It’s A Southern Thing (Thang)
I had boiled peanuts a long time ago and loved them then, but I had sort of forgot how good they are. You can’t travel anywhere in the state at certain times of the year, (usually fall) and not come across a homemade sign stuck haphazardly on a stick at the side of some rural road, that says, “BOILED PEANUTS AHEAD 1 MILE,” or something similar. Go to the beaches or the mountains, and you’ll see the signs. Do yourself a favor and stop. Get some. Pop one in your mouth, bite into the shell just enough to split it, suck the juice out, open it and eat the nuts. See? There’s a technique to eating them, like there is to eating muscadine grapes. But, you will see they are creamy, their texture like beans. (they are part of the legume, lentil family)
You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I promise.
Fall is also the time of year for other special southern “offerings,” like country ham, local cider, sweet potatoes, and yes, collards. Another promise I’ll make is this. If you want to try really good “greens,” please don’t think Cracker Barrel has them. They’re good there, but they’re not the best way to judge what truly good, southern style collard greens taste like. Trust me on this. They have to have be handpicked and washed by an old lady with gray hair. She should be the sort who’s been cooking them for the better part of sixty plus years. She knows just the right seasonings to put in. She knows to wait for the first frost to hit them, because that’s when they’re best. If you can’t find someone like this to cook you up a “mess a greens” then I guess CB will have to do, but if you decide you don’t like them, you probably don’t like spinach, kale, mustard greens or any other green either.
Now what does all this have to do with writing? Nothing really, except this. It’s part of what makes the south the south and I love writing stories about the south. All three books take place below the Mason Dixon Line. One in Alabama, one in my home state, North Carolina, and the latest one in Mississippi. And food is a big part of the culture down here, not unlike other areas, and here, we happen to love hush puppies, okra, catfish, grits and “barbecue.” (btw, barbecue is not about cooking on the grill down here. It’s roasted pork, and depending on where you’re from in the state of NC, it’s eaten with a vinegar, red pepper based sauce – i.e. eastern NC style barbecue, or with a red sauce, i.e. western NC style barbecue)
Including food in any story amps up the sense of place, in my opinion. What better way to bring a reader into your world than to figure out a way to have one of your characters gnawing on crispy, crunchy pigskins, (yep, they’re good) or helping themselves to some fried okra? (come on, it’s not that slimy!) I believe this is what makes some of the “Cozy Mystery” books so successful. They not only include a mystery, but sometimes include various regional recipes, depending on where the writer is from and what the series is geared towards.
And besides, it’s important to use all five senses when writing, and the sense of smell and taste are just as equally important as what your characters see, hear and feel. Right, I know, I know. The sense of smell and taste doesn’t always have to do with food…, um, like the horrible odor of that dead body lying over there, that’s leaving a sour taste in the character’s mouth. But. food can and should be used, if your story is enhanced by it. Consider this;
In a diner sits a whippet thin, young man, invited in out of the cold by the owner. His hands and nose are red, his cheeks hollow. He huddles in a corner booth, staring at the bounty before him. On one side of the table sits a bowl of Brunswick stew. The enticing aroma of chicken and vegetables drift upward and he inhales the small puffs of flavorful steam deeply, gratefully. In his left hand he holds a golden brown biscuit, butter dripping from his fingers, a slice of ham peaking out between the flaky layers. He dips the biscuit into the stew and bites deeply, letting the assault of the creamy, rich butter invade his taste buds, while the tang of salty ham covered with thick gravy settles over his mouth like a warm blanket. He chews carefully, swallows, and does it again and again, faster and faster, as if starving. The fact of the matter is, he is starving, and only when he is halfway done is he able to slow down, raise his head, and feel as if he might actually survive out on the streets for one more night.
I don’t know about you, but to me, this passage reveals how food can be used to drive home the point of how hungry this man was, and how desperate he must have felt before someone gave him food.
And now, I’m hungry.
What do you think? Do you like to read stories that use a hint of food to help establish a particular setting and sense of place?