A Taste of the South


Being*

My Southern friend occasionally forwards me “You know you’re a Southerner if…” e-mails.   For me, many of these are list of aspirations, things I wish and hope to one day become.

My trip to Tennessee was partly to discover whether I’m cut out to be a Dixie, wearing shirts with confederate flags, speaking with a Southern accent and acting like not everything needed to be done yesterday.

I think it’s safe to say that I can never be a Dixie. I did, after all, grow up in New Jersey; my view of the Civil War is a bit different and I don’t think a confederate flag isn’t without problems.  A couple times people came up to me because I was Asian, a nice reminder that I’m not even white.  That said, most times I forgot that I stuck out like a sore thumb in Kingsport and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  I actually felt rather at home. Even if I can’t be a Dixie, I’m fairly confident I’m as close to a Dixie as a Yankee can get.

Traveling

The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina is beautiful.  I had a layover there on my way to Tennessee but it was enough to give me the first moment of, “Joe, you’re not in New York anymore.”   As I crossed from one concourse to the next, I saw rocking chairs placed all over the airport where people can, gasp!, relax.  We New Yorkers know this will never happen at La Guardia because we are in a hurry to get to nowhere particularly important to do nothing particularly important and besides, if anyone put a rocking chair at the airport, someone would steal it.

The driving is an experience in of itself. I saw a yellow bus in the back mirror as I was driving into Gatlinburg and thought how weird that there was a school bus this time of the year. Then I saw that the back of the bus said “Church Bus”…

Meeting

Southerners are relaxed, or maybe it’s just that we New Yorkers are too tense. Regardless, who wouldn’t be more chill with a rocking chair at the airport.

I loved meeting the people in the South.

I particularly liked how people consistently mistook me for a student, a very nice gesture to a guy facing his thirteenth 18th birthday fighting to keep that image of an immature juvenile.

There was one unexpected thing. Whenever I told people that I was visiting from New York, they gave a surprising look of, “why are you visiting us down here in the South?”  It’s funny: “why?” is the same response I got in the office when I told people i was going to Tennessee.

I met all sorts of people I never meet in New York, but I don’t think I really met and talked to a redneck. There is apparently this place in Kingsport where all the rednecks hang out, a place where my friend and his brother were chased out of after being accused of being gay for wearing polo shirts and khakis pants. He says it’s funny going there just to see all the rednecks. I thought the story was hysterical too, but was fairly convinced I would’ve been chased out even quicker.

Shooting

It’s said that the South is a gun obsessed, but people forget that America in general is quite gun friendly.  I know because it wasn’t that hard for me to get a handgun, and it wasn’t that hard for me to bring it on my trip either.  In preparation for my trip, I kept on looking under “Dangerous Goods” on my airline’s website for instructions on how to check-in my 9 mm only to realize that I should have looked under “Sports Equipment.”  The airline cared about only two things: confirming my gun was not loaded and the case was locked. So long as those conditions are satisfied, you can apparently check in a bazooka.

Of course, South distinguishes itself in ease of access. I needed to buy ammo, so obviously, my friend took me to Walmart where prices are half that in NJ. I got my id checked, but I couldn’t tell whether that was because I used a credit card to pay (I digress but I’ve never had my I’d checked to use my card as often as I did in Tennessee; I’m not sure it’s because cards aren’t used to buy $2 things down there or they’re just suspicious of Yankees). My friend mentioned that one doesn’t need a permit to buy a gun in Tennessee, although he does need a permit–easy to get–to carry a concealed weapon. The scale is a bit different in NJ: one needs a permit–easy to get–to buy a firearm; it’s nearly impossible to get a concealed carry permit.

I drive an unbelievable hour and pay an even more ridiculous $25 an hour to shoot at a range in NJ. In Tennessee, I can shoot at my friend’s grandfather’s farm, where he has a target ready to go. He laughed how stereotypically South it was that the men were out shooting rounds while the wife was inside doing bible study.  How true.  You know what else was stereotypically South?  My friend’s hardware is kept in the bedside drawer.  Loaded.  Just in case.

Eating

We Yankees know about some of the Southern cuisine through movies, like grits in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). I tried this Southern delicacy for the first time and I’m neither wowed nor yucked. It sort of reminded me of oatmeal, then it occurred to me that my workplace cafeteria’s breakfast has grits right next to oatmeal. I think I’ll now alternate oatmeal and grits on the rare occasion I have breakfast. I like my grits with sugar, just like oatmeal.

What did wow me, though, was fried pickles. It’s really true that they fry everything down there because what New Yorker has even thought of frying pickles?  It’s hard to describe what makes fried pickles so amazing. I tried it at the every place that had it and noticed that the sauces are slightly different at each place. I like pickles to begin with, but find the sourness to be sometimes off-putting because I’m über sensitive to sourness. The sourness is tapered when pickles are fried, but the remaining flavor of the pickles mixes nicely with the fried batter and the sauce.  I like the sauce slightly spicy.

As much as I enjoyed the meals in Tennessee, I suspect food is going to be the biggest impediment to my permanent residency in the South.  I had steak or BBQ every night I was in Gatlinburg, which seemed to be the food of choice down there. I’m a fan of meat just as the next guy, but I can only take so many days of it. I need Japanese, or at least Asian cuisine. When I saw a restaurant called Sakura (Japanese for cherry blossoms) that offered Japanese & Chinese Steak Buffet, I knew there are cuisine issues in the South.  I’m not entirely sure if even two of those four words can be combined to make a decent meal, but I know no good Asian food can come out of combining all four, which is why such travesty is not seen in NYC.  Adding the sign “Hibachi” in the windows does not make the restaurant any more appetizing.

Remembering

Kingsport has some amazing lakes where my friend took me on a boat ride.  The lakes were–and remains–the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the most successful New Deal programs.  So was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which made the Great Smokey Mountains National Park what it is today.  It’s nice reminders to keep me honest about my politics, which, to put it mildly, does not take too kindly to FDR and his programs.

I think there’s another lesson that we can all remember.  My friend told me that some of the legacy of segregation can be seen in old Southern courthouses where there are “employee” and “non-employee” bathrooms.

Continuing

I followed up my trip to Tennessee with a Brad Paisley concert in Holmdel, New Jersey.  It’s safe to say that the people attending the event was not representative of the rest of the NJ population.  I swear I saw rednecks that I didn’t see on my trip, although, ironically, most people didn’t have a Southern accent.

After my trip, I’m convinced the South will be some part of my future.  I’m not sure whether it’ll be where I’ll retire to, but it sure will be nice to spend much more time there.

*  I titled the sections of this blog the way George W. Bush titled the chapters of his memoir, “Decision Points.”  I thought about reviewing the book, but any complementary view of someone even my politically indifferent friend calls a “delusional lunatic” would severely test the no-politics rule of this blog.  Instead, I decided to mimic the former president since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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4 Responses to “A Taste of the South”


  1. 1 Anonymous July 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Go to Nashville next time. You’ll find plenty of delicious Southern food plus the normal array of foods that you find in cities. If you just visited Kingsport and Gatlinburg, well, you got a very one-sided view of the South. Don’t give up hope yet. There are very, very retire-able places down there.

    • 2 joesas July 20, 2011 at 11:12 pm

      Anonymous,

      I’d forgotten you were from Tennessee… I did hear great things about Nashville. It’s on the list of many places I want to visit down in the South. Fear not: I fully intend to end up in the South in the not so distant future…

      Thanks for visiting and commenting! Hope you won’t be a stranger!

  2. 3 Chris Schroeck July 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Was just in Nashville about a week ago, and it has a lot of variety. (although also lots of good barbecue.) Having lived in the South (although barely) for a while now, I can tell you that a significant number of southerners would make fun of you for putting sugar on your grits.

    In any case, the next time you’re thinking of making a trip to the South, consider Virginia. We can offer you free lodging, and I will even take you to some of the redneck-y parts of the state if you like.

    • 4 joesas September 1, 2011 at 8:35 am

      Chris,

      Would love to take you up on the offer of visiting Virginia. It was really between VA and TN and, having seen you in the last couple months, I went to TN to see a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple years… It was a beautiful trip.

      I think you can consider yourself a Southerner at this point and you have the right to mock me for my Yankee Dixie ways…


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