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Cornbread and Carolina Gold

Posted: January 11, 2018 3:09 p.m.
Updated: January 12, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Granted that most cultural mythologies embody truths or would-be truths, studies of the South nevertheless reveal it to be a more complex, more fluid, more open society than apologists might think, something worth considering as we go forward. The resounding influence of Gone with the Wind, a story about a glorious plantation society under siege during and after the Civil War, has perhaps left us with a simplistic portrait of what was in reality a patchwork quilt of cultural complexity and ingenuity.  Self-identified Southerners might appreciate what Professor Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond writes about Southern identity:  Southern history bespeaks a place that is more complicated than the stories we tell about it. The very story of the South is a story of unresolved identity, unsettled and restless, unsure and defensive.  The South, contrary to so many words written in defense and in attack, was not a fixed, known, and unified place, but rather a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation.

Throughout its history, relatively young compared to New England as one example, the South, like most of America, has been a land of immigrants, with Thomas Jefferson the son of an English immigrant mother and Andrew Jackson the first child in his Irish immigrant family to be born here. So too, the paternal grandparents of Jefferson Davis immigrated from Wales.  Judah Benjamin, the Secretary of State of the Confederacy, an immigrant from the Virgin Islands, was the son of Sephardic Jewish parents from London, as John C. Calhoun was the grandson of Patrick Calhoun from Donegal, Ireland, and Francis Marion the grandson of a Huguenot immigrant from France. Closer to home, Narcisco and Ambrose Gonzales, founders of The State newspaper, were the sons of a Cuban immigrant; the current Hispanic immigration hearkens back to Hernando De Soto’s trek through South Carolina (and Camden) in 1540. Camden’s own Bernard Baruch was of course the son of noted surgeon Dr. Simon Baruch, a Prussian Jewish immigrant. Also worth noting: during the Civil War, South Carolina was 57 percent African American; even more curious, the “one-drop” rule was not adopted in this state, because according to Frontline, the two cultures had already begun to blend, with many established families in South Carolina and Georgia having more than a drop of Africa in their ancestry. 

Insofar as “culture” by definition comes down to many levels of particular practices, customs and language, consider the following examples:  what is more Southern than seersucker?  The word comes from the Hindi word srsakar.   Seersucker first became popular in Britain’s warm weather colonies, much like another Persian fabric, madras. The pejorative expression, “cracker,” a once honorable term, comes from the Irish and Scots-Irish Gaelic word, cracaire, meaning a lively talker or boaster.  The grits we eat, originally  called “rockahomine,” later shortened to “hominy,” was offered to Jamestown settlers by Native Americans.  Colonists learned recipes for corn bread, johnny cake, corn pone, hush puppies, fritters, and hoecakes from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek. Mac ‘n Cheese? Pasta and cheese casseroles have been recorded as early as the 14th century in the Italian Liber de Coquina, one of the oldest medieval cookbooks, which featured a dish of parmesan cheese and pasta. President Jefferson later imported macaroni and parmesan for suppers at Monticello. As for fried chicken, blame the Scots; they traditionally deep-fried chicken, unlike their English counterparts, who baked or boiled it.

In addition to African expertise in growing indigo, early South Carolina amassed great wealth owing to enslaved Africans with prior knowledge of rice cultivation. The Africans taught the colonists how to dike the marshes and flood the fields. They winnowed rice in sweetgrass baskets, another African skill.  Even the predominant strain of rice, “Carolina Gold,” came from Africa.  Africans also brought okra, black eyed peas, and hoppin john, not to mention spirituals, and as they evolved, blues and jazz, musical forms that became the foundation of today’s popular music.

Fox hunting dates back to ancient Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. Many Greek and Roman-influenced countries have long traditions of hunting with hounds. Hunting with Agassaei hounds was popular in Celtic Britain, even before the Romans. Later, the Normans brought the Gascon and Talbot hounds. And steeplechase, as we know, originated in Ireland, with the races between church steeples.  Question:  Do the Greeks get credit for our Greek revival architecture?

In short, we are not only the world here; we have been the world for some time, something to celebrate in our increasingly global community.

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