My first encounter with Patrick Swayze was not, like many of my classmates’, in a suburban movie theater, watching his robust muscles seductively grip Jennifer Grey’s tiny pelvis to the sounds of Mickey & Sylvia. The night I met him on the small television in the kitchen, my mother washing dishes in the background, instead of a form-fitting tank top Swayze was wearing the distinguished gray uniform of the Confederate States Army. Before he played the Catskills dance instructor of teenage girls’ dreams, Swayze was Orry Main, a good ole fighting South Carolina boy whose best friend is a damn Yankee, in North & South, the melodramatic 1980s miniseries that reduced one of the country’s most devastating slabs of history to coquettish glances thrown from beneath floppy straw hats and above buxom gowns. At age six, too young to comprehend the definition of secession, much less the horrors of slavery, I watched the scenes of sprawling plantation estates with the same intensity as an afternoon fix of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It was the first time I heard the words civil war.
Years and textbooks later, the intricacies of this defining upheaval continued to compel me more than any other period in our country’s history. Each moment of the war—those first foreboding booms over Fort Sumter, the hundreds of thousands of lives replaced by bloody corpses, Abraham Lincoln’s searing call for freedom—seemed fraught with political, economic, and moral complexity. Patrick Swayze ushered me into this suspenseful drama, Ken Burns’s The Civil War took me deeper, and I didn’t want to leave. It all seemed a world away from Long Island: although my romantic idea of the South may have been composed largely of movies and a PBS cooking show hosted by a woman named Nathalie Dupree, in my head it was an intriguing, glamorous new world; most importantly, it was completely different from what I knew. My college years, I decided, would be spent at the University of South Carolina.
A naïve New Yorker who thought kernels of geeky Gettysburg intel would grant me a slew of new Southern friends, I was deflated when I realized my utter lack of interest in sitting on a frat boy’s sofa and tailgating on Saturday afternoons meant I would never be like my fellow freshmen. Misfit syndrome continued when on a weekend home with my roommate, her mother peered at my dinner plate, filled with a boring sphere of bread, chicken, and potatoes. “Just white and brown? We’ve got to get you to eat some color,” she mocked, spooning a heap of fried green okra next to my dinner roll. I ate it all.
Prior to my arrival in Columbia, South Carolina, I was a picky eater, content to feast on frozen pizza and sloppy joes every night, slaking my thirst with distilled water. But down here—where it is more pervasive than water—someone handed me a glass of sweet tea. I sipped it; sugar rolled on my tongue, and I was smitten. Saran-wrapped slices of pecan pie elicited the same reaction, and most of my nights in the dining hall ended on a note of gooey molasses: even college food down here was good. Throughout college, and especially during those awkward first few months on campus, nothing brought me more pleasure than food. Yes, it culminated in the trite but regretful addition of fifteen pounds to my petite frame, but I wasn’t eating as an emotional salve to homesickness; I simply couldn’t get enough of the South’s mysterious new flavors and textures. Both at school and at local restaurants, I feasted. There were mounds of black-eyed peas, salty collard greens, and butter-slicked grits to devour alongside country-fried steak. Fluffy biscuits, doused in sausage gravy, had nothing in common with the chalky Bisquick bricks I ate back home. There was no better way to reward completed homework than by plummeting a spoon into a bowl of homemade banana pudding, snaking it through the ethereal depths of whipped cream and Nilla Wafers. I may not have meshed with the statuesque sorority girls, but I eventually found other likeminded souls who wanted to share sweet potato casserole with me. I was an outsider no more.
Twelve years have passed since I bid South Carolina farewell. Trips south of the Mason–Dixon Line are far fewer these days, and friendships that once seemed everlasting over hash browns at Waffle House have now dissipated. I miss not only the meals, but the heady past, that brief time when a Southern lilt organically invaded my accent, when I almost believed I had been raised on carefree Hilton Head summers, too. To find it again, I joined the Southern Foodways Alliance, an intellectually stimulating nonprofit organization headquartered at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Last month, I attended SFA’s annual symposium, my first. Barbecue was the theme, and to illuminate this poignant culinary ritual there was puppetry, poetry, and the presence of pitmasters from across the South. The crowd was varied: a mix of bourbon-sipping chefs, cookbook authors, educators, even a writer for Treme, all united by a reverence for preserving Southern food traditions and melding creative new ones. And of course, there was barbecue: Memphis-style ribs, bowls of Brunswick stew made by a North Carolinian, and chicken slathered in the traditional white sauce beloved in Alabama.
The panoply of senses instantly plunged me back into 1997, when I first discovered a harsh truth: real barbecue did not consist of hamburger patties and Hebrew National hot dogs bought from the grocery store and cooked over charcoal on a wobbly grill; that was a mere Long Island cookout. In South Carolina, barbecue meant strands of pulled pork enlivened by the tanginess of yellow mustard–based sauce. Although in the world of conoisseurs, Columbia is not considered a serious barbecue destination—and the strip mall where I first tried it certainly was not—to me it was a revelation.
Just beyond the towering oaks and winding brick footpaths of campus, there was a restaurant with a porcine logo that I passed countless times from the backseat of a car en route to Wal-Mart for a shampoo run. Its catchy name was Maurice’s BBQ Piggie Park, but my South Carolina friends assured me it was not worth a visit. Plus, there were rumors its owner, Maurice Bessenger, remained a raging Confederate who regretted the Thirteenth Amendment. I never went inside.
In 2000, the South Carolina State House, where several pals had cushy jobs as pages assisting congressmen—my roommate even worked for the controversial senator Strom Thurmond—the Confederate flag was finally taken down from its perch above the building’s elegant dome. Maurice Bessenger was probably not happy. I hadn’t thought of North & South in years, but I found myself replaying fuzzy scenes from the movie, thinking how strange it was that 135 years later, Orry Main was still fighting.
In Mississippi, surrounded by the invigorating aroma of smoke, I realized that despite the distance and friendships that no longer transcend wrinkled photographs, South Carolina’s hold on me is eternal. As long as there are hush puppies to bite into and pimento cheese to pass around the table, that image of my younger self, standing at the State House amid cameras and crowds, knowing I had witnessed history, will remain vibrant. We all probably ate cornbread afterwards.
When she’s not interviewing architects and designers as managing editor of Hospitality Design magazine, Alia Akkam eats her way through her favorite borough as editor of Edible Queens and pens stories on restaurant and cocktail culture for outlets such as Paper and Liquor.com. She last wrote for the Daily on home bars.