Crackers and Collard Greens: A Floridian's Southernness
by Tyler Gillespie
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Come see Savannah, Georgia, at its best. This tour itinerary is as follows, and all times are approximate.
4:30 AM: Depart pickup location.
“The man from Indiana really has a Southern accent,” says my grandmother. “He sounds more Southern than I do.”
At 23 years old, I am the motorbus baby, the youngest rider by at least three or four decades on this 60-person tour. I have recently graduated from college in Orlando, Florida, and I have moved back home to Largo, a city near the white-sand beaches of the state’s west coast. The 2010 economy is treating me like a redheaded-stepchild, which, if beard-color counts, I technically am. The economic situation proves awful for my bank account, but unemployment leaves plenty of time to take this three-day trip to Savannah with my grandmother, whom I call Gramel. I’m a born-and-raised Floridian. Yes, we do exist! My family and I have always considered ourselves Southerners. When I tell people “I’m from Florida,” they usually respond with something along the lines of No one’s born there. Florida’s not the South. It’s Disney World. There are beaches. Old people live there.
Yes, Mickey Mouse lives in the state, and, true, many old people migrate to the saltwater beaches. I’m quite fond of the old people. They tell great stories. But the Not-South thing I can’t get down with anymore.
Most people consider the South the states that fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Georgia and the Carolinas first spring to mind. Tobacco and cotton brought these states wealth. Florida actually did secede from the Union and fought as part of the Confederacy. Florida’s earliest history dates all the way back to Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth. He christened my home state La Florida or “flowery land.” As a child my grandparents took me to St. Augustine to drink from a Home-Depot looking replica of the fountain. In 1845, the flowery land became the twenty-seventh United State. Antebellum Floridians participated in the slave economy, but most didn’t own slaves as they couldn’t afford to maintain crops. The state, though, still fought for the Confederacy.
My family always said we were from the South, so I didn’t question them on this matter. But I didn’t exactly know why I needed strangers to identify me as a Southerner. With the South’s history so fraught with racism and homophobia, I had started to think denying it would be easier. I hoped this trip to Savannah would help me figure out more about my family’s complicated heritage.
Gramel grabs my arm. Due to her knee problems, we sit at the front of the bus. A woman sporting a grey, cotton candy bouffant, grabs her a grumpy husband’s arm. They walk past us. All around me, senior citizens chit-chatter. I’m transported back to middle school field trips. Except these riders probably gossip about AARP discounts instead of sixth-grade crushes.
Too early for this, I think, and take a Dramamine. I soon fall back to sleep as we head north to get to a state people call the South.
4:30 PM: Take a historical vacation through Savannah, Georgia, one of America’s oldest cities.
I wake up to North Florida, full of cow farms and orange trees. As a young girl, my great-grandmother Granny Lula had lived near here. She had hung clothes on the line. Cut off chickens’ heads for dinner. In 2000, she participated in an oral history project, because, as the Historical Society interviewer Ruth Ann noted, Granny Lula was “one of our rare Florida natives.”
Granny Lula was born in 1917, and her birth certificate stated Mounty Oak, which was just outside Gainesville city limits. In the interview, she said her father lived in Southern Georgia, then migrated down to Florida. “Mom, to the best of my knowledge,” she said, “was born in Bell, Florida.” According to the 2000 US census, Bell, Florida, across from St. Augustine, counted a population of 349 people. A Google-map street view puts a camera seemingly in the middle of a field. It shows mostly pine trees and a couple of rust-caked houses, similar to the ones our Hollywood Tours bus rolls passed. Broken cars are parked on side-yards. I imagine pigs lining up at troughs out back. Their snouts covered in mud as they jostle for slop.
My mom’s double-shifts as a waitress meant that my childhood weekdays were often spent in Granny Lula’s mobile home. She cooked grits and told me stories. Her pitch got valley-low then shot up to the sky at the best parts. One of my favorite Granny Lula stories took place in an outhouse on her family’s farm. As she used “the commode,” as she called it, her brother or cousin creeped around back. He then stuck a pitchfork up the outhouse hole as she used it. This story sounds ripped from a horror movie. When I first heard it, though, I had found it quite hilarious.
During the almost nine hours of Hollywood Tours bus-traveling, I listen to a grab-bag of dialects: New York-ian, New Englander, and, probably, New-Jersey. For the 150 years after statehood, Florida’s population increased by about ten new residents per hour. That number means a tremendous amount of non-native people. Everything seemed new. In this time, too, Florida went from a slave-state to one of our country’s most ethnically diverse regions. But people connected more to the land than the culture. While this massive increase in population led to Florida’s demographic mix, it also gave us – or at-least me – an identity-crisis of sorts.
We’ll make one stop. You are responsible for your own meal.
Every year, Granny Lula took me to the cracker Supper. My family is full of native Floridians, so we refers to ourselves as Florida crackers, a term that some people find derogatory.
At this Cracker supper, a meal I refer to solely as “dinner,” my granny talked to friends from high school. I listened to them exchange stories about sweethearts and school dances. These pursed-lipped Cracker women wore cut-out oranges pinned as name-tags. I had seen many of them at my Southern Baptist church. At church, the women wore soft, pink lipstick. They curled their hair, stuck in place by hairspray and hot weather. I’d fidget in the pew as the church-women crossed their pale-stockinged legs. When the gold, offering plate came around they’d pull out tithes from pocketbooks. Then, snap the pocketbooks closed. At the Cracker supper, they gave me hugs and asked, “How’s your momma?”
As Granny Lula talked to her friends, I played with my toy Batman. In between rounds of saving Gotham City, I walked up to the food line to get hand-squeezed orange juice – the best tasting OJ I ever had or probably will have. From the serving line, I piled my plate with cornbread. The cooks brought out big, metal pots of collard greens. Other kids my age liked pizza or chicken nuggets, but my favorite food was collards. I drenched them in white vinegar. I ate the leafy greens until I got sick.
For certain people in Florida and other places in the South, cracker has come to mean “white trash.” I recently asked my friend from a decidedly Northern city her thoughts on the term’s offensive nature, and she said something close to, “Doesn’t it just mean, like, a cracker you eat, and it’s white, so people use it to mean white people.” Urban Dictionary, the online decoder of slang, says cracker is “derived from the sound of a whip being cracked by slave owners.” The whip-crack, in Florida’s case, was not made by slave owners but from cowboys herding livestock. I imagine the cowboy as he raises a whip above his head, spurs his horse, and leans forward. He wants to keep the livestock together, so he swings his arm down with the full-force of his job. One crack, pull back, crack, pull back, and crack, again. These crackers helped build Florida, the South, and its economy.
While the term is now used as slur, I grew up identifying as a cracker. For me, the word means collard greens and church-ladies passing the offering plate.
6:30 PM: In Savannah we will board a riverboat for refreshing river breezes and cultural entertainment. It’s an experience not to be missed.
For cheaper rates, The Hollywood Tours people, booked us in a hotel about twelve miles from Savannah. After we change, we load back onto the bus and drive toward downtown. Our bus driver points toward a large bridge and says, “If you go just cross there, you’ll be in South Carolina.”
The dinner boat looks like an old-timey postcard. Dressed in tuxedos, college-aged guys, like me, lead us into the interior, which resembles a piano bar.
“Do you think it’ll be too much for us to drink a bottle of wine by ourselves?” Gramel asks. I shake my head no, and she orders chardonnay.
The night’s “cultural entertainment” is a deejay playing songs from the 1950s. After an Elvis song, a group of Girl Scouts gets up to dance. Savannah is the birthplace of the Girl Scouts, and the group was making a pilgrimage.
“Let’s go upstairs,” I say to Gramel.
“Only if you make sure I don’t fall.”
On the main deck, Savannah’s breeze, damp and chilly, whips around us. In the moonlight, I can see the choppy ripples of greenish-brown water. “It’s such a nice, Southern night,” Gramel says. “It reminds me of my momma.”
Granny Lula died when I was 17. After she passed away, I stopped eating collard greens as much. I probably have them only twice a year. Savannah makes me wish I could hear one more of her stories.
Everyone will receive a 1.5-hour narrated trolley-tour of Savannah.
At breakfast, I drink a cup of burnt coffee, and listen to three old ladies talk about Clint Eastwood.
“He directed the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” says one of them, who’s wearing a fanny pack. “It was filmed in Savannah.” I have never seen the movie, but make a note to check it out later.
All of us from the Hollywood Tours bus can’t fit on one trolley, so we split into two groups. The trolley’s first step stands a foot off the ground, and Gramel nearly falls climbing up it. I grab her arm and lead her to a seat toward the middle of the trolley.
Our tour guide, a woman with a Betty Boop voice, points toward historic landmarks. I try to listen to everything she says, but I mostly look at old store fronts and stuck-in-time buildings. Porches look like perfect settings for refined men to drink sassafras in and talk about nothing but the weather. I imagine Southern belles rushing to pick up last minute items for a dinner party. Victorian-style columns vault to the sky. Their yards, green and lush, lead to squares. The city has 22 squares, each unique to its neighborhoods. Patches of land offer park benches for resting and thinking. The witches’ hair of Spanish moss hangs from hundred-year old trees. Each square, our tour guide tells us, has its own personality.
As our trolley moves toward the riverfront, I remember how Gramel had defined the South. “The Old South was about an honor code,” she told me. “Southern people respect their land and family. They don’t leave it.”
10:45 AM: We will all meet at Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons Restaurant for lunch.
“Would you like lemon in your iced tea?” the waiter asks Gramel.
“No,” she says. “Lemon in iced tea is not a Southern thing to do.”
I’m not sure how Gramel came up with the “no lemon rule.” When asked, she says, “Momma didn’t put lemon in tea.”
The tour group lines up for the comfort food buffet: fried chicken, pulled pork, lima beans, sweet potatoes, green beans, and collard greens. “I’ve been a Southerner all my life,” says Julia Sugarbaker in an episode of Designing Women, Gramel’s favorite show. “We do eat a lot of things down here.”
Deen opened this downtown spot on West Congress Street in 1996. Three years later, she showed up on the Food Network. Purple-haired Deen then became a celebrity. I had never followed her career, but Gramel is a huge fan of her show. Today’s meal has been one of the tour stops she’s talked about most.
On the table, there are baskets of hoecakes, an unleavened cornmeal flatbread eaten with syrup. The dish’s name is said to come from slaves cooking bread on field hoes. As a child, I had eaten hoecakes made by Granny Lula. Other people at our table ask the server how to eat one, but I dig right into the meal.
The hoecakes are about the only food I really liked from Deen’s buffet. Everything tasted salty. Eating a bite of her food feels close to the chef pouring a whole salt-shaker in my mouth. Granny Lula would not approve. The saltiness makes the food hard to eat, so I drink plenty of iced tea. I order it, of course, without any lemon.
After you have finished your lunch, you are welcome to continue the afternoon.
My friend William grew up in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital located in the skinny northwestern part of the state. The internet, and most anyone who’s spent time in Florida other than at the beach, calls North Florida – Tallahassee, the panhandle, Jacksonville – the South. In an online forum on this topic, username trumeans says, “The state is pretty much divided at the I-4 corridor (from about Daytona Beach across through Orlando on to the west coast near Tampa) and I think that’s a good dividing line in terms of ‘southerners’ and ‘not southerners.”
I grew up in the in-between on the west coast, so I can’t claim geography.
William called my childhood home “South Florida,” which meant he lumped my hometown into the mass of terra cotta and stucco known as Miami. He said there’s nothing to do where I lived but go to the beach.
“Have you ever eaten squirrel?” William had asked me. “You kill it, skin it, and then throw it on the grill.”
I had not eaten squirrel, but I had eaten alligator. He scoffed at me, because I’d only ever eaten fried gator and not the guts as he did. One night, William and I had started talking about literature. He’d read all of Maya Angelou and Shakespeare by the time he turned 14. After we ordered chicken pate, we started discussing our favorite authors. He called my choices of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath “sad women writers.” Then, I told him I had been reading Faulkner.
“Reading him must be a form of exoticism for you,” he said, “but for me, I lived it and the voices are so –”
“I grew up eating my Granny’s collards and listening to her tell stories,” I said. “When I read those books it’s a way for me to connect back to my family.”
To William’s statement, I’m reminded of a clear, plastic box at Mom’s house. It contains photos of me at various stages of my dyed-beach-blond hair and pimply life. Among those photos, there’s also a baby bib. Bibs usually show a cute little graphic such as a smiling frog or fluffy, marshmallow clouds. The bib in my photo box has my name stitched in stark red on pure white. Below my name, on this white bib, the Confederate Flag is sewn to take up the most space.
Tyler right below the flag.
My great-great-grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. As Gramel tells me, in his Klan days the men acted as a sort of neighborhood vigilante. Gramel says he quit the Klan once they started wearing sheets, because he wouldn’t be part of such a shameful group.
I wanted to tell William more about my family, but I didn’t. For me, Southern food is folklore; it connects the past to the present. And no one cooks like Granny Lula did. When I sit down to a Southern meal, I am also breaking bread with her.
After my response, William looked at me, and I cannot remember what he said. Maybe he just nodded and chose to keep quiet. I had never actually verbalized my belief as root-connecting through reading. Also, I guess I felt compelled to validate my Southerness by mentioning Georgia. In my attempt to prove my Southerness to William, I had betrayed Florida. I guess I’m not a very good Floridian Southerner after all.
You will have unlimited trolley service until 5 PM.
“I want to go to number 19 on this map,” I say to Gramel. “It’s Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” she says and hands me her shopping bags.
I need to see the house of the well-known Southern writer. One of the shuttle buses drops us at the Cathedral of Saint Peter. It’s closed for daily mass. Gramel and I walk through Lafayette Square. O’Connor’s childhood home stands near the corner of Abercorn and Charlton Street.
“I think it’s this way,” I say. Gramel nods, then places her hand on my elbow to steady herself.
“I thought we’d see more leaves changing for fall,” she says. “We saw more changing back in Florida than here.” She grips my arm harder as we walk down the cobblestone-sidewalk.
“I need to rest a minute,” she says.
As I walk her toward a bench, I notice a dull copper plaque: Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. At 207 East Charlton Street, there’s a grey house. Narrow steps lead up to the four-story building. Gramel opens a romance novel, and stays seated in Lafayette Square. I cross the street, then make my way up to O’Connor’s childhood house. The lock on the door is broken, and I think a strong breeze could have opened it.
“Are you here for the tour?” a man with a grey beard asks. “I think you’re the only one.”
I study the big, open living space. A baby’s wicker bassinet stands near the middle of the room. An old radio rests in the corner. The room’s walls are mint green, and a little table is placed near a window looking out at Lafayette Square.
The man points at a picture near the old radio. “That little girl with the smug look on her face is Mary Flannery O’Connor when she was young.” In the picture she wears a dress, and her legs aren’t crossed like the Southern women at Granny Lula’s church. “Even then,” he says, “she wasn’t a lady.”
8:15 PM: We will arrive back at the hotel for the evening.
When we get back to our hotel, I thumb through The Complete Stories I had bought at O’Connor’s childhood home.
As I read through the volume sweat clings to my forehead. Gramel lies on the bed and flips through TV channels. I bet she hopes she can find Designing Women on one of the stations.
“What do you think it means to be a Southerner?” I ask her.
“It’s the way you were raised,” she says without taking much time to think. “Family comes first, food second, and manners third. Above all, a man must be a gentleman and a woman has to be a lady.”
I wonder if the uncrossed-legged Flannery O’Connor would agree with her about the whole “lady” thing.
Depart Hotel. Arrive back at your pickup location.
“I think it’s just so nice you’re taking care of your grandmother,” says an old lady on the Hollywood Tours bus. I smile and take my seat near the front.
On the bus trip home to Florida, we watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the Clint Eastwood movie the old ladies had discussed a couple of days back. Adapted from John Berendt’s novel of the same name, the 1997 film stars Kevin Spacey and follows a man on trial for murder. It’s shot on-site in Savannah, and a drag queen, The Lady Chablis, plays a central role to the story. Berendt wrote about The Lady Chablis after they met in a bar, and she plays herself in the film version. In one scene, she wears a full-length dress that hugs her hips. She holds a bulldog’s leash in one hand, and in the other a picnic basket. Julia Sugarbaker would be proud of the outfit. The film gets pretty heavy, and while The Lady Chablis offers some levity, she also gives me a lot to think about. “You know, my ‘T,” she says matter-of-factly during an emotional moment, “my truth.”
We ride away from Savannah and back to Central Florida, where no one is born but many people want to live. I think about my truth, my “T”: collard greens and family. My truth, my “T”: Granny Lula’s stories. My truth, my “T”: I was raised a “Florida Cracker,” but I’m still not sure where exactly I fit.
Tyler Gillespie grew up in North Florida and has written for Salon, Rolling Stone and NPR. This essay recounts a bus trip he took with his grandmother to Savannah back in 2010 and explores his conflicted reality as a “Floridian Southerner.”