Thursday, July 28, 2005

The geneaology of down home cookin'

I had a weird conversation with a co-worker last week. It was weird in the sense she thought I was weird because of the things I consume. She's grossed out by my diet.

Not being particularly wealthy, I tend to eat lunch as cheap as possible. One of the things I've been doing lately is bringing in frozen brussel sprouts and cooking them in the microwave. If that's not going too far, the next part is (for this co-worker): I pour pepper juice over them.

I never really knew how Southern I was until my diet became public knowledge. I grew up in Arizona, but my father's from Alabama. Both sides of my family lay roots in the north-central part of the state. We have a British surname, but legend has it we were bond slaves -- captured and penalized robbers and thieves -- who came to America (Virginia to be exact) with our British masters and promptly stole the name and fled to the American South. Once there, we integrated ourselves by way of marriage into the Cherokee and Choctaw American Indian tribes, and were promptly bounced from membership for excessive drinking and rabble rousing. From there, our histories are murky. Around the turn of the 20th Century, we were either outlaws or preachers. Perhaps a mixture of both.

My parents moved me to Arizona from Alabama in 1971, when I was barely two years old. My mother was born in Arizona. Her parents had moved there from north Birmingham at the end of World War II. Phoenix was (and still very much is) a place you go to start over. If you have nothing, you can usually find something positive there. You probably won't get rich, but there's plenty of cheap land and a reasonable cost of living to be had.

In spite of my strong family ties in Alabama and a prenatal obsession with the University of Alabama football team, I've generally considered Arizona my home. The problem with that is there is no culture in Arizona. I'm among the first generation of Arizonans who could actually claim to have laid roots there. Up until 1970, everybody was from some place else. They lived in Arizona, but "home" was in Chicago or Pennsylvania or some other city/state where people grow up dreaming of leaving.

In Arizona, the architecture is not "adobe," it's "let's build it as cheaply as we possibly can." It just so happens stucco projected onto 2x4 framing and some chicken wire is really cheap, so you have a proliferation of Borg-like, beige/tan, red-tile-roofed, master-planned suburbs that roll across the Sonoran Desert floor like God balled up all of the world's mediocrity and spread it across the I-17/U.S. 60/I-10 corridors.

I digress.

The food in Arizona can be exquisite, but there are no real native dishes. What they call Sonoran-style Mexican food is really a combination of traditional Mexican food, an American deep fryer, and various Baja dishes more prominently found in San Diego. Try the Macayo's baja plate (the baja sauce is a tasty combination of cream cheese and jalapenos, among other things). It's good, just not original. You're out of luck if you're looking for something unique.

Not getting any help from my Arizona experience, I've had to dwell on my family's past to measure what it is I'm supposed to be living up to. It's mostly forgettable. The legacy of my family name is not one of hope, but one of murder and treachery. I have no great stories to tell, in spite of the best myth-spinning efforts of my uncles (they once attempted to convince me I was a descendant of Blue Beard).

So my mother's Alabama-flavored, Southern-style cooking deeply influenced me. "Soul food," as it's known to some, led me into an entirely different perspective on culture. Buttermilk and cornbread, an out-of-the-garden dinner (lima beans, green beans, butter beans, black-eyed peas stewed with a hamhock, squash, fresh tomato, with a bowl of chicken and dumplings), egg custard pie, or homemade (with corn starch) deep-fried chicken ... this is my heritage. This is what I'm supposed to pass on to my children.

My children will become heart doctors, of course.

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