Thursday, February 28


"Gershom Weinberg's Real Pork Barbecue" and Other Southern Oddities

Socio-cultural weirdness seems to follow me around. I currently live in New York, where street lunacy has been raised to such a high artform--I am reminded of the skinny, barefoot, bearded Rastafarian gentleman I saw prancing out on Madison one chilly Sunday morning wearing only a short red minidress and shorter down jacket--that it simply starts to blend into the background after a while. Indiana had its own low-key Midwestern strangeness--Mennonite girls in starched caps flipflops using laptops, orange skies at night, apocalyptic sunsets reflected on the snow, the omnipresent ethanol smell--and Florida has its own sunny strangeness resulting from the head-on collision of Walt Disney and my fellow Cubans' predillection for the harebrained. Still, the true angel of the odd, the great-grandaddy of folie-a-deux, is the rampant Deep South strangeness that starts just twenty miles north of my hometown, Tallahassee, at the Georgia border. It assimilates everything, as this rather surreal little tidbit from Tony Horowitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War indicates:
Southern Jewry often made for this sort of colorful intermingling. When I'd lived in Mississippi, a Jewish coworker and I were frequently asked by a small synagogue in Meridian to help make minyan, the quorum of ten worshippers needed for a Jewish prayer service. The Friday phone calls were always the same: "Y'all gonna come make minyan at church tonight? We'll be playin' poker after the service. Jewish Southern culture had also bred the ultimate in fusion food: a place in Alabama called 'Gershom Weinberg's Real Pork Barbecue.'
If that wasn't weird enough, turns out über-WASP Shelby Foote (job description: "Civil War Scholar and Voice of Huckleberry Hound") had a Jewish mother, and went to synagogue as a child, and of course everyone knows about Judah Benjamin.

I have always seen the persistent, dogged, inexplicable survival of Jewish identity as proof of Divine Providence--so the peculiar capitulation of Hebraic observance to the southern way of life seems weirdly unsettling. Better to look to New York's omnipresent yarmulkes and long trailing skirts (though paired with expensive suits and high-fashion flats) for signs of contradiction.

Apropos of nothing, I will remark the Civil War was never much of a big deal in my hometown of Tallahassee ("Florida with a southern accent"), though much of its flamboyantly weird past had gotten lost beneath pleasant if anachronistic suburbs, strip-malls* and an astonishingly large number of trees--the live oak canopies were not always there, in a place whose name purportedly means "Old Fields." I think we were too busy arguing over whether or not Andrew Jackson, Florida's shortlived territorial governor who had never even visited the capital, should be the mascot of our annual Springtime Parade. The Confederates sort of got lost in the shuffle, though it probably helped we didn't have Vivien Leigh as a poster-girl.

Indeed, I remember during the heated debates at my high school over our infelicitously-named mascot, the Redskin, that someone, guided by the spirit of assonance, blithely suggested we rename ourselves the Rebels, hardly realizing the firestorm of controversy that would have unleashed. I suppose, being the only capital east of the Mississippi to evade capture by Federal forces, we didn't have any grievances to latch on to.

Plus, being half-Cuban, Jacobite and pro-Habsburg, I have enough lost causes as it is. (Though wearing a blue kepi on a visit to Chatanooga is a pretty good lost cause to begin with, when one is six years old.)

So in the end we got the good part of Southron weirdness without all the controversial bits or Falknerian grotesqueries: Spanish moss, good manners (something I sorely miss up here in New York), a few grand hunting plantations, and a few colorful historical characters including Napoleon's nephew, the inventor of air conditioning, some benevolent Franciscan friars, the Apolastic Church, and even a cameo appearance by the Marquis de Lafayette. I even say "Y'all" (the ever-handy English equivalent of vosotros) periodically as a tribute to that part of my heritage. But no frantic plate-spinning attempts to either affirm or deny the late unpleasantness of 1861-65 or Jewish barbecue, to my knowledge. Perhaps if we'd ended up on the opposite side of the state line, it might have been different.

*Down by the movie theater on Thomasville Road, the gentry used to hold Maryland-style jousts during the height of the Walter Scott craze. New York ain't got nothing on that.

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