Poor folks get rich living high on the hog

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 7, 2012 

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This time next year, I'll be writing to you from the poor house.

We did not cook collard greens or hoppin' John on New Year's Day this year.

Lowcountry children no bigger than a boiled peanut know that's dumb. The greens will bring dollars in the coming year, and the black eyed peas and rice will have the coins rolling in like Vegas.

My humble experience is that it doesn't work. And hoppin' John is horrible. I'm sure the white-folk junk I've been trying to eat all these years is nothing like hoppin' John is supposed to be. One would think that generation after generation would not have made that much fuss over something that tastes like wallpaper glue.

We didn't totally thumb our noses at fate. Neighbor Jim brought over some of his five-star red rice, and collard greens kicked up just right with red pepper flakes.

And we were nursing our old Kentucky ham from Col. Nancy Newsom. The Newsoms have been curing country hams in Caldwell County the same old way with salt and brown sugar for generations. The recipe came from a will from the 1700s, if you get my hickory-smoked drift.

I sawed off a bit of ham bone and cooked it all day with some northern beans, and Sherman hasn't come to burn the house down yet. I smothered some rice with it. That's what hoppin' John needs. It needs some more smothering.

All these years, we've been eating simple food on New Year's thinking it will make us rich. And now, compared to the South I grew up in, we're all filthy, stinking rich and we pine for life the way it used to be.

Everyone's heard someone from the previous generation say: "We were all dirt poor but we didn't know it. We had plenty to eat from the garden, and we had each other."

An elderly lady sitting in her cozy living room on Daufuskie Island with pictures of Jesus and Barack Obama on the wall told me: "I didn't know I was poor until I read it in the newspaper."

The finest chefs in Charleston now relish the peaches, figs, elderberries, and naturally-raised hogs, and all the sweet renderings thereof, that our poor grandparents thought was plain as grits.

I talked to a Gullah woman from Low Bottom when she turned 100.

"I come up in the rough days," Catherine Fripp Gaston told me. "I come up in the bad days. I come up in the hard days. We pulled the tree out the woods to build the house."

She lived to see a hidden value in the days of kerosene lamps, children with no shoes, spoons made from shells and fish nets and boats made by hand.

"When we killed a hog, everybody got a piece of meat," she said. "Now you'd starve."

I may be headed to the poor house, where I'll have to eat hoppin' John every day.

But we're now rich enough to know that the poor house comes with a silver lining.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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