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Archive for the ‘Hide, N.C.’ Category

What does it say about the South that three of Away.com’s “Five Creepiest Towns in America” are here?

(A fourth, Key West, is in a former Confederate state, but I don’t think anyone ever would describe it as part of the cultural South.)

If you answer, ‘Long settlement, frequent economic stagnation that discouraged redevelopment, a conservative regard for tradition and ancestry that sometimes cripples progress, an occasionally poisonous nostalgia, a brutal history of slavery and exploitation and war, a sweltering climate that (I swear) must melt people’s brains a bit from time to time, a landscape that juxtaposes harsh sunlight with broad and menacing shadows, and the fact that there’s just something a little weird about Spanish Moss,’ then shut up.  You’re no fun.

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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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