Food and Spirituality in the South: Chick-fil-A and Bessinger Bros. BBQ

Maurice's Gourmet BBQ

A couple delicious articles crossed my plate just before the Christmas weekend and I didn’t want the connections between them to sneak by. Over at the wonderfully put together museum of religion and spirituality with a hipster aftertaste, Frequencies, Darren “DEG” Grem has written a piece that dives into the spirituality of the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Meanwhile, in the [web]pages of New York Times Magazine I came across a piece from Jack Hitt on the barbecue feud that has torn apart the Bessinger  family of South Carolina in the past two decades. I have spent my whole life in the South. I’ve spent the past four years in Atlanta, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a white Styrofoam cup of Chik-fil-A lemonande, and before that I spent six years in different parts of the mustard based barbecue region of South Carolina. Reading Grem and Hitt reminded me of the ways food in the South partakes of the sacred, the political, and the domestic. Not that it doesn’t do these things in other places, but in the South I can speak from the privileged place of an insider with experience.

That spirituality in the marketplace, or in the chicken sandwich, is both real and illusory at the same time-that it is always already revealing and obscuring-is Grem’s strongest point. He writes:

We can’t take Chick-fil-A’s claims about its sandwich at face value because we lose something in the process. We lose the connection between spirituality and the people who make up the marketplace and the networks and chains that support contemporary capitalism. But we also can’t just dismiss these claims about the spirituality of work, of goods, of companies, of people—or stop with investigative exposés of how it has or has not filtered down to the bottom or up to the top of the corporate triangle. That doesn’t really dive into the messy endeavor to explain spirituality in the marketplace, either as a complicated and layered phenomenon or as an organized but diverse and divided movement.

Indeed, spirituality is messy. It is material. It is juicy and topped with pickles. And sometimes it  pays for bowl games. Grem challenges those trying to trace the role of spirituality in the market and the market in spirituality to go further than simply following the money, or the prayers, or the products. Where that leads I’m not completely sure and Grem doesn’t completely reveal but I think the Lowcountry of South Carolina offers us up a case study.

Jack Hitt’s article on the Bessinger brothers various chains of mustard sauced barbecue in the Lowcountry of South Carolina is worth a full read and, for me, served as a reminder of the shock I experienced when I first encountered yellow barbecue. Having grown up in North Carolina my tongue was trained on vinegar and I could never accept the Gospel of the mustard seed. Then in college I gave up pork altogether and so I took my place on the sidelines of the great barbecue debate-though I don’t think that dry stuff  from down in Alabama ever stood a chance.

Hitt’s article focuses on the fallout between the four Bessinger brothers, each of whom are in the BBQ business, in the wake of Maruice Bessinger’s decision to raise the confederate battle flag over each of his Maurice’s BBQ restaurants. This was Bessinger’s response to the decision by the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the roof of the capitol building. (It has since been moved to a gilded pole in on the capitol grounds, a spot more visible than it ever was way up on the roof.) Maurice’s older brother Melvin, who owns Melvin’s BBQ in Charleston, avoided politics and has seen his fortunes improve as his brother’s neoconfederate ideology continues to hinder his business. In some ways the whole story is a Cain and Able narrative but everyone has the meat in their offering.

What jumped out to me in the article and why it connected to Grem’s piece was the following:

Maybe 200 people turned out at the post-rally barbecue at Maurice’s bottling plant. He had set up a giant shed to seat 500, so the gathering looked like a failure. The machines were walled off by pallets of Maurice’s boxes, each stamped with the word ”Kosher.” Maurice, a lay preacher, began the long afternoon of speeches.

”This is our only hope,” Maurice explained, pointing to the giant Confederate flag behind him. ”As the government gets more and more tyrannical, they will hand over more power to a world government. And then the Antichrist will just come in and say, ‘Thank you very much.”’

Maurice is comfortable weaving religion with barbecue: there is a weekly Bible-study session at each of his pits. Later on, in the privacy of his office, he let slip a secret of his sauce. ”The recipe,” he said, ”is in the Bible.”

”Does it start with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?” I joked. Maurice’s eyes flared, as if I had correctly guessed that his middle name was Rumpelstiltskin, and he refused to discuss it further.

”You can just say that my Carolina Gold is a heavenly sauce,” he said. ”I believe that after the rapture there will be a big barbecue, and I hope the Lord will let me cook.”

Hitt was tantalizingly close to getting at the spirituality of the barbecue. But he made the mistake about which Grem warns. He got flippant. He thought he could see through the Bible study to what was “really going on.” And Bessinger clammed up. Neoconfederate ideology, conservative Protestantism, pork infused apocalypticism, and the faith of a mustard seed; how do these add up? I really want to know. The mess that Grem prods us towards has been quickly yanked back from Hitt. The connections between the spiritual and the material, and even the political, are there. But what are they?

What does the sacred taste like? Who brings the potato salad to Jesus’s mustard based glory? What makes those chicken sandwiches so God blessed delicious? (And DEG, you forgot about he biscuits.) To find these answers we must resist the urge to make jokes. We must remain humble and quite. We must listen. Then maybe we’ll find out what it will be like when Christ returns to bless the righteous and smite the tomato and the vinegar based.

Oh, and if you are looking for barbecue in South Carolina, I recommend Shealy’s in Batesburg-Leesville. If you can’t find it just ask anyone you meet west of Columbia.

[Cross-posted at Religion in American History]

[Image via Flickr user natecardozo Creative Commons licensed]

Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town: Kelly J. Baker’s ‘Gospel According to the Klan’

 In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)

I was in fourth grade when the Klan tried to march through town. At that time I was living in my Dad’s small hometown in southeastern Georgia. I don’t remember how I heard but I remember hearing that a group called the KKK wanted to parade through town. Everyone seemed very worked up about it. As a white boy growing up in the South I knew something about race at that time. Mostly I knew that it signaled some sort of difference but what the difference meant and how it played out, that I was still figuring out. When the Klan wanted to march through that small town I got the feeling that it just embarrassed everyone. There was definitely a racialized social structure to the town-not that I knew what to call it or had a full sense of it. My Mom, Dad, brother and I were staying with my Dad’s parents helping out taking care of my aging and sick grandfather. I remember him getting all worked up over me playing with a black kid from the gravel road at the back of the neighborhood. I remember that while the white kids would go inside each other’s houses and play, my black friend and I stuck to playing on the gravel road. So, like I said, when the Klan wanted to march it embarrassed everyone. It was like that family member at Thanksgiving who has a little too much red wine and begins saying out loud all of the judgments everyone else had kept to themselves. The Klan was just being mean.

This memory cropped up as I read through Kelly J. Baker’s great new analysis of the Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s, Gospel According to the Klan. The Klan I remember trying to march through a small town in Georgia (I don’t remember if they actually did it or whether the town stopped them) is far removed from the Klan of the 1920s. During the second revival of the Klan that Baker outlines the “Invisible Empire” was not an embarrassment, except maybe to the writers of the Christian Century. Rather, they were a group of white Protestants defending America against the perceived threats of Catholicism, immigration, and inferior races.

The strength of Baker’s book is her analysis of Klan periodicals. She is at her best when she delves into the ways the Klan represented itself to itself. That is, when these periodicals outline the ideal Klansman or Klanswoman to their readers. From their use of the cross and other Christian symbols to their goal of reuniting the disparate strands of Protestantism, the 1920s Klan was a deeply Protestant cultural phenomenon. While most people see the Klan as a group of racists and then work backwards from there to their religion, Baker starts with their Protestant nationalism and works forward. Thus, rather than seeing racism draped in religion, Baker reveals religion whose logical ends are racist, exclusionary, and hateful. The Klan emerged as a force of Protestant nationalism that united Protestant Christianity with Americanism. The “100% Americanism” that emerged stood as call for men and women to defend their country from invasive forces.

I wonder, though, how the 1920s Klan and its defense of Protestant America connects to the other movement among conservative Protestants in the 1920s, Fundamentalism. Baker notes that the KKK drew on members from the Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians. These are the same folks that were fighting over evolution and biblical criticism. The Scottish common sense philosophy underlying Fundamentalism seems to be at the bottom of Klan theology as well. The defense of American morality read as pure Protestantism ties these two movements together. Baker stresses that the Klan must not be marginalized in our narratives of American religious history and I totally agree. What better way to put them into a central part of the narrative than place them alongside Fundamentalism during the period? The book would make an interesting read alongside George Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture, for any of you planning seminar syllabi.

That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of  representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.

Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane-I discovered that the hard way.

[Image via Wikimedia. In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)]

What This Academic Learned From Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”

Tina Fey as the angel on top of a Christmas tree

This is the first in what I hope to be an occasional recurring series of posts wherein I review popular books in the light of my own academic interests. 

If my Facebook news feed is any indication, young academics love 30 Rock and Tina Fey. This makes  a good bit of sense as both Fey and her show have a certain quick witted humor that emphasizes language in ways that appeal to the over-educated humanities demographic that make up my friends and colleagues. I finally got the chance to read through Fey’s new book Bossypants and I found it both funny and enlightening. So, here’s what I learned  from my favorite comedienne. (Warning: This post is written as True Believe in the work of Tina Fey and may not contain enough critical analysis for those of you outside her media influence.)

First off, you can talk about theory without talking about theory. Fey’s book is chock full of gender theory. While I’m not anywhere near a specialist in women’s studies, I do think this book would be great in a seminar course on womanhood in the contemporary United States. My favorite example of Fey’s gender analysis shows up in the chapter “All Girls Must Be Everything,” where she narrates a history of female body norms in American popular culture from Cheryl Tiegs and Farrah Fawcett through J-Lo and Beyonce. The chapter culminates in her list of things every girls body is expected to have:

  • Caucasian blue eyes
  • full Spanish lips
  • a classic button nose
  • hairless Asian skin with a California tan
  • a Jamaican dance hall ass
  • long Swedish legs
  • small Japanese feet
  • the abs of a lesbia gym owner
  • the hips of a nine-year-old boy
  • the arms of Michelle Obama
  • and doll tits

Fey uses stories from her life as an actress and writer to illustrate and critique gender norms in American culture in ways that make key concepts in gender theory accessible. It’s an encouraging sign to see a bestselling book from a producer of popular culture reflect critiques that began in the halls of the academy.

I think Fey also has a lot to offer graduate students in the way of professional advice. When she outlines “The Rules of Improvisatoin That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” I immediately thought about how they could be applied to life as a Ph.D. student.  The first rule is “Say yes” or “the rule of agreement.” Here the point is that you have to say yes to be able to build a scene. In graduate school it is very easy to always say no, to always disagree, to always point out the hole in everything everywhere always. This is good. This teaches us to sharpen our thinking. But when it comes time to sit down and build something, to write something, to create something, it can stunt us. You have to say yes before you can write a dissertation. As Fey puts it, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

Related to this is the next rule to say “Yes, and…” This is the way scholarship is built. Sometimes it’s a “Yes, but…” but whatever the case, academics build on the work of others. Her third rule is “make statements.”  By which she means, “This is a positie way of saying ‘Don’t ask questions all of the time.’” Again, we graduate students are great at asking questions; at finding things that are “interesting” or “useful.” However, real scholars make statements. You’re here to learn how to make statements, not ask questions.

Her last rule is “there are no mistakes.” This is very important for graduate students to realize. That seminar that you are halfway through and you realize has nothing to do with your project, that dissertation chapter that you wrote and then realized won’t work in the project, that time you said something stupid in front of your advisor, on one level these are all mistakes. On another level, though, they are opportunities. They are a class that might open you up to your next project, a future journal article, and a chance to admit you are stupid and be a humble person. If you look at the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion you’ll find an article about a terrible publishing mistake. The authors took that terrible mistake and now it’s become an article in the field’s flagship journal. As Fey says, “there are no mistakes, only beautiful accidents.”

There are plenty of other great nuggets of wisdom in Fey’s book. I think the list of “Things I Learned from Lorne Michaels” is especially good and could also be applied to academic life. Yet, the thing that is most enjoyable about Bossypants is the frankness and fairness of Fey’s voice. When she discusses her stint as Sarah Palin’s SNL impersonator she is honest about her misgivings over certain jokes she did or didn’t make at the vice presidential candidate’s expense. She is honest about her own insecurities and flaws. She is fair in her descriptions of those she encounters for good or ill. Fey’s book reminds us that good storytelling, like good scholarship, always comes from a place of humility, honesty, and fairness.

[Image from Flickr user fieldtripp Creative Commons licensed]

Productivity Where Art Thou?: The Search for a Routine Between Semesters

Workers on the Cathedral of Knowledge

In the past two weeks my workload has come to a screeching halt. No more conferences, a dissertation chapter is drafted, the handful of job applications I sent off are gone, and yesterday was the last day of my #REL100 class. I still have some things on my plate-like you know, that whole dissertation thing. I’ll also have final exams to grade in a week and a half but that’s about it. But the hardest part is the loss of my routine. I had a good thing going. Three days a week I taught. Those afternoons I worked on dissertation stuff. Then on the days I didn’t teach I prepped for the next lesson. It was a nice rhythm. It was a great dance before the god Productivity. But now the band has packed up and left town and I’m struggling to find a new dance step.

It’s tempting to do nothing from now until the spring semester starts, but that’s not an option. I need to be productive. Oh god Productivity, where art thou?

I have sat down and made a list of things I should do. More blogging, a journal article that needs to be polished and submitted, revising that chapter, starting a new one, and a bunch of books on my “to read” list. The key is to find a new routine, a new rhythm, a holiday dance step. Oh, god Productivity where art thou? If I find you, Productivity, perhaps my Muse will come too.

[Image: Workers on the Cathedral of Learning, 1934, oil on canvas by Harry W. Scheuch courtesy of Flickr user cliff1066™ CC licsensed]


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