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I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

BBQIn this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin writes about North Carolina barbecue and the efforts by the only slightly facetious Campaign for Real Barbecue to maintain the traditional standards for the iconic pork product.

He makes allowances for the Great Divide — between Lexington-style and Halifax-style barbecue, that is, between western Carolina barbecue, made with pork shoulder and seasoned with a tomato-based sauce, and eastern ‘cue, made with the whole hog and doused with vinegar and hot pepper. hog snout 2005

At the outset, I should lay my cards on the table: As a Yankee moved to the South, I came late to the game, but because my first official wife came from Scotland Neck, way out east of Raleigh and Tarboro, I first came to love the stuff the eastern way. (Tarboro, by the way, was home to Ed Weeks, famous in the 1970s for growing record-size vegetables, including a 39 lb. canteloupe and a peanut 3 ½ inches long.) When I ate at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, I was put off by the sweetish tomato sauce. And without the whole pig roasting on the hickory ash and embers, you miss a good deal of the pleasures of barbecue. I should admit that for those adherents of Lexington-style, the product is more uniform. Only the best and most succulent parts of the animal are used. And for many, that is a plus. But for those of us going whole hog, we miss the bits of gristle we must occasionally spit out; we miss the odd globules of pigfat; and most importantly, the crispy burned bits that are the prize in the Cracker Jack box. “Please ma’am, more crispy bits.”

But I am not here to talk about barbecue, but about its sidekick, the hushpuppy.  We all lament the passing of those things we remember most fondly from our childhood, and I’m afraid that hushpuppies just aren’t what they used to be. cornbread 1

I the South, there are several kinds of cornbread. There is the traditional risen cornbread, made from white cornmeal — usually a self-rising mix, like Martha White’s — made with an egg, some oil and buttermilk and poured into a black-iron fry pan heated to 450 degrees and coated with a layer of scorching bacon grease. The batter sizzles in the grease and when it cooks up, in 20 minutes or so, there is a salty brown crust around the cornbread. You cut it into wedges and butter them up for eating.

My late father-in-law’s favorite meal was cornbread crumbled into buttermilk. cornbread cakes

There are also cornbread cakes, in which the batter is fried up on a griddle, like pancakes. Those of us who prize cornbread believe this is the ultimate — more exterior crust, less interior crumb. Butter them up and eat. Great with a mess of pintos.

More humbly, there is pone. This is cornbread without the fancy leavening and seasonings. My first official mother-in-law, from Scotland Neck in Halifax County, used to make the best version, which she called “dog bread.” You have white corn meal, some salt and water to make a thick, doughy batter, dump it into a pan of hot bacon grease and bake it in the oven. I comes out with a great bacon-y crust and an interior texture that can only be compared with a fudge brownie, only savory. You cut it into squares and the luckiest person gets the corner pieces, with extra crispies. You cannot imagine the perfection of dog bread with cooked greens.

Yet, it is the hushpuppy that wins pride of place. You cannot really be said to have eaten barbecue if it isn’t accompanied by hushpuppies. These are deep-fried cornbread tubules, brown and crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy on the inside.

The problem is that tastes change with time and the humble hushpuppy I first knew when I moved to North Carolina in the late 1960s has morphed into some sort of fast food that I hardly recognize.

The original was cornmeal and salt, like dogbread, deep fried. Nowadays, you are hard pressed to find a hushpuppy not sweetened up with sugar and with diced onion added. The old flavor is now closer to a kid’s breakfast cereal.

But this is only part of the problem. Hushpuppies used to be made by gathering up some of the dough on a large cooking spoon and flicking off bits into the boiling fat with the back of a tablespoon. The result was not uniform, but each tapered puppy had ridges along its length that fried up extra crispy. Now, almost every barbecue restaurant has an “extruder” that squeezes out uniform, round-sided football shaped hushpuppies, or worse, has one of those “squirters” like a showerhead that eject a rather loose batter into the fat. You wind up with something more akin to an unformed funnel cake. hushpuppies now

One has to recognize that foods — even so-called traditional foods — evolve, just as language or shoe styles evolve. And it is the Southern taste, defined by customer preference, that has given us the sweetened, oniony, turd-shaped hushpuppy. It seems to be what the people want. But one can nevertheless lament what is lost. And I miss the old, unsweetened, humble, crusty hushpuppy that I first came to love.

It is this way with many of our foods: The barbecue we get in North Carolina — even in eastern North Carolina — is now often made from pork shoulder instead of the whole pig and often it is cooked in an electric or gass oven and not on ashes (although they might throw some soaked hickory chips in for “added flavor.”)

And this devolution isn’t only Carolina or the South. There are people in New Jersey who can countenance Pizza Hut pizza. I don’t know how or why, but they do. And even in Arizona, one can find a line at the Taco Bell. Some people choose that over the taqueria down the street where you can get a real taco de lengua.  You can find Mexican barbacoa, but most people just want chimichangas and ground beef tacos.  It is a certain uniformity and loss of regional preference that has crept into our cuisine and I lament it.

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

shatley meal
If Mr. Yelverton had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone used the more formal address.

George YelvertonHe ran a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., and I knew him in the early 1970s. To call it a restaurant is an exaggeration: It was a hole-in-the-wall behind the main line of storefronts along the city’s main street. Butted up against the brick back walls of department stores and banks, Yelverton’s Barbecue faced only a parking lot.

Mr. Yelverton was thin, wiry, with high cheekbones and short silver hair and with the reserved demeanor of a gentleman. He made pork barbecue in the eastern North Carolina style.barbecue 2

Most people who know anything about barbecue know that the nation is subdivided by regional chauvinisms. There is Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue. Even North Carolina is split between Halifax style — eastern North Carolina style — and Lexington style.

It was a time of rapid change in the South, and change in Southern cooking as well. Many local barbecue establishments had changed their method of making hush puppies, using a new device that extruded corn batter into the hot grease like a carnival funnel cake. Mr. Yelverton didn’t approve.

“I never saw the advantage of doing things faster and easier,” I remember him saying one day. He showed me his technique.

“You mix up your cornmeal with water,” he said, making a stiff, granular dough rather than a batter. “Then you take a dollop of it up in a serving spoon.” He had a large, steel-handled spoon about 15 inches long. “Then you use the back of a tablespoon to whip off bits into the grease.”

Each serving spoon was subdivided into four or five hush puppies, each cut away from the gob with a flick of his wrist on the convexity of the tablespoon, leaving a perfect hush puppy, shaped like a lemon wedge, with ridges. They turned a beautiful, aromatic coppery color and were absolute heaven when you bit into them hot.

hushpuppies 3Recently, my wife and I were back in North Carolina and, though Yelverton has long gone, we stopped at a barbecue joint in Shelby. The hush puppies had changed: Not only were they plopped into the grease via the ubiquitous extruder, making little round cigar shapes (I’m being polite), but they were made with added onion and sugar.

“That’s not a real hush puppy,” my wife said. She can be very strict when it comes to the right way to do things, and hush puppies with sweetener counts for her not simply as a variant, but as a perversion.

“Hush puppies don’t have sugar in them,” she stated categorically.

My wife is typical of many Southerners: certain the way she grew up was the “right” way. It fuels many a heated discussion. You get obstinate opinions about whether to soak country ham, about whether Brunswick stew requires squirrel meat, about the best apple to fry.

“I like June apples,” my wife says. “My great-grandmother said they were the best.”

Her great-grandmother was a genuine Civil War widow and had the bona fides.

If there is one thing that defines Southern food, it must be the soil, the terroir, the sandy podzols of eastern North Carolina or the black loam of the Mississippi Delta. You can see it in the flesh of catfish made pink by the red-clay river bottoms.

Like patriotism, food preference grows from the land where you grew up and the people who raised you. It is what you know and what you are comfortable with.

Southern food is divided by region, by class, by race. The food of Louisiana is sui generis. The menus of South Carolina plantations were more upscale than on the small farm holdings in Piedmont North Carolina or Virginia. The hardscrabble diet of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something else again.

Yet, there is a certain overlap. Soul food and Southern cooking emphasize different aspects of the cuisine but share more than they don’t. Cooked greens, side meat, cornbread — these are the common denominators.

The original of both was humble — pronounced “umble” without the “h.” It was food grown on family farms, from hogs slaughtered on a frosty morn and made into sausage and head cheese.

greenfields mealThere is nothing fancy about it. I remember once a friend visited from New York, where he was an investment lawyer. We took him to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, N.C., where they serve family-style meals with piles of fried chicken, country ham, boiled greens, scraped corn, hot biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy so thick a knife can stand upright in it, served with little dishes of corn relish and pickled beets and washed down with sweet tea.

“I loved it,” he said later. “Especially the chicken sauce.” Chicken sauce! We all laughed good over that one.sally lunn bread

There is an upscale Southern cooking. It comes from plantations and includes such things as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread and Lane cake.

But for me, the best is the down-and-dirty recipes that came through grandmothers and aunts. Foods so primal there aren’t even recipes for them, like the dog bread I came to love — a form of cornbread so basic its ingredients might as well be earth, wind and fire. I first ate it in Halifax County, among the cotton fields and abandoned tractors, pickup trucks and windbreaks of oak trees. I asked how to make it.

“First, you mix up a mess of cornmeal,” she said. No half-cup of this, or 6 ounces of that. Just mix up a mess.

That’s white stone-ground cornmeal, if you are brave enough to try this, with salt and enough water to make a thick batter or thin dough.

In a black-iron fry pan, you melt some bacon grease or the renderings from streak-o’-fat-streak-o’-lean and heat it up till it sputters at you. Dump in the cornmeal and stick it in the oven till it’s done. Can’t tell you how long. It depends.

When it comes out, it is heavy as a transuranium element, with a thick, dark undercrust that makes it all worthwhile.

Cut it into wedges and use it to soak up your “pot likker” or your sop.

THE SEVEN KEYS

There are seven defining ingredients in Southern cooking. From Virginia through Alabama and out towards eastern Texas, these are the comestibles essential for your pantry. hog snout

Pigmeat

The hog is Providence’s gift to the Southern belly. Pork is central to so much that defines the cuisine, from barbecue to country ham to the many varieties of bacon — side meat, fatback, not to mention bacon grease. Nothing seasons pintos like ham hocks. “The hog seasons everything that isn’t him,” said one Southern cook. Pigmeat also defines the McCoy-Hatfield divisions between those who soak their ham before cooking and eating it and those who cherish the crust of salt that develops as they fry their slice of unsoaked country ham in a black-iron frying pan. Special mention should be made of liver mush, which is to North Carolina what scrapple is to Philadelphia.fried chicken

Fried chicken

There is almost no controversy over fried chicken. It defines White Southerners and Black Southerners, upper-crust and redneck. Fried chicken, slowly cooked in a black-iron frying pan till it’s brown and crusty on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, is the very badge of Southern regional pride.biscuits

Hot breads

You don’t find a lot of yeast breads, but baking-powder breads are all over. Biscuit dough can be baked into biscuits, buttered, covered in jam or jelly with dinner, or split in two and slathered with gravy for breakfast. It can also be dropped into boiling stock with cooked chicken to make dumplings. On the other side, cornbread can be baked in a sizzling-hot frying pan or in a black-iron form to make cornpone, or dropped into hot fat to make hush puppies, or, what may be the best, cornbread cakes, which are cornmeal pancakes, buttered and served in a stack with your pintos. You can’t beat a meal of fried fish, caught yourself, with new potatoes and scallions, eaten with a helping of cornbread crumbled into buttermilk.collards

Greens

The recipe reads, “Cook up a mess of greens.” This means you take a pile of collards or mustard greens, turnip greens, young pokeweed, or peppery “creasy greens” — which is wild watercress, “the caviar of Southern greens,” one woman called them — and cook them down with some fatback or bacon until they are a fraction of their precooked volume. You serve them with vinegar, and don’t forget to sop up some of the “pot likker” with your cornbread.leather britches

Field peas and beans

The number of varieties of Southern pulse is immense — field peas, Crowder peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans — and whether dried or fresh, makes a daily contribution to the plate. A variety of green beans, dried on a string on your front porch, is called “leather breeches” (or britches) and when reconstituted in a pot of water with seasoning meat, develops a deep flavor almost beeflike in character.biscuits and gravy

Gravy

In France, they say, “La sauce c’est tout,” the sauce is everything. In North Carolina, they say, “Could I have some more gravy on them biscuits.” A Southern gravy is sometimes so thick you might be forgiven for thinking it is mortar for bricks. Gravy comes in many forms: sawmill gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken gravy, chocolate gravy.peach pie 2

Pie

Finally, you can barely survive in the South without pie or its kissin’ cousin, cobbler. Sometimes, lunch is just a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Southern food isn’t always the most heart-healthy, for sure, but as one Southerner put it, “Is there a better way to commit suicide than pie?”