiful woman at a book convention in Atlanta.  When I learned that she was from Birmingham, and a rabid Alabama fan, I thanked Jesus and my reading muse for this little bit of lucky timing.

I said, Why, I just read a biography of Bear Bryant, a fantastic book called The Last Coach.  Do you, by any chance, know this book?

She did, indeed, she said.  Turned out, she knew it better than all but a few.  Turned out that the author was – is – her uncle.

Three years and two weeks later, she became my wife, which is how I came to find myself in Tuscaloosa on a September Saturday (roughly 5 years to the day after we met, by the way), walking down the Strip, drinking beer at The Houndstooth, continuing past the stadium and into the Denny Chimesboundaried swarm of the campus proper.  We ate barbecue and chicken wings.  She toured me around the Quad, from Denny Chimes to the Gorgas Library, wanting me to take in the full array of Tide Nation.

She said that tailgating on the Quad was once like a land rush, a frantic race to stake your claim days before the game.  Now, it seems, the Quad is chalked and platted into lots bought and paid for, most of them by banks and law firms and white-collar businesses.  Other businesses cater to the tailgaters, either literally by delivering food in a golf cart and drinks chilled in locked coolers, or figuratively by erecting a tent and hooking up a satellite TV (to watch other, lesser college football teams).  The effect is less Wild West and more well-ordered, prosperous subdivision; I would like to be here in the early, early morning, when the tents go up.

After a couple of hours we walked back to the stadium to see the team come off their buses, to watch, from the back rows of the deep and plaintive crowd, the tops of massive heads take the Walk of Champions, past the bronze pagan statues of the five coaches – including the one at the head of this walk – who brought the nation’s championship back to Tuscaloosa.

We returned to the Quad in time to see the “Million Dollar Band” line up on the library steps and play “Yea, Alabama” in the fading light.  “Yea, Alabama” may be the fightingest fight song in America.  The words to most fight songs are just rosy platitudes about the virtues of the home team and school, and generic urgings to play hard and win through.  “Yea, Alabama” commands its team to “teach the Bulldogs to behave” and “send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave.”

I have found that there are two versions of the next verse.  My wife always thought it ran, “If a man starts to weaken, that’s a shame.”  Others say that the original lyrics are, “If a man starts to weaken, that’s HIS shame.”  My wife decided she likes this second version better.  I have been warned.  The band left the quad and marched into the stadium, and we joined the thousands following in their wake.

I am not an Alabama fan; I am a fan of the Alabama football team, and there is a difference.  Mainly I am a big fan of my wife and her family; I love them all fiercely, and, also, I am not dumb.  My own allegiance presents no conflict, and won’t without a miraculous rise or a stunning fall by one team or the other.  For this game I insisted on wearing a shirt in my team’s colors, but with an Alabama ball cap.  I wore that cap honestly, as family and not as a craven frontrunner climbing on the bandwagon, even if I’m not an Alabama fan.

Lord, though, it is seductive: all this history, this hegemony; to be invited into this community, sealed and marked with its own language that’s both private and famous; to be invited into all this confidence, all the downright certitude.  This is the tribal pride, the yawping barbaric gallantry, the “proto-Dorian bond” of the South, rendered joyful and (mostly) harmless and transracial and (so, so often) triumphant.  All that winning.  All that glorious past.  Never mind the sound of it – the very notion of 100,000 people yelling “Roll Tide, Roll” in unison, without mechanical prompt or reminder, astounds.

rolltideLet me be the 5,000th writer to point out that Alabama football gave this state, and all the South, something to be proud of when it had so much else to be very ashamed of, and that’s why they take their football so seriously here, and let me also throw out there that maybe they take their football so seriously here because they keep winning so doggone many football games.  (I will note and admit that most of the Alabama fans I’ve come to know, male and female, know the game well.)

The University of Alabama football team has stood as a symbol of so many things at so many times, and so often at the same time, that if they didn’t keep winning we might lose sight of the ball: They were the standard-bearers for downtrodden Dixie; they were the champions of segregation and white oppression.  To other, older parts of the South, they were a collection of country boys with names like Lee Roy, to be mocked and/or envied; within the state, they play for the school for the moneyed elites.  To the sports media, they are a juggernaut of excellence, the New York Yankees of college football, joyless in their grim perfection and lofty expectations; to their fans, they are the focal point around which the seasons turn.

In our seats high above the north end zone, my wife got teary-eyed watching the pre-game history lessons on the video boards.  First, the survey course, on Alabama football through the ages, from when the game crossed the Black Warrior River onto campus in 1892 through all 14 of their national championships, including – especially – the one won last year.  Then, soon after, the seminar, on the man who coached the Tide to six of those titles, the man remembered everywhere here by name and by fabric pattern.  You could call it a Bear-haunted landscape, except that his presence is too blatant to be a haunting.  The video board shows a clip from one of his locker room speeches, and 50 years on, he’s still the most charismatic man in the state.

Nick Saban is compelling in his relentlessness; he tricks you into thinking that you, too, could enjoy his level of success, his excellence, if you could just focus as narrowly, work as hard, be as single-minded as he is.  Saban benefits from having the job three decades after Bryant died, and he has won enough that his relentlessness has become a kind of charisma.  But the first time I came to Birmingham to meet my future wife’s family, I came for a wedding in which she was maid-of-honor, and the groom’s cake was topped with an edible and frosted houndstooth hat.

The groom, by the way, would have been in diapers when Bear Bryant died.

Tonight Ole Miss becomes the first team all season to hold a lead on Alabama.  They hold that lead for all of 15 seconds.  Alabama wins over the course of the night, and I mean that exactly.  This year’s team, perhaps more than any other ever, really does resemble a Crimson Tide: Alabama’s third-stringers could start for all but a few Division I teams, and for all Saban’s brilliance, he does seem simply to throw wave after wave of superior talent at the opponent.

These players and their head coach, though, never talk about talent.  They talk about “the process,” and how they stay focused on “the process,” and how, as long as they focus on “the process,” then winning will follow.  It’s the message that almost every great college coach, in one form or another, has preached: to Dean Smith, it was “the system”; John Wooden codified it as his “Pyramid of Success.”  The idea is that you worry about performing each function of the game to the best of your ability, each time you practice or perform.  (I assume it’s only a matter of time before someone opens a bar in Tuscaloosa called “The Process.”)

Saban’s other mantra is “Do your job,” the idea being that if each player does his job, and focuses laser-like on his small role within the grand mechanics of the game, then “the process” will proceed without hitch or hindrance, and victory will roll in as surely as the . . . well, you know.

Because Nick Saban and his staff and their players are so good at what they do, “the process” proceeds as envisioned far more often than not, and that much winning can’t help but be fun.  What it may lack in lyricism, it makes up for in effective competence, and effective competence is an undervalued virtue these days.

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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.

clowney.0_standard_352.0

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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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