I've mentioned before on this blog that my current residence suffers from a dearth of restaurants. There are a couple of barbecue places, a few country cooking places (one of which is also one of the barbecue places), a couple of fried chicken places, a couple of Chinese restaurants, and the rest are the generic fast food establishments we're all familiar with.
Honestly, the local barbecue isn't really all that good. Of course, even mediocre barbecue is a pretty good option for non-vegetarians, but I miss access to some of the truly good places I left behind when I moved from northern Georgia. I'm currently in post planning at work, that partial week at the end of the school year where I still have to show up for work, but have no students or any planning to do for students. Because of the lack of students, I'm able to actually leave the building for lunch. The local restaurants love post- and pre-planning because every teacher gets that sort of glee at being able to do what everyone else almost always has the option to do: leave for lunch. For the rest of the year we're parsimonious trolls holed up in our room-caves hunched over a bowl of microwaved leftovers while the kids are out shoveling down the crap the lunchroom cooks up for $2 a day, but for those six sweet days that bookend each term, we're able to flow out into the community and deliver up our savings to the restauranteurs.
Today, I visited the barbecue/country cooking joint that's housed in the building that originally belonged to my grandmother when she owned and operated a diner in town. I'd love to be able to go back in time and see her in action and taste her cooking. I grew up thinking of the food I ate at her house as a decadent treat (my mom has always been a healthier cook than the average rural Southerner), but I have no idea what the food was like when she was cooking professionally.
But that digression has little to do with today's topic. As I was filling up my to-go box with chicken, macaroni and cheese, cabbage, and rice and tomatoes, I got to thinking about how food is one of the few remaining glimpses of this area's past. How much of what I was eating today would have been served up at my grandmother's diner or at her mother's dinner table?
Of course, just like the language and culture, the local cuisine has changed as cars and television exposed us more to the outside world, but large splinters of the food of the past remain. Just on my plate today there was the fried chicken, the boiled greens, and rice and tomatoes. I'm not sure how much cabbage was eaten here back in the day, but boiled greens are a universal staple here whether it's cabbage, kale, mustards, turnips (often with the root diced and cooked in), or collards. I love them all, but they're a fall, winter and early spring crop. They get bitter in the heat. Luckily, we have freezers now so we can eat the good stuff all year long. We also eat a lot more rice here than in most of the other parts of the U.S., probably because we're in that region that grew a lot of rice back in colonial days. I can't ever remember seeing a buffet here that didn't include rice of some sort. Today, it was seasoned stewed tomatoes over rice, but it's often used as just another side dish, sometimes covered in milk gravy, another local staple. I didn't pile them into my box (I've never eaten as much bread as most people), but every local restaurant also makes sure to have ample biscuits and cornbread available, the latter much less sweet than the cornbread muffins most people are familiar with. On Fridays, one of the spaces on the buffet is filled with fried catfish battered in corn meal, and one of the sides is replaced by grits.
Really the fried chicken is the only weird part of my meal today. Originally, it was special occasion food. The chickens were too valuable for their eggs (and making those eggs make more chickens in the case of the rooster) to eat them on a regular basis. Pork was the everyday meat, usually salt or smoke cured, and chicken was for Sundays when the preacher was visiting. Now, it's one of the cheaper meats in the grocery store.