Reimagining American Community

fete champetre 2009I can still recall my mother reading us Little House on the Prairie. Of importance here, are those scenes of Laura Ingalls’ family heading off to church, or to a dance, a barn-raising, to meet friends, or to get some sugar in the town, and how far they would travel. It was close by if the trip took less than a day. Back then, America’s elbows and knees still had space to stretch: before cities would begin to rake up houses into piles like leaves, or stack them like firewood.

We’ve expanded all we can now, and if the distances are farther – from, say, Texas to North Carolina – we’ve figured out that all we need is more power: more horses before the carriage, so to speak. The buggy became the BMW, or in my family’s case, a 15-passenger van (what with seven kids).

I raise this as it was raised in my mind as I’ve been looking back on trips to my grandparents’ house, journeys from North Carolina to Texas. Despite the distance of almost half the continent, if we left the house at about 4 AM, and took breaks along the way only upon desperate request, it took less than the whole day to arrive at the other door. If we leave on time, we might arrive with daylight (and pent-up energy) enough to dive into the pool in the backyard. The Ingalls family might have travelled 10 miles in a day with fair weather to meet friends for a festival. We’ll travel 1000 miles for a week or two to our grandparents.

To say that we can, these days, travel more ground in the same amount of time isn’t, I’d add quickly, a point of pride in modern, um, buggy-technology. It might be better use of days, food, money, and shoes to drive than to walk across six or so states (especially with young’uns). We’re grateful for cars, in this sense. Only, there’s more than land that’s travelled over. More is spent than rubber, gas, and our taste for cheese crackers. There’s culture between.

At one end, take, for instance, the pseudo-religious, North Carolinian practice of barbecue. Get off most any ramp in south-western North Carolina, and you’ll see a restaurant that boasts of “the best BBQ around.” (Sometimes, they’ll boast of having the best in the state– but rarely does that country honesty allow them to advertise the “best in the world.” City restaurants must compete with the world. Local food is the quarrel or prestige of often only a single road.)

The barbecue’s foundation, its base, is a matter of distinctive orthodoxies. There’s the widely popular vinegar-base; not to be scoffed at; it takes talent to avoid falling into the trap of coming up with a dish that is tasteless, as well as cheap. A slow-simmered cut of pork artistically marinated in a home-brew will confirm boasts among locals, and begin rumors and legends among visitors. A man otherwise unknown to the world is priest and captain of the local gravel road as his potion approaches something like what St. Francis might have called a quaint foretaste of beatitude.

For myself, loyal always to the wisdom of my mother, tomato-base is the superior method. A balance of spice and earth and the primordial impression of charcoal with grease is married with tomatoes, with their humility to let the herbs do their work, while keeping things tender and crisp. Vinegar’s eagerness, it seems to me, can too easily turn the experience into a thin, tart matter.

At the far end of the drive, in Texas, however, barbecue is an import, an adopted tradition, sometimes loved to excess (as when they make it so hot – in the forgivable attempt to join BBQ with Texan weather – that nothing but burnt tongue is tasted.) Instead, they boast (with shining belt-buckles and spurs) at their home-grown steak. A dinner after church, like the ones I’ve enjoyed, might have a smoker with long, medium-sliced pieces of steak which are the juiciest, richest pieces ever to satisfy a man after a long day on the ranch. To have such a smoker is almost to possess a religious tool, to live and run a ranch is to preserve the sacred custom of maintaining the wide, cacti-freckled plain, to see a long-horn is to see a sacred cow (with at least one important difference). To own a gun is nothing but to have good ol’ fashioned common sense.

The culture in those 10 miles between Laura Ingall’s little house and the nearest town was usually just the congregation of some wandering buffalo, roadrunners, sparrows, a passing tumble-weed, and the American, wheat-brewed wind. Between my parents’ home and my grandparents’ is the whole knotted synapses of the Atlantic cities, the arterial highway I-20, and enough cultural opinion to stock the recipe books of more than a million mothers, enough cultural difference to give the daughters their mother’s eyes without their fatherland’s face.

And yet, when our family arrives at my grandparent’s home as the sun hits the horizon and turns the rim of the sky orange, we somehow manage to overcome our cultural distance nonetheless. My grandfather gets the local ground-steak, my mother mixes it with Carolina BBQ sauce, my father cooks the burgers on the grill, and my grandmother makes her home-made macaroni. Extended family might have extended further out, and an extended family is always also an extension through a few decades in time. But it seems that this only makes culture stronger, as a piece of fabric is stronger if its warp and woof cross after beginning at the very edges of the cloth, from the selvedge. And this crossing has a noticeable effect upon the food. Texans and Carolinians have their boasts. Our home, our table, has its own. There might be a restaurant at any given exit which has very good, state-inspired cooking. The cuisine of any extended family, however, has the advantage of being inspired by the resident’s diverse preferences and abilities. And suddenly all threads are pulled into one piece of cloth, the whole fabric snaps into a sheet, exit ramps become driveways, recipes become heirlooms, tables become feasts, culture becomes familial, family becomes culture. And extensions find their beginning.

About the Author
Alongside studying politics, philosophy, and economics in New York City, Charles usually has with him St. Aquinas' Being and Essence and De Regnum. He yearns to write stories and essays carefully, and thinks both English tobacco and ale the better choice to end the day with. Aposiopesis is currently his favorite figure of speech.