In the South, food is religion. And we’re not afraid to worship big.
Mine has never been a family prone to gastronomic restraint. I was reared among folks prone to eating what they liked, whenever they liked. Like pie for breakfast. With whipped cream. “It has eggs,” my mother would say, scraping the last of the crust crumbs with her fork. There were other indulgences.
Let’s start with the butter.
There is not a holiday recipe in my family’s arsenal that does not call for a minimum of two sticks. Typically, said sticks are amended with a few more “pats” (aka another stick), because “butter makes everything better.” (In my youth, this extended to first aid—butter was the salve of choice for scrapes and burns, its soothing properties effective inside and out.) One year, we thought it would be fun to count the number of pounds of butter used in the Thanksgiving meal preparation. We lost track after four.
We kept our butter on the table in a cornflower blue, Fiesta Ware keeper, so it stayed soft and, more critically, accessible. We also stored several bricks in the freezer—running out of butter a terror to be avoided like acid rain. My family ate butter on everything. Steak. Hard-boiled eggs. Bologna. Peanut butter sandwiches. Cake. As a bored toddler, I would eat butter plain, spooning it from the dish like ice cream. No one stopped me, because: A) there was more where that came from and B) because eating butter or sugar or lard (our tin was kept under the sink, next to the roach spray) was what Southern folks did. And, thankfully, still do.
Shame has no place in the Southern diet. Agreeable gluttony is a cultural right. Southerners are always offered second helpings and never taken to task when they accept them. We embrace food like no other demographic—not even the French, who exercise something called “portion control” and smoke through dessert.
I learned of this regional predisposition on one of my first trips North. I stayed at a friend’s house in upstate New York where they not only had no sugar—not even that brittle, brown stuff you get in natural-food shops—but also had no butter. Instead, a tub of beige something called, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!”
What I couldn’t believe is that they had no need for sugar or butter (two-thirds of the Southern culinary holy trinity; salt is the third), ingredients present in virtually every single dish I had ingested up until then.
“Sugar and butter are bad for you,” they explained, passing the tub of beige along with some kind of desiccated cracker.
This, too, was new. Food in our house was never “bad” or “good.” It was just food, which on some cellular level we still felt grateful to have.
I lost 5 pounds on that trip. When I returned home, my mother immediately felt my forehead.
“You look peaked,” she said. “Let me make you something to eat.”
And that’s the other thing. Food in the South is love. And who could refuse a few more pats of that?