Jane MacDonald

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On Turnip Greens and Grits
                                                                                                             2002 Jane MacDonald

by Jane MacDonald

The recent news that dietary fat is good for you--yes, that's what they say--warms
the cockles of my essentially Southern heart. Since everybody knows Yankees
can't cook, it seems only right to begin to educate them on the niceties of
the Confederate kitchen.

It's not necessary, in my opinion, to live in an antebellum mansion, or prepare
your food in a tarpaper shack on a dirt road, to eat the Southern way. It helps,
of course, but I myself have served a truly Southern menu right here in
a yuppie suburb of Boston. Of course, I never tell my friends at the PTA about
this, and my children have learned never to mention at school what they
eat at home. My husband, a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee despite his Scots
ancestry, has, however, become a convert to the healthful diet that produced
such worthies as Rhett Butler and Jeb Stuart. Given the recent news, however,
I may decide any minute to "come out."

Southerners differ, of course, on the ideal menu. I'm confident that duels were
fought over the relative merits of Virginia ham and Louisiana catfish. For me,
there is no contest. The queen of Southern dishes is turnip greens.

Such things are unobtainable in the North, of course--supermarkets
routinely chop the greens off and sell naked turnips, as they sometimes
do beets. This is unpardonable. Turnip greens are full of vitamins of all sorts,
and, once you get used to them, they are delicious. Some people simply
boil the hell out of turnip greens and serve them without accompaniment except for
a little salt. Others slice a few turnips and throw them in the pot. They are better
if one includes a little bacon grease or a small piece of lard. (Lard,
for the uninformed, is pig fat, obtained, usually, from pigs.) Finally, since
most children hate turnip greens, one may sprinkle a little sugar on the greens
for tiny palates. Others have been known to put a few drops of vinegar on
them, but I'm inclined to think that is a Yankee import.

Now, you can't eat turnip greens by themselves, for Southern meals
are balanced meals. For the meat course, you'll usually want catfish,
unless you feel like spending more money, in which case you might want pork
chops. Nowadays people raise catfish in special ponds, because many of the
places they live are polluted, which is a pity, because catching catfish
on a line is a good way to get hungry.

Catfish is properly prepared by gutting the fish, cutting off and throwing
away the head, skinning the fish, and rolling it in cornmeal.
Then it is fried in bacon fat. (You will soon have an old tin can filled
with bacon fat sitting next to your stove.) You cook pork chops by searing
them on high heat, then turning them and cooking a few minutes on medium-low.
They are white through when they are cooked right. This is essential. I'm told
trichinosis is no longer prevalent in this country, but Southerners learned
to cook when eating an undercooked pork chop was a cheap way to spend some
really uncomfortable weeks, unless you died, which was better. You get
the best pork in the country in a town called West, in Texas. Drive through
sometime on your way to Austin and stop for a meal.

For the starch--and every meal has a starch--Southerners eat a variety of things.
Rice is popular in some areas, especially in the Carolinas. It's been growing there
for a long time--swamps can be adapted for rice growing. It is boiled
and served plain; people put butter on it. Potatoes, usually baked or
boiled and smothered in healthful, nutritious butter, are common. The
Southern specialty, though, is grits, which are made by grinding up hominy,
which, in turn, is made by soaking hard corn kernels in a bath of baking soda and
lime. You boil grits with water, which softens them, and serve with butter.
They are also a breakfast dish, and people put ribbon cane syrup on them then,
if they can get it, or plain cane syrup if they can't.

Finally, there is bread. There is, in fact, cornbread. The thing to know about
cornbread that Yankees cannot believe is that cornbread does not have sugar
in it. None whatsoever. The stuff they give you up north is not cornbread--it's
some kind of Yankee corn cake, and it's sweet. Cornbread is not sweet. It
is made of cornmeal, egg, salt, buttermilk, baking soda, and
bacon drippings. What's left over after you eat it with supper (not dinner,
supper), you can eat any other time with butter, and, if you like, cane syrup. If
you don't know what buttermilk is, find out.

So that's my ideal Southern menu--catfish, turnip greens, and grits, with
cornbread to fill up the holes. I haven't even mentioned numerous delicacies, like
black-eyed peas, spare ribs, sweet potatoes, or a hundred others, but once you
try the Southern way, you'll be looking everywhere for new taste sensations,
as the advertisers say.

Oh, you want dessert? Find a recipe for chocolate fudge made with sugar,
not corn syrup. Fudge made with corn syrup is unspeakable; fudge
flakes and breaks, but the corn-syrup kind bends. That's not fudge. Or you
could make a pear pie, with a nice lard crust. That's like an apple
pie, only with pears, which are better.

People have lived on diets like this for a very long time, and have survived to
ripe old ages. I never believed the garbage peddled about
low-fat diets, and now I am vindicated. Eat this stuff in moderation, and
you'll live quite a while, and stay at a reasonable weight. Of course, these
things are very good, and if you eat too much cornbread or forget the greens,
you're in trouble. I can't imagine, though, how anyone could forget the
turnip greens. You can't get them in Boston, of course, but I have a secret--you
can even grow turnips in a window box, right along with your nasturtiums. Which,
by the way, taste pretty good in salads, flowers and all.

(This essay was first published in the July-September issue of Blue Magnolia.)