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Notes from a Southern Expatriate,,,
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Wisteria on Gazebo Across from Park, Savannah, Georgia, USA
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La Belle Cuisine


Notes from a Southern Expatriate,
with Recipes
by Michele W. Gerhard

(The following was written during my last tenure in Germany, from 1988
to 1997. As memorable as it was, I'm very happy to find myself once again
in the home of my heart, South Louisiana!)

I always know when one of these spells is coming, when I'm about to be attacked by a relapse of that dreaded chronic malady, homesickness. Not
just any old ordinary strain of homesickness, but the devastating, debilitating yearning of the displaced Southerner for his roots. Like addiction, it appears
to be a progressive, incurable, potentially fatal disease. The only antidote is
to deluge oneself in things southern, if an immediate geographical cure is not forthcoming. And this, of course, is how I know that I am headed for relapse. What no doubt appear to others as symptoms are, in fact, just my feeble attempts at a home-grown remedy for what ails me.

I begin to devour my favorite southern authors, the ones whose sacred
images of home make my heart ache, but, at the same time, soothe my
soul - Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Ellen Gilchrist,
Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons, John Grisham and others far too
numerous to mention. I begin to drag out dog-eared, coffee-stained
volumes whose cherished, mood-altering portrayals have sustained me
through many a sleepless night. How many readings would be enough?
Is there such a thing as enough? I am insatiable...

My literary adventures invariably lead to a perusal of my treasured video collection. The wee hours of the morning find me bleary-eyed, but still unwilling to tear myself away from such poignant pleasures as "Crimes
of the Heart", "Driving Miss Daisy", "Fried Green Tomatoes", or "Steel
Magnolias". I sense my husband's discomfort, bracing himself against the onslaught. Oh-my-God-there-she goes-again! How contagious will it be?
 (For he, too, has been bitten by this southern bug.) The fact of his German nationality, which I see as some peculiar fluke of fate, has not made him immune to this craving, for he is a naturalized southerner at heart - and
that is where it counts.

And if my literary and audio-visual bill of fare is not indication enough, my musical menu is a dead giveaway. "Watch out! She's off and running," he's saying to himself, "this is going to cost me....." Too late, too late, here come
B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr. (Dahlin',
you do know his daddy's the N'awlins D.A.!) Yes, Lord, and once again,
too many more to mention. Where to begin? Where to end? Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker,
Mahalia Jackson... I know, I know, I'm leaving out your favorite (how
she not even mention Elvis?), but there is a limit you know. This is
not intended to be a Southern musical anthology…

Suffice it to say that a good strong dose of blues and/or jazz is the sure cure
for what ails me. Or am I only kidding myself? Does it not in fact intensify
my pain? Hard to say, but have it I must. What could speak to my longing,
my yearning, my pining for the Southern essence more eloquently than that most quintessential music of the southern soul - jazz, blues, gospel... comin'
for to carry me home? My sincere apologies to you country and western fans.
I love Willie, too, honest I do, and Garth and Reba and Trisha Yearwood.
But my particular brand of hanging-moss-nostalgia was born and bred in an
environment (New Orleans!) that oozed blues and jazz out of every pore,
so I beg your kind indulgence.

I guess I might as well 'fess up right now. You'll probably find out sooner
or later anyway. My nostalgia might have been born and bred in the Deep
South, but I myself was, in fact, not. What can I say? I am a transplanted,
transformed, evolved Southerner. Not by birth, just by heart and soul. It somehow saddens me to admit that when asked ever so politely where I'm from (which is a polite way of asking who "my people" are, a Very
Important Southern Question), I would have to reply, "Kansas." Never
mind the fact that I was uprooted and transplanted to Lake Charles, LA
at the tender age of 4 and that I have spent the vast majority of the years
since then in either New Orleans or Jackson, MS. The only reply really
acceptable to a Southerner would have to be, "Kansas," since that is,
in fact, where I was born.

In case you're having trouble digesting this, let me illustrate the point
with an anecdote from Maryln Schwartz's Southern Belle Primer,
or Why Princess Margaret will never be a Kappa Kappa Gamma

It seems that a visitor to Natchez struck up a conversation with a woman
in the Chamber of Commerce office and asked if she were from Natchez.
"Oh, no, honey, I'm from Magnolia Springs." She went on to explain that
although she'd lived in Natchez for 43 years, she was from Magnolia
Springs. In the South, what counts is where you were born, so I guess
I'm from Kansas, even though I feel no connection with the Midwest
whatsoever. But give me a break, it isn't as though I had been born in
New Hampshire!

So just what is this southern mystique, this fascination? I'm not at all sure
it's definable. It is first and foremost an affair of the heart, and we incurable romantics, God help us, are highly susceptible to moonlight and magnolias,
gas lanterns on the levee, courtyard fountains and live oaks draped with
hanging moss. These images conjure up memories from my childhood and
my youth that automatically make my heart beat faster and bring a lump
to my throat.

Naturally, all this emphasis on Things Southern leads to visions of
Southern FOOD. Fantasies of shrimp prepared hundreds of different ways,
the quintessential fried chicken, barbecue, watermelon, New Orleans Red Beans and Rice with Smoked Sausage, pecan pie, coconut cake, fresh peach
ice cream
. Jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo, as the song goes. Let's
face it, food is something southern folks really know something about! How
to prepare it, how to present it, how to celebrate it, and how to ENJOY it.
Lord, have mercy! My fantasies lead to reminiscences of many a party from the past where I have willingly succumbed to the pure indulgence of my
senses, without apology, and allowed myself to be fed, to be nurtured by
the consummate sustenance of legendary Southern Hospitality.

Why is it, I wonder, that Southerners seem to have such a special gift in this regard? What makes our particular brand of hospitality so renowned? First
and foremost, it would seem that Southerners genuinely LOVE to entertain.
That oft heard overture, "Y'all come see us now, hear!" is perhaps not so
superficial as it may appear. We love to entertain to the degree that just
about any excuse for a gathering will do.

But why? Lee Bailey, one of my very favorite cookbook authors, who
hails from Louisiana, comments in the Introduction to his first cookbook,

Lee Bailey's Country Weekends:
Recipes for Good Food and Country Living
© 1983, Lee Bailey, Clarkson N. Potter, Publisher

"My native South, which indelibly marked me for perpetual country-boyhood, was, and is, home to many for whom entertaining is a way of life. When this tradition
first took hold several centuries ago, the South was mostly rural, and guests were
probably hard to come by - so people naturally wanted to do their those
days a typical year was characterized by an endless series of picnics, racing days,
church socials and meetings, birthdays, and anniversary celebrations - at which
great quantities of simple and delicious food were served. Even deaths were
marked and noted in a similar manner....Since this was also the heyday of the
house party and the extended visit.....these notions of hospitality got such a
good workout that they slipped permanently into the fabric of the culture."


Obviously, my intention here is not to attempt a comprehensive anthology
of the cuisine of the South. Volumes have been written on that delectable
subject, and no doubt many more will follow. Rather, nostalgia prompts
me to indulge myself in a bit of Southern reverie, by turning back the clock
to relive one of the countless social gatherings of my young adulthood. A
typical celebration - a baby or wedding shower, perhaps, a birthday or
anniversary, a party to say good-bye, a party to say hello - any of these
would surely have included the following typical Southern favorites:

Margaret's Sausage Balls
Lemon Bars Deluxe
Mammy's Cheese Straws
Valeria's Pineapple Cheese Ball
Sarah Beth's Hot Pepper Jelly
My Favorite Mexican Layered Dip
My Favorite Shrimp Dip
Artichoke Dip
Southern Biscuit Muffins
Margaret's Hot Cooked Mustard
My Favorite Chocolate Cookie Sheet Cake
Mammy's Hummingbird Cake
Lemon Buttermilk Chess Tartlets
Southern Chess Squares
Southern Pecan Pie

Article Archives Index
Southern Heirloom Recipes
A Tribute to Eudora Welty
A Tribute to Craig Claiborne
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