for release March 2, 2001
by Melodie Davis
Will You Have Okra, Tortilla, or Moo Goo Gai Pan?
A writer of a travel column ventured down some back roads to Florida and discovered Virginia's delicious Brunswick stew. He described it as succotash with "mystery" meat. (Usually the meat is chicken or possibly rabbit.) Further south, he sampled fried okra for the first time. A college girl, moving all the way from Pennsylvania to Virginia, said even just crossing the U.S. Mason-Dixon Line resulted in her having trouble getting used to her college roommate calling her parents "Mr. and Mrs." and answering "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" to adults. And I'm thinking, my goodness, I guess I have truly become a southerner. I don't even notice these differences any more.
I remember when these things all sounded strange to my ears, too. (Perhaps when you read "okra" you thought it was a foreign food.) The first time I faced black-eyed peas in my school cafeteria in northern Florida I thought they had dished up mushy baby rats. Now I love black-eyed peas, fried okra, and turnip greens when I get a chance to eat them (although I don't cook any of them).
I grew up in northern Indiana and at the time I moved to Florida, prior to my senior year of high school, I thought I would always feel like a northerner. I was shocked to be called a "Yankee" by my schoolmates in Florida, and some of them added the "d" word in front of it. I learned a lot of new vocabulary that year; most of it was not censored: "crank" for "start" a car; "cracked" for "leave your window open," "carry" for "take" as in "can you carry me to town?" and "ink pin" instead of pen. But the years have rolled on and I have now been a southerner almost twice as long as I was a northerner. The more I learn about different countries of the world, almost every country of any size has both major and subtle differences between North and South. Persons in the north of Spain and Italy consider their southern brothers and sisters to use a poor, sub-standard version of the language, and to be slower and maybe "lazy." Cuisines vary from the northern part of India to the southern, and the same in regions of China, I'm told.
Isn't it delightful that we no longer have to go to distant lands or even large cities to sample all those exotic cuisines? Our relatively small town (approximately 40,000) now has two Indian restaurants, two Thai, one Vietnamese, several Italian. I'm guessing conservatively we have at least two dozen Chinese restaurants or take-outs. "Mexican" restaurants also abound. You can even get Ethiopian food in our town if you order it catered. I'm probably forgetting some or am unaware of some other great restaurants. The new foods are interesting to discover in the grocery stores, too: cilantro and tomatillos share space with Virginia country ham and chitlins. I find it interesting that in the "professional" part of town, they tuck a few packages of country ham clear in the back of the grocery store, while over on my side of town, the country ham has a prominent large island display of its own. And oh yes, for those of you who aren't quite sure what Virginia country ham is, it's the super salty stuff that can be a delicacy like caviar when sliced very thin and eaten in little biscuits. To which a real Virginian like my husband would scoff and say, ah, the real way to eat country ham is fried thick in a bread sandwich.
When my daughter clerked in a grocery store, she could tell without looking up who was coming through the line by the groceries. Families from Spanish-speaking countries always purchased lots of fresh roma tomatoes, peppers, lots of meat, and flour to make tortillas. However, when a group of bachelor-type Spanish-speaking guys came through the line, they would have bags of the ready-made tortillas. Some things don't change that much across cultures.
Our world-no matter where we find ourselves, is an increasingly interesting place to be. That's the Pollyanna version. I know there are frictions between cultural groups, and at worse, outright conflict, fights and even violence.
Why make room for people of other cultures, whether from below the Mason-Dixon line, or across the ocean? Why learn to appreciate other accents and other foods? Well, maybe because that's the way it has always been in North America. Get used to it.
What do you think? Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 725 words; end material = 105 words
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