Monday, 2 April 2012

The First ToTt of Spring.

 My personal 'table of classification' lists the identification markings for the 'ToTt' as: the abundant use of the words 'them' and 'they', with secondary usage of the colour 'black', that they will appear early in a conversation with a stranger, and will challenge your received wisdom on political correctness.  As a 'ToTt', a 'Them over There tale' this was a new one. True, it did contain a pejorative 'they', but it also exhibited some degrees of originality. It's a nice break from the usual dire warnings of impending doom.

Mississippi Mud on one side, Louisiana Gumbo
on the other.
At the start of any new trip, or a radical change of venue within a travel, like the call of the cuckoo, we're on the lookout for the first 'ToTt', generally they appear within the first couple of days, arriving in one of two forms. Either as veiled, disparaging references to a neighbouring areas differing ethnic origins, or as a warning about 'they' and 'them', and their predilection for criminal activity.  Invariably these comments tend towards the politically incorrect, verging on a racial prejudice, or as an unwitting admission of  their own geographical ignorance.  It's a broadcast of perceived risks, a distillation of received wisdom, collected either out of  the scribblings from the tabloid press or as a  formulation distilled from behind an car's steering wheel.  The end result, if you take them literally and at face value, would be to call on Scotty to beam you up, and when that inevitably fails, there's the scamper for the escape hatch, and the nearest means of retreat back to home base.  Generally they're offered as well-meaning advice, and we accept them as such, always in good grace, but with each succeeding trip we learn how to winnow out the kernels of truth from the chaff of noise.  Oft times we simply ignore a 'ToTt', glad to have scored a tick from it's first scoring, happy to add it onto the accumulation of experiences.  On other occasions we perversely and deliberately head for the offended 'theys' and 'thems'. We've yet to be disappointed.  On this occasion we took this novel 'ToTt' to be in the form of an inverted prompt of culinary advice:

''Thy'all can't cook over there, don't use enough spice''.

But it's only breakfast time
A timely reminder, because we're fast running out of Deep South, out of Cajun country, heading for the state line that separates Louisiana Gumbo from Texas Steak. The former, a catch-all name for the Creole patois, the gelatinous okra thickened stew and the glutinous local top soil, the latter the end product from the Longhorns we've passed. We're fast  running out of miles for finding some ethnic cuisine, a bit of genuine good ol' southern cookery. We'll have to hope that the authentic appears by the side of the road in the right place, at the right time. Crawfish pie for breakfast just doesn't do it. 

A day of Mississippi watching, cycling the convoluted meandering road that mimics the river either on top of or just behind the levees, ends as we enter town and find a wooden shack that is advertising 'Frogs' legs, Crawfish and Catfish platters'. It has all the hallmarks of a 'Mom n' Pop' enterprise, the hand-painted board,  the wandering barking dogs, the gravel yard, the absence of any dreaded 'drive thru', the affliction of all things corporate.  It has potential, it even claims 'good ol' Cajun Cookin'.  ''One crawfish and one catfish to go, please''. Now all the ingredients are there for the classic holiday moment: consuming  fish suppers, whilst sheltering in a urine infused bus shelter, in a wet midweek out of season seaside resort. No public transport here, so we end up perched on the end of the bed, back at the motel.

The verdict? South Louisiana meets West of Scotland.  A thick cladding of batter, a good dripping of lard, an oil spill of grease. But sadly no deep fried confectionery, or salt and sauce; however in their place is an   unadorned white bread roll that's gone five lengths in a bath of boiling oil. Deep Southern chip buttie. Heavy on the starch, light on the piquant, heaven on cerebrum, hell on the cholesterol. Then I remember that any and every Scots chippie could easily  trump this with his Scottio-Italianate  fusion speciality; the deep fried pizza. Which only  leaves a lingering question: 'if it's not haute cuisine, could it be ethnic cookery and can I lubricate my bike's chain with the wrapper?'.  Maybe and Yes.

It's true; the supermarket is called
 'Piggly Wiggly'.  It's a big company...
 'Maybe', because we might have been looking in the wrong place, confusing and misunderstanding on this occasion, what is understood by the terms 'ethnic' and 'regional'.  The former defined by  the OED  as a 'sub group of  a larger or more dominant population', in this instance, that  translates as hunting for gumbo in the jungle of 'everywhere-food'. It's regional cuisine that we seek, we've seen the evidence, the late season rice paddies now sprouting crawfish traps, the still life arrangements in the visitor brochures, yet on the evidence that we find in the small lost towns that we're passing through,  it would appear that it too has been consumed by the behemoth that is the triple whopper with fries. Standing bike guard outside one of my favouritely-named stores, the 'Piggly Wiggly',  I find that I'm surrounded by a  plethora of cooked food outlets, fifteen in total, whose ubiquity and total  square footage explains why the national  consumption of pizzas is one hundred acres, a pineapple chunk short of half a million square yards. Per day.  A dish so suited to the auto and it's driver that it's available in every gas station, a dish that has travelled from Italian staple to Global grub, so hastening the national journey from svelte waisted to muffin topped. A dish that I can buy anywhere, when what we pursue is something local. Now time and the miles have run out, the Texas state line is approaching. Time to change tactics: we'll wait for the 'specialities' to find us, which, when this succeeds, reveals the errors of our search methods. It's quite simple: disregard the external decrepitude, the peeling paint, the rusting tin, just follow the rail repair crews and the local law enforcement to their favoured eating establishment. ''Two ribs or four, jalapenos or hot sauce?'', ''y'all enjoy''. That's cow's ribs, and we do.

We did find our Louisianan gumbo, thrice.  Once in a tin, then in a Texan restaurant, and daily as a glutinous mud stuck to our tent pegs.