treasured heritage

IMG_20130912_185042I possess a handful of wonderful memories of my grandmother Sarah. I have always chosen to keep my memories simple and unadorned; I remember us taking walks around the jonquils and crocuses in the spring and watching her fry okra and potatoes in an old cast iron skillet on Sundays in the summer. In all cultures, the simple things in life are truly all that matter.

Through hook, crook, and sleight of hand I came to possess one of my grandmother’s workhorse cast iron skillets. Time, seven kids, countless grand kids, nearly infinite great-grand kids, and daily use had worn its cooking surface smooth like the exposed face of the Smoky Mountains. Its outer surface showed the harsh deposits of too many cooking fires and burned apple pie crusts. It was something to behold, capable of out-cooking a Le Creuset and doubling as a household defense weapon, if so needed. I’m still bewildered my mom relinquished her tight grip on this beautiful cultural artifact. Yet, somehow, it followed me home and sat on my stove, making the other pans jealous. Truth be told, I was afraid to use grandma’s skillet for quite some time. I knew my untrained hands would just mar this irreplaceable family heirloom. You probably see where this is going.

See, I’m a neophyte cook, a job I took up only since my daughter’s birth. Our household is dedicated to raising our kid as close to organic as humanely possible because, let’s be brusque here, pesticides just suck. I wonder how my grandmother would feel about that sometimes. I imagine she lived organic before it was hip; she grew up on a farm with chickens and the usual barnyard denizens, back when cow and horse poop was fertilizer and pesticide was a bucket full of soapy water. And she lived to a ripe, old age, too, well beyond the average life expectancy for someone who grew up relatively poor in a rural area with little medical care, and, oh yeah, dipped snuff from the age of nine. Oh, if my daughter could only be as lucky as grandma. At least my daughter gets to (mostly) enjoy the same food her foremothers ate.

Being firmly rooted in my Appalachian roots, I still enjoy my favorite childhood dishes (okra, greens, cornbread, and anything with pig in it), but I admit my kid will experience those foods with a shot of globalization. She will grow up learning all about great-great grandpa’s bees and the rocky hills of the old homestead while eating bastardized Appalachian dishes like Thai fusion okra curry. That’s just the start. My daughter will grow up amid monsters I never dreamed: nearly endless amounts of digitized information buried in the rarely wonderful World Wide Web, a globe thoroughly interconnected by airplanes and cell phones, and the emerging of a globalized culture where everything has a tendency to look and feel the same. My daughter will likely know a world where even the Appalachian Trail has 3G cell coverage. I’m a bad father for not seeing the writing on my friends’ Facebook walls sooner.

Bear with me a moment. Bearded banjo picker or not, I already feel somewhat disconnected as a nouveau Appalachian. I feel like a great disappointment to my culture because my child will likely grow up a Midwesterner out in the endless flat lands of northwest Tennessee rather than under the tearful beauty of a Smoky Mountain sunrise. Nothing against Midwestern folk. They are pert near the nicest people I’ve ever met, and they even hold the door for you at Wal-Mart, but they aren’t my kin…my banjo-picking, tobacco-spitting, deer hunter kin. I turned out perfectly okay amid Appalachia’s good graces. I have a strong sense of who I am, and an even stronger sense of the things that matter: family, faith, and hard work. Self-admittedly, I do some of those better than others. But I genuinely worry my daughter will be less fortunate than I, lacking a sense of treasured cultural heritage amid a globalized world where a culture’s Wikipedia page is its lasting legacy.

Let’s get back to that skillet before I have to write a check for psychological services rendered. I have been clearly dodging the issue long enough. Yes, I completely destroyed that wonderful, decades-old finish. It only took ten or twelve meals before I finally forgetfully walked away from a nice enough batch of homegrown organic okra and Sriracha. It quickly looked like Vesuvius erupting and smelled about as bad. I pulled the skillet off the eye, but the smoke said it all: I let my ancestors down. I could almost sense my grandmother, somewhere amid the mystery of Heaven and death, glaring down at her now least-favorite grandson. Is Jimmy book smart? Oh, sure. But can he keep a skillet cured? Hell, no. Color me #bigfamilydisappointment, right here.

Humiliated at having decimated my (and my daughter’s) cultural inheritance in one fell swoop, I Googled how to fix the marred finish on old cast iron skillets. Turns out cooking cornbread will fix the finish pretty quickly, and you get the nifty benefit of eating all the cornbread, too. I called mom and asked, in a roundabout rhetorical question way, what I should do should this treasured skillet’s finish ever be so slightly dinged. She said, “James, make some cornbread.” And it worked, even with that can of organic diced tomatoes I added.

So what will the Appalachian culture of tomorrow look like? Will it just be another spot on the historical map more associated with coal than the wondrous, curious people who came out of its maw? Will the blessed banjo and my mountain man beard be exchanged for the smartphone and Google Glass? Perhaps I should be less worried about my daughter and practice a good deal of temet nosce. Perhaps globalization is already in my bones, and I should better understand its own place in my life.

Maybe that’s why my wife and I named our daughter after our dearly missed grandmothers. Maybe we somehow knew that everything we ever knew growing up is about to vanish like sweet smoke from a roadside picnic grill. Knowing about my people and their ways has always been my anchor. I just hope our kid can find some sense of culture out there in a globalized world, something to put her roots into when times inevitably get tough.

So that leaves me, ostensibly the first generation of my people to witness globalization first-hand, desperately grasping at straws in a changing world and praying the next generation will somehow hold fast. Grandma once told me that there is more than one way to skin a cat; looking back, I now realize I don’t know any of them, and I’d be just as lost fattening a groundhog so it isn’t gamey. And now that I’ve admitted it here on the web, I’m sure my dear cousins will be Tweeting about it within the hour. But to be fair, they never liked me. After all, I am the best banjo picker in the family.

Image: by the author, James. N. Maples
James N. Maples

James N. Maples

James N. Maples is a musician, applied sociologist, and writer from the foothills of East Tennessee. James presently resides just north of home up in the Bluegrass, where he is a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University.