When the wife and I moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina a few years ago, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that this was desolate hill country, with only the barest hints of civilization. I knew the locals rejected all efforts at cultural encroachment by outsiders, and that the only community activities that held their interest were Sunday school and high school football. I knew there would be no music scene, no alternative newspaper, not even an FM radio station. I knew that Spartanburg did not produce great composers, Pulitzer-winning journalists or pioneering footwear. Being a Carolinian from birth, I accept the typical Southern disdain for interest or effort as a given.
But the one thing I assumed a hillbilly village like this could provide was quality Southern cuisine. Listen, I’m as lowbrow as they come where dining is involved. I won’t eat anything that didn’t once scamper, and I generally prefer it deep fried with extra Crisco on the side. My dietary needs are simple and distinctly Southern. I figured this trailer park paradise would have perfected the art of batter-dipper meats, with all manner of gravies heaped over potatoes both whipped and mashed. I salivated imagining the cake and fried apple recipes passed down from Beulah to Beulah, feeling confident that the one thing these clearly well-fed citizens knew how to do was make dinner.
So I set out to sample the indigenous foodstuffs. And what better place to wallow in authentic, Southern home-cooking than the local barbeque restaurant? How great will it be, I thought, to have dependable pork sandwiches available just blocks away from our home? Even the NASCAR interior design theme, which might ordinarily make me cringe, I saw as a good sign. Who knows quality hog parts better than Dale Earnhardt fans? The farm girl working the counter even addressed me as “baby doll” before I’d said a word. This was going to be great!
I knew it was not great as soon as I saw the sandwich arrive completely dry. I realized the squirt bottles I’d seen on the counter weren’t extra BBQ sauces, they were the only BBQ sauce. This is as insulting to a true Southerner as serving a glass of unsweetened tea with a packet of sugar. Just as the only true sweet tea has been brewed with the sugar already added, true barbeque must be cooked in the sauce. Otherwise, you don’t have barbeque, you have a dry meat sandwich with a condiment. I found, to my dismay, that every local BBQ joint I visited had the same twisted ideology: dry meat with sauce on the side. I was starting to conclude that there was such a thing as being Too Southern. That is, there are modes of Southernism so backwards and offensive that even sixteenth generation rednecks like me are repulsed. I would come to encounter many, many elements of Spartanburg culture that could be considered Too Southern.
So maybe barbeque just isn’t Spartanburg’s thing, I rationalized. What became apparent from the town’s countless signs and banners was that Spartanburg prided itself on its hotdogs. This seemed odd to me, as I’ve always associated hotdogs with sidewalk vendors in Northern metropolitan meccas like New York and Chicago. But hotdog restaurants are everywhere here, not to mention hotdog dinners being advertised on the church signs stationed every twelve feet. Sampling a couple of these overhyped outlets revealed that these are not gourmet dogs, just the traditional Oscar-Meyer tubesteaks. And when one understands that the hotdog is merely a cruel experiment to see if gullible consumers will actually eat the snouts, hooves and entrails from the slaughterhouse floor, it says something rather disturbing about the Spartanburgian character that this is the dish they boast about. Personally, I began to think of hotdogs as disgusting around sixth grade, an age when I would eat beef jerky I found in the dumpster and suck the grease out of leftover hamburger patties. But here was a community of fully grown adults celebrating what are essentially convenience store hotdogs as a point of town pride. I was beginning to suspect the local tastebuds were somewhat underdeveloped.
Many of these fine hotdog establishments serve hot dog “plates.” I quickly learned to avoid any restaurant that served “plates”: fish plates, hamburger plates, corned beef hash plates, etc. The plate in question is usually made of styrofoam, and distinguishing a plate from an actual meal usually means you’re getting school cafeteria food, but thankfully, not very much of it. Fries and tots will come in a grease-soaked paper sack. Utensils will be plastic and prepackaged with a flimsy napkin. Ketchup will be in packets. The ice in your Coke will be of the wax-coated pellet variety. In some parts of the South, this kind of food service regimentation is the only evidence that the Industrial Age ever came to town. Southerners took to the fast food model of family dining sooner and with more gusto than the rest of the nation. Hardee’s was founded in the South (not surprisingly, it still serves the fattiest, most repulsive fare of any fast food chain), not to mention Kentucky Fried Chicken. Essentially, Southerners like to feel as if they’re eating at a flea market or demolition derby.
But if you prefer your prefabricated food on a metal tray rather than styrofoam, you’ll want to visit one of Spartanburg County’s innumerable fish camps. Fish camps, for the uninitiated, are out-of-the-way eateries, nestled in rural locations, far, far away from any rivers or streams that might produce fresh seafood. From my experience, the isolated locale and the metal trays aren’t the only similarities between fish camps and concentration camps. The food’s about the same, too, as is the general health of the regulars. As a native of Charleston, famous for an abundance of enviable seafood restaurants, fish camps are abhorrent to me. The frozen food, fluorescent lighting and prison mess hall furnishings make you feel as if you’re being punished for something. And as you pay the cashier, there is, without fail, a basket of Baptist propaganda – booklets and sermons of CD – to remind you that yes, you DO deserve punishment. With tartar sauce.
And maybe this gets to the gut of the Podunk cultural diet. Many Spartanburg restaurants feature revolting entrées served in what look like bombed-out bunkers. Cinder block hovels with no attempt at décor, folding tables with metal folding chairs, with floor tile either filthy or entirely absent. The never-changing menus offer food that isn’t simply unsophisticated, but inedible – fried grease sandwiches buried under triple-battered onion rings, sweet tea of such concentrated glucose it’s like drinking a cup of tea-flavored pancake syrup. And yet Spartanburgers will flock to them, suffering the insults of these dank pits with their county fair food regularly, because complaining about them, expecting anything better, would make them seem uppity. The locals gather there every week after church, and lo to any Uncle Clem or Cousin Myrtle who decides to forego this sacrosanct ritual in favor of Applebee’s. What do they think they are, French?
It’s not so much preference for this garbage Southerners have, but obedience to it. Many of these plate-hurling Spartanburg restaurants, which I would only recommend to diners who find Waffle House too refined, have thrived for generations. Why? Because, in the South, cultural expectations remain low in deference to family traditions. And chances are good everyone forcing down the corndog special at Mustard Bubba’s is somehow related. “Hotdogs plates wuz good enough fer m’diddy. I shore miss m’diddy.” In the religion of Southernism, tradition trumps good taste, or even good sense, every time. Southerners learn to revere discarded toilets or historic roadkill simply because they’ve always been there. We’re a very sentimental people.We’re taught to always observe tradition, however greasy or in need of salt. Southerners accept the indignities of Mabel Lou’s Family Diner with stoic pride, as if tasteless grub and the resulting arterial damage were one’s sacred destiny. Just as they accept the uranium-flavored tap water, union-busting burlap factories and the mountain of dirty diapers rising in the Scrugg’s front yard since 1963. Public displays of dissatisfaction with any of the South’s time-honored traditions will make Baby Jesus cry, or worse, upset Grandma Merle. Those who are Too Southern never escape the apron strings of Mama, the heart and soul of the family double-wide. And those indigestible chicken livers are just like the food Mama used to make us eat. We will clean our plates graciously, thanking Mama and the good Lord above for the privilege. For to be Too Southern is to live forever by Mama’s credo: “You’ll eat it and you’ll like it.”