The Southern Gentleman: A Primer


JEFF FITZGERALD

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For most of us, even those born and raised here and rooted to the soil like one of Faulkner’s oaks, the South no longer exists. In fact, nearer to the truth, it has never existed. The South, as we know it, is a collective fantasy that lives in us as much as we in it. The moonlight and magnolias of the antebellum South was more an invention of Margaret Mitchell than a proper recollection. Very few variations of the Southern accent are as lyrical and charming as the arts have made them seem; a real native of New Orleans sounds more like a Yankee than they do any iteration of Big Daddy or Blanche Dubois. The little things that make Southerners seem like a people unto themselves are no more insular and confounding to the outsider than the comparable quirks of any distinct populace. For every West Virginia ramp supper, there’s a Minnesota meat raffle.

The advantage to this elaborate fiction is the fact that we can choose to embody these well-worn stereotypes when it suits us. My accent carries the aristocratic lilt of Old Virginia, despite the fact I was raised in the mountains by West Virginia hillbillies. By rights, I should sound more like Larry the Cable Guy than Foghorn Leghorn. It is not a conscious affectation, but it is entirely possible that my accent is a subliminal manifestation of my imagined place in our collective Dixie dreamland. It is a drawl, slow and sweet as molasses, that conveys in an instant to the hearer that I am a gentleman of culture and refinement. I’ve read Shakespeare and Faulkner, I can tell the difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir in a sip, I enjoy foreign films even when no one gets naked in them, and I am familiar with the works of both Man Ray and Sun Ra.

So let’s resurrect the ideal of the Southern Gentleman, a modern-day Ashley Wilkes with just enough Rhett Butler in him to keep him interesting (it really is true that Southerners have an inherent dislike of excesses of virtue). Let us inhabit the ideal of a bygone era, but with modern sensibilities. The New Southern Gentleman can be white, black, Asian, or Latino (but not Swiss. Don’t ask). He doesn’t have to be part of the landed gentry, whatever the hell that means; he may come from any economic background, just so long as he’s at least sophisticated enough to know that Applebee’s is not a fancy sit-down restaurant.

If there is one immutable truth about the South, it is our cuisine. Perhaps the most food-centric region in the country, Southerners love to eat and eat to love. Food is one of our primary expressions of emotion. It is deeply embedded in our culture, encoded even in our DNA, a painful recollection of times of privation from the famine among the first settlers at Jamestown to the plague of Sherman’s invaders to the innumerable breakdowns in the food supply that occur in a primarily agrarian society. It can come down to something as simple as a few days of really bad weather to wipe out not only your year’s income, but your food stocks for almost a complete set of calendar pages. So food has always been a constant concern, and having enough to share is more a sign of prosperity than a new car or a big house. A full and welcoming table is the mark of true hospitality, and the embodiment of Christian agape with a plate of hot biscuits. Thus, the New Southern Gentleman must concern himself first with the proper knowledge of, and attitude towards, all things edible and potable.

To that end, allow me to offer the following guidelines:

A Southern Gentleman is fad-proof. He has never knowingly ingested quinoa or kombucha. He was eating kale before anyone decided it was a “superfood,” but it wouldn’t have mattered to him anyway, since he still cooked every bit of nutrition out of it in the time-honored Southern tradition. He has been eating barbecue since before the Yankees got ahold of it and acted like they just invented the wheel. He was aware of Sriracha sauce years before everyone went buck wild over the stuff and started putting it in everything from chicken salad to ice cream, but he still prefers Tabasco or Texas Pete. He has no idea what a “cronut” is.

A Southern Gentleman has time to say entire words. Nothing is ever “delish,” and ‘cue is something that belongs on a pool table. And god help the man who refers to pizza as ‘za.

A Southern Gentleman can cook. And not just man the backyard grill. He can put an entire meal on the table if called upon so to do. He can follow a recipe, he knows how to “look” a pot of beans, and he knows without being told that turning up the heat doesn’t make the dish get done faster. And he also believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with weenies and sauerkraut as a main dish.

A Southern Gentleman eats what is put in front of him, and receives it gladly. He is not a “picky eater,” nor does he invoke a bewildering array of imagined allergies or self-impose dietary restrictions to draw attention to himself or to get out of eating something he doesn’t like. The only exception to this rule is if he orders his steak rare or medium rare like any right-thinking human being and it arrives cooked to a cinder (a.k.a. “well done”), he will politely send it back. If they don’t get it right on the second go, he will excuse himself from the table and go cook the damned thing himself. There’s no excuse for continuing to ruin perfectly good beef.

A Southern Gentleman knows how to dine properly at a white tablecloth restaurant or a roadside barbecue stand. He knows how to use an oyster fork and how to shuck an oyster and eat it right from the shell. He knows that an amuse bouche is not the same as an appetizer, and that dish of sorbet is a palate cleanser and not dessert. He also knows when it is acceptable to eat with his fingers (fried chicken is never, ever eaten with a fork), and how to open a beer bottle with a car key.

A Southern gentleman never, ever wastes food. Uneaten food in a restaurant is dutifully carried home for later consumption or a little treat for the dog and/or hogs. Leftover food on the dinner table at home is cleared immediately and properly stored, to be eaten as lunch the next day or repurposed into a different dish for another dinner. In fact, my maternal grandfather held to the rule that “leftovers mean that someone didn’t get enough.” Thus, it was everyone at the table’s obligation to ensure that all of the food served was eaten in the same sitting. It is little wonder that family gatherings on the Browning side resembled a Sumo Basho.

A Southern Gentleman always treats the restaurant wait staff with kindness and respect. He will not make an ass of himself over a trifling matter, and nothing that occurs in the course of a meal is worth embarrassing himself or someone else.

A Southern Gentleman respects tradition, but relishes new experiences. He is among the first to try a new restaurant, and he makes up his own mind about it. He doesn’t need Yelp, Urbanspoon or the local restaurant critic to tell him what he should think. He is not deterred by the exotic, and will seek it out whenever possible. For example, when the first Vietnamese pho joints finally made their way to my hometown, I went straight for the Adventurous Eaters menu and enjoyed my meal while the kitchen staff actually came out to watch the white guy eat tripe and beef tendon.

A Southern Gentleman would gladly lay down his life for his family, his friends, his fellow man, or his country. But no piece of food, no matter how good it may be, is “to die for.”

A Southern Gentleman doesn’t lord his culinary knowledge over others. If someone professes a fondness for Carolina barbecue, he doesn’t launch into a pedantic dissertation on the differences between Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, and Midland South Carolina styles of barbecue. The only exception to this rule is if he is invited to a barbecue and arrives to find nothing more than hamburgers cooking on the grill, he will politely explain the difference between barbecue and grilling.

A Southern gentleman also doesn’t feign expertise, nor does he refuse advice. The sommelier at a very nice restaurant knows more about the specific bottles in his or her cellar, and how well they pair with the evening’s bill of fare, than anyone. A true Southern Gentleman will accept their recommendations, instead of simply seeking out the most expensive and/or impressive-sounding wine on the list or ordering a bottle of something he liked several years ago in a similar spot. And the very presence of a cicerone in a restaurant means that you will not be ordering a PBR under any circumstances.

A Southern Gentleman understands that Southern food is not one thing, but a collection of distinct regional cookery further delineated by the individual styles of predominantly domestic cooks. He is aware of his own subjective criteria; just because his mama made biscuits and gravy with bacon grease-based sawmill gravy doesn’t make sausage gravy a gross abomination. That said, there is absolutely no place in the South where it is acceptable to put slaw on your barbecue. Seriously. Don’t even start with me.

A Southern gentleman is respectful of, and knowledgeable about, other cultures’ food. If he were to find himself in a real New York deli, he would not order a pastrami sandwich on white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. And while a Philly cheesesteak may benefit from the cross-cultural addition of Duke’s mayonnaise, anyone who puts lettuce and tomato on one should be horsewhipped (which, I believe, is still legal in the four Commonwealths: Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts).

A Southern gentleman is never completely dry. He has a sociable and/or restorative nip of something (usually Bourbon or ‘shine) on his person at all times. And he always has an emergency back-up supply on his person so well secreted that he could get it past even the most intrusive TSA agent.

And finally, a Southern gentleman eats. He doesn’t gobble, devour, inhale, or wolf down anything. He doesn’t graze or nibble, and wouldn’t be caught noshing if his life depended on it. He sits down to a meal and devotes his time and attention to the enjoyment of the food, drink and company. A meal, any meal, is an occasion and not merely a necessity. Food is to be savored and shared, contemplated with the seriousness due so precious a gift; as such, it deserves better than to be described in terms more at home in a high school newspaper.

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