You can leave the South, but its smells and tastes won't leave you

Special to Lowcountry LifeMay 23, 2012 

People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. Those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York -- many accidentally getting off in Newark, thinking they heard "New York." And those from Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West coast.

This is the story of the Great Migration -- the exodus of almost 6 million blacks leaving the South in search of a better life. It lasted more than 60 years.

Isabel Wilkerson details the migration in "The Warmth of Other Suns," which includes the stories of Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping in Mississippi for Chicago; George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem and endangered his job fighting for civil rights; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana to pursue a medical career in Los Angeles.

Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting trips by train and by car, their new lives and the changes they went through to improve themselves through hard work, faith and discipline.

One thing is for sure: They might have left the South, but they never forgot the South.

It was said that Harlem was one of the most crowded places in the country. Some half a million black people were crammed into a sliver of upper Manhattan that was about 50 blocks long and only seven or eight blocks wide. A study by the National Urban League showed that black renters paid from 40 to 60 percent higher rents than white tenants for the same class of apartments. So black folks in Harlem took in boarders and worked second and third jobs to make ends meet.

The crush of people begging for space forced rents even higher in what became a landlord's paradise. Renters looked for ways to make their rent. They began to plan end-of-the-month parties where they had music, drinks and food. They called them "rent parties." They would charge 25 cents admission for a few hours of card playing, dancing and a chance to hang out with folks from back home -- all this to help pay the rent.

All along the side streets off Lenox and Seventh avenues, people flung open their apartments doors the Saturday night before the rent was due. They served pork chops, pigs' feet and potato salad just like down South -- except that the food was for sale. The music of Count Basie, Fats Waller and Dinah Washington could be heard from the record player.

Total strangers looking for a good time could stroll down the block and spot a red, pink or blue light in the window, a signal that a party was going on.

The guests had fun and entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the party. It cost very little and it was all about helping a friend in need and enjoying food prepared just like it was down South.

Downhome Potato Salad for a Crowd

10 to 12 russet potatoes

2 large celery ribs, minced

1 medium green bell pepper, diced

1 small onion, minced

8 to 10 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

2 cups mayonnaise

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons relish

1 tablespoon dill relish

1/8 teaspoon celery seed

1/8 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon paprika

Seasoned salt to taste

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce heat to moderate-high, cover and cook until tender, approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Drain, and set aside to cool. Peel and dice. In a large bowl, combine celery, bell pepper and onion.

Add potatoes, then eggs, mayonnaise and seasonings. Adjust salad's moisture and seasoning to taste. If dry, add more mayonnaise.

Mix gently and refrigerate at least 3 hours prior to serving or preferably overnight.

Smothered Pork Chops

4 pork chops

1 teaspoon seasoned salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

All-purpose flour

1/4 cup bacon drippings or vegetable shortening

1 large onion, sliced

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup water

Wash pork chops and pat dry. Mix seasonings. Rub on chops. Reserve remaining seasoning for gravy. Lightly dust chops with flour. Heat drippings in a large, heavy skillet. Add chops and brown each side, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Remove chops from pan to a warm, paper towel-covered platter.

Remove all but 1/4 cup drippings from the pan. Add sliced onion to pan and saute until almost transparent. Add 3 tablespoons flour and remaining seasonings to the pan and brown. The trick is to get the flour as brown as possible without burning it or the onion. Add water and stir.

Return chops to pan and add sufficient water to cover. Bring to a quick boil, reduce heat to low; cover and simmer about an hour or until chops are fork tender. Season to taste.

Pig's Feet in Tomato Sauce

4 pig's feet, split

31/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon seasoned salt

2 1/2 teaspoons pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons whole allspice

5 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 onions, quartered

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup sliced celery

4 cups tomato sauce

1 28-ounce can tomatoes

2 tablespoons Tabasco

Place pig's feet in a large pot with sufficient water to cover. Bring to a boil. Add remaining ingredients and reduce heat to low. Cover the pot tightly and simmer slowly for 3 hours or until tender.

Columnist Ervena Faulkner is a Port Royal resident and a retired educator who has always had an interest in food and nutrition. Email her at features@beaufortgazette.com.

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