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Where I’m From
by Jim Allen


After staying up past your bedtime the night before, watching the ball fall in New York at 11 p.m. our time, going outside to shoot fireworks or a shotgun then humming the above mentioned song, we’re looking for a traditional Southern meal to bring us good fortune in the coming year. New Year’s Day good luck foods from my upbringing include black-eyed peas, hog 

jowls, collards and corn bread. The black-eyed peas bring peace, the hog jowls bring joy, the collards bring money and the corn bread just goes along with peas, jowls and greens.

When my wife and I first moved to Alabama for my job with the Co-op, I found slight differences in traditions from my birthplace a few hundred miles away. For instance, the industry of north Alabama has brought in a lot of outside influence. People still eat peas, pork and greens on the first day of the year but if they have corn bread, it might have sugar in it. That’s enough to give people where I’m from the heeby jeebies.

Speaking of deeply imbedded Southern tradition, back where I’m from, there are still folks who are old enough to remember when people first started recognizing the Fourth of July as something other than the day Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. Plantation owners there might drive a Ford pickup but would never put their family in a car named after Honest Abe. Heck, we had an entire family…mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandmaw, grandpaw…the whole shootin’ match, walk out of a church for good when a traveling music director requested the flock sing Battle Hymn of the Republic. They didn’t just change churches either…they changed denominations!

Our second or third visit back there to see our parents after moving to this great state ended on the weekend celebrating Mother’s Day. On our way home, we decided to take small state and county roads to see some of the beautiful scenery Alabama has to offer. We passed a quaint old country church in the middle of nowhere and as we were looking at the church, we both saw in our peripheral vision the bright colors of the small cemetery across the road and down the hill. We went on through forest and pastures for many, many miles without mentioning the graves. Then we came upon another much larger cemetery covering at least ten acres that was absolutely covered with silk flowers and ribbons. I was so startled that I can’t remember if there was a church. A half-dozen cars were dotted amongst the headstones with family member standing here and there, some with bowed heads. My immediate thoughts were, "Was there some catastrophic natural disaster I wasn’t aware of? I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news while I was gone. I knew there had been some storms but I had no idea they had been so severe as to wipe out a whole community! But, wait a minute! These aren’t fresh graves and there’s not a single funeral home tent. What’s going on here?" Though it’s a wonderful tradition here, we don’t have Decoration Day back where I’m from.

I came here not knowing that a "hose pipe" is what we traditionally call a "water hose" or "garden hose." I’d never heard a bow or ribbon that a girl or young woman wears in her hair called a "hair bow," though it makes perfectly good sense. A "cold drink" refers to a cold beverage such as those sold in a vending machine. I didn’t know that "chocolate gravy" was, as the name implies, flour gravy made with cocoa that is poured over a biscuit. I knew what a "chili dog" was but didn’t know what its cousin, a "slaw dog" was. I didn’t know what "white sauce" was since I grew up eating tomato-based barbeque sauce. I have accepted nearly all and now find what I call the "Tuscaloosa style" of barbeque superior to what I have always eaten.

There is just one popular local fare that I don’t think I could ever develop a taste for. I hadn’t been here a week when a fellow employee offered to take me for a hamburger at an establishment Elvis Presley had frequented when he came to town visiting a band member. I’m certain that a single bite of one of these gut busters will convince you that Elvis’s longtime physician, George Nichopoulos, should be exonerated. When I walked into the long, narrow building nestled between a hardware store and an abandoned dry goods business, my senses were assaulted by steamy, hot air and the pronounced smell of scorched tallow.

To my right was a large boiling vat filled with thick hamburger patties. I asked my escort if that was some sort of sauce they soaked the burgers in. He looked at me like I’d just fallen off of a cabbage truck and explained that it was "grease" and that that is what made the burgers taste so good. He went on to tell me that the raw hamburger patties are made up of about half meat and half breadcrumbs. I don’t know if it was vegetable oil or beef fat…and I don’t want to know. The hot, dripping meat was ladled out of the cauldron and onto a cold bun smeared with mustard then topped with a thick slice of onion. I managed to get it down before the grease coagulated. An hour later I thought I might pull off a reenactment of the Graceland tragedy. The restaurant has been in operation nearly sixty years and is packed every day. Many people I know make it a tradition to eat there at least once a year.

Thanks to working with Co-op store personnel, interfacing with farmers from around the state, and after making several embarrassing faux pas, I have leapt over most of these educational hurdles and tripped over the rest. After nearly twenty years, I have succumbed to the slight traditional and colloquial nuances and now consider myself a "local" (or at least they tell me I don’t talk as funny as I used to).



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Date Last Updated January, 2006