James N. Maples – LikeTheDew.com https://likethedew.com A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Sun, 17 Feb 2019 15:51:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.0.3 https://likethedew.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/cropped-DewLogoSquare825-32x32.png James N. Maples – LikeTheDew.com https://likethedew.com 32 32 Growing Up and Growing Old with Surge https://likethedew.com/2014/11/20/growing-growing-old-surge/ https://likethedew.com/2014/11/20/growing-growing-old-surge/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 14:08:49 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=58412

surgecanThis morning, my friend Lusy stopped by my office with a nasty cold and a warm, sixteen ounce can of Surge; I gladly hugged him. As he sat the Christmas-colored can of heavenly proportions on my office desk, I thought to myself, “There it is.  My childhood is sitting on my desk.” Waves of memories flooded my mind. I closed my eyes and remember frozen nights spent sipping Surge by the fireside even as the frost formed on our shivering backs.  I recalled the punch drunk pleasure of all-night binge gaming sessions, playing Diablo II with now-lost friends and my seemingly endless supply of Surge cans. There were days and nights spent by the lake or long drives through the mountains, happily listening the clinking of Surge cans in the trunk on the drive home. Mom and dad, if you are reading this, know that I was one of the good kids. I steered clear of strong drink in my youth, save that Surge was my indulgence, my constant companion, and my can of choice. These happy times slipped by too quickly, much like my affaire de cœure with a certain highly-caffeinated citrus flavored soft drink.

For those of you who missed it, Surge flooded Appalachia in the late 90’s. I always thought of it as capitalism’s silent way of trying to wean the region off its long-standing Mountain Dew addiction. Coca-Cola designed Surge to help crush Pepsi’s grip on the yellowish-green soda market, going so far as to call Surge MDK (Mountain Dew Killer) during its development stage. Historically, they had good reason to target Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew has strong roots in Appalachia, getting its start in the 1940’s in Marion, Virginia, as well as Knoxville and Johnson City, Tennessee.  Borrowing its name from a regional sobriquet for moonshine, Mountain Dew’s first mascot was a hardy Appalachian stereotype: the barefooted hillbilly. After being turned down by Coca-Cola in the 1940’s, Pepsi finally purchased the rights to Mountain Dew in 1964. The rest is history, as they say, but in Appalachia it is certainly a toothless history.

A depressing list of studies demonstrate Appalachians are losing their teeth sooner than should be expected, and our love affairs with soft drinks is partly to blame. Fair warning: I’m going to get academic for just a moment, but stick with me. Busy researchers Gorsuch, Sanders, and Wu (2014) recently reported that Appalachians have higher levels of tooth loss than the United States average. The talented Michael Hendryx and his colleagues (2012) noted that tooth loss is especially high in rural mining counties in Appalachia, and that this level of loss cannot be explained by poor access to dentistry or fluoride. Working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, Denise Krause and her colleagues (including the brilliant sociologist, Lynne Cossman) thoroughly examined tooth loss in Appalachia between 1999 and 2006, finding that on average, a quarter of Appalachians over age 65 have had all their teeth extracted, and almost thirteen percent of Appalachians 34-65 had six or more teeth removed. Brian Griffith (the WV School of Medicine Brian Griffith, not to be confused with the similarly named dog on Family Guy) and his colleagues seal the deal with their 2011 study documenting that Appalachians are at greater odds of drinking sodas than non-Appalachians. Although Appalachian folk love our sodas, soft drinks (and, well, meth) have taken a nasty toll on our smiles. Btw, these are all snappy things you can use as conversation starters at your next dinner party.

My own Appalachian love affair with the tooth-killing fizzy mistress (my brand new catchy moniker for  good ol’ soft drinks) runs deeper than my family’s East Tennessee well. Flash back to my childhood: the fierce bite of a red can of Coca-Cola on a Saturday afternoon or the greasy blend of Coke and Lee’s Famous Recipe fried chicken by the mountain stream. I remember my grandmother kept a second refrigerator filled with Cokes in the back room. For whatever reason, she kept this fridge much colder than normal, lending the soft drinks within an icy shimmer as they swished in your mouth and sailed down your throat. I remember my irrational, finicky preference of Coca-Cola over Pepsi, and rolling my eyes when offered a Pepsi because I was a Coke drinker. I caught the wave. Today, I stand before you a veteran of the in senseless, costly war between New Coke and Coke Classic. I am a survivor of the campfire Coke can explosions, Mentos in Coke two liters, and avid follower of Max Headroom’s Cokeology. Coke is part of my culture and my socialization as an Appalachian, making it also part of my self-construction.

But then came Surge: that sweet identity-driven drink that defined my transition from child of the 90’s into an angry and fierce-eyed young Appalachian male. I purchased my first cans at Louisville Square, purveyor of fine gasoline and overpriced sugary snacks since my childhood. (Btw, they don’t have a public bathroom, so don’t bother asking.) In my mind, I can still vividly see the flashy green and red Surge label on the shelf. It reached out and shook you by the head. It said “drink me and be someone new.” Oh, the lies, the lies. But I took that twelve pack home with me, and had my first taste in the parking lot. I was in love. I remember the unique blast of citric acid and maltodextrin, and that subtle soupçon of bitter grapefruit on the back of the tongue. I remember feeling awake and alive in that moment, my future certain, my past forgotten.  I felt I was living in the present, an empowered Appalachian with can in hand.

My friends likewise embraced Surge in those wonderful days. Surge cans sat sans jugement as we shredded on undersized amps, struggling for the words to describe our rancor for the cultural limitations of growing up Appalachian. Surge kept us vigilant during intense Dungeons and Dragons sessions, a response to rural boredom and a somewhat socially acceptable way to address our misplaced anger. The fact that Surge cans can stand in as a dragon or other large creature on the game map is a bonus, but it is also a distraction from truly changing our conditions. Like so many Appalachians, we were in stasis, even while buying into the frenetic hype of a soda can’s marketing machine. I will say that Surge did follow me to my first attempt at college, but only briefly. Had it lived a bit longer, perhaps Surge might have sponsored my dissertation or even supported the New Appalachia revolution, televising it on the Super Bowl or that nifty new thing called the Internet.

Surge went immediately silent with its discontinuation in 2003 following soon after the merciful death of the Extreme 90’s. Despite my close relationship with Surge, I was not invited to the funeral. Like some Confederate mountain guerrilla hold-out, I learned of the surrender after the fact. I recall that I walked into that same greasy smelling gas station, Louisville Square, a dutiful dealer who carried Surge until the very end, to buy my Friday night supply of Surge. Staring at the shelves where my mistress had sat for almost a decade, I saw only Mountain Dew and Fanta. Like a lost child, I looked to the clerk in hopes she might reunite me with a loved one. She said softly, “no más, no más.” Her unintentional allusion to Roberto Durán sticks with me, even today. It was the end of an era. That night, my friends and I drove silently through the mountains like a funeral procession headed nowhere, the clunky din of empty Fanta cans rattling about the trunk.

Despite its untimely demise, Surge maintained a vocal and often virtual fan base. As Surge’s days dwindled, a web community dutifully mapped the remaining locations where Surge continued in fountain drink form until even that option faded away. In response to public support for Surge, Coca-Cola created Vault in 2005. As a former Vault drinker, I can say that it had only two of Surge’s attributes: the marketing and the caffeine. The flavor was all wrong. It had a very Sweet Tart-ish flavor, in my opinion, and was not a replacement for Surge. Even the color of the liquid was wrong. I would equate it with replacing tomatoes with cucumbers in a salsa recipe: one might get away with it, but everyone will know something is evidently wrong. Vault met its maker in 2011; few cried. However, this did push Surge fans (now on Facebook) to again press Coca-Cola to reissue Surge. Apparently, it worked. A few months ago, Coca-Cola re-released Surge for sale exclusively on Amazon, leading us back to the present moment and this beautiful, tall can sitting on my desk.

Honestly, my teeth ache just thinking about drinking it. I want to create some special moment to open it, savor this rare time machine moment flashing me back to my glory days for a whiff of the past. And yet, deep in my aging Appalachian entrails, I hesitate to pop that can, if only because I know it is not really a time machine. It’s a marketing scheme, the swirling socialization of a media empire that I loved and continue to love from afar. I remain certain that this canister of Surge will taste sublime and intense and clear like my second first kiss. I will swish it through my canines and relish the fizzle in my throat. Leaning back in my office chair, I will kick my feet up on my desk and conjure up ghosts in my brain while looking at the can. Yet I know it can never be quite the same. Surge kept the same recipe, but I am an entirely different cookbook now. Looking back, I fear I couldn’t recognize that long-haired, brash Appalachian kid struggling to make his way in the world. Nor would he recognize me today, the angry sociology professor with noticeably less hair and even less patience for smart-ass Appalachian kids wasting their talents on warehouse floors and sleeper sofas. Perhaps the only thing we have in common today is an identical full set of teeth, sans cavités, and the Surge cans in our hand.


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So Long as I Am There, I Am Somewhere: Being Dead in the Appalachian Wilderness https://likethedew.com/2014/08/29/long-somewhere-dead-appalachian-wilderness/ https://likethedew.com/2014/08/29/long-somewhere-dead-appalachian-wilderness/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 11:32:06 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=57460

Webb Cemetery, West Virginia

Above my family homestead in the East Tennessee foothills is an old, abandoned cemetery. I admit I’ve never seen it, but I think about it often. I imagine the worn stone markers neck deep in leaves in the fall or peeking out of the winter snow like early hyacinths. In my imagination, I never bothered to name these people, much less engage in meaningful character development. I don’t know them in any sense of the word; I just know that they are up there, tucked deeply in an earthy hollow waiting for whatever comes next.

I don’t expect anyone comes to visit the site since it is easily a mile or three off the beaten path, presumably safe from the high pitched hum of society in action. Perhaps a hunter once spent a moment there, propping his foot on a strangely smooth stone to reload his rifle, not even noticing he was in a cemetery before moving in for the kill. It seems these graves, these people have been relegated to the forest’s domain, where the squirrels and raccoon are their untrained, unpaid, and unpredictable cemetery landscaping staff. In the parlance of our times, this old cemetery has been abandoned and left for dead. Some profit-minded land developer could plop a house on that cemetery and no one would be the wiser, present company excluded. And what would it matter? What is the purpose in protecting a lonesome century-old cemetery in the Appalachian wilderness?

On a childhood field trip to Cades Cove decades ago, I recall a historian talking about dead cemeteries. “If a cemetery’s dead,” he explained, “it means there’s no more room for new burials in the cemetery, so the community will go start a new cemetery.” The idea of not having new neighbors sounds nice, sure, until two or three generations die off and suddenly no one from the community comes to visit your graveside. On multiple levels, that bothers me deeply; come two, three generations from today, will anyone care if there are flowers and a stone on Dr. Maples’ grave? Will they even care if my grave exists? I wish I had that answer. Really, I’m a bit afraid that I do have that answer in my concussed mushy grey matter of a brain. What saddens me is that my ancestors back a few generations died thinking quite the opposite, giving them at least a bit of solace before being pushed off into the great unknown. It leaves me today wanting what they had. I think my Appalachian birthright should be peace in the afterlife, something that I can gladly pass down through generations.

Back in the day, Appalachians buried their dead in a community space called the commons, a place where community norms dictated that cemeteries would be tended by the community as a whole. The community used their cemeteries as a place to remember, to celebrate and mourn the cycle of life, and to memorialize and commune with their ancestors. The community even had family reunions and dinners on the ground at the cemetery, with plenty of time scheduled to clean the individual graves of their winter debris amid showing off great-grand babies to loved ones. Forget The Lion King: that is the circle of life. I’d approach the termination of my existence with a bit more candor if I knew it meant I’d still get invited to dinner on the grounds and get to see my great-grand children learn to whittle.

As an aging sociologist with a scientific interest in cemeteries, I think often about why old cemeteries like this one near my family homestead or like my old family cemeteries up in the mountains really even matter in our society today. What purpose does an old cemetery serve when the living have never met the dead in that cemetery? Perhaps optimistically, I see cemeteries as part and parcel with the living community. Bear with me. What I mean here is that the cemetery really is still a portion of the living community. Indeed, it’s even a reflection of what’s happening (or has happened) nearby. For example: looking for social class in the living community? Go check the local cemetery, and look for that expensive monument at the very top of Cemetery Hill. Note the last name; it’s probably an ancestor of today’s local politicians and power elite. Looking for culture? Head to the peaceful cemeteries the Great Smoky Mountains, and keep a weather eye for beautiful, lovingly-carved grave markers hand-picked by Appalachians from the nearby farmers’ fields. As you drive through the Cove, be sure to wave at my ancestors’ ghosts or they’ll loosen the spark plug wires on your engine. They’re ornery, troublesome, bearded folk, just like me.

In old cemeteries, scientists can find demographic trends and social changes. We see the small graves of babies dying before their time (including my uncle Ray), succumbing to illnesses that today require only a trip to Wal-Mart. We can find the history of the local community’s war against famines and pestilence, such as the downright spooky (but no longer contagious) Yellow Fever Cemetery in Martin, Tennessee. We can find a history of oppression and stratification in segregated graveyards. And any Civil War cemetery will testify to socio-historical forces that shape our individual lives, making corpses of the young far too often and far too soon.

Famed (and now dead) sociologist Lewis Mumford went so far as to say that cemeteries are just cities of the dead, the counterparts to all us living folk walking around like chickens with our heads cut off just waiting around for the next event in a series of uninteresting events. I often wonder if Mumford’s said this cities of the dead hypothesis aloud to himself over and over late at nigh, and if it brought him any peace as his final days dwindled night. I wonder more if it will give me any peace when my time comes? Ever since the Enlightenment hit its high water mark and rolled back behind a TVA dam, science has left many of its disciples (myself and poor Mumford included) short on meaningful faith and given us very little to fill that void in our nightmares.

Still, I admit there’s that less-civilized, hillbilly proud, and eternally exhaustively stubborn side of my brain that makes my mamma proud right here and now by quoting Genesis 3:19: ” In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Part of me (particularly the scientist part) is not satisfied that cemeteries matter at all. I’ve been told too many times that the bodies of my loved ones are empty vessels. If so, why bury them in a hermetically-sealed five thousand dollar casket? Why all the fuss over Memorial Day, burial mores, or buying that perfect shady spot under the old elm in the local cemetery? Let’s all go Viking pyres on this issue and burn baby, burn. For those twinging with environmental guilt, there’s always the eco- burial where we just leave the dearly departed on a rock face, making an impromptu smörgåsbord for feeding local birds, wolves, and goats before the ants and worms get theirs. If I am truly dead, my soul will be doing exactly whatever it is that souls do after shuffling loose the mortal coil. I really won’t care. Wolves, I won’t hold it against you for eating me, but feel free to eat the goats. I sense they will annoy me until the end of time.

Still, that feels incomplete. Surely our bodies mean something in the scheme of it all? My interest in old cemeteries has uncovered a few horror stories that shake my bones…stories that make me really Auguste Comte-be-damned hopeful that a vengeful, pissed-off God stands at the other end of death waiting with talons and claws for the plain ol’ bad people our society tends to breed. I think of cemeteries in my research on the once quiet hills of West Virginia, cemeteries quietly blown to smithereens and back by explosives in mountaintop removal areas. I think of Appalachian writer Bruce Hopkins and how bulldozers scraped his family off the sides of a mountain in Kentucky. Gas pipes cut through cemeteries, cemeteries left at the bottom of Tennessee Valley Authority lakes, roads to apartments to parking lots built right on top of the departed; the list goes on and on. But would it matter if a cemetery, if any of these cemeteries, were gone? I mean, let’s be frank: two hundred years is a big amount of dead time piling up. A quick slip of the shovel would reveal little more than tarnished brass buttons, wood fragments, and mushy, uneven settling in the dirt. For all my arguments with God and the Enlightenment, Genesis pretty much nailed that aspect of my life: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m on this roller coaster until I’m not simply because I am a living creature of habit in the habit of living. I, like all living beings, like all parrots in Monty Python sketches, must die, die, die.

So here is my grand hypothesis: partly applied sociology, and partly, well, to make myself sleep at night. I wager that old cemeteries do matter, because, in some small way, they are part of the human desire to live forever. Thinking of my own end, I feel some peace in owning that depressing, rectangular plot of land. So long as I am there, I am somewhere. So long as one might find me on a map, or a website, or even by chance, I still exist. At least that’s what I hope. To any of my students who might be reading this: feel free to decorate my grave in perpetuum diemque unum. Stop by for fatherly advice, lecture notes, or to pour out a few shots of Dalwhinnie for that ornery Doc Maples. There will certainly be extra credit offered.

Returning back home in my mind, thinking about what is left of my culture’s commons, I hope that old cemetery above my childhood stomping grounds still exists. I truly hope it’s there, untouched and unconcerned with the passage of time, soon basking in the cool beauty of a multi-colored Appalachian fall. But if it isn’t, those six or seven or even eight strangers still roam around my mind from time to time. I sincerely hope it gives them peace in knowing that someone knows they are still around somewhere out there.

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Globalization in Appalachia’s Cast Iron Skillet https://likethedew.com/2013/10/16/globalization-appalachias-cast-iron-skillet/ https://likethedew.com/2013/10/16/globalization-appalachias-cast-iron-skillet/#comments Wed, 16 Oct 2013 13:13:16 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=53466

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.

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Zucchini and Social Capital https://likethedew.com/2013/07/15/zucchini-and-social-capital/ https://likethedew.com/2013/07/15/zucchini-and-social-capital/#comments Mon, 15 Jul 2013 19:40:12 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=52389

Image: photo by Steve at botogol's flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.Southerners, it is that time of year again: be on the lookout for friends and neighbors giving away bountiful supplies of beautiful, green zucchini. Watch for zucchini peeking out of slightly ripped plastic bags left swinging on door knobs or sitting innocently in church pews. But tread carefully: accepting zucchini from friends and strangers alike may mean more than one thinks.

Zucchini is a versatile vegetable, comfortable on grills, cookie sheets, and iron skillets alike. Put it in bread, stir fry, hash browns, casserole, salads, coleslaw, meatloaf, anywhere, and it will find itself a home. It even makes okra edible. But that is only part of the story. Zucchini has a special, oft overlooked purpose in maintaining our existing social networks and building new ones.

As a rural southerner who, by happenstance, grew up to be a social scientist, I now think of zucchini as a simple form of social capital. By social capital, I mean shared potential benefits available to an individual based on involvement in networks such as friendships or group memberships. Benefits range from the physical (getting candy from old ladies at church) to the virtual (a coworker’s tip on a great fishing hole). In both cases, one may access these benefits simply by being part of the network.

Zucchini fits perfectly in this whole social capital idea. We share zucchini with people within our networks partly because we like doing good deeds for others (altruism) but also because it benefits everyone in the network regardless of whether anyone eats the zucchini or not. Zucchini is really about generalized reciprocity: I give you zucchini today knowing that you will do something for me at some point in the future. Perhaps you will see my car stalled on the side of the road and stop to help. Perhaps you will let me know my kid is skipping class and smoking cigarettes behind the stadium. Or perhaps you will give me more zucchini. Regardless of its form or value, I know this zucchini will, in some form, come back to me at a later date.

Still, zucchini goes even deeper. Sharing zucchini with friends and family helps maintain important relationships. Giving someone a bag of zucchini is a southerner’s way of saying, “hey, we are on the same team. If I need help, I expect you will help me, because I would certainly help you, a promise sealed by this huge bag of zucchini.” Social scientists call this bonding social capital: by sharing zucchini, we are performing maintenance on existing relationships and networks by cramming seemingly endless supplies of tasteless green veggies down the pipeline.

Les obvious is that zucchini also helps build new networks with total strangers. Social scientists call this bridging social capital: creating new networks outside the usual, existing connections. Friend and family networks can only do so much, so adding new networks means more opportunities to access social capital. For example, I recently moved to a new town to take a new job in a department filled with strangers. As soon as the frost date passed, I planted a bumper harvest of zucchini. Two months later, I left zucchini my colleague’s office mailboxes with little notes from their new office mate. I sent them emails, too: “hey there, hope you enjoyed that wonderfully fresh and organic zucchini from your new friend.”  As the harvest progresses, I plan on upping the ante by tying a nice bow on the zucchini and sprinkling in a few cucumbers and peppers. Why do this? Well, now when I feel hopelessly lost in the new computer system, I will seek out my new zucchini network members for help. “Remember me? I am the guy who gave you zucchini, and I’m hoping you will lend me a hand, new friend. You know I would do the same for you.” Indeed, I would. That’s how social capital works.

A warm summer and plentiful rain means a bumper crop of zucchini is afoot. Take some to the neighbors, some to fishing buddies, and some to the new family who moved in down the street. When community members come knocking with an armload of zucchini, accept it graciously, and pay it forward. In the unlikely event there are some who don’t want in on this all-important zucchini network, well, that’s fine. Let them eat eggplant, instead.

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