A Cracker Barrel Epiphany

I had an epiphany. Not quite Moses’s burning bush, maybe a little closer to Merton’s on the corner of Fourth and Walnut. But that’s probably a stretch too.

I grew up in the South. One of the paradoxes of the South is how friendly, brilliantly friendly people can be. I’ve never stopped and asked for directions that I wasn’t given a turn-by-turn Rand-McNally-eat-your-heart-out shortcut. I’ve even had people get in their cars and tell me, “Just follow me.” Only to drive for 15 minutes to get me where I was going. However, we haven’t had a great history with race relations, to say the very least.

I didn’t realize that I was Southern until I moved to Florida in eighth grade. Kids would come up and just ask me to talk. I couldn’t hear the difference in the way that I sounded out words and the way that they did. I’m pretty oblivious to details anyway. Paraded around from group to group, I just liked the attention. Along with my year and a half Florida stint in the nineties, I went to college in Central Florida as well. Not as much parading, but certainly some jabbed parroting.

And somewhere along the way, I heard that Southerners aren’t intelligent. I don’t know if I ever heard anyone say it directly, but it was implied. From Saturday Night Live skits, to the way certain people in the media talked about the South. Monologues and interviews were viewed millions of times on YouTube showcasing our storm-chasers and double-rainbow watchers. Even in seminary, caricatures of old-timey, Holy Ghost preachers were adopted as uneducated. Anyone with an ego like mine, hated that thought. Everyone lives in a bubble of thought and culture, but somehow mine was at the bottom of the totem pole.

Years ago I even bought a book and audio CD of how not to speak with a Southern dialect. If I could eschew my accent, I could unclaim my stereotype. I might have even moved from an 8 to a 7 on the drawl scale. “Enunciate each syllable. Do not hold on to the vowels.”

A couple of years ago, I was at Cracker Barrel (obviously abandoning my Southern roots). Along the wall was scattered corn bread mix, chow-chow relish, apple butter, buttermilk pancake mix, jars of fried apples, preserves, jellies, and jams, a peach cobbler kit, peanut brittle, pecan divinity and lemon drops- it was a perfect wall with perfect Southern delicacies and I thought to myself, “I want it all.” Like, I really want to buy everything on this wall and go home and eat it. It would seem that while I slept as a kid, my pallet was contrived by Cracker Barrel elves. And it occurred to me, “This is who I am. These are my people, this is my home, this is my food.”

To be honest, I have never been embarrassed to be Southern. I have been embarrassed to be unintelligent, but I love the South. Like all cultures, we have our dark past that must be laid to rest once-and-for-all, but I love my people. And this week marks the time that I love it the most- the holidays. From Thanksgiving through Christmas, the South is as good as it gets.

Family matters around these parts. And my entire family will be here tomorrow. All of us. In-laws and out-laws, kids and grandkids, even my Australian in-law in-laws. This is when we are our best. Around an extended family table that should only sit 12, but we squeeze in more, because everyone wants to be with everyone. We’ll eat, and laugh, and tell stories. We’ll nap, and shop, and go watch a holiday movie. We’ll throw the football, watch some football, and spin kids on the tire swing out back. The food will sit out on the counter all day, because we feel that if we just graze all day, the calories are cut in half.

I had an epiphany at Cracker Barrel a few years ago. Or maybe I just came back around to what I always knew. I’m lucky to be from the South. I’m lucky to be born and raised in a culture that embraces what matters to the human spirit. What makes us who we are, builds our character, and shapes our values. Family.