An entire lecture on the loss of the Southern pimento, a mourning for the loss of a little known squash called a mirliton, an oratorio on collard greens—these are just a sampling from the program of the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium I attended this past weekend. It was a wonderful time of food and drink, shared among writers, scholars, chefs and others dedicated to the preservation of Southern food traditions. Everyone I met at the symposium was an amateur—a lover of Southern food who would eat and cook and write about it even if no one ever paid them.
This passion, this enthusiasm for collards and catfish; the sorrow felt at the hegemony of California pimentos in our Southern cheese spreads—these things may seem trite to some; the cares of elites who have too much time on their hands. People are dying of starvation and these people are dedicating years of their life to the perfection of boiled peanuts? Yes, to reply simply, and it is such dedication that keeps the world beautiful.
The attitudes of these Southerners about their food is one we should all have—a profound love for simple, peculiar pleasures and a readiness to defend them against the onslaught of a comodified culture. If we cannot experience outrage at the thought of cornbread with sugar in it (corncake, sure, but cornbread no!), then how are we develop an outrage for the new McDonald’s that wants to come to town?
A deep love for small things forms and trains us to savor the world and to recognize the unsavory when it appears. By holding onto these small things we help hold out against the larger onslaught of mass culture. G.K. Chesterton in his excellent book An Outline of Sanity writes that, “Until the monopoly is monopolist, it is nothing. Until the combine can combine everything, it is nothing. Ahab has not his kingdom so long as Naboth has his vineyard…A hundred tales of human history are there to show that tendencies can be turned back, and that one stumbling block can be the turning point.”
While major protests and efforts against the forces of global extractive economies have their place, we have the opportunity daily to participate in a slower, more profound work. By making our own sausage because our stores don’t offer good options, by raising our own chickens for our own eggs because we simply can’t stand the grocery store eggs, by waiting weeks for a book to come in at the local bookstore rather than getting it in two days from Amazon—through these things we are keeping the kingdom from Ahab and Jezebel, we are maintaining the capacity of love in the world. Is that too much to claim for the love of collard greens? Perhaps. But I can’t imagine a tastier way to resist the forces of speed and convenience than a pot of slow cooked greens. By waiting for them, smelling the bacon grease simmer in the pot along with the dark green leaves, something different is happening to my soul than what comes when I stand impatiently in line for a ten minute meal. Love, that is patient, seems to have something to do with it.