The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 4)

Round the Supper Table

I love everything about food: the way it looks, the way it’s prepared, the way it smells, the way it brings people together, and of course, the way it tastes.  Then it’s no wonder that I’m happy that food is a central aspect of Southern culture.  Food is naturally important to every culture; it sustains its people and how it’s prepared and enjoyed says a lot about the culture itself.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people from all over the world, and when discussing a variety of things, we’ve all agreed on one thing:  there is a huge difference between “food” and “meal.”  Food is something that you eat to survive; a meal is an experience, centered around food, that is shared by people.

Growing up in the South, we had a home-cooked meal almost every night and unless there was something special on, we all sat around the supper table to eat it, not in front of the TV.  Kitchens back home are loud and always seem to be busy.  A Southern kitchen is still traditionally a woman’s domain and it’s where your Mama, your Nanny, your Auntie, or your Grandmama turn food into the best meals of your life.  You may have heard of the saying “Food so good, it’ll make you want to slap yo’ mama!”  Well, I think Southern food is so good, your mama will want to slap herself!

The Southern smorgasbord of food includes all of the classics: fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, grits, tomato sandwiches, and cornbread, just to name a few.  And no self-respecting Southern pantry is complete without hot sauce.  But there is also some stuff that’s only for the more adventurous folks, like chittlins, neck bone, and pigs’ feet.

Which fresh vegetables you have depends on the season and recipes are never in “cups” or “ounces,” but instead call for “a pinch,” “a bit,” or “a lot.”  A lot is usually meant for the oil, because we’ll eat most anything fried, from chicken, to pork chops, to ribs, to steak.  Some of the best cornbread is fried, and I’ve even heard of someone frying an Oreo.

So, no, Southern food isn’t the healthiest (a Southern breakfast with pancakes, eggs, and sausage probably has about 5,000 calories…per bite), but whether it is home cookin-soul food, real Southern barbeque, or a fresh hunk of meat hot off the grill, it’ll be some of the best tasting food you’ve ever put in your mouth.

Having fresh-squeezed lemonade on the porch may be a little romanticized, but you can bet that every Southern refrigerator has a gallon of tea sitting in it.  And “tea” in the South, mind you, isn’t hot or served in a dainty little cup.  It’s sweetened, served cold with plenty of ice, and we drink it from glass cups, mason jars, or red solo cups.  I don’t have to tell any of you that there’s nothing more refreshing when you’ve been working out in the yard than a cold glass of sweet tea.

Like I mentioned before, it’s not just the food that’s special; it’s how it is served, shared and eaten that adds the Southern flair.  Sure, we know how to set a table with all the fancy silverware and fine China, but I’d much rather pile my food high on a paper plate and eat it out on the porch step.  We usually eat together anyway, but when there’s any type of special occasion – if someone got good news at work, or if the semester ended well, or if you have company – you better watch out.  We’ll call all of the immediate family and there’ll be a sure ‘nough get together.  I love it when there’s such a gathering.  The table doesn’t fit all of the chairs, so you’ve got chairs pulled up to the corners and squeezed in between people.  Everyone’s reaching over everybody else trying to fix their plate, and between the clinking of the forks on the plates and the “pass me the peas” and “hand me a piece of cornbread,” you can hear stories (of the day or of times gone past) and laughter.  That is a meal.

Eventually comes a point when all plates are clean (though you already passed the point of being full a drumstick and a helping of tomato gravy ago), but no one gets up just yet.  More stories have to be told first.

Then comes the dessert.  And as far as I’m concerned, banana puddin’ is the South’s gift to the world.  But if sweet, banana, sent-straight-from-heaven, custardy goodness isn’t your thing, there’s probably a cake sitting around somewhere.  I’ve come to discover that being able to bake a good pound cake or a good three-layered cake is like a right of passage for a Southern lady.  Now, judging someone’s status based on their baking ability may be a little harsh, but you won’t hear me complaining when the competition produces an eight pound caramel cake or a red velvet cake that’s recipe has been carefully guarded for over fifty years.

So, as you can see, food is a passion of mine.  Luckily, both sides of my family know how to cook.  I love Sunday morning pancakes, the taste of a steak right off the grill, my Grandma’s homemade lasagna and vegetable soup, and “Farm gourmet” suppers.  But more than the food itself, I love sharing a meal with family and friends.  Whether it’s my family from down the road, or my friends from half way across the globe, I love that we can share a common table, a common experience, a common friendship.

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The South: A Photo Essay by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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