Monday, September 27, 2010

Profound South: Invincible Summer

"Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un été invincible."

About a month into my summer stay in Paris, I bought a little purse-sized bottle of Tabasco and began carrying it with me like a fiery flask.  I loved the thought of it tucked into my bag, a potion from home.

Is this the culinary equivalent of packing heat? I wondered.  And if so, what was I armed against?  A spiceless life? 

I pepper my morning smoothies with cayenne, sprinkle Tony’s on my popcorn, shake sauce onto pizza.  Moving to Louisiana has only encouraged this practice.  Two Tabasco bottles sit, side-by-side like salt-and-pepper, on nearly every restaurant table in the state.  There’s classic crimson and a lighter green version for those who like it less hot.  

I purchased my heat at a place called Thanksgiving on rue Saint Paul.  My friend Annie was the first person to tell me about the store.  “It’s one of the places you can buy peanut butter,” she’d said, imparting a piece of information valued among newly-transplanted Americans. 

So, one day I’m walking home and see it: the big glass window painted with a cornucopia, scrolly cursive words announcing underneath: cuisine de la Louisiane.

Inside, I find a section stocked with Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice, Louisiana Hot Sauce, Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, just-add-water gumbo in little plastic packages. 

But this cornucopia isn’t all oysters and crawfish.  There are baked beans and marmite for the English, paper packages of maple-leaf cookies for the Canadians.  Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for the Americans.  Then, tubs of fudgy icing and box mixes for yellow cake for anyone with a cupcake craving.  Prices aside, it’s every Anglophone expatriate’s dream.  So, in a move of (ex)patriotism, I splurged on grits, cornmeal, and hot sauce. 

While I was browsing, “Me and Bobby McGee” came on, and Janis Joplin told me a southern comforting story about kindness.  Even if you had a flat tire, you shouldn’t worry because a trucker would pick you and your boyfriend up and drive you to a city an hour and fifteen minutes away as it rained and the three of you sang, safe and sheltered in the cab.  The first line from the song was the only real association I had with Baton Rouge before moving here.  It was the place where Janis busted flat. 

During my move south, I had busted flat, too, in a U-Haul, in Mississippi, also with a boyfriend, but nobody offered to drive us to New Orleans.  And by then we really could have used a daiquiri.  So, instead of riding all the way to New Orleans as someone strummed her harpoon, we sat in the diner section of the gas station and tried to re-tranquilize my cat.

It about the time that I bought the Tabasco that I began saying I was from Louisiana.  I’m from Tennessee by birth, from North Carolina by virtue of having lived there for most of my life, and from Montpellier simply because I love it more than any place.  But now, in some ways, I am also from Louisiana.     

Hot sauce: wet heat.  A climatic clue you’re in the South. 

In Paris, people kept fanning themselves, bemoaning la chaleur, and I kept thinking, a little indignantly, you call THIS heat?  A sunny little seventy-five and no humidity?  On one of the first nights, I remember sitting in my apartment in jeans and a scarf, sipping tea and feeling desolate that it was late June and in the low 50s.  Fast forward to now: we’re in the home stretch of September and my roommate said yesterday, “It’s starting to cool off.  It might get down to 86 tomorrow.”

Louisiana’s all swamp and sweat, and so am I.

A few nights ago, I watched Steel Magnolias, which was filmed in Nachitoches, LA.  Viewing a movie set in the South has always been uncomfortable for me.  Things that seem natural in real life become affected, put on: the exaggerated accents, the waitresses calling you darlin,’ the languid pace.  It’s all drawl and dawdle that feels false played out on a screen.    

But beyond all the little signals of southerness, the mention of sweet tea, the words like “tacky,” and “grandbaby,” the hell-raising husband at the wedding who shoots firecrackers into the trees to scare off the birds, the Bible-brandishing beautician . . . beyond all the triteness, the tropes, there’s one part that gets me.  One part that feel real.  Southern. 

It’s the mother’s monologue in the cemetery, about her daughter Shelby’s death. (If you remember, she went into a coma after complications from a kidney transplant.)  It begins calmly then builds to rage.  There’s grace and resilience in it, even if M’Lynne believes she’s been done wrong.  I think of Louisiana.  Of Katrina.  Of Deepwater Horizon.  Of the steady strength of rebuilding. 

The cemetery monologue reminds me of another scene from an epic southern film, Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett’s “I’ll never be hungry again,” speech.  Famished, her hair all frizzy, Scarlett claws at the ground for a stray radish, then collapses, chest heaving against the earth.  If you’re from the South, you know the ground matches the sun-smeared sky.  “Red as birth land’s dirt,” to cite a line from a friend’s poem.

As God is my witness.  They’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

Scarlett’s standing.  The score swells.  

Camus wrote, "Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un été invincible."
"In the middle of winter, I discovered in myself an invincible summer.”

He grew up in a sunny place, too.  Algeria.  His story, like Scarlett’s, assumes a certain nostalgia for a way of life that became indefensible.  French Algeria fell like the Confederacy.

In French, the Deep South is called le sud profond.  The Profound South.  The more I live here, the more I realize I am profoundly southern.  The land and I lay claim to one other.  Like Scarlett, called back to her birth land’s dirt, I am also called back to my terre, and carry it with me when I go.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your love and devotion to Tony Chachere's....we love you too!

    Cindy Adams-Ardoin
    Food Scientist
    Tony Chachere's