Are you in a breakfast conundrum? Do you have deep-seated, unresolved feelings for brunch? Are you at a loss in front of the smorgasbord of life? Because so often breakfast is about feelings, and relationships teeter on the edge of the morning meal table, Extra Crispy editors Kat Kinsman (Bis-kat) and Margaret Eby (Bisc-gret) are here with the second installment of Emergency Biscuits, our breakfast advice column, to dole out hopefully not half-baked counsel and recipes for life. Got a question for the Biscuits? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year, I published a book about the South and the people who write about it. I’m proud of it; it is by far the biggest professional accomplishment I have to date. But as I went around promoting the book, talking about Eudora Welty to audiences in New Orleans and Oxford, contemplating Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner to interviewers, I felt like an enormous fraud. I was sure that in one of those audiences, someone would stand up and tell me the truth I feared: You are not Southern enough to write about the South.
I count myself a Southerner. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and my parents now live in Mississippi. But I live in New York City, and was born in Boston. My Mom is from Ireland, and her accent, now saturated from decades below the Mason-Dixon, is a brogue with a “y’all” thrown in every now and then. My Dad is from Wisconsin. I lack many of the regional identifiers that someone from outside the South expects in a Southern person: no accent, no air of politeness, no affiliation with a sorority house.
"The South" is shorthand for a lot of assumptions. Some of them good (polite, looks dope in seersucker, apt at biscuit baking) and some of them bad (racist, dumb, poor). Open your mouth and say "y’all" and some people will just hear dueling banjos. The notion of Southern authenticity is a defense against those stereotypes through an embrace of some of them. It can feel like a test that you’re doomed to fail, particularly when it comes to food: How do you like your cornbread? Tea sweet or unsweet? What about grits?
The weight of those constructs is staggering. It’s why I felt like an imposter talking about my book, even though I spent years researching it, and why, I think, you feel like you need to like grits, why it’s a "dirty little secret" instead of a regular culinary preference. (Would it be the same feeling if you hated tomatoes or popcorn or even polenta, which is just grits in a black-tie get-up? I doubt it.) At the root of it is a question of identity: Southerners like grits, right? If you don’t like grits then you’re not a real Southerner. Just like if you don’t have a jar of bacon grease in your cupboard or a fierce loyalty to a college football team or a go-to barbecue restaurant.
But that’s bullshit, obviously. Grits are just corn porridge. If you want to try them made with cream or hot sauce or shrimp to see if you like them, that’s cool. But if you don’t like grits, that is just fine. They are not there to test you. Grits are not a passport. You’re allowed to eat whatever the hell you want.
This is what I came away with after a couple weeks on the road with my book: You are a Southerner if you think of yourself as one, end of conversation. You do not have to say "y’all" or like mint juleps or eat fried chicken on Sundays or like grits. Don’t worry about failing the invisible, impossible-to-pass authenticity quiz. Reject the premise of the test. (And notice who the people who are setting the parameters for what "true Southerners" look like, too. Too often it’s a rich white man issuing edicts about what a “real Southerner” should be. Nope.)
There is no right way to be a Southerner. The South is vast. It contains a lot of people, more than one way to make biscuits, and many, many different opinions. You don’t have to like grits or country music or Donald Trump to live there, or to be from there, or to consider yourself a Southerner. There’s room for you. You can skip the grits.
Are you really gonna let a bowl of wet corn dictate who you are to the rest of the world? Grits are fraught and I get that. Personally, I love them, but almost perversely. I was raised in Kentucky and my very first boyfriend force-fed a spoonful of them to me in an attempt to make me accept what he felt way my birthright and identity. Like him, I was actually born in New Jersey, yet I refrained from attempting to jam rolled-up Taylor ham slices into his windpipe because I believe identity is dictated from within, rather than from some arbitrary menu of traits and preferences. But that doesn’t seem to stop people, does it?
Politicians are forever using grits and their consumption thereof as a shorthand for understanding the needs and wants of a massive swath of the population, and making absolute asses of themselves. There’s also the whole Girls Raised In The South acronym play, but it’s roughly as insightful as a Buzzfeed listicle when it comes to the actual nuances of personhood.
But I think what smacked me in the heart here was your use of the word "shame." No one should feel shame at breakfast—or at any eating occasion for that matter. Food, itself, is morally neutral, and eating it regularly is something we must all do to survive. And on the next plane up is pleasure. Does it delight or disgust you to eat this particular dish? If it’s something that another person has lovingly prepared for you, obviously there is a certain amount of tooth-gritting and mmmm-ing for the sake of not wounding their feelings, but aside from that, no one else should have a say in what you like or dislike. Our worth is not the sum of our collected tastes, and anyone who’s doing that sort of tallying doesn’t deserve to share a table with you. If they’re that concerned with what is going into your mouth, you have every right to question what’s truly in their heart.
I take mine with butter, sharp cheese, salt, and a crap-ton of Tabasco. Happy to make you a batch should ever we meet, but I won’t be offended if you don’t ask for a second helping.
Got a question for the Biscuits? Email email@example.com.