Friday, July 29, 2011

The Southern Dinner Table: Don't Hurt Yourself

For those of you unfamiliar with the Southern dinner table, let me tell you that it is a sacred place.  The South is a place of deep tradition and nowhere is that more evident than Grandma’s, Mama’s or Aunt So and So’s dining room table. 

First, let’s take a look at the helpful tips that could save your life:

  1. As you hopefully recall from The Other Trinity, you’d better by God be careful with Grandma’s good crystal, china and silver.  It might be hard to believe, but there are Southern Belles in this world who use their good tableware at least once a week.  These amazing women believe that it is a privilege to have family gather around their table on Sundays, ostensibly to enjoy each other’s company, but more likely to Hoover down some good cooking. 

Here’s my problem with the aforementioned school of thought:  Do you have any idea what it takes to clean that stuff?  S.W.A.T. teams defusing bombs move faster than someone taxed with the chore of cleaning up after a fancy meal.  Every single piece must be handled with the utmost care because that shit is fragile and it breaks if you so much as look at it wrong.  To make matters worse, one who washes fine tableware is denied the modern convenience of the dish washer.  Each piece must be scrubbed, but not scratched, handled while soapy and slick and dried by hand.  You.  Can’t.  Understand.  The.  Pressure! 

When I eat on “the good stuff”—be it mine or someone else’s—it takes me about four times longer to finish my food because I am a nervous wreck.  I’m careful that the silverware doesn’t scratch the china and God forbid that it accidentally tap the crystal.  When I pick the crystal up to take a sip, my hand shakes from the nerves.  This past Christmas, I stood at the head of my dining room table and told my family, “I love ya’ll, but you’re eating off the regular stuff.  Merry Christmas to me.”

  1. Use your damn manners, dammit!  Keep at it until they are second nature because—not to make you paranoid or anything—everyone is watching!  When you get invited out to dinner, to dinner at a friend’s house or to dinner at the home of your significant other, let me assure you that you are auditioning at all times and in all venues.  If you chew with your mouth open or eat your salad with the wrong fork, you are doomed forever.  You could come back next week and every week after that with manners to charm Emily Post herself and you will always be the person who looked like a cow chewing cud.

Well, now that we have the health and safety tips down, let’s take a look at what’s for dinner, shall we?

If you are watching your weight or attempting to lower your cholesterol, blood pressure or sugar, I sincerely hope you enjoy sucking on the cube of ice from your glass because that’s your meal. 

For the rest of us who are at least willing to suspend belief in health problems and angry doctors while our feet are under grandma’s dining room table, oh what a treat!  If it can be fried, buttered, candied, pickled or slopped in gravy, it is likely to be laid before you.  Fried chicken, fried pork chops, county style steak and meatloaf round out the top contenders. 

If you are someone who doesn’t like eating their vegetables, fear not;  those field peas and collard greens are buttered up and stewed with so much fatback that they practically slide down the throat without the trouble of chewing.  Rather than deal with the pesky matter of someone desiring potatoes over rice or vice versa, I’ve attended many Southern tables where both are served to cut down on preference problems—the same goes with biscuits and corn bread.

So, we’ve got the meat, veggies and starches, starches, starches, but we have arrived at the thread that ties the whole meal together:  Iced tea.  Southern iced tea should be dark and strong and it should have so much sugar in it that every sip feels as though it is eating through the enamel of your teeth and compromising your fillings.  Iced tea is taken very seriously ‘round these parts and one’s reputation as a tea brewer has been known to be a deal breaker in engagements and marriages.

How serious are Southerners about iced tea?  Well, at least 12 or 13 years ago, my husband and I were eating at the Bojangles in not-so-beautiful Selma, North Carolina.  As was Scott’s wont, he ordered a big ‘ol sweet tea.  When we finished eating, I threw our stuff away while Scott got a refill of tea to go.  As he was walking across the restaurant to rejoin me, he took a sip from his cup and I thought that the boy had been poisoned.  He doubled over and made this “WHHMMPPHH” noise and got all red. 

I rushed across the restaurant, preparing to call 911 or perform some sort of CPR.  “Honey, are you okay?”

His voice sounded strangled as he said, “Un...un...un-sweet tea pitcher.”

Somehow, unleaded was poured in the leaded pot.  My beloved gave the staff of the Selma Bojangles a serious “come to Jesus” about the dangers of serving un-sweet tea to unsuspecting customers wanting a refill of Cajun goodness.  To this very day, Scott still shudders every time he is reminded of that experience.  Poor baby.

My last caution to those new to the Southern tables is to be careful of innards.  Most folks have come over to the “normal camp,” electing to refrain from using innards in various foods and sauces because it is disgusting beyond the telling of it, but some folks still try to slip it in on the unsuspecting.  Speaking of traumatic experiences, my brother and I weren’t told that we’d been eating giblet gravy at my Grandma Pauline’s house for about 20 years.

Giblet-induced therapy bills aren't pretty.

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