Alabama for Dummies
Having now spent some quality time in the Deep South, I felt it only reasonable, proper and quite possibly my duty as a public service to provide some insight on my new environment and also to share some survival tips for those who might, for whatever reason, stumble into the State of Mind that is Alabama.
It should be understood that the following is based upon the observations of one whose exposure to the Southern Lifestyle, until recently, was limited to the words of the immortal Lynyrd Skynyrd as presented in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama”. Further, it is intended to promote tourism via education of those who might otherwise avoid the area based on errant perceptions of what might await them here.
The Deep South in general (and Alabama in particular) features what may be the most soothing geography and scenery of anyplace I’ve ever been that doesn’t have a beach. The countryside is hilly, the roads wind through the topographic anomalies in lazy curves and switchbacks that simply beg for a long ride.
The Greater Birmingham area is truly a great place to live. The cost of living is low and the general attitude is laid back. The area offers a wide range of activities, regardless of one’s tastes. Concerts by nationally prominent entertainers, any imaginable dining experience, shopping, nightlife, etc. are abundant. The traffic is well managed for the most part, and the roads are, with a few exceptions, excellent. You can get to just about anywhere in the city in thirty minutes.
Outside Birmingham you will find all things rural from antebellum plantations to actual tarpaper shacks. Huge farms, cotton fields, peach and pecan orchards and plots that appear to yield junk cars, century old former buildings and multiple mobile homes are abundant. The area is heavily and beautifully wooded and, in the fall especially, breathtaking. The State Park system could serve as a model for the rest of the Country. Canyons, caves, waterfalls, historic sites and places to just enjoy Mother Nature are everywhere.
I’m here to assure you that the legendary Southern Hospitality is an absolute reality and, quite possibly, understated. People are so nice here it can sometimes be embarrassing. You will be treated with the utmost courtesy regardless of your perceived station in society, personal beliefs, idiosyncrasies, spiritual leanings, epidermal pigmentation, level of intelligence and/or origin of your license plate. One should, however, be aware that at precisely one nano-second after you are out of earshot, you will be the butt of good natured and life-long public ridicule based upon any and all of the above.
Mayberry RFD is alive and well. For the most part, anything outside the Birmingham area and with the possible exception of Montgomery, exhibits quintessential small town USA as well as the definitive rural lifestyle. Denizens of these outposts, despite an eerie resemblance to a state wide casting call for the remake of ‘Deliverance’, are absolutely refreshing. They’re beyond cordial, genuinely pleasant, guileless and, as a rule, a delight to be around. The single advisory: Don’t be in a hurry. Whatever it is, it’ll still be here tomorrow.
Sports are taken very seriously here, however the word sport is defined as college football and only two teams are ever spoken of. At the mere hint of any sports-related conversation, the first question you will be asked (notice the earnest expression and rapt attention of the interviewer) is “Alabama or Auburn ?” Your very survival depends upon an instantaneous and accurate appraisal of your surroundings. If your inquisitor is wearing red or any of his (or her) apparel sports a large “A” (contrary to logical first impression, this signifies Alabama, not a commonly referred to bodily aperture) your immediate response should be a strident “Roll Tide!” This is code for an ardent affiliation with and deep admiration for the Crimson Tide, Nick Saban and all things Bear Bryant. If, on the other hand, your partner in conversation is sporting orange, blue or both, your response should be “War Eagle!!!!” This is the official battle cry for the Auburn Tigers and is, I assume, steeped in some obscure logic. Do not take this advice lightly.
This topic is easily complex enough to warrant post-graduate thesis level research. Generally, the language of the Deep South is based on English. Mono-syllabic pronunciation is a physical impossibility among native Southerners, so any word pronounced in English with no vocal deflection has been duly adapted. A simple example might be the word ‘and’. It is pronounced ‘ayund’ in Southernspeak. Apply this principle universally and you may be able to participate in a conversation after a few weeks.
The following examples are, however, deemed necessary in order that a quick visit is ultimately survivable. These observations are random and not ranked in order of importance.
Y’all – As the sign says, this means you. It is singular. If someone utters “Y’all come on over”, you should go alone. If the invitation was issued as “All y’all come on over”, bring the posse.
Ole boy – This is the indicator that the individual under discussion is about to be disrespected on some level. It doesn’t qualify as an epithet and is typically used in everyday conversation. This term should, under no circumstances, be confused with Good ole boy which is a term of camaraderie and friendship.
Fixin – This is a verb synonymous with ‘preparing’. A common usage might be something similar to; “Ahm fixin to stomp a mudhole in y’all!” The roughly translates to; “I am marginally displeased with you.”
Carry – Again, a verb meaning to transport. “Ah had tuh carry mah kieds tuh skuel this maunin.” indicates that Eulalia Marie and Bubba Jr. missed the bus again.
Buggy - The wheeled contraption used in grocery stores to collect items for purchase and transport same to the check-out line.
Yankee – This pejorative term is issued in reference to anyone originating from anywhere outside the Confederate States of America . It is the single most denigrating term in all of Southernspeak and is properly issued in ultimate disgust. A Damn Yankee is defined as a Yankee that has opted to attempt permanent residence in the Deep South.
And,uh - This may be the most significant single entry on my list. First, understand that Southerners LOVE to talk. If you must ask what time it is, be prepared for a minimum twenty minute dissertation. This response will cover topics such as the friend of a cousins’ in-law’s neighbor’s dog, French and Indian War trivia, local fugitives, three places to purchase ammunition and the blizzard of ’93. At some point, the informed listener will hear “And,uh…”. This is the verbal clue that the entire knowledge base of the speaker has been exhausted and the system is being re-booted. Immediately following “and,uh” the narrative starts over again. Left to its own devices, this continues in perpetuity.
Be aware that this list serves as a primer on only the most commonly used terms. The magnitude of similar verbal aberrations is legion.
Southern cooking is, in my humble opinion (and with certain declamatory language), one of the most endearing aspects of this environment. In other parts of the world, home cooking is often referred to. Home cooking is to Southern cooking as BB guns are to nuclear weaponry. Restaurants in the South, with the obvious exception of national chains, are almost always a very pleasant adventure. There are, however, a few things one should know and, in some cases, prepare for.
Prior to visiting the area, it is advisable to visit Home Depot and purchase a large quantity of drywall joint compound. Take this material home, scoop a large portion of it into a cereal bowl, position a pat of butter atop the spackle, heat it and eat it. Repeat this process until you can perform the ritual without obvious physical reaction. This exercise is to prepare you for the phenomenon known as grits. Grits are THE staple in the local diet and are therefore inescapable. More importantly, the jubilant consumption of this horrific material is the prime indicator as to ones social acceptability. Turn up your nose at grits and be forever branded with the dreaded scarlet letter ‘Y’ (for Yankee – see above).
One should also be prepared for a libation that shares its’ name with a very common beverage. Iced tea (pronounced ‘ahs teeeee’) in the South is a concoction that is apparently constructed as follows: A pitcher is filled exactly halfway with sugar. Water is then added to fill the container and, more often than not, a teabag is passed through the resulting syrup. The addition of a half-dozen lemons appears to be optional. When iced tea is requested anywhere in the region, a large tumbler of this mixture will be proffered. The proper response is to pour a minimum of half the contents down your throat, sigh dramatically in satisfaction and wipe your mouth with your sleeve. Any other response will result in the spontaneous award of the infamous ‘Y’ brand. Caveat: Immediate injection of insulin, while a potential physiological imperative, is considered bad form.
Another significant gastronomical anomaly has to do with vegetables. Anything that meets the following criteria can and will wind up on the table:
1. Green in color (yellow is acceptable in some cases).
2. Spent some time in the dirt.
It is, therefore, entirely possible that people walked through the contents of that bowl of unidentifiable green stuff on their way in from the back yard – where the dog lives. Apparently, if enough bacon and its resulting drippings are included in the preparation, all manner of vegetation is considered appropriate.
For the sake of simplicity, I have included both disciplines, smoked meat and barbeque, under this heading. No discussion related to the obvious differences in procedure and/or result of either practice is deemed necessary in the scope of this dissertation.
Having spent over half my life in Kansas City , I consider myself a connoisseur in all things barbeque. It has been my privilege to sample the full range of the barbeque arts and sciences as well as dabble over the years in those disciplines within the confines of my own back yard. Given the unique properties and pure divinity of the culinary practice of charring animal flesh, I struggle to limit commentary to the confines of a few paragraphs.
When in a new environment, it has been my habit to research the output of local practitioners of the art and, by extension, compare the product to what I grew up with. With the full understanding that the mere mention of any alternative to KC barbeque as a potential equal to that divine preparation is tantamount to sacrilege, I must report that the Alabama version is nothing short of ambrosia.
Mom and Pop establishments devoted entirely to the practice are literally everywhere and, so far, I haven’t found one I didn’t love, albeit for different reasons. The “big names” in barbeque might have as many as three locations but it seems that the devotion to the original preparation protocol, whatever it might be, is a matter of personal and professional honor and auxiliary outlets strive for the precise quality that made the original a success.
Such culinary delight has the capacity to render me rhapsodic so, with that in mind, I’ll simply suffice it to say that, when in Alabama , any barbeque vendor one might encounter will be worth an investigatory visit. Most will be reason enough to rationalize permanent relocation to the area.
Bear in mind that Alabama is the geographic center of the Southern Baptist Community whose Hall of Fame is next door to the State Capitol. That said, intoxicants, while not necessarily available universally, can be accessed without a great deal of difficulty.
There are counties in which alcohol is unavailable, period. Transporting even sealed containers in these regions is highly regulated (read: put it in the trunk or face catastrophic fines and confiscation of your refreshments). Restaurants in these counties feature nothing stronger than the earlier discussed iced tea. Interestingly, these counties are regularly mentioned in the news when one of their local meth kitchens gets raided.
Conversely, there are counties (typically immediately adjacent to those mentioned above) where bars and bingo halls are open until 6:00 AM. Yet other counties feature a plethora of alcohol related regulations (like not being able to get a beer until the end of the first quarter on NFL Sundays) that are far too confusing to merit discussion in this limited space.
As previously stated, my intention is to provide some limited insight to those contemplating an Alabama experience. Bear in mind that these observations are solely based on personal experience over a relatively brief internship in the area. As additional commentary is deemed imperative, facts turn up that alter my perception, I decide to alienate a few more of my new neighbors or whenever I feel like it, I’ll edit or add to these obvious pearls of wisdom. In the meantime, Roll Eagle or War Tide or something like that.
Alabama for Dummies Revisited
Most significant lifestyle changes mandate a relatively significant learning curve. This is especially true for those among us who wholeheartedly embrace the “grass is always greener” outlook on most aspects of life. Since the previous observations on the Alabama experience were posted, my educational experience has made the necessity to expand on some of those observations apparent.
While my take on the overall ambience of the Deep South is essentially unchanged, expanded exploration requires a few amendments in the interest of accuracy. Once the skyline of Birmingham has retreated beyond the range of one’s rearview mirror, it becomes apparent that about the only opportunity for activity is to buy enough gas to get back home. After a couple of historic sites and hours of pastoral splendor, you’re done. The scenery’s nice, the roads are in pretty good shape but seriously, take a book with you!
Do not, under any circumstances, delude yourself into thinking the Civil War is over. Yankees aren’t fully appreciated in this part of the world. History tells us that Southern Belles were ever so polite and accommodating to Union soldiers during the war. They routinely offered oleander tea to the invaders which conveniently killed them in minutes. If your response to “Y’all ain’t from around here, are yuh?” is negative (and believe me, they’ll know if you lie) you’re, at the very least, under suspicion. Chances are, with the exception of a few locales, you won’t get shot, assuming you exit the area at or above the posted speed limit. Linger at your own risk and, for God’s sake, don’t drink the tea.
Alabama, according to a study I read recently, is the second most religious state in the Union (Mississippi’s first). In and of itself, this is admirable. The downside is that if you belong to the wrong congregation, you might as well be from New York. Prayer circles seem to be involved in virtually every pending decision which is fine, it just strikes me as a little weird when convened in the parking lot at Winn-Dixie. I am comfortable in the knowledge that, in the eyes of some, I’ve just condemned myself, but I think I’ll wait until the finals are graded.
Speaking of religion, Alabama is playing Texas tonight for the BCS Championship. There is no other topic open to discussion today and trash talk is everywhere. We’ll join the throng in observation of the game and cheer the Crimson Tide to victory. It should be a great game and Alabama is the marginal favorite, so tomorrow has the distinct potential to be a jubilant day, statewide. I am a little worried about what everyone will talk about until next fall, though. Roll Tide.
Coincidentally, it’s snowing today. That is, if you consider barely visible flurries to be snow. Forecasts warn of nearly an inch in total accumulation. When the alarm aired yesterday, schools were immediately closed until further notice. Most public services are being held in abeyance and the news this morning featured live feeds of a fleet of dump trucks with plows affixed patrolling the highways and byways with the intensity of an armed invasion. I think I just figured out what the topic of conversation will be until next fall.