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Not my ‘ultimate southern food’

Illustration by Dennis Auth

A couple of years ago, during “March Madness” when folks into basketball were printing off the NCAA brackets to figure which teams were most likely to make it to the Final Four, some enterprising Southerners decided to bracket things that Southerners eat.  Then participants would vote and the winners would move on, round after round, until one became the “Ultimate Southern Food.”

Foods were to be selected based on a player’s own notion of  “Southerness,” rather than their particular sense of taste.

However, as with the NCAA, early pairings are important, and some of the matches I simply did not understand.

For example, having voters pick between pulled pork barbecue and fried catfish in the first round strikes me as sorta like pitting Auburn against Alabama at the outset. By the same token, matching fried chicken against deviled eggs early on is sorta like giving the bird a bye.

So fried catfish never made it to round two, while chicken pot pie nudged out country fried steak to move ahead.  A travesty, but what can I say.

On the other side, red beans and rice bested brunswick stew, which made me wonder if the folks who voted for pulled pork would be happy if their barbecue made the finals but there was no stew to go with it.

So the field narrowed and in Round Two there were some mild upsets. I was surprised that okra knocked off peach cobbler, but okra is grown about everywhere and eaten all sorts of ways, so I was comfortable with the voters’ choice.

(I once convinced my cousin Benny that he should name his second daughter “Okra.” Anticipating some opposition from his wife, he decided to tell her when she was worn out from childbirth and unable to resist. It would have worked if he had not added “Gumbo” as a middle name. That revived her. She promised to hurt him if he did – so he didn’t.)

By the third round, two sides seemed to emerge. On one were basic, heart-of-Dixie foods – barbecue, fried chicken and cornbread. On the other were coastal favorites, with a Carolina twist – roasted oysters, low country boil, and shrimp and grits.

Voters in the fourth round narrowed the field even more. Fried chicken, which I am convinced would have done better if paired against cornbread or okra, was beaten by barbecue, while roasted oysters were also sent packing.

That got us down to shrimp and grits versus low country boil on one side, and pulled pork barbecue versus cornbread on the other.

No contest.

Shrimp and grits and pulled pork barbecue were matched for the championship.

Now I don’t know about you, but it seemed to me that instead of being about the “Ultimate Southern Food,” this had become a vote on the “Ultimate South.”

Or, to make this personal, my South or theirs.

My South is the South of hickory smoke, work shirts, scuffed boots, light bread and sauce.

Shrimp and grits, despite its humble origins as “breakfast shrimp” that once sent Carolina fishermen down to the sea in ships, is today about a South that ain’t my South, about a South that is a land of cuisine rather than cooking. Although I like shrimp and grits – singularly or together – it remains for me the quintessential pre-game brunch buffet dish, easily ladled onto Chinet plates.

Pulled pork barbecue is sit down, elbows on the table, a roll of paper towels handy.

Many’s the time folks have asked me where they can get good barbecue.

No one has asked me where they could get shrimp and grits.

So that’s what was being decided.

And the winner was .  .  .  .  .   shrimp and grits.

I demand a recount.

Or more Alabama voters.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.