Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is Southern Hospitality a Myth?

I hadn’t seen my friend Scott for several months. As we were catching up, I asked if he and his family had been on any interesting trips lately. He mentioned they had rented a beach house outside Charleston last summer; it was their first time there. A native New Yorker now living in San Francisco, Scott said he had barely spent any time before “down South.”
Then he asked, “Do you believe there’s such a thing as Southern hospitality?
Being Southern, I thought it hospitable to encourage him to continue before offering my opinion. “Do you?” I asked.
“I think it’s a myth,” Scott answered. He explained that the owner of their rented beach house had misrepresented its amenities and wouldn’t fix a major problem Scott had called to complain about. He said the wait staff in several restaurants they’d been to in Charleston had been indifferent and unaccommodating.
“So I don’t buy this Southern hospitality thing at all,” Scott concluded.
Feeling defensive, I explained that Charleston, being a hugely popular tourist destination, has a lot of people living there now from outside the South. (A poor excuse, admittedly.) Also, Scott and his family had gone to a top tourist destination toward the end of the tourist season. By that point, no doubt every restaurant server’s last good nerve had been plucked more times than a banjo string at a bluegrass convention.
And yet, Scott’s question left me wondering: Are Southerners truly more hospitable than people in other areas?
Yes Ma'am
At a minimum, I believe most Southerners are polite. They still say “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” They will hold the door open for you, regardless of your sex. And Southerners are generally friendly. When you’re out for a walk in a residential neighborhood, a Southern stranger will say hello to you, even wave from across the street.
True hospitality, to me, is something much more than politeness and friendliness. It’s a willingness to take action out of compassionate regard for the needs of others, even when they’re strangers and it’s of no real benefit to you. I’ve certainly seen this in the South—and many other places as well.
No Worries, Mate
On a 1996 visit to Melbourne, Australia, Nick and I became completely lost, so I ventured into a corner market to ask for directions. After waiting my turn in line, I asked the young woman behind the counter how to get back to our hotel. She gave me convoluted directions I had trouble grasping.
I was aware there were three people in line behind me. Not wanting to keep them waiting, I thanked the friendly clerk and started to leave. To my astonishment, she insisted on walking outside with me so she could point out the way. She left the cash register unattended, not to mention those three people waiting in line. Once she had set me straight (so to speak), I stuck my head into the store. The three people in line smiled at me, and I thanked them for their patience. “No worries, mate,” one of them responded, and they all wished us luck.
In London two years ago, I was leaving the theater with a group of people. We became confused as to how to take the tube back to our hotel. A young woman overheard us, said she was going in that direction, and invited us to follow her. She sat with us on the train and stayed past her own stop, to ensure we departed at the correct station.
Losing it in Times Square
And then there was my first trip to New York, way back in 1979. Toward the end of my visit, I discovered, to my horror, that I had lost my wallet—in Times Square. Fortunately I was with a group of college friends and I rode back to North Carolina with them. I figured my wallet, along with the money in it, was lost forever. (I didn’t have a credit card at that point.)
A day after my return, I received a collect phone call from someone in the New York City area. The caller had found my wallet. He offered to mail it to me but wanted permission to deduct the shipping cost from the bills in my wallet. A few days later, my wallet arrived intact, with all my money minus the postage costs.
And so, hospitality exists everywhere—even in Times Square. It’s by no means indigenous to the South. On the other hand, jerks are everywhere, too. You get into trouble trying to generalize about any group of people, whether it's where they live or how they live.

Even so, I feel the need to defend the notion of Southern hospitality and to do my meager part to ensure its survival.
In San Francisco, when I see tourists confused as to which way to go, I will sometimes stop and offer directions. When I notice a tourist taking a picture of his friends, I’ll often ask if they’d like me to take the picture. Partly, my motivation is for them to go home and say “Those San Franciscans are very friendly.” But at the end of each encounter, I always say in my best drawl, “Y’all have a nice day."
What do you think? Do you believe Southerners are more hospitable than other people? What's been your experience with a stranger being truly hospitable to you in your travels?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Newt Gingrich, Etta James, and a Lasagna Sandwich

I've had three topics in mind to blog about lately. Since I couldn't decide which one to focus on, I'm writing about all three.

I'll start with Newt Gingrich.

Like a lot of people, I caught Newt's angry exchange with CNN's John King at the beginning of last Thursday's Republican debate in South Carolina. Moderator King asked if Gingrich wanted to respond to allegations by a former Mrs. Gingrich that Newt had wanted an open marriage. Newt went off on King, condemning the question and the entire media industry. The audience cheered wildly, multiple times.

After watching this clip, there was no doubt in my mind Gingrich would win the South Carolina primary. Whatever your political persuasion, it's hard to deny this was an electrifying moment of television. And I believe that's exactly what both King and Gingrich counted on. I suspect King knew perfectly well that asking the question the way he did would ignite a Newt-tron bomb, which would then turn the moment into a viral Internet video. And that's good for CNN. At the same time, Newt calculated, accurately, that he would get big applause for taking King to the proverbial woodshed and, by extension, all journalists. The exchange, as it played out, between them was a win-win for both.

I must admit, Gingrich's flash of anger was fun to watch--to a degree. But the explosion eventually devolved into a tirade, diminishing what had come before. Also, King should have framed his question within a larger political context to give it relevance to the debate, in my opinion. Otherwise, the question as he phrased it came across as self-serving and pandering. A politician's private matters should remain their business and not ours, except when they publicly take one stance while doing the exact opposite. So maybe King should have said, "Hey Newt, at the time you were crucifying Bill Clinton over that whole Monica Lewinsky thing, you were allegedly asking your wife for an open marriage. What's up with that, dude?"

A moment of silence among married couples, please

Speaking of marriage, let's move on to Etta James. Married couples everywhere should share a moment of silence in honor of the powerhouse singer, who died last week at 73. How many weddings have you attended where the first song the bride and groom danced to was James' ballad At Last? She raised the roof with Tell Mama, I'd Rather Go Blind, A Sunday Kind of Love, and I Just Want to Make Love to You, among many others. She had a rousing, gritty voice, a cross between Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, and yet it was distinctly her own. 

And finally, that lasagna sandwich

Last Saturday night, Nick and I had dinner at our friends Bob and Kurt's home. Bob served his excellent homemade lasagna, leftover from Christmas. In honor of Paula Deen, we made lasagna sandwiches--stuffing the lasagna between two slices of cheesy garlic bread. Decadent? Wait until you hear the dessert: homemade chocolate cake and homemade chocolate chip ice cream.

The next day, I didn't eat until 4 p.m. And when I stepped on the scale at the gym, the scale wagged its finger and said, for everyone to hear, "Oh no you did-n't!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paula Deen, Diabetes, and Deep-Fried Lasagna

Paula Deen is probably feeling a bit fried right now, and it's not because she's busy making deep-fried lasagna.

The Savannah, Georgia cooking show host just revealed she has Type 2 diabetes. Apparently, Ms. Dean has known this for three years while she continued to share such diabetes-unfriendly recipes as fried bacon mashed potatoes, fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, and fried tortellini with marina cream sauce.

Truthfully, I haven't paid much attention to Ms. Deen until now. Yes, she's a Southern TV personality, which you'd think would make her of interest to me; but then again, so is Nancy Grace. Also, I'm a bit tired of all these cooking celebrities. But I was sorry to hear about her diabetes, and now that she's in the news, I decided to read up a little on her. I discovered some fascinating facts in her bio.

* Paula got her start with a small catering company called The Bag Lady. She'd make sandwiches and other meals, which her sons delivered. Among the tasty sandwiches she offered were fried bologna, fried duck liver, and fried pig's feet. Each meal came with a free serving of fried iced tea.

* Paula was once held at gunpoint during a bank robbery and forced to act as an accomplice. In order to help the robber conceal the stolen cash, she made him a fried money sandwich.

* After the bank robbery, she became agoraphobic. Because she was afraid to go out, she could no longer make her daily trips to the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken. (She was such a regular at her local KFC that she had her own PO box in the kitchen. A mattress store once tried to deliver her new mattress there by mistake.)

* Paula self-published her first cookbook, which she sold in her Savannah restaurant. A literary agent, dashing into the restaurant to escape a thunderstorm, noticed the book and was impressed. After eating Paula's signature three-course meal--fried chicken pot pie, fried Caesar salad, and fried chocolate cake--the agent knew a new cookbook sensation was born. (Unfortunately, the agent died a day later.)

* Paula had a bit part in a movie, Elizabethtown, with Orlando Bloom. She played a fried egg sandwich.

* Paula is married to a tugboat captain. He's in charge of ensuring that the Crisco container ship makes its way safely to their home every day.

Okay, that's enough fun and games for now. I've got some deep-friend lasagna to make.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

One Reason Why I Love San Francisco - The Castro Theatre

As Nick and I approach our 25th anniversary as San Francisco residents, I've been thinking about the things I love most in our adopted city. The Castro Theatre is high on the list.

Where else can you go to a 1920s movie palace that still operates full time as a movie house to watch Hollywood classics and independent films? Enjoy a pre-show performance on a Wurlitzer organ? Take your pick from among a variety of film festivals? Even see the occasional Hollywood star on stage?

Only in San Francisco, at the Castro Theatre. In this era of the multiplex and high-def/3D TVs, the theatre is wildly, adorably anachronistic. It's a reminder of a day gone by, and yet, it somehow feels current, at times even cutting edge. In the parlance of Hollywood, the Castro simply has that "it" factor--something unique, not entirely definable, and enduring. Perhaps the best thing about this theatre is that I often feel a strong sense of community with the audience. We applaud together, we hiss the villains together. In contrast, the only hissing in a multiplex occurs when someone won't stop talking on his cell phone.

I've loved movie palaces since I was a boy. I used to hop on a bus at Friendly Shopping Center in Greensboro, ride it downtown, and go to a matinee at the beautiful Carolina Theatre--which still shows films as well as hosts live performances. My parents didn't know I was doing this, of course. So maybe a trip to the Castro puts me back in touch with that feeling of boyhood adventure, independence, and mischief.

But really, going to the Castro is about seeing great movies on a wide screen instead of a TV; spotting things you never noticed before in those movies; and experiencing the film as the director intended. At the Castro, I've had the extreme pleasure of watching favorite movies I'd only seen on television: Hitchcock's The Birds and North by Northwest; The Wizard of Oz (that tornado is awesome on a large screen), and many others. And I've seen some excellent independent films that rarely played beyond the festival circuit, such as Loggerheads, a touching movie set in North Carolina.

The Castro is gearing up now for Noir City, the annual series of postwar, mostly black-and-white crime dramas that this year will include one of my favorites, Laura. At the end of January, locals will stand in long lines, often in the cold rain, for the opportunity to watch movies made over 60 years ago that they could easily watch in the comfort of their homes. Are these people crazy? Maybe a little. But more to the point, they are San Franciscans, and I consider myself fortunate to be among them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hostess Files for Bankruptcy. I Have Questions.

Hostess Brands announced today it has filed for bankruptcy protection. The New York Times reports that Hostess's woes are related to "a debt load of about $860 million and soaring expenses tied to its labor force."

The news has raised many questions for me.

1. Will the lawyers representing Hostess in bankruptcy court refer to the case as "the Twinkie defense"?

2. Is Hostess a Southern company? For some reason, I suspected it was. Turns out the company is based in Irving, Texas. ("Is Texas really Southern?" is a larger, more complicated question for another time.)

3. Has the company been outmaneuvered by Little Debby? Sidelined by Sarah Lee? (This reminds me of a joke. A friends of ours, fretting about his pot belly, wondered what he should call "the twins." I suggested "Little Debby" and "Sarah Lee.")

4. What's really eating the maker of such confections as Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, and Twinkies? Personally, I think the world may be moving on. After all, how do you maintain a sense of dignity when asking a store clerk, "Excuse me, where are the Ding Dongs?"

Also, as tasty as a Hostess cupcake may be, there are far superior products readily available to consumers. In San Francisco, we have cupcuke trucks that tweet their current location. A bakery in my neighborhood, Noe Valley Bakery, makes delicious Hostess-inspired delicacies they call Most-est cupcakes. They even sell them in bite-sized versions. Both are addicting and, dare I say, may be partially to blame for the post-holiday birth of my own twins, which, in the spirit of Dr. Seuss, I have named "Thing 1" and "Thing 2."

5. Don't forget that Hostess also makes Wonder bread. Does anyone eat white bread anymore? (The Wall Street Journal reports that 36 percent of Americans ate white bread in their homes, down from 54 percent in 2000. But seriously, who are these people?)

6. Would you care if there were no longer Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, and Hostess cupcakes in existence? I have many sugar addictions--Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Cheerwine soft drinks, dark chocolate M&Ms, to name but a few. However, Hostess products aren't among my recurring vices and never have been.

7. An even bigger question: Which caloric sweets could you absolutely not live without and why? And if you've, um, acknowledged your own twins, what have you named them?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Night at the Alfred Hitchcock Bed & Breakfast

What is the strangest place you've ever spent the night?

A Belgian TV station posed this question in light of the recent reopening of the Ice Hotel in Sweden. The TV station solicits answers from people around the world, captured using their webcams. When I saw the question, I knew I had to answer.

I'll start by saying I've never slept in a hotel made of ice. (I don't believe in ice, unless it's in a cocktail or a smoothie.) Here are just two reasons why I'll never stay at the Ice Hotel, taken from the hotel's web site:

"The bed you'll sleep on is made of blocks of ice, a wooden base and a mattress covered with reindeer skin." However inviting that may sound, how do you think the poor reindeer feels about this? Besides, I'd rather sleep on a bed of nails. At least I wouldn't freeze.

"Instead of a door, you pull a curtain in front of it." No door? No thanks. I've seen way too many Hitchcock movies to know better than to sleep in a hotel without a locked door.

Speaking of Hitchcock, the strangest place I've ever spent the night was in the schoolhouse that figured prominently in his 1963 thriller The Birds.

If you'll recall from that film, Tippi Hedren sat outside the schoolhouse, smoking, waiting patiently for the kids inside to finish some insipid song (which they sang over and over and over). Displeased by the repetitive song, menacing birds began gathering on the jungle gym behind Tippi. Once she realized what was happening, she told the schoolteacher Suzanne Pleshette, who wisely informed the children to run outside, where the birds could peck at their faces.

The famous schoolhouse building from The Birds
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when the schoolhouse (in Bodega, California, just up the coast from San Francisco) became a bed and breakfast. When I read about it, I knew Nick and I had to spend the night there. I even wrote about it for Travel & Leisure magazine.

Not surprisingly, the schoolhouse b&b was a drafty, creaky, uncomfortable nightmare, although it was partially redeemed by a life-size cut out of Alfred Hitchcock peering out from a second-story window. The b&b didn't last long, though I'm fairly certain the Victorian building remains.

The Birds is still one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I love how it has absolutely no music in it whatsoever, which makes its doomsday scenario all the more chilling. Nick and I had the pleasure of seeing it at the Castro Theatre a few years back, with Ms. Hedren on stage. (I thought of offering her my fried chicken recipe but thought better of it.)

And speaking of Tippi Hedren, did you know that Mattel issued a Birds Barbie Doll in 2008? The doll looks like Tippi in her lime-green suit, complete with three black crows attacking her and an image of the schoolhouse in the background. The doll can be yours for about $150. Now that's scary.