“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
In the South lately, the past has been very much part of the present. The most visible symbol of our complicated history—the Stars & Bars, the Confederate Battle Flag, the Rebel Flag; you pick the name—has been front and center in the news. And while the candidness with which Southerners are now facing the issue of what “The Flag” really means is new, the weight of our history is certainly not.
(Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, but for the peculiarities of the South, the United States would be some kind of North American Sweden. I find this pretty ignorant. There is no special immunity against prejudice that one obtains merely by being born north of the Mason-Dixon line.)
But the truth is that the South is different—in good ways and bad—but no more so than any other region or any other people at any other given time during the long span of human history. However, one way in which we are proudly different is food. Yet, here again, history gets in the way. Most of what we call “Southern” cooking is the result of the forcible extraction of one people from their home and placing them on tightly packed ships to bring them to a foreign land thousands of miles away. Collards, black-eyed peas, peanuts, yams, fried chicken, okra, were brought to this country on the backs of African slaves. Such good food that, when combined with the food ways of the Scotch-Irish, created what we call today “Southern Cuisine.” Without slavery, this so-called Southern Cuisine would have never been. But does that make it bad? Should it be boycotted? I don’t think so, based on the meat-and-threes here in Birmingham, packed with whites and blacks. History be damned.
And then there’s that name: Birmingham. No article or NPR news spot would be complete without a reference to Birmingham, as if this city—like a fly in amber—is stuck in 1964. If you want to know how far removed Birmingham is both psychologically and temporally from 1964, go downtown and eat. You can start by eating sushi, prepared by a chef from Nepal; have modern Tex-Mex prepared by a chef from New Zealand; Indian down the street in a restaurant owned by a family of immigrants. Or if Vietnamese or Korean barbecue is your thing, you can have that too. And in any one of these places, you will find mixed races couples or same-sex couples and no one bats an eye.
Of course, we still can’t resist some good ‘cue on game day—again, history dies hard down here.