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Southern Seen — Epidemic: A loss of taste buds

Southern Seen — Epidemic: A loss of taste buds

Posted: Thursday, October 2, 2008 10:40 pm
By: Larry McGehee

  A local shopping area has a large sign naming it “Historic Farmers Market”. Within are some shops and offices—but no farmer’s market. 

Twenty years ago, seasonal produce displayed in open-front booths filled the space, and on Saturdays a little old grandmotherly woman sold home-baked cakes she had brought from her own kitchen. Now, as the sign warns, that is all “historic”, gone with the wind. Thankfully, a small farmer’s market has sprung up and is thriving at the old railroad depot on Saturdays. Although not year-round.

The nearest thing to a traditional farmer’s market is seventy miles north, in Asheville, NC. There one finds nearly a hundred or so booths in two airplane-sized hangars. In season, they teem with corn, tomatoes, okra, beans, squash, apples, peaches, melons, pumpkins, gourds, jams and jellies, and homemade bread and pies. At Christmas time, the booths add greenery and wreathes. 

In our growing-up days, one found produce booths around the court square in our little rural town in Tennessee. Later, living in Alabama in our early adulthood in the 1960’s, we frequented a farmer’s market in Tuscaloosa. 

The South used to be speckled with roadside markets, plate-dinner restaurants, high school home economics classes, flour company bake-offs, and festivals celebrating strawberries, bananas, pickles, watermelons, and even the lowly okra. 

People used to “pig out” on fresh produce and home cooking, but today there are only the pigs, human and otherwise–little produce. Local fruits and vegetables are vanishing, and only occasional barbecue gatherings remain. Frozen foods and fast foods, and melons and strawberries from Mexico, have become staples. Folks aren’t eating less—just look at the stomachs hanging over the counters at Wal-Mart’s or MacDonald’s. But they are eating differently. 

To get a “remembrance of things past” old people eat thawed country vegetables and cornbread at a chain restaurant such as Cracker Barrel, or luck into a Mary Mac’s in Atlanta or a Wade’s in Spartanburg.

The worst thing about the Americanizing of Dixie may be that its farms and gardens are disappearing even as its fast food restaurants and its population escalate. 

Southern tongues were tied to the land, and as long as the land was primarily rural farmland—which is to say, up through World War II—southerners had a sense of taste. 

We should have known, as early as the 1960’s,  that the end was near. When we started buying four Morton’s chicken pies for a dollar instead of killing a chicken, picking and chopping some vegetables, and rolling dough to make our own, we drove the nails in the coffin of southern cooking. When television trays replaced dinner tables, taste had eroded too far to ever be reclaimed.  

What was really happening was that people who had lived off the land with scarcely any hard cash moved to towns and then to cities for jobs the South had always lacked. Once every southern family had a mule, a cow, a few acres, some cane-bottomed chairs, and some church fans, but then every family “moved up” to having two cars and a ranch house, indoor toilets and running water, and air conditioning. The two-lane dirt roads of the counties were graveled, and then asphalted, and then four-laned, forming a gigantic spider’s web that drew farm folk to city lights. 

Progress, we called it. The South was catching up with the nation. 

Some friends of mine blame the Republicans. The great change in southern cooking coincided with the South giving up its Democratic Party and voting for Eisenhower, builder of interstate highways, in 1952 and 1956, and persisting in pursuing peace and prosperity by GOP standards ever since. Al Gore could have won his home state in the 2000 election if he had campaigned for home cooking. 

As the South aged, it lost its sense of taste. As we old southerners, survivors remembering repasts past, have aged, we find ourselves eating in a foreign land at dinnertime. At mealtime, we hang our hams in a willow, and weep. Dixie has become America, and the savor has gone out of the stew. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage. The South has sold its good tastes for a mess of progress. 

I’d sell the whole mess of progress for a good mess of greens cooked with a two-year-old smokehouse-cured ham hock.  

Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at
Published in The Messenger 10.02.08

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