Confessions of a recovering Southerner


By Mitch Allen

I have lived in Northeast Ohio for 28 years, but I was born and raised in and around Columbus, Georgia, which lies on the muddy Chattahoochee River on the border with Alabama. It’s not the South, like, say, the Carolinas or Kentucky; it’s the Deep South. Growing up there, I thought everything north of Atlanta was Manhattan.

I’m not kidding. My ancestors worked in cotton mills with titles like “spinner” and “doffer,” and although my mother’s grandfather was a “gentleman farmer,” he still managed to get himself killed in a moonshine deal gone bad.

In the fall of 1968—when I was in the first grade at Sherwood Elementary School in Phenix City, Alabama—our classroom held a mock presidential election. George Wallace won in a landslide, followed by Richard Nixon and comedian Pat Paulsen. Hubert Humphrey came in fourth without a single vote. Regrettably, I voted for Wallace because he was a personal friend of my Aunt Gladys and he had secured a pardon for a close family member who had, uh, experienced an inexplicable moment of poor judgement during the Depression.

I knew one Jewish family and one Catholic family. Other than that, everyone in my circle was Baptist, except for a smattering of atheists who went around quoting Ayn Rand instead of Jesus.

Of course, we called all soft drinks “cokes” and dropped a syllable in Coca-Cola, preferring “Co-cola.” If you say "Co-cola," or pronounce "Jordan" as "Jerdin," then you're from my neck of the woods. By the way, a “pop” was a spanking, so when a woman from Illinois once asked us kids if we wanted a pop, my brother started tuning up wondering what he had done wrong. (Oh, sorry; “tune up” is a Southern expression meaning “to cry,” as in “The baby’s fixin’ to tune up.”)

When I turned 16, my parents bought me a used 1972 Camaro, which my mother declared was painted “babysh*t green.” I promptly put a Confederate flag license plate on the front of it, having no earthly idea that it could symbolize anything other than my deep Southern pride. I wasn’t trying to be mean or racist. I was just ignorant.

The last time I made any effort to defend that flag was 20 years ago when a friend and I saw one flying over a lake cabin in Upstate New York. The debate ended when my friend, a professor at Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute, said, “It doesn’t matter how it makes you feel; it matters how it makes other people feel.”

Today, I see little distinction between the Confederate flag and the Nazi flag.

They both give me the creeps.

When we first moved to Ohio, my wife was finishing her dissertation for her PhD, so I survived my first winter here alone, without her or our two daughters. When they visited during spring break of 1992, we went to the grocery store where my wife saw bags of rock salt in a huge pile by the front door. She looked at the salt curiously and said, “Wow, people here must be really nice. They make a lot of homemade ice cream.”

I just smiled and agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell her about polar vortexes.

In those early days I was constantly seeing hushpuppies on the buffet at luncheons, so I finally tried one. It was the worst hushpuppy I’d ever eaten, but that’s because it wasn’t a hushpuppy; it was a fried sauerkraut ball. I still haven’t gotten over the trauma.

According to my grandfather, who managed a pecan factory (that would be pronounced "puh-CAHN"), the secret to a soft, tender hushpuppy is to chop the onions extra fine and use one part pancake flour to two parts corn meal. And for God’s sake, never put whole kernels of corn in a hushpuppy. It makes it look like a stool sample.

For the most part, my daughters are now Ohioans. Down south, we raised them to say “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir,” but on the first day of school here in Ohio, they both came home and declared that they were never saying it again. Not only did the other kids laugh at them, but both of their teachers said, “Don’t call me ‘ma’am.’ I’m not old.

My wife and I relented, but told them they still had to say it to their grandparents. Where we come from, if you don’t say “yes, ma’am,” you get a pop and then tune up.

After all these years living in Northeast Ohio, I feel like an Ohioan, too. I root for the Browns and go to clambakes. I know how to pronounce “gyro” and “pierogi” and I know never to buy a rear-wheel-drive car. I’ve lost my Southern accent except when I’m really tired (or really tipsy), and I’ve stopped poking little babies in the belly button and proclaiming, “That’s where the Yankee shot you!” You can do that in Phenix City, Alabama, but not in Cleveland, Ohio.

People will call the cops.

Finally, to prove my sincerity as well as my allegiance to the United States of America as opposed to Dixieland, I am going to break a solemn vow that every Georgian makes—the blood oath never to reveal the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola.

It’s peaches, y’all.*

* FROM THE LAWYERS: The opinions expressed herein are those of the writer who has no first-hand knowledge regarding the ingredients of Coca-Cola.

FROM THE WRITER: Yes I do. Just close your eyes and drink one. You'll taste peaches.