Dear The North,
We, the South, are not just Confederate flags and racist gunmen. We're not just BBQ and cornbread. We're not a collection of dunces because we drive slower than you do or choose to greet someone in a store rather than glare at them in silence. We smile and we don't take ourselves too seriously.
We are a great mixture of people from varied backgrounds, steeped in family values and traditions. Many of us are religious. Some of us are not. Like you, we each have our struggles and our wins. Like you, we love and we lose.
For the record, I was not born in the South. I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland right outside Washington D.C. and have lived a northeast coastal life for twenty-six years. I have lived fourteen years between New York City and Los Angeles.
My grandparents were born in a small Southern town called Cadiz, Kentucky, population 2,600. Every year for the past ten years, I visited them at Christmas. As a northern elitist, my general feeling about Cadiz was one of pity.
These poor people trapped in this small town with nothing but cows and overabundance of camouflage.
My mom was out running once in Cadiz and a man stopped and asked her if she was OK. It's the sort of place where folks leave their cars running while they calmly walk into the Mini Mart for a pack of cigarettes.
It was not until I lived in Bologna, Italy for six months that I came to appreciate Cadiz, Kentucky. In Bologna, I lived with a roommate, Stefano, who insisted on cooking the animal tip to tail stewing for long hours the innards and most upsetting, the tongue. He was so proud of every meal he concocted meticulously explaining the family member who had taught him the recipe.
Over dinner, we discussed Stefano's love of Kentucky bourbon. Italians adore Kentucky bourbon almost as much as they love their mothers. Like most of us, we respect those who work hard. The precision and love that is put into Kentucky bourbon-making is stewed in tradition and attention to detail.
By traveling half way around the world, I realized something about my roots. The South wasn't something to be embarrassed by. Sure, I grew up with a grandfather who frequently used the n-word and witnessed Confederate flags blazing away in car windows. However, this isn't the entire story of the place. The South is much more intricate than this.
While in college, my then black boyfriend and black best friend told me they would never visit Kentucky because of all the racism. Frankly, nothing shocking there. I couldn't fathom bringing them because I wouldn't want either one of them to incur what I knew would come. I can't stomach watching the people I love hurting.
However, again, the South isn't simply racism and Confederate flags.
I wouldn't truly come to appreciate this until...now.
Ten months ago, I drove from New York City to Cadiz, Kentucky to care for my ailing grandfather. He had experienced a massive hemoglobin loss resulting in memory and focus issues. He thought my name was James when I arrived. He was also the victim of elderly abuse by his neighbor, a man who allowed him to live in a sewer and forged checks in his name for over $30,0000. Suffice to say, my first months in Cadiz, Kentucky were extremely challenging.
While here, I took to my roots and began cooking Southern food as much as possible. My hero, my Granny, passed away in 2006 but her kitchen lived on in her wake. I took to her memory and began with all the dishes I remembered her making: broccoli casserole, scalloped potatoes, peanut butter balls, and country ham. I expanded and cooked up a storm of Southern dishes adding in my other inspirations: Thai and Korean.
My grandfather progressed miraculously both physically and mentally. As food is medicine, I plowed my heart and soul into cooking to nurse my grandfather back to health. My grandfather gifted me a smoker. BBQ, the heart and soul of the South, is not a challenge I ever saw myself undertaking but here I had a smoker and a wild turkey that my grandfather's first cousin had shot himself. I took it to the hickory and commenced smoking the bird myself. As I am not a fan of turkey, I was shocked to discover how moist and delicious the result came to be.
I continued honing my BBQ. My grandfather whipped up some of his secret BBQ sauce and we deliberated on proper temperatures, cooking time, saucing, rub, and meat selection. We came together in a common cause: the perfect BBQ. Fourteen to sixteen hours in a smoker is nothing to shake a tail feather at. It requires constant care and attention and even better, a good bourbon to wash it all down.
What's my point dear North?
We, the South, don't want your pity. We don't want you staring down your noses with your Prada glasses and fancy suits. We don't want you sampling our cured hams with your fancy wine while poking fun at us under your breath.
Our grandma makes better Deviled eggs than those you buy for $14 in that tapas place in Union Square with the incredible wine list. FACT.
We have mud stains on our cars from driving through the farm. We shop at Walmart because frankly, there's no other place for miles around. Many of us carry guns, which we actually know how to hunt with. That food on your Marimekko plate did need to come from somewhere. We ask how you're doing and some of us actually care about the answer.
Look, I go back and forth with a love/hate relationship with Cadiz. That's for another day but behind all of my frustration is an intense love. The South is fucking great. I won't ever live in Los Angeles or New York City ever again. While I love both cities, soul makes my heart grow three sizes.
Do I get glares from people who think my liberal self is crazysauce? Hell yes. Today, I plan on doing my daily bike ride with a rainbow flag on my back in support of the Supreme court decision to support gay marriage. While this is a most popular choice of clothing in West Hollywood, it is mixed at best here in Cadiz. Honey badger don't care. Honey badger knows that she might be seen by that one gay kid in high school too afraid to be who he really is and maybe for a moment, might feel like someone out there gets him. It's more important that I be who I am in the middle of Cadiz, Kentucky than it ever was in Los Angeles or New York where I was in the majority.
I see the absolute strength and power in the South when I look at the faces of those who lost so much in Charleston, South Carolina. I hear it in the voice of the woman who stared at the man who killed her sister at his bond hearing and told him, "I forgive you."
We, the South, are a powerful group of people. We love hard and we take care of each other. We have struggled and we rise above to build an even stronger community in the face of hatred. You, the North, are invited to join us. Leave your pity at the door.
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