Southern Slush

Further reflections on regional cuisine, weather, and social customs

After my column about the bill of goods we're required to accept when we call ourselves "Southern," several readers seemed offended—downright disappointed in me, in fact, concerning my confession that I dislike Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Given my undiluted Southern lineage, I can't explain it, or make any excuses, but I've hated Krispy Kreme doughnuts since I was a small child. They're too sticky, too sweet, and on the few occasions that I've eaten them as an adult—usually out of pity, when I find that a well-meaning friend has bought a box—they leave my abdomen in a state of forlorn corruption that's hard to assuage without an actual meal of protein, green roughage, and cold milk.

However, if it will make those readers any less disgusted in me, I am loyal to a great many Southern treats: catfish, fried or broiled. Real biscuits—that is, hard, solid ones, like my grandmothers used to make, not those silly pillows you get at the drive-throughs. Black-eyed peas, even after New Year's. Collards, if they're not cooked too long. I love fresh peaches and Grainger County tomatoes. I've even developed a recent interest in hot boiled peanuts, which I'd never tried before I stopped at a roadside stand on Western Avenue a few weeks ago. So lay off, and pass the red-eye gravy.

Speaking of the Mason-Dixon issue, this is the time of year when Knoxvillians from Northern states become comedians. They have a good deal of fun at the expense of people jamming the grocery checkout lines after every prediction of a two-inch snow. This is nothing, they say. What are these people worried about? Are they buying all that bread for insulation?

Of course, if they're newcomers, I feel obliged to remind them that some of us have suppressed memories of winter traumas. There was the UT snow day in the '60s that left three dead, in three separate incidents, all of them as direct or indirect results of snowball combat. Maybe that sort of thing happens in Buffalo, too.

And there were those weird afternoon ice storms in the early '80s that immobilized the city. Four-wheel drive vehicles were useless; the only form of energy in effective operation in Knoxville was gravity. One of those nights, my girlfriend called me from the 15th-Street laundromat because she was having trouble carrying her laundry home to her apartment three blocks away. The streets were covered with a thick sheet of solid ice, and I knew better than to drive on it. But as a former Ice Chalet hockey player, I figured I could at least walk on it. I laced up my Vibram-soled boots and made my way over to the laundromat. Each of us took a basket of clothes and started to walk up the gently sloping hill to her apartment. We'd hardly crossed Clinch before we started sliding backward, about three steps back for each step forward. We had to grab onto telephone poles or parked cars to make any forward progress. But there weren't handholds all the way up, and pretty soon we started sliding backward. After about half an hour, we were back at the laundromat.

Even Yankees couldn't walk uphill on that stuff. I don't remember how we got out. To the best of my recollection, her laundry's still down there somewhere.

Then there was that January day in 1985 when Knoxville reported 24 below, without the wind chill, to earn us the distinction of the coldest city in the United States. I never get any respect from Minnesotans until I tell them about that day, and the dishwater that froze in my kitchen sink. (After a skeptical pause, they say, "Yes, that's cold.")

And don't forget the Blizzard of '93, which loaded a couple of our huge old hackberry trees with a couple tons of snow before they fell; one crushed our car hood, the other crushed our attic. Though we were in the city, we didn't have power for days, and, in spite of the state of our house, neighbors crowded into our living room because our tiny fireplace was the closest thing anybody had to a heat source or a cooking appliance.

So, you wise guys from Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, we've got a few traumatic memories of a Knoxville you haven't seen yet.

However, I'm not altogether sure that post-traumatic stress disorder accounts for those long lines at Kroger every time Matt says the S-word. In Knoxville's 210-year history, I don't know of anyone who has starved to death here due to a snowstorm. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone complain of missing a meal. Why the grocery panic?

I'm convinced Knoxvillians crowd the supermarkets, wait in those long lines, largely because it's an Event. In Knoxville, with the football season over, a run on a supermarket for any reason is a real occasion. If you stay home, you might miss it.

Shoppers back up the checkout lines for the thrill of being part of a public event, a small part of meteorological history. People talk excitedly to strangers they ignored during nice weather; for once, they have a subject.

Maybe it's a little bit of a stretch, but today the whole phenomenon seems related to my subject last week, which was partly about the civic virtues of just hanging out. Public hanging out is important to the civic image of a city, and everybody likes doing it, being out in public in close quarters with lots of friends and strangers, having unexpected conversations. Some readers have written in suggesting that Knoxville doesn't offer enough opportunities in that regard.

Some cities do most of their hanging out in nice parks and plazas and outdoor cafes. Knoxvillians do it in the grocery lines after predictions of slush. It's a start.

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