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Editor’s note: Author Cole Waddell is a Lancaster resident who was living in New York City during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He moved back here in 2005. This is the first part of a three-part series about Southerners who shared Christmas dinner there each year.
Of the nation’s regions,
the South is the most possessive of her issue.
Whatever their age, wherever they reside, they remain hers.
She is resolute in her grip, unrelenting in her pull.
This is a truism, even in the age of the New Normal.
It’s the first Sunday night in December; a group of us have gathered in a New York restaurant for an annual dinner.
It is a loose-knit group – acquaintances met coming and going on the party circuit, co-workers, neighbors, former college classmates.
The members of this casual, unstructured dining club have two things in common.
First, we are children of the South. Secondly, all of us will soon be heading there to join family and friends for the holidays.
We cannot leave soon enough. This is our first Christmas in the New Normal, the label mainstream media has given to the post 9/11 era.
I don’t know who started this dinner ritual or when. I’ve never attempted to demystify its mechanics of operation.
This is how it works; in November, I get a call, telling me of the time, date, and place of the dinner. Will I be attending? Yes or no? I’ve attended these dinners, off and on, for several years.
In the initial call, the caller introduced himself, told me who gave him my name, and gave a brief description of the dinners.
Nothing to join, no agendas, no commitments.
It was a bunch of Southern guys, getting together for conversation and laughter. No pretense, no putting on airs.
As soon as I heard there would be no putting on airs, I knew I had to go.
The group meets once each year. Its size varies. Fluctuations in size and composition reflect the loose-knit nature.
The largest I’ve seen had about 20 diners; the smallest, about six.
Some move to New York; others, leave. Some are away on business trips; some have scheduling conflicts. Others simply drop out.
Reasons and excuses are not asked for. The group makeup may change; the dinner ritual remains. I’m amazed at how easy, how comfortable it all is.
We talk, using figures of speech, idioms, shorthand and private, inside jokes.
Non-Southerners would be clueless if they attempted to overhear and decipher our conversation and the pervasive laughter that accompanies it. Although, I never met many of my fellow diners until now, I feel that I know most of them. They’ve acquired a familiarity in the stories that have been told to me.
It’s been said once humans discovered fire, they started sitting around the evening fire, where oral culture – the foundation for stories and storytelling – began. Oral culture moved from the campfire to the front porches of the American South.
On afternoons and evenings, kissed by temperate climates, Southerners sat in their rocking chairs and talked. Oftentimes, passersby strolling on the sidewalk would stop and join in.
A good story to share and the ability to tell it well were highly regarded skills. These stories usually centered on human behavior, human folly.
It was not uncommon to hear, “Just goes to show you. With the exception of thee and me, people are touched in the head. And sometimes I wonder about thee!” Such verbal, skilled commentary was always followed by raucous laughter.
Tonight’s dinner guests are the inheritors of this impromptu art of the porch culture. This legacy is evidenced not in strained attempts, but in relaxed descriptions of a person or event.
Prior to breaking bread tonight, there are two rounds of drinks. Before I began attending these annual dinners, there was no such limit.
Then, there was a memorable dinner. After “one too many” by most of the group (and prior to dining), one of the Alabama boys insisted that he be allowed to say the blessing.
He stood up, closed his eyes, and in a deep baritone voice, began to pray not unlike a country minister praying for – and to – the deaf.
The group, well lubricated by alcohol, lost any sense of reverence. Some laughed; others told him to shut up, they were hungry! This behavior was thought, by a few, to be pushing the envelope of Southern manners.
The next year, the dinner was held at an upscale Chinese restaurant with a seated group numbering of about 15.
During the meal, a Georgia member, a hulking former football player, excused himself, went to the men’s room, then returned.
The evening’s conversations were merrily underway and his visit went unobserved until he sat down.
A fellow diner whispered, “You left the barn door open. You better zip it,” along with a couple of descriptive story-telling phrases of his predicament I won’t mention, but you get the idea.
The Georgia member looked at his trousers, laughed, and quietly replied, “Thanks man” before discreetly securing the barn door.
To a group raised on fried chicken, ham, turkey, green beans, pork chops, grits, corn bread, cathead biscuits and macaroni and cheese, Chinese food was almost like toy food. Diners picked off each other’s plates, like children. A Virginia member commented, “the Chinese can’t make rice as good as Southern women can. Guess they don't have red-eye gravy in China.”
The restaurant was spacious and beautiful with nice china, crystal and utensils. A few attempted chop sticks; hopeless! The lighting was low. The table was covered with a beautiful white linen tablecloth.
There was, nearby, an aquarium, filled with goldfish.
After dinner came coffee, fortune cookies and several rounds of after-dinner drinks.
Throughout the evening, the owner, his wife and the wait staff were constantly attentive. Their delight with this group was evidenced in their wide smiles, aggressive friendliness and the dollar signs in their eyes. The members, having finished, stood up and proceeded to make their gentlemanly exit.
Suddenly, there was a massive noise, sounds of crashing plates and bowls and stemware. The area resembled a landfill with remnants of uneaten food and unfinished drinks everywhere.
The waiters became apoplectic, running in circles, screaming in high pitches. The few remaining diners sat, surprised by this unexpected scene. The owner stood, mute, looking desolate.
His wife, however, was another story. Less than five feet tall and 80 pounds, she stood before the tall, broad-shouldered Georgian and shrieked.
The owner’s wife was insisting that he would have to pay for the broken dishes and the mess.
The Georgia member was stunned by the noise, the panic and this screaming harpy. He stared at her with a look that could shrink warts. He saw something else: part of the tablecloth was securely zipped into the fly of his pants. By standing and moving, he had created this havoc. The harpy continued to scream threats. The Georgia member calmly detached the tablecloth, then readjusted his fly. He’d had enough.
“Aw shut up!” he yelled in a forceful tone, before mentioning the song “Slow Boat to China,” as well as tossing out a few subtle hints about inviting immigation agents to the restaurant.
Thereafter, the two-drink rule was imposed.
Food is an important part of one’s heritage.
Tonight, as in the past, we talk about foods brought back from the South. I’ve returned to New York with flight bags filled with small jars of pimientos for pimiento cheese sandwiches.
I’ve returned with small instant grits packages or Moon Pies.
A North Carolina member swears by Duke’s Mayonnaise and returns here with quart jars of Eugenia Duke’s pride and joy. For another member, it’s jars of pickled okra.
Christmas finds each of us returning with homemade goodies. My Aunt Alice, her daughter Linda, and her granddaughters, Candy and Saundra, make sure I return with varieties of cookies, fudge, and brownies.
And, of course, there is my aunt’s specialty: cheese wafers. Made with extra sharp cheddar cheese and seasoned with cayenne pepper, each wafer is topped with a pecan half.
With New Year’s Day approaching, you can be sure that each of us will return with a can of black-eyed peas.
Children of the South do not greet the oncoming year unless fortified with black-eyed peas.