I thought I’d have everything picked up within a year of living here. There was a time in my life when I believed all people from the South were identical – foods, dialects and life philosophies were all the same, from Maryland to Louisiana.
How tough could it be?
Now, after seven years in the South, I realize how naïve and downright foolish it was to think that. I’d watch cooking shows and wonder why no one in Wilmington, N.C. – where I went to college – cooked like Paula Dean. I didn’t comprehend what Calabash was all about (it’s a style of fried seafood named after the town it originated; you can buy breading bearing the name from just about anywhere now). I wanted to know – my first year in Wilmington – why my cholesterol count wasn’t 4,283 from eating a bunch of fried foods and parts of chickens I never knew existed until I felt them crunching, gushing and squirting inside my mouth.
It turned out coastal community residents and visitors ate different foods than those further inland. The fried stuff that tasted like heart attack wasn’t really near Wilmington – I found that in Kinston, N.C., a few years later.
Of course, by then I had experienced nearly every type of white person food the Tarheel state had to offer and didn’t think too much of Kinston’s except infatuation with a local barbecue joint. I had homies from western North Carolina show me food from there, a few reasons throughout college to eat in the Charlotte area, many reasons and even several desires to eat in Raleigh, Durham and Wake Forest, and – here’s where I discovered some of my favorite North Carolina foods – samplings of cuisines in numerous little daytrip-destination towns.
Everything region of North Carolina has its own flavor of a food. Take barbecue – a noun synonymous with pulled pork, for the folks back home who’ve always thought barbecue was strictly and adjective (I used to be one) – in western and eastern North Carolina. It’s the same meat cooked the same way (for the most part), but with a different kind of sauce and way to eat it. The folks in eastern North Carolina – my preference – go with a blatantly vinegar-based sauce and coleslaw diced as short and fine as chopped garlic cloves as a condiment mixed with the meat. Central and western North Carolina residents like a tomato-based sauce.
Pork becomes more complex in the Palmetto state. It, too, loves a pig that’s cooked all day – except the sauce of choice in South Carolina has more mustard and less vinegar, if any at all. Coleslaw isn’t cut nearly as fine and includes carrots and other vegetables; it never touches the pork and doesn’t seem nearly as integral to the food as it is in North Carolina.
That’s probably because South Carolina’s got a taste for hash – pork (I’ve had some with chicken) that’s cooked almost like a thick stew, with potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables and served over rice. South Carolina volunteer fire departments, I’ve noticed, will cook huge vats of hash and sell pints and quarts – like those in North Carolina do with barbecue – of the stuff for fundraisers.
While these hog-based foods have different names and will be vehemently defended as by natives as unique when competing with varieties of other regions (yes, they really have formal competitions here), they’re all generally the same to me: pulled pork.
All right. I see I’ve used an entire page to get where I was going. I’ll make the rest short.
I purchased a box of tea bags in the grocery store tonight. It wasn’t because I’ve gone British or have acquired a taste for iced tea, but because I was looking for a piss warm happy medium between coffee and water to have before bed – something to give me a jolt without keeping me awake all night.
I came away with a 24-count box of store-brand tea bags – advertised as suitable for cold or hot tea – labeled “family size.” I get home, scald a coffee cup worth of water in the microwave and open the box of tea bags.
They’re the size of bull scrotums.
I read the box: apparently “family size” is a reference not to the number of bags in the box but the size of the bags. Each one, the box said, made a quart of tea. And here I am with my bull scrotum floating in a wimpy coffee cup.
Suffice to say, I added some honey and lemon, and pretended everything would be okay. It is not, I discovered 15 minutes after finishing the hot tea. Four times the tea bag equals four times the caffeine. I should have gone with coffee.
It is another example of how little I know about the South. I’ve bought tea bags before – this isn’t my first tea bag rodeo. But it is the first time I’ve purchased them in South Carolina, where folks would hook IV bags of sweet tea to themselves if they could. “Family size” tea bags were never featured on a rack at the end of an aisle In North Carolina, like the ones I bought tonight.
I should have known.