Warm Southern Hospitality Grates on Chilly East Coast

969452_10151479276738577_964056740_nSo I’m back from a week’s vacation with family in Hilton Head, SC, thrilled that we had a great time and enjoyed doing tons of stuff together, but introspective as I re-enter the reality zone of my life in Maryland.

I just read an article pertinent to a writer’s life (that would be me as I am busily reinventing) that said if a writer blogs the writer should not only blog about the topic of his/her book, but blog about whatever is on their mind.

I have taken this to heart.

I am going to throw out my dogged determination to make every article end with a huge chuckle and a knee-slapping epiphany. I am just going to write what I am thinking about, and it will probably turn out kind of funny anyway, because that is how my mind works. Like life is a bit on the cosmic-jokish side.

So this is what I am thinking about:

During our vacation, my husband and I were struck by how endearing and kind the people were. I mean everybody, from the grocery checker to248095_10151475002063577_969573307_n strangers on the beach to people we nearly mowed over with our bikes. Everybody.

And we wondered about this.

Coming back to Maryland has been a bit of a shock, because, well, sorry to say but east coasters are simply not brimming with southern hospitality. I guess after three years we’d gotten used to it. In Hilton Head, however, we quickly hopped aboard the hospitality train like we’d never skipped a beat. For those unaware, we are originally from Little Rock, AR, and moved to Maryland for a job opportunity. I wasn’t sad to leave, but do miss the warmth of the people.  Though Little Rock might be categorized as parochial and good ole’ boy-ish, southern hospitality seeps from every community,  Razorback game, restaurant and riverboat.

Upon our return, freshly energized and oozing with southern charm, I skipped into a local grocery store chain to pick up a few things. I smiled at everyone. People looked at me like I was demented. Not to be deterred, I continued to checkout, basking in the memory of the friendly, talkative experiences we’d had in Hilton Head. I pulled out all my grocery items, loaded them on the conveyor, and figured I might as well slop some charm on the checkout gal as well.

“Hey, how’s your day goin’ ? My eyes seek hers and my lips curve into a winsome smile. She narrows her eyes at me and grunts.

imagesCAUTI3HFI pull my cart to the handy disgorging slot that is apparently for clerks to swing the loaded bags into the basket after they fill them. Instead of putting the loaded bags into my cart, she plunks each bag in the opposite direction, where I must reach to grab it and place it in the cart myself. I wistfully remember the grocery stores in the south that took all items out of the cart for you and put them on the conveyor, loaded the bags after pricing the items, AND put the bags into the cart with a smile and a ‘ya’ll come back now’.

I shake my head and stretch myself to the bags and load them into the cart. “So how about this day? Isn’t it beautiful today?” Seriously hoping to dredge up a little Maryland charm. I wait expectantly as I pull out my debit card.

“Discount card?” she asks. Her expression is stony.

“Oh, sure, here.” I hand her the card and she hands it back.

“Credit or debit?” she asks.

“Credit,” I say, discouraged. The smile is leaving my face and my downcast gaze feels uncomfortably familiar. I look over my shoulder at a few shoppinglineshoppers in neighboring checkout lanes. Not one of them smiles at me. One does, however, give me a suspicious scowl, and I quickly retrieve my gaze and point it toward the floor.

I plop the last of the bags in my cart and take the receipt from the clerk’s hand. I don’t bother to give her a grin or a ‘have a nice day’. No need. She has moved to the next customer and I am ignored. My newly resurrected southern  bonhomie is wearing thin, which I find unfortunate.

My husband and I have had several discussions about this, and have come to the conclusion that friendliness might be directly proportionate to the number of human beings per square mile. The Baltimore metro area has roughly 1500 people per square mile. By way of comparison, Columbia, SC has 950, and Hilton Head has 875. We have decided it’s a trade-off: living in a populous metro area where there are more professional and recreational choices versus living in a less populous, more laid back area where people are dang friendly but there are fewer options.

983746_10151479274208577_123049078_nIt’ll take a while, but my husband and I will subdue our drippy, sugary-sweet southern hospitality. We’ll compartmentalize it,  tie it up with a bow, and take it out as a gift to ourselves when we head south again.

Until then, if you smile at me and I do not smile back, I’m just practicing. Don’t take it personally.

Grills Gone Wild

We have a pretty tame, run-of-the-mill gas grill.

It is black, has the requisite propane tank underneath, little wheels on the bottom, a tray to the side that sports an additional burner and a big metal top that, when opened, reveals stairstep wire racks.

However, when men are hovering around it wielding black wire brushes, tongs, platters of raw meat and honey hickory barbecue sauce, the grill grows hair and becomes a wild-eyed, heaving, flaming beast.

I have never quite understood the male grilling ritual.

Since my son has come in for an extended visit, the testosterone quotient on our back deck has risen exponentially. Over Memorial Day, I was forced to come to grips with the hold a grill has on a man’s heart.

When I was growing up, I did not have a dad who grilled. He basically waited on mom to cook stuff, and after we shoveled back the fruits of her labor, my brother and I dutifully washed the dishes as dad burped his way back to his recliner.

We didn’t camp out, either. The families that camped out got a good dose of cooking over an open fire and thus were more likely candidates for a grill, I suppose.

All to say, my personal grill exposure has been limited.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys grilling and fires it up at every opportunity. When he announces an intention to grill something, I anticipate an easier supper preparation evening, as he is taking responsibility for the main course.

My personal pre-grilling tasks include trimming and seasoning the meat, putting it on a platter, finding the tongs and a lighter and pushing all this stuff into his extended hands.

Then, I prepare side dishes, set the table, clean up the mess made by preparing the meat for the grill and flutter about the deck gushing appropriate feminine appreciation for his masculine grilling tendencies. (This appears to be required behavior for wives of grilling husbands.)

Wait. Maybe I actually work HARDER when he grills. I will give this some thought.

When my husband grills, he seems to be inspired to higher levels if I am an appreciative observer.

Some grill-appropriate female commentary might include: “Wow, honey, I have never seen the flames jump that high!” or “The way you hold those tongs…well, it’s just exciting to watch!” or “How do you know when to turn the steaks? There is such an art to that, isn’t there?”

These kinds of remarks should be accompanied by fluttering eyelashes, hands on hips and wide-eyed, slack-jawed awe. This is guaranteed to yield major masculine explanations about meat-turning and flame-adjusting and cooking times.

Memorial Day is apparently the Holy Grail of grilling for most men.

I did not know this until I witnessed it first-hand over the weekend, when my son suggested to my husband we buy some ribs to grill. My husband’s reaction reflected a quick series of facial expressions, eventually culminating in what could be loosely described as “salivating werewolf.”

My son glared at me as if to say “Is this guy suffering from grillorexia? Don’t you give him enough grill time?”

I felt the masculine momentum build as they quickly decided on potato salad and canned, barbequed beans as side dishes, both shooting sideways glances at me. It was grill-lust at its peak, and I knew better than to interfere.

I kept my mouth shut.

My opinion, by now, did not matter, anyway. It was two against one. My usual admonitions to eat healthy, fresh, lean and non-preservative-laden foods would fall on ears muted by visions of pork sizzling on the grill.

I am mystified by the ritual of men cooking over fire and chomping meat off the bones with their bare hands, sauce dripping from their fingers. I must’ve heard them point to their cooked pile of ribs, nod appreciatively toward each other and say “That’s a lot of meat!” about 20 times.

As I watched them lick their fingers and smack through their man-meal, I snuck a glance at the grill, which had settled back into its non-blazing state. It winked at me.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.

If it learns to do laundry and snuggle with my husband, my days may be numbered

This article first appeared in “The Lighter Side,” Capital Journal, Pierre, SD, June, 2010.