Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s a thoroughly unscientific but perfectly seasonal test to determine just how deep your Southern roots run.
Answer A or B.
A. Mashed potatoes are a must for Thanksgiving Day dinner.
B. Rice and gravy is the only way to go.
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(Notice there is not a C option. That could only mean a dish of macaroni and cheese and I am simply not going there lest my mother rises from her grave brandishing her rice steamer and an original edition of Charleston Receipts.)
Truly, I don’t mean to throw a monkey wrench into your Thanksgiving menu, but I provided this simple test because, frankly, something funny is going on down here below the Mason-Dixon Line. Something no more Southern than snow boots, maple syrup or Boston baked beans. Something that has infiltrated our sense of who we are and why we drive barefooted, consume boiled peanuts and call that thing you hook the hose up to a spigot.
I speak of answer A – mashed potatoes.
Something tells me a lot of folks around here are serving this food stuff because every grocery store advertising circular that I have seen thus far this Thanksgiving season promotes the sale of potatoes. “5 lb. Bag Russet Potatoes $2.99 per bag;” “White Potatoes 5 Lb. Bag HOT SALE 2 FOR $5;” “$3.48 Jumbo Russet Potatoes 8 lb. bag.”
Fuzzy pictures of holiday feasts that go along with these sales show bowls brimming with mashed potatoes. But no dishes of lovely, fluffy steaming rice. No discounts on bags of rice advertised either.
Furthermore, we’re seeing mounds of mushed-up taters on television morning shows where perky hosts are telling us all how to prepare our holiday feasts with no muss and no fuss.
And much like last year’s debate about dressing versus stuffing, brought on by the infamous Butterball map that showed South Carolina to be a stuffing state, rather than a dressing state … well, you get the gist. Sumpin’ just ain’t right.
Mashed potatoes are fine with meatloaf on a Sunday night, but on Turkey Day down South? Might as well say cotton doesn’t grow in Calhoun County. Might as well say big dogs don’t like to hang their heads out of car windows. Might as well say thank-you notes are not necessary.
So here we are. A or B. Every day spuds or something far more delicate – the seeds of Asian (Oryza sativa) and African (Oryza glaberimma) grasses.
To slice and dice this dilemma, I turned to an old friend whose Southern roots indeed run pretty darn deep. Columbia’s Cantey Holmes Wright. His mother was born and raised on Edisto Island. His grandfather was raised on the Battery in Charleston. His great-grandfather created South Carolina’s revered dog breed – the Boykin Spaniel.
Cantey is a retired chef – having cooked in Columbia, Edisto, Charleston, Aiken and Atlanta. He’s written a book called “Edisto, A Guide to Life on the Island.”
And here’s what he said about mashed potatoes versus rice and gravy when it comes to what goes on the Southern Thanksgiving Day dinner table.
“Mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving? Heresy! Count me as a dyed-in-the-wood proselyte of rice and gravy. There’s no other way than to steam it in a Charleston Rice Steamer by WearEver. Yes, Rice Steamer is capitalized, but only if it was made by WearEver and handed down from your mother or grandmother, since they haven’t been made by WearEver in decades. Somebody in Charleston, bereft at not being able to purchase a real one, actually commissioned someone to make a limited edition of them.
“As for the steaming of rice, all of us know that the lid is not to be opened, not even a peek, until the rice has cooked for 20 minutes and then rested for 5 minutes off the heat. The rice is then ‘disturbed’ with a fork. Not fluffed. Disturbed. And always with a fork. Never a spoon.
“Rice is served at Thanksgiving because rice is always served with hot meals such as ‘dinnuh’ (sometime after noon, preferably 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.) or ‘suppah’ (the evening meal). Rice serves many purposes. It sucks up the wonderful flavor of gravy and any other juicy foods. Collard pot likker on the plate will find its way to the rice, be absorbed by it, and in so doing, prevent the embarrassment of juice sloshing off your plate and onto your great-grandmother’s white linen tablecloth.
“Also, if you blanched butterbeans (baby limas if you are from away) in the summer, and have fixed ’em for Thanksgiving, they will go on the rice and nestle down in it quite nicely. And last but not least, there’s the matter of leftovers. There’s no such thing as Mashed Potato Pudding. But ahhh! Rice pudding … Doo-lawd!
“Mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving Day? Well, I nevuh!”
So nevuh-mind all the tater advertisements and television show hosts ’splaining how to mash ’em.
A or B?
Bless your heart if you answered A, ’cause the correct answer ’round here is about as big as day and about as fine as frog’s hair.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.