One September day in 1975 I was sitting in a classroom in North Carolina when a woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I was new to the school. I’d talked to a few classmates, but not enough, I thought, for anyone to know me. It was my first experience in the South.
“Wisconsin?” she said.
She smiled and said, “You talk funny.”
I told her she was close. How did she know?
It was the Midwest nasal, she said. It gave me away.
This was a course in American literature. I remember a classmate from Mississippi talking about the poet Hart Crane. “He was fixin’ to write a modernist epic,” she said. In another class, a student from Worchester, Massachusetts, said he looked forward to re-reading “The Hot of Dockness.”
“Or as you would say,” he paused and twisted his mouth sideways, forcing himself to make the r sounds, “The HeART of DARKness.”
Last year on December 21, The New York Times published a piece called “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk.” By the time I got to Facebook around 7:00 a.m. that day, there were already multiple links to the article (technically not an article but something called a “news interactive”). It must have lit up the Twitter-verse. In the 11 remaining days of the year, “How Ya’ll” generated more hits on the Times website than any other article (or news interactive) in 2013.
When I went to the Times site and checked out “How Y’all,” I found a 25-question quiz, based on a Harvard Dialect Survey developed in 2002. Did I say “you guys” or “youse” or “yins”? Did I say “cougar,” “puma,” or “mountain screamer”? “Kitty corner” or “kitty wampus”? “Lightning bug” or “peenie wallie”? How did I pronounce the word “aunt”?
According to the survey, I was from Grand Rapids or Detroit. Or somewhere thereabouts. That’s me. I’m nasal and I’m proud.
We love our local lingo.
One of my favorite skits on Saturday Night Live in the past few years is “The Californians,” a goofy take-off on daytime soap opera that lampoons Cal-speak. It features a bunch of suntanned So-Cal nitwits who delight in gossiping and giving each other driving directions. Best of all is Fred Armistin’s California accent when he greets his nemesis. “Stuart?” he says. “What are you doing here?” But it sounds like, Whhrryouooingere? Consonants completely slid over, vowels stretching and gliding into each other. He doesn’t speak the sentence. His mouth extrudes it.
Which brings me to chocolate.
I noticed in a recent headline that Hershey’s is coming out with chocolate spread, not one but three different kinds. One is hazelnut chocolate spread, which, depending on your point of view, is either an homage to Nutella or a rip-off. The news release, published in the Los Angeles Times reports, “[Hershey] suggests putting the spreads on anything from graham crackers, strawberries and bananas, to celery, pineapple and pickles.” Good grief. Can Hershey take something indescribably wonderful and not ruin it? Pickles? Really?
The year we skied the Italian Alps, we stayed in a hotel next to the fire station in Courmayeur. This was Nutella country, my wife informed me. All of Italy, it could be said, is Nutella country. But all things are regional in Italy. The Piedmont is Nutella country because it is hazelnut country. Sometime in the 1940s, Alba pastry maker Pietro Ferrero combined hazelnuts and chocolate to make “pasta Gianduja,” which ultimately became what we know as Nutella today. I hope there is a statue in his honor in the city square.
Evenings after skiing all day we walked past the fire station on our way up into town. We would hear commotion inside as four or five firemen, all cooking dinner, all standing in front of a stove with all the burners in use (and probably the ovens), yelled at each other in their dialect, a sort of pre-prandial foreplay. Once up in town, two or three consecutive nights, we found our way back to a narrow street of shops, where, halfway from the end, there was an open window. From the sidewalk you looked down into a small, warm kitchen. It was a crepe shop. On a board hung next to the window our choices were written, among them Nutella with mascarpone, Nutella with banana, Nutella with Grand Marnier, Nutella with confettura di arance amare and Grand Marnier, or if you really needed a fix, Nutella with Nutella. A late middle-aged gentleman wearing a white t-shirt and white apron cooked crepes for us while we waited in the cold.
Then we stood at the window, eating them. What if we wanted more?
Between bites we wondered out loud how anything could possibly taste so good.
He nodded. “It’s what we do.”
“I just hope you keep doing it,” my wife said.
“Well,” he replied with a tired smile, “who’s going to do this when I’m no longer here?” He said his kids didn’t want to make crepes. It was hard to find a young person who would learn the work, then stay with it the way he had. “The little place like this,” he said, “all across Italy is disappearing. We have the supermarket now.”
I thought of that window and the crepe man’s lament some years later. I was attending a conference in Myrtle Beach. You go to a conference expecting bland, from the hotel room to the morning Danish and anti-coffee to the chicken luncheon. The whole experience has as much gustatory appeal as a grocery store tomato: the color is right, it stays fresh forever, but it’s pretty much devoid of flavor. At least, I thought, we’ll find some good local food out there.
Out there, in town, driving past alligator adventure and putt-putt golf courses and a gazillion t-shirt shops, past beachwear golfwear birdwear fishwear shops, past Christmas Mouse (open year round!) and Adventure Beach Paintball Park, I realized they had everything, from Fuddruckers to Wendy’s to Godfather Pizza, which felt like another way of saying they had nothing.
“But what if we want to eat local food?” I was stopped at a gas station. Behind her protective sheet of bulletproof glass, the clerk took a long pull on a filter cigarette and blew smoke back over her shoulder. Local, she said, and asked if I meant, like, Ruby Tuesday?
“But what if we want to eat local food?” I asked at a few more stops.
Finally, an answer. “You can do that,” a thin gentleman at a liquor store said. “But not here.” His thick steel-gray hair reminded me of the hood of a car. He led me out the door and pointed south, said to drive down the coast to Murrells Inlet, along the Salt Marsh Nature Preserve. “You’ll find some shacks down there. Y’all like shrimp and grits?”
I said yes.
The truth is, he had me at preserve. And at y’all.
In her 1984 novel Dreams of Sleep, Josephine Humphreys presents a South in transition. Her narrator ruefully observes, “The new South is Ohio warmed over.” The subdivisions, the chain restaurants, the grocery store with “its long glassy facade papered with ads for Tide, Crisco, and canned corn beef.” This is civilization, “proof of human omnipotence.”
New South? With apologies to my friends from Akron, I would argue that much of the U.S. looks like Ohio warmed over. Pull off the freeway (or highway expressway thruway interstate, whatever you call it) in Omaha, Stockton, Portland, Lexington, or Kalamazoo, you’ll see the same thing. When you pass the Bed Bath and Beyond, you’ll know that Chili’s is not far away.
It’s all about the mouth: How we speak and, to a lesser extent, what we eat puts us on the map. I think that explains the popularity of “How Y’all.” We don’t want to be from anywhere. We want to be from somewhere. After I completed the dialect survey, when a map appeared on my computer screen, with two points in a place I knew as home, I felt a foolish rush of pleasure. It knew me.
Which brings me back to chocolate.
February 5th was World Nutella Day.
That seems like a pretty good idea. But is it?
My wife thinks the Nutella we buy in the U.S. is not as good as the stuff in Italy. She points to the plastic jar and says that means something. Plus, she’s been buying “designer” nutella-like spreads over there for a few years now. She knows her stuff. Her discerning palate also tells her that since Nestle bought Perugina chocolate (in 1984), the Baci (dark chocolate and hazelnut kisses) we buy in the US are inferior to those they sell in Italy. And once again, I trust her instincts. In matters such as these I would trust her with my life.
Perhaps decline is general, all around the world.
If so, we should resist.
I should forego Nutella on February 5 as a matter of principle, I thought. I should just say no to the multi-nationalization of food. I have my principles. I should do that. But chief among my principles is the pleasure principle. So no, I did not stay the spoon. I celebrated Nutella day here the way it is celebrated in Ohio, which is to say all across the U.S.: tasting it, loving it, transported by it, half wondering where I am.