I spend a lot of time at the grocery store now that I'm not working and baking a lot more (make some bread with me today!). Grocery stores in Bloomington, Indiana after five p.m. are terrifying places. Once, an eight-year-old took a bunch of bananas right out of my hands while their father was watching. I didn't do anything. The dad didn't do anything. I was shocked, I think the dad just wanted to go home. Now that I can go to the grocery store during the day, they've become quiet, peaceful places again. I can even walk to the grocery store, which is what I do when I'm not making a big run. On my walks, I usually listen to a podcast and lately that has been the podcast Gravy.
Gravy is a podcast by the Southern Foodway Alliance that "shares stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat." Part of my love for the podcast began because of its inclusion of Kentucky in the American South, my home state and a state that is sometimes incorrectly included in the Midwest. I don't have anything against the Midwest, but Kentucky is not a Midwestern state. Kentucky is full of hill people with varying, lilting accents, fierce isolationist spirits, a wariness of outsiders, and intense honor culture. These are all distinctly Southern traits.
My love for Gravy has intensified with each episode because of the complicated and layered stories it shares about the people, foods, and cultures of the South. The stories are never simple because the history of food is never simple. After all, people create food and people are complicated, imperfect, and influenced by so many things, we sometimes don't even know where our influences come from. A recent episode by Lolis Eric Elie, "Southern Food Gets Christoper Columbus-ed," covers some of his fears about Southern culture being lost to a more generic, national culture.
Southern food, much like podcasts, is having a moment. Elie even argues that Southern cuisine has become American cuisine. And I can see where he's coming from. When I traveled to D.C. two weeks ago, I had to stop myself from ordering fried chicken at every restaurant we went to (I'm not totally opposed to eating fried chicken several days in a row, but I do try not to) and it didn't even occur to me at the time that these were vastly different restaurants, serving very different clientele. Don't believe me? Are there any bourbon bars near you? Have you spoken to someone in the last week (day) who knows everything about the difference between rye and wheat and bourbon and whiskey? Yeah, bourbon is part of this moment too.
With all this attention, young southerners have started to take a little more pride in their roots. In Kentucky, there's even a small and very well-known company called Kentucky for Kentucky that sells Kentucky-themed clothing, coffee mugs, posters, and barware. In our house right now we probably have at least five products from Kentucky for Kentucky. Being Southern isn't just about where you grew up anymore. It has become a brand and like any brand, it's influenced by the perception of others. What does it mean to be Southern? What does it mean to say "y'all" or "you all"? This is one I've thought about a lot as y'all has been adapted into the speech of non-southerners and even people from the South who would have shunned the phrase before. Do we say "y'all" because our families and the people we grew up with said it and we're reclaiming it? Do we say "y'all" because we see it on a t-shirt and that makes it cool? Do we say "y'all" because the idea of being Southern puts us at the center of a culture that is "trending"? And if we aren't saying it because it's truly part of our history, does that mean "y'all" isn't even Southern anymore?
In the podcast, Elie poignantly asks, "Is the south remaking itself to be more of itself or to be more of what is expected of it by outsiders?" How do we embrace a culture and region and encourage progress in that region while maintaining the parts of that culture that are rich and storied and that aid in a more dynamic national identity? Can you preserve while also advancing? When do the expectations and perceptions that others have of what something is become so prevalent that the thing itself changes to meet those expectations?
Of course, this is a question that we can ask about ourselves too. As I said last week, we are made up of many, sometimes contradictory, histories and we help to create culture. So on a personal level, how do we perform ourselves versus be ourselves and how does that represent where we're from? Then, how does it change that place too?
Food blogs are a great place to talk about perception versus reality. This photo of a scrumptious pumpkin cheesecake looks (hopefully) effortless and bright and inviting. Right now, I bake in a pretty dark, not-so-inviting kitchen. When it's time to take pictures, I run into the living room, take everything off a side table, move the side table in front of a window, snap a picture or five, then run bake into the kitchen to finish whatever I'm doing. The reality is not as effortless as the photo is intended to look. And that seems to be about on par with the rest of life too.