Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, was reportedly here in town early this week with his new book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.” In his book’s introductory essay, he draws what he thinks is a clean line between “Bubba-ville,” by which he means middle America, especially the South–and “Bubble-ville,” by which he means the three liberal epicenters of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
As they say, there are two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Mr. Huckabee is a member of the former group.
Of course, the book is published by St. Martin’s Press, in New York, which may explain why it’s not perfectly edited, with infelicitous syntax and excessive quotation marks. His liberal publisher obviously sabotaged it by running it as the author intended.
As a 10th-generation Southerner, I was a little perplexed by his central premise. But I admit I tend to resist regional generalities. I know many others are very fond of them.
On the one hand, I’m a typical denizen of what he calls Bubba-ville. Like Mr. Huckabee, I grew up with guns. From the age of 9, I played with pellet guns, and had two shotguns hanging on my bedroom wall—though I admit I’ve never owned a handgun. And I do have “three or more Bibles” in my house, as people in “Bubba-ville” are supposed to have. I also have two different translations of the Koran, or Qur’an, as one version prefers it, and a Book of Mormon, and somewhere a Bhagavad Gita, though I haven’t seen it lately.
“So let me make it clear,” Huckabee writes. “I’m a proud son of the South, but I can easily relate to folks from the Midwest, Southwest, and most of rural America. I feel a bit more disconnected from people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”
The changing a tire reference comes with some ironies, concerning the fact that automobiles were slow to catch on in the South, 80 or 90 years ago. Southern conservatives, among them the Vanderbilt Agrarians, suspected automobiles were a Northern plot to enslave the Southerner, not just to the big-city auto industry, but to the big-city banks and insurance companies—and, of course, the big-city tire companies.
But for better or worse, I’ve fired guns, fished with cane poles, and changed tires, more than a few times each, and each frankly more than I care to. Of those four, the one I’m not familiar with is the cooking with propane. I cook with charcoal, and on rare occasions, with wood. Last weekend, as my neighbors will attest, I cooked a couple of pans’ worth of Benton’s bacon over an open wood fire in the backyard. It was fun. I’m not sure why people ever cook with propane, or why that practice might make them trustworthy to Mr. Huckabee.
Many of his distinctions have to do with cooking in general. “Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant?” Huckabee asks. “Good luck. Not even for breakfast!”
Never mind New York: have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Knoxville restaurant? Well, I take that back. Grits were rarely encountered in fancy Knoxville restaurants until recent years. But the fact is, grits have become nationally trendy, haute even, as a droll addition to shrimp and truffles and goat cheese and scallops. Now you can get grits in any number of upscale fusion restaurants across the nation.
Therein lies an interesting paradox.
Grits are much more common in East Tennessee today than they were to our great-grandparents’ generation. As I’ve noted a few times in newspaper columns, based on interviews with local folks much older than me, including the late historian Ron Allen, grits were rare in Knoxville restaurants before the 1960s, on hardly any local menus–with the exception of a couple with a “Southern Manor” theme, that catered to Northern motorists on their way to Florida.
The theory we developed is that Knoxville restaurants began serving grits because Northern tourists began demanding them. Then the rest of us got used to it. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that a Hollywood product called “The Beverly Hillbillies” introduced grits to mainstream America, and, indirectly, to many restaurants in my home town. Then, in the 1970s, the Carter candidacy as an emblematic Southerner gave grits a second boost, aligning with that other odd cultural developments, like the “Kiss my grits” retort of another Hollywood product. References like that at least make you curious. When a Northerner takes the trouble of driving across the South to Florida, he wants to be able to report something distinctive about his adventure to his chums back in Boston. “I went to Tennessee and I actually tried grits, and let me tell you–”
Of course, the sad fact is there’s really no adventure there. Pull back the curtain, and grits just aren’t that big a deal. Grits represent mainly a texture. If you pureed grits to remove the pebbly texture and ate them blindfolded, with no seasonings, would you have any idea what it was? By comparison to grits, skim milk has a rich, hearty flavor.
Grits take on the flavor of whatever they’re served with. What do grits taste like? Butter and salt, of course. Or garlic and cheddar cheese, if you use that popular magazine recipe, which swept the region in the late ’60s. When I order grits, it’s most often because I’ve ordered a fried egg, and I need the grits to sop it up. Therefore grits taste like eggs.
Some people claim they love grits, some claim they hate them. Maybe they’re all lying. There’s just not enough there to love or hate. We use grits to express a loyalty. Which may be the same reason most people arrive at their political opinions: to find an identity, a sense of belonging in a welcoming group.
Huckabee makes fun of Los Angeles residents for eating kale. “I thought only North Koreans ate lawn clippings,” he says. I first grew kale in my sunny Knoxville back yard when I was about 10, from a packet of seeds from around the corner at Mayo’s. I didn’t know it was fancy. I don’t grow it anymore, but I still cook kale, grown by local farmers. To me, kale still doesn’t seem urban or bi-coastal or Communist. It’s greens.
“If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer,” Huckabee writes, “I probably won’t relate to them without some effort.”
Although I’m lock-step with Mr. Huckabee on the issue of pepper sauce with black-eyed peas, that line confounded me on several levels. To begin with, there’s his choice of terminology. He keeps using the term “relating to,” which sounds to me like old-school liberalese. Did anyone ever “relate to” any other human until about 1967, the Summer of Love? Then there’s the phrase, “for an appetizer”? Do they serve fried green tomatoes as “appetizers” in Bubba-ville? I’m old enough to remember when the very concept of appetizers seemed fancy and urban.
But more to the point is his second culinary example, and it raises another interesting paradox, too.
Fried green tomatoes is apparently a 20th-century invention. According to the Google research feature Ngram, the phrase “fried green tomatoes” didn’t exist until the era of the motion picture and radio, and it remained rather obscure, in print at least, until the 1980s. Then it boomed. Most of the references to the dish in history have come in the last 25 years or so.
I’d grown at least a dozen summers’ worth of Tennessee tomatoes before ever heard of fried green tomatoes. It would have seemed such a strange thing to do, to fry any sort of tomato, and to consider eating a green tomato at all. Aren’t ripe, fresh tomatoes always better? Fried green tomatoes seems like a fall-back tactic, a graceful way to deal with a mistake, a tomato that falls off the vine before it’s ripe. The only time I ever have enough green tomatoes on hand to consider making a dish of them is right before the first freeze, when I go out and pick them all, no matter what they look like, because if I don’t, the next day they’ll be bags of goo.
I have a bunch of old Southern cookbooks, several from my grandparents’ generation and even before. Only a couple of them mention fried tomatoes as one of several options for cooking tomatoes as a side dish. They don’t make any big deal of them, describing them alongside fried ripe tomatoes, which are a bit more of a challenge, because if you don’t do it right, they fall apart. My late friend John Egerton’s definitive 1987 book “Southern Food” briefly notes “fried tomatoes,” both green and ripe, as a sometime accompaniment with breakfast, preferably with bacon gravy. The “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” published in Chapel Hill in 1989 after years of work by contributors across the South, weighs about 10 pounds and describes dozens of signature Southern symbols and staples, but it does not acknowledge any familiarity with the existence of fried green tomatoes.
I first heard of them around the time that big encyclopedia came out. I grew up knowing about crawfish and chitlins and gumbo and dirty rice and red rice and cornbread and molasses. By the time I was a teenager I could easily tell the difference between red-eye gravy and sawmill gravy, and Memphis barbecue and Carolina barbecue. But I never heard of “fried green tomatoes” until the release of a very funny and popular Hollywood movie by that name, in 1991. It was based on a recent novel by Fannie Flagg, who was my favorite contestant on “The Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares.” She’s originally from Birmingham, but has spent much of her life in Los Angeles. And though she didn’t invent fried green tomatoes, she’s responsible for about 98 percent of the recent hubbub about them as a Southern symbol. Fannie Flagg made them a Southern icon.
Suddenly fried green tomatoes were a thing, and you saw them everywhere. I learned to fix them, myself. By now I’ve had hundreds of fried green tomatoes. But Southern as I am, most of the fried green tomatoes I’ve enjoyed are the ones in the Eggs Chesapeake, the brunch favorite at the British gastropub the Crown & Goose. That dish also includes a poached egg, a fine crab cake, and hollandaise sauce. And truth be told, it’s not the fried green tomatoes that you notice.
I have come to like fried green tomatoes well enough, about as much as I like whole-wheat toast. Like grits, they’re best when they’re served with something else, and what you notice is the something else.
Southerners are a lot like grits and fried green tomatoes. We take on whatever flavor the whimsical chefs on the coasts apply to us. If we’re noble and gallant and soft-spoken and well-mannered, as Hollywood said we were in the ’30s, we become Ashley Wilkes. If we’re rip-roarin’ rednecks, as Hollywood has said we were in the ’70s, we’re become Smokey and the Bandit, both.
We were once the one part of the country that stubbornly resisted national trends like college football and the automobile lifestyle. But then we made up for it by outdoing the rest of the country in those regards. Maybe because we’re still not quite sure what to make of ourselves, we soak up nearly everything, and you just never know what they’re going to serve us with next.