okra, grits, and YES, MA’AM, PLEASE!
by Deborah Fagan Carpenter
A lot of outsiders think we’re a peculiar strain of folks down here in the Deep South. We move a little slower, we eat alien stuff like okra and grits, we talk funny, and we use unsophisticated language like “yawl” and “yes, ma’am, please.” Interestingly though, some of the southern foods which were once considered inedible by newcomers, are currently found on chic restaurant menus all over the country, and a lot of people world-wide are intrigued with our southern drawls and our slow moving culture.
How y’all doin’?
Our accents are unmistakable, whether they originate in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, the Carolinas, or Texas. Louisiana kindda has its own thing going, and Florida is such a melting pot, that the “southerness” isn’t necessarily as distinct there either. But usually, if we southerners utter a few words anywhere in the country, or the world, for that matter, our accent is immediately detected. When somebody picks up on it, they may not know from where in the south we came, but they definitely know we’re from SOMEWHERE DOWN THERE.
Walking down the hallway of an Italian hotel a few years ago, I passed two guys from England, and in casual greeting, I said, “Hello.” “Hello.” That’s it! THAT’S ALL I SAID! But straightaway one of them exclaimed, “Oh! You’re a Southerner! We love Southern accents!” Now, I don’t really think I have a halting southern accent, unlike my good friend Pattie, who, when coming through customs in New York, was asked by the customs agent to “Say something else in Southern for me!” But when confronted with it, as I was by the two English guys, I go into irrepressible southern drawl overdrive, and begin to sound like somebody straight out of Gone with the Wind.
Make no mistake about it, not everybody finds our southern drawls charming. In fact, some people think it’s proof positive of how dim-witted we are down here. Most of us don’t cultivate it or flaunt it, but it may be a little late for some of us to lose it, and at this point in my own life, if someone finds it offensive, “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Southern manners and southern hospitality are other places where our reputation precedes us, but are also behaviors that aren’t necessarily understood or appreciated elsewhere. I recently met a young woman however, who had moved to Tennessee from Indiana, and when I asked if she had experienced culture shock, she paused for a moment, and then replied, “Yes, but in a good way.” She was intrigued with how engaging southerners are with strangers, but the thing that impressed her the most was that southerners reply to questions or directives from elders with, “yes, ma’am” or “yes, sir.” She appreciated that the addition of “sir” or “ma’am” wasn’t just a show of respect; it softened the reply.
We move in slow motion in the South, so we’re okay with the time it takes to add “ma’am” or “sir” to an answer. It’s taught across the board to southern children, right alongside “please” and “thank you.” No matter how big a hurry I was in, I can’t imagine having answered an adult question when I was a child with a simple “yes” or “no.” From some it would have earned me a large, red mark in the deficit column, and from my parents, aunts, or uncles, it would have just been considered “sassy.”
We want people to feel comfortable down here—even if we don’t like them. It’s that hospitality thing. Ergo, if we bump into someone, we’re going to say, “I’m sorry.” If we need to go around someone in a store, we’re going to say, “Excuse me.” If someone spills red wine on our white dress, we’re going to say, “Oh, don’t give it another thought; it’ll come out.” If a guest is an hour late for a dinner party and messes up our casserole timing, we’re going to say, “No problem; we’ll work around it.” We delay our “ruined casserole tantrum” until after the party.
Pardon me, ma’am
Our inclination toward hospitality and manners might seem a little over the top, but it’s really just basic stuff. We teach our kids to hold the door for others—not just men for women. We want our kids to have some sense of good table conduct, or at the very least to know how to hold a knife and fork like a human living in the present, and not like a Neanderthal. And we’re pretty big on writing thank you notes—on actual paper. Although email has pretty much blown that one out of the water.
Southern manners aren’t about “Old South” mentality. On the contrary, southern hospitality centers on a softer approach to interacting with others, and it begins and ends with gracious conduct, and basic good etiquette. It isn’t about being “uppity.” It’s just fundamental civility.
“I wouldn’t eat any of that slimy green stuff if you paid me” is a typical “foreigner” reaction to the mention of one of our favorite warm weather foods–okra. But it’s hard to talk about southern peculiarities without mentioning the hairy green pods. Granted, okra may be an acquired taste, even for some southerners, but most of us admire the little green ladies’ fingers—as it’s known in some countries—for its versatility. Okra can be boiled, broiled, grilled, roasted, pickled, barbequed, steamed, a star in gumbo, stews, succotash, or salads, and last, but certainly not least—fried. Not only is the southern staple versatile and delicious, it’s good for the heart, (maybe not fried) diabetes, (also maybe not fried) weight loss, (definitely not fried) skin, eyes, and digestion.
Because of its slimy texture when it’s boiled, okra’s gotten a bad rap. But gourmet chefs around the country have discovered its merit, so it’s found its way to fine dining establishments, even in the north. While it’s definitely a southern crop, it can be grown in cooler climates too, if only for a short season.
Although the Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine is no longer operational, okra was on their menu when it was a thriving establishment, and it was one of their most popular offerings during its short growing season there. To honor the much aligned fried okra, I’m including the Arrows’ recipe here.
Grits is another misunderstood piece of southern culture that reflects our obvious lack of culinary sophistication. If the only way grits was ever served was the instant variety, cooked in water, accompanying bacon and eggs, it, and we would deserve the bad reputation. But stone ground grits, ground from dried corn kernels and cooked slowly with milk and seasonings, rises to a much higher level in the culinary world. Cheese grits, for example is the perfect complement to a pork roast dinner.
Anyone who’s never experienced South Carolina Low Country Shrimp and Grits or Louisiana gumbo made with okra, has missed out on two of life’s great culinary gifts. If offered, either or both would be a good place for a non-southerner to simply say, “Yes, ma’am, please,” and after dinner, a handwritten thank you note to the chef would be a nice touch too.
Arrows’ Crispy Okra with Basil Pesto and Bacon
Ingredients: Pesto: 1 cup basil leaves, 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, 1 tsp. salt, 2 Tbs. olive oil, Juice of 1 lemon, 1 tsp. chopped garlic, 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts. Fried Okra: 2 lb. fresh okra cut into 1/4-in. rounds, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 2 Tbs. olive oil Salt and pepper. 8 strips crispy bacon, 8 basil sprigs.
4 appetizer servings
Process all the pesto ingredients in a blender or food processor. Set aside. Toss the okra with the cornmeal and place in a sieve to shake off excess cornmeal. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan until it’s hot. Test by putting one piece of okra into the pan. If the oil sizzles right away, it’s ready. Add the rest of the okra. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and slowly sauté over medium heat until the okra is golden brown, about 4 min. Arrange the okra and bacon on four plates, drizzle with pesto, garnish with basil sprigs, and serve at once. Note: The flavors of this dish combine well with sliced yellow and red tomatoes drizzled with a light vinaigrette.
Recipe by Clark Frasier August 1998
Foster’s Market Cheesy Grits Soufflé
4 tsp. kosher salt, divided, 2 cups uncooked regular yellow grits, 3 cups milk, 1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 3 ears), 6 large eggs, lightly beaten, 2 cups (8 oz.) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese, 6 Tbsp. butter 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced 1 Tbsp. sugar 1 tsp. hot sauce 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 350°. Generously butter a 3-qt. baking dish; freeze 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring 3 cups water and 1 tsp. salt to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually whisk in grits; return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, and cook, whisking often, 2 to 3 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in milk, and cook, stirring constantly, 3 to 4 minutes or until grits are creamy.
- Remove from heat, and stir in corn, next 7 ingredients, and remaining 3 tsp. salt. Spread mixture in prepared dish. Place on an aluminum foil-lined jelly-roll pan.
- Bake at 350° for 50 minutes or until puffed, firm around edges, and slightly soft in center. Remove from oven to a wire rack, and cool 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 to 10 servings. Hands-on 25 min.; Total 1 hour, 20 min
Crispy okra with basil pesto photo taken by Scott Phillips
Cheesy Grits photo from Pinterest
Feature photo by Deborah Fagan Carpenter