In William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”, the central figure, an increasingly mad spinster, is waited upon by “a negro”, who brings baskets of provisions into her mouldering house. By the time Miss Emily eventually dies, and the decomposed, desiccated corpse of her lover is discovered in her bed, this servant has become an old man. Then, after admitting the neighbourhood busybodies, he “walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again”.
I knew how he felt – sort of – as I reclined on the bilious nylon bedspread in our motel room on the outskirts of Faulkner’s home town of Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is all puffed up with pride-by-association – not just with Faulkner, a life-size bronze statue of whom sits, looking suitably fuddled, gazing at the town square – but also with the civil rights movement; because, after all, wasn’t it in Oxford that the first African-American student, James Meredith, was finally enrolled at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) in 1962, to the accompaniment of violent battles between local segregationists, police and the National Guard? Meredith gets a statue on campus, but as I walked around the ditsy and scrupulously clean historic district of Oxford there was barely a black or brown face to be seen. Once upon a time, apartheid in the American South was enforced politically – now the job is done by economics alone.
The good ole boys wanted to eat, so we saddled up the SUV and went looking for a fast-food outlet. We were minded to try Chick-fil-A, which had recently seen seven serpentine kinds of controversy over its Southern Baptist owners’ proclivity for funding anti-gay-marriage pressure groups, but once we’d tracked down the local outlet in the maze of car parks and connecting roads off of Route 278, we discovered it was shut – as were the Old Venice Pizza Company, Zaxby’s, Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen and Abner’s. “Tarnation!” I cried. “Looks like we ain’t gonna get fed at all – less it’s by a gas station.”
But then we came upon the Huddle House, which suitably enough was huddled by the Hampton Inn. The Huddle House was open: as it proudly proclaimed above its filthy plate-glass façade, “Any Meal. Any Time.” The good ole boys looked suitably sceptical but I hustled them into its garish interior. The steel-framed chairs upholstered with pink pleather, the pinkish Formica tables and the checkerboard of pink-and-beige tiling – all of it seemed melded together by grease.
The Huddle House looked like the sort of place you’d choose to convene a meeting of Junk Food Anonymous, but don’t be fooled: there are more than 400 of these eateries, smeared throughout the South, and offering up, 24/7, such darker delights as the Southern Smothered Biscuit Platter With Eggs. The good ole boys ordered non-contentious cheeseburgers and onion rings from the harassed, tired-looking waitress, but I was in a weird mood and decided the time had at long last come. “I’ll have the grits,” I said – although I had no idea what that would entail.
Yes, I had reached the age of 52, and spent long years as a restaurant critic, without having a clue what grits are. Moreover, I’d read quite a lot of Faulkner, as well as plenty of other Southern scribes, and although I must have clocked references to grits in scores of texts, films and popular songs, I’d never taken the trouble to establish their gritty reality. When my grits arrived I understood why, basically, grits are to corn as semolina is to wheat – there I was, sitting in a late-night diner half a world away, and looking at a dish of whitish pap such as I was served up for school lunch “dessert” 45 years before. It was tasteless crap then – and it remains tasteless crap to this day.
Why on earth the Southern states of the US rejoice in this stuff is beyond me – but they do; grits, if you like, are the grout that they believe holds them together like a farinaceous form of legendary Southern hospitality and good cheer. That they have an unpleasant consistency, taste of very little at all, and if consumed as a staple can lead to the vitamin deficiency disease pellagra, which so blighted the lives of the Southern poor (and in particular poor African Americans), is perhaps the confirmation rather than the cancellation of this status.
My 16-year-old cracked the battered crust of one of his rings and the maggot-white onion slithered out. “These,” he said conversationally, “are the worst onion rings I’ve ever eaten.” I called the tired waitress over and asked her what the Huddle House was paying her, and this being forthright America rather than mealy-mouthed England she replied with alacrity: “I get $2.13 an hour, and I get to work 25 hours a week if I’m lucky.”
“What about tips?” I queried.
“Well, in a super-good week I might pick up $150.”
While she went to get the check I did the math: in a top-earning week she’d be on $203.25. I reminded my good ole boys about the lack of social security and other welfare in God’s Own Country, then I settled up and we walked right through the Huddle House and out the back and were not seen again – which is probably what every waiter in every Huddle House throughout the land would do, if only they had the wherewithal.