You Call That a Pork Chop?
When I worked for a magazine that was owned by a big corporation headquartered in New York, the HR office would send someone down once a year to explain changes in benefits and give us a chance to ask questions.
The HR representative was invariably a dour middle-aged woman who had never been farther south than the Jersey shore and would have been happy to keep it that way. The one I recall in particular had a perpetually wary look and no sense of humor. She was visibly nervous throughout her presentation, no doubt counting the hours until she could touch down again at LaGuardia.
It was as though she expected the entire roomful of Southerners to snap at any moment and revert to some primal state, barefooted and shouting "Yee-haw" as we ran off to find a first cousin to marry. (Never mind that only a third of those in the room were actually native Southerners - she considered herself surrounded by alien life forms.)
I wish I could report that those of us gathered for the meeting comported ourselves well. We did not. The poor HR rep was peppered with an array of far-fetched "what-if" scenarios that she gamely tried to respond to, speaking slowly, of course, in words of one or two syllables, so we wouldn't have to tax our magnolia-numbed sensibilities and moonshine-damaged brains.
Such situations push me - and apparently others - perilously close to a stereotype I have always resisted: the professional Southerner. ("You call that a pork chop? My mama wouldn't feed that to the dogs.") Generally, I have little patience with folks who want to one-up you on everything from shelling peas on the porch with Meemaw to outhouses to cornbread.
But every now and then you just can't help yourself. Sometimes it's that teeny little note of condescension in a stranger's tone that that rankles. For me, more often than not, it's the "down in Georgia" phrase that sets my teeth on edge.
"How are things down in Georgia?" some out-of-state caller trying to sell something I don't want or need will say, often in a loud voice, as though closing the physical and cultural distance needs all the volume he can summon.
"Fine," I say, waiting for the inevitable, "Is it hot there?" To which I reply, depending on the season, "No, it's February - it's 40 degrees outside," or "No, it's kind of cool for July - just 90 degrees. But it will probably warm up later."
Sometimes it's listening to national commentators characterize the South in sweeping generalizations - illiterate, backward, downtrodden, unenlightened - that have no relevance to the place I live and work. "Guess what," I find myself saying to the face on the television screen, "things have changed. If you want to see for yourself, you can fly into the busiest airport in the world and visit the state that has produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners. You could visit the world's largest Aquarium or see a world-class museum expansion or do business with a Fortune 500 company."
But in dealing with regional misconceptions, it's often humor that proves to be a disgruntled Southerner's best recourse, even if it comes from an unexpected source.
Some years ago I worked with a man who hailed from a place called Two Egg, Fla. I didn't particularly like him - playing the hick was only one of his many disagreeable traits. But he redeemed himself one day when he was telling a group of us a story about a business trip to New York and ordering breakfast in the dining room at his Manhattan hotel. ("Here it comes," I thought to myself, "the old rube-ordering-grits-in-the-big-city story.")
Sure enough, he took us through the whole process of requesting grits from an uncomprehending waitress, explaining to her exactly what grits are and how they should be prepared. He had a long wait; but, finally, there came a bowl of grits, which he devoured happily. But then the check came. The charge for the grits, the man thought, was exorbitant - something like $3.
As he was paying the bill, he offered this advice to the cashier: "If you ever come to Two Egg, Florida, and order three dollars worth of grits, you flat better have you a pickup truck to haul 'em away."I think if I'd been there I would have left the tip for him.
Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org