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On the Subject of Southern Food

By Gina Mallonee

In rural Alabama, you spent most of your days surrounded by three things: food, football and God. More often than not, you couldn’t have one without the other two. Growing up in the South was easy. Spending hot, humid summers stretched out in the sun, a glass of cold, sweet tea never too far out of reach, a choir of cicadas droning their lethargic melody into the far reaches of October. Winter comes snapping in like a crack of a whip, taking its duty for the few months that it can, reminding us all how much we crave the warmth of sunlight. And while the seasons may change, the people of the South do not. Their little routines continue on like the song of those homopterous insects that to this day have the power to sing me to sleep.

Sundays were spent in church and then around the dinner table. Most other denominations in our town got out a full half-hour earlier than we did, all in order to “beat the Baptists” to the restaurants and grocers. What can I say? We took filling ourselves on the Holy Spirit  seriously. We found him in Mrs. Ida’s fried chicken, which according to all accounts was “slap-yo’-mama good.” He also dwelled within every homemade pie, casserole and quiche that was made with the loving hands of the ladies within our church.

There was hardly a week where we didn’t join in fellowship around a friend’s table and partake of someone’s secret family recipes. My mother, a cook in her own right, would make a peach cobbler that was worth fighting over. It didn’t matter how much she cooked, her dishes were always scraped clean, leaving you feeling left out if you didn’t get to have your share of her mouthwatering dessert.

The rest of the children and I would drool over almost every item on the dessert table. The one exception was a weird dish that I never knew the name of. It consisted of green Jell-O, cottage cheese and something that resembled fruit. To me, it always look like someone’s leftovers that had been lost in the back of the refrigerator since the mid-’80s and were beginning to evolve. No, we left that to the elders of the church, who seemed to gum it down with the same solemnity as they did rest of their meal. Maybe we should have felt bad about it, but we didn’t.

Once I grew older, past the point where anything seemed easy, it was hard to find time for to enjoy those things that had shaped my childhood. I didn’t have time to go to church dinners and avoid green, wiggly desserts. Food became utilitarian, a means to an end, as mechanical as filling up your car in order to go further down the road. And while God and Football still seemed to greet me at every corner, I was only able to muster a passing wave as I went on about my day.

Now, as I approach the cusp of 30, I have begun to feel a great sense of nostalgia towards those younger days. The shift that occurs in a person between their early and late 20s is far greater than anyone had ever warned me. It is hard for me to clearly note the specific changes that have occurred in me over the last few years except to say that much has been gained. Much has been lost as well. Storms have been weathered with as much grace as I could muster, but within me now is a great desire to reflect. There is a longing for those old familiar routines, the simplicity of childhood, the comfort that comes flooding back to memory with the smells and tastes of those old church staples.

With them are all the things that shaped me into who I am today. The lessons I was patiently taught in Sunday school. The friends who have come and gone, as people do, spending a season in my life and leaving their own marks along their way. Those rare people who have earned a title far greater than just a “friend,” who have remained in my life and become a cornerstone to my own identity. The boys I loved. My parents and their stories, their encouragement and the discipline that they practised to instill character. The adventures I set out to have, the dreams I hoped to accomplish and all the little hopes that fill a young girl’s heart as she grows into a woman. These are all the things that come to the forefront of my mind when greeted by that which is comfortably familiar, the cornerstones of the Southern dinner table.

Those memories have become my own journey to Jerusalem, a place where I can find both serenity and salvation. My ticket is provided by mixing together those simple dishes that fill my home with sweet and savory smells. The robust and earthy tones of my grandmother’s pot roast stirred with the rich scent of mulled spices in an apple pie. The sizzle of chicken in a cast-iron skillet as it pops and squeals its way to a crisp golden brown (as close to Mrs. Ida’s as I can manage). Each step being carefully accounted, every ingredient being weighed and measured accordingly. These are the things that keep me grounded in the traditions I was brought up on. These are the things that bring me to that place of joy and longing. These are what bring me home.