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Friday, September 14, 2007

Snack Meat GPS

July 19th, 2007 was the first anniversary of our big move to northern Virginia from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan following my career change from automotive engineer to bureaucrat. Over this past year we’ve gone through many changes in lifestyle and perspective, and have generally grown accustomed to the cultural offerings of our new home. But one question remains unanswered for us, namely, do we live in The South or not?

We initially thought we were moving to The South; after all, Virginia was clearly aligned with the Confederacy during the American Civil War, which is the most common political/geographic definition of The South. However, many people consider it in relative terms: if I asked you where The South is, you’ll likely answer somewhere south of where you’re at, and vice-versa for The North. In Thunder Bay, they consider Toronto the south, go figure. As for me, guilty your honor - I used to think that Ohio was a southern state. Part of me still does. Even within Virginia there’s some dispute - pretty much everywhere south of Fredericksburg considers us in NoVA to be part of The North, or at least in some sort of undefined no-man’s-land, but certainly not The South.

Opinions, everyone’s got one, let’s be objective. What variables can we measure to give us a definitive conclusion? Why don’t we start with the usual: southern hospitality and southern cooking.


Let’s simplify hospitality to friendliness to strangers and new acquauintances, okay? I realize that there’s more to it than that, but hey, I’m not writing a dissertation here. In general, it’s true in the US that people are friendlier the further south you go. But…, and this is a big but, I’ve encountered enough exceptions to this rule to call its validity into question. In my visits to New York City, for example, the only genuinely objectionable person I’ve encountered was the tour guide at the New York Stock Exchange, and conversely, the fine, upstanding citizens of Charleston, SC were so singularly rude during my last visit, we’ll let’s just say my last visit and leave it at that. If I ever go there again, it’ll be to, never mind, I don’t want to write something I’d have to explain under oath later.

Actually, the friendliest town I’ve ever visited it Ft. Wayne, IN, which is right up there with South Bend, IN, both of which are clearly in The North. So while friendliness, generally speaking, is inversely correlated to latitude, it’s not a clear differentiator.


I learned at a very early age how to pronounce chitterlings from my paternal grandmother and great-grandmother, who feasted us regularly with fried chicken, sugar-cured ham, black-eyed peas, collard greens, mustard greens, bacon and beans, cornbread with pork cracklins, I could go on and on, at their dinner table in Warren, Michigan. Cooking style is a good indicator of southern-ness, but like friendliness, there are enough exceptions to render it an ineffective litmus test. Now peanuts in Coke, that’s one thing I’ve never, but never seen in The North. Can someone please explain? Aphrodesiac? Miracle cure? Help!

Pork Rinds

The one truly scientific indicator I’ve been able to surmise is snack meat products. As you go from north to south, you definitely encounter a gradual change in pork rind offerings. In Michigan, for example, if you find pork rinds at all, there’s usually only one brand, one variety (deep-fried, dry, air-puffed), and at most two flavors: barbecue and regular. As you travel south, you’ll encounter a wider and wider variety: numerous brands, for one thing, but also different styles: “cracklins,” which are heavier and pretty crunchy (be careful not to break a tooth!), “fatback,” which are also not air-puffed, a little juicier than cracklins, then there’s “washpot style” (my personal favorite), which uses thicker skins and I believe is cooked at a lower temperature. And you’ve really arrived when deep-fried peanuts accompany the pork rinds on the snack food shelves, and up near the cash register you can get a carton of home-made boiled peanuts. For purposes of scientific integrity I’ll report that a driving trip this spring through the Carolinas to Atlanta served as our experimental basis, and a subsequent driving trip to Michigan provided the control sample.

Okay, fine, pork rinds tell you you’re in The South. How do you know you’re in The North and not Idaho? Easy: beef jerky. Going up 75 on your way “up north” through the middle of MI, you’ll pass actual beef jerky outlets which offer a stunning array of different home-made jerkys, with different flavorings, styles, and textures, sold by the pound right next to the walk-in beer cooler. As you travel south, however, the more limited the selection of jerky, to the point where if you find it at all, it’s one brand (Oberto), one kind of meat (beef), and one style (flat). And south of VA, you’re lucky to find it at all.

A funny thing happens when you hit Florida though - according to the Pork Rind / Beef Jerky Factor, you’re in The North again. Who cares, you’re not going there anyway. Getting back to the original question, is Northern VA part of The South? The stores around here have a fairly anemic selection of pork rinds, but the beef jerky is pretty much just a couple national brands as well. So here’s the clear, definitive answer: …sort of. We’re certainly not in The Deep South. Let’s say we’re in… ”The Shallow South.”


  • At 11:28 PM, Blogger B said…

    It gets even more complicated here: TX isn't the South, but it's southerly -- it's not "western" per se, but more westerly in feel than southeasterly... no boiled peanuts, unfortunately, but tons of jerky and you can find several varieties of chiccarones due to the Mexican influence. Texas is just a whole 'nother country, I guess!

  • At 1:41 AM, Blogger Bruck said…

    You're right - you can't really classify TX. I mean y'all.


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