Stronger, stranger, sweeter

The other day I was speaking to a newcomer to Hattiesburg. He commented on the pollen that rolls like yellow clouds across our roads in springtime. He had never seen anything like it. I took the opportunity to roll out my primer-sales pitch for our area.
 Hattiesburg and the Piney Woods region were the last patch of soil settled east of the Mississippi River. Our forefathers came to this pine-clotted area, hatchet in hand, and fought ticks, horseflies, panthers, rabid raccoons, malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease and a few dozen other insect-borne ailments along the way.
 Unlike the Native Americans who set up shop near rivers and creeks, or the French and Spanish settlers who pitched tents on the Gulf beaches and along the Natchez Trace, our geographically-challenged ancestors staked their claim among the tall stands of sap-oozing virgin pine whose seedlings surround you, even today.
 They made the choice to battle the raging yellow storm clouds of springtime pine pollen that blow through our forests and across our roads. Not just any old pollen, mind you, the smart kind that travels in a beeline straight to your nose and eyes.
 In a few months you will be introduced to the scorching heat and thick humidity of Pine Belt summers. Heat so hot our farmers have to feed their chickens ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs. Heat so cruel our cows sometimes give evaporated milk. Incu-bator-like heat, so intense it is capable of growing mosquitoes that rival the girth of our state fowl, the mockingbird.
 Christmases will be spent in the grey, wet mist of the overcast, low-to-mid 60s. White Christmas, you ask? No way, I say.
 Though once every four years or so you will witness a strange South Mississippi occurrence we loosely refer to as snow. Technically, this meteorological phenomenon amounts to two inches of wet, white slush on a 40-degree day. But schools will be out and drivers beware.
 We have lots of golf courses, two universities and a few community colleges. We have world-class medical facilities, good roads and plenty of retail shops. We also have the country’s best air quality east of the Mississippi River, relatively low crime, and excellent water. But that is not why we live here. No, not even close.
 We Piney Woodsians are the most well-fed mammals on the planet. Mississippi consistently ranks as the fattest state in the union. We are number one! Most of us eat well in Mississippi, we’re proud of it, and that goes double for our little corner of the state –  the Piney Woods.
 You will soon learn that, down here, the food just tastes better. We aren’t scared to use real butter and we aren’t afraid to substitute heavy cream in a recipe that calls for milk.
 Our restaurant heritage was formed by Greek immigrants with mule-like work ethics. They set up shop beside the railroad tracks in our downtowns. Before long, sidewalk cafes gave way to rural catfish houses. It is a proven mathematical fact, that it is impossible for one to drive more than seven miles on any South Mississippi country road without passing a catfish house or a homemade sign offering directions to a catfish house.
 Catfish houses are a very personal thing to Piney Woodsians. Everyone has a favorite, and long discussions, heated arguments, and the occasional knife fight have been known to break out if one asks, “Whose catfish is the best?” while standing in a crowd of more than three people.
 We put the “bar” in barbeque, and our area restaurants offer some of the best to be found. Carolina brushes on vinegar-based barbeque sauce, Tennessee serves tomato based. In Georgia, they put coleslaw on their sandwiches, in Memphis the pork ribs are served dry; in Texas they eat mostly smoked beef. In the Piney Woods, we eat barbequed pork. We like the sauce tomato-based and sweet, without too much vinegar. We like our ribs dry and our coleslaw sweet.
 Down here, everything is sweeter (That rule goes double for our women). The iced tea, the coleslaw, even the barbeque sauce is sweeter. I think it’s due to the pine pollen. The only way to wash down that pesky powdery pine pollen is with a spoonful of sugar in every dish.
 Life moves slower in the Piney Woods. We still wave when passing each other in cars, speak when we see each other on the sidewalk, and say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” every chance we get.
 There is a reason we endure blistering sub-tropical temperatures, rivers of sap and mountains of pollen. The fresh summer vegetables, alone, merit a month’s worth of 100-degree temps with 88-percent humidity. Our corn is so sweet one can eat it fresh off of the stalk while standing in the garden. A true lover of Piney Woods cuisine can barely take the blueberries and blackberries from the bush to the cobbler without eating half of the harvest. Peach ice cream is eaten straight from the ice cream maker while sitting on the porch. Chicken is fried in a cast-iron skillet and so is the cornbread.
 Whatever soft drink we are drinking is called a “Coke” and sometimes when we actually drink a Coke, we drop peanuts in the bottle. Hot sauce is our foremost condiment and we put it on everything
 Welcome to the Piney Woods. We’re 244 feet above sea level and loving every minute of it. Turn the air conditioner up, pop a few extra Benadryl to fight the pollen, wash them down with a glass of overly-sweetened tea, fasten your tap roots, lock your seats and tray tables in their full and upright positions, tie the feed bags on, and get to eating.  

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, speaker, philanthropist, father and husband – but not necessarily in that order. In addition to being the brainchild behind the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella and Ed’s Hamburger Joint, he’s also the founder of Extra Table, a non-profit organization created in 2009 with the mission of ending hunger and obesity in Mississippi.