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Posts Tagged ‘okra’

I’m Dixie Babbling in New York City this week, which isn’t as disorienting as you might think.*  Our first night in the city (again), my wife and I met some friends in the East Village for a dinner of “Ukrainian soul food.”  As we left I noticed a big BBQ sign down the street, and told how I once came to NYC for meetings and was taken for lunch to a place in Midtown offering “authentic Southern barbecue.”

It was a gracious, if misguided, gesture, and I wondered then – and again to our friends – why in New York you’d try to offer “authentic” barbecue.  To which our friend Matt replied, with great wisdom, “All I can say is there’s a Chinatown here.”

He could have reminded me that we just walked out of a Ukrainian restaurant, because the concept applies.  New York is not a city of immigrants; it’s THE city of immigrants, and that includes great waves of immigrants from within, from “flyover country,” from all those places that are most definitely not New York City.

So my Dixie Babbles aren’t that foreign in Manhattan.  No one has looked at me funny when I speak.  Mine is far from the only drawl in the borough.  I’ve known so many who have left the South for New York and, while retaining much of their Southernness, never looked back.*  An old and grand and thriving strand of American fiction rests on the notion.

And though there is no “Dixietown” or “Little Hicksville” neighborhood, New York City does have its own old enclave of transplanted Southerners: Harlem.  The African-Americans who left Dixie and found a home north of 110th Street rarely self-identified as Southerners – for damn good reasons – but the South’s culture was integrated long before its water fountains.  Try to imagine the South without front porches, okra, and the banjo – all of which have African roots.  If you find yourself in Manhattan and want a meal that will remind you of home, skip the Midtown barbecue and head to Harlem.

* I’ve been to New York more times than I can count, but still, every time I arrive, I have a momentary disruption that runs something like this: “Dear God, the people; all these people.  How can there be this many people, and how can they all be in one place for anything other than a football game?  And, oh Lord, this is only a tiny fraction of them.  Oh gracious God, please set me down in the middle of a nice quiet swamp before I go out of my mind.”

* Harold Hayes, the editor who turned Esquire into a cultural force in the 1960s, was the son of the Baptist preacher who was pastor of my great-grandparents’ church in my hometown.

Postscript: I’d written this post in my notebook during a break from sightseeing, then walked through Chinatown to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.  In the midst of a fascinating if somewhat overpriced one-hour tour, the guide made reference to the South’s current struggles with Hispanic immigration – the South’s first experience with mass influx of non-English speakers since the 1700s, and one we haven’t handled especially well; we should own up to that.  She mentioned she’d lived in the South, but then hastened to add, “Don’t tell anyone that.”  Ha ha.  So glad to know we can still condescend toward the South and Southerners, even in a discussion of the evils of discrimination.

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