Thursday, October 2, 2008

Southern Culture, Part One of Many: The Mullet Toss

Before I moved to the south, I felt as though I had no impression of this place. Maybe I had blocked it all out. In reality, I have been in the Deep South three times before this, and now I remember everything in stunning, unwanted clarity. My impressions have not changed so much as they have become more sticky and complicated.

My first visit to the south was with my family. I might have been eleven. It was unbelievably hot, and I saw the largest roaches I had ever seen before or since. There were good things about that trip, too, but that is all we need to cover here.

My last trip south before this one was to Georgia. I remember most clearly the heat. The combination of heat and humidity… are not two great tastes that go great together, as in the "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! -- You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!" great tastes. There were certainly moments of "You got your ignorance in my politics!" and "You got your bigotry in my contempt for you!" moments for me, but mostly I remember the heat. I cannot express how disappointing it is when the sun goes down and the temperature continues to increase because the humidity captures the heat being reradiated from the ground. Your body turns the dial from "wilt" to "melt," pauses briefly, and then cranks all the way up to "ooze." Your brain has had a head start, and stopped functioning at around four, which is, coincidentally, when they like to start serving mint juleps. I also saw my first Carolina wren. I would be back.

It was the second trip south that was most memorable. Destination: Alabama, for the wedding of my boyfriend's brother. This was the trip that provided me the most insight into the South, and will be the topic of the remainder of this letter. A slight oversight on the part of the wedding planner led her to schedule this wedding in bucolic Nowhere, Alabama at the same time as a 60,000-person annual sporting event in that same town. The impossibility of booking a hotel room might have clued her in to impending mishap. Perhaps I am being harsh, but it is for the purpose of avoiding this kind of catastrophe that you hire a wedding planner at all. I mean, unless you specifically desire that your wedding take place in the middle of a redneck fish-throwing festival. Maybe I am assuming too much, but I believe that this couple did not want their special day overshadowed by an even more beloved festival of deceased fish.

The closest hotel we could book was thirty miles from the wedding site. Andrew and I were treated to Southern hospitality in the form of a small, wet bag of boiled peanuts. I ate one. It tasted like soil, decay, mold, and the sour beginnings of fermentation. I didn't know if I was detecting the unmistakable signs of spoiled food, or simply too inexperienced with southern ways to appreciate a real delicacy. I was puzzled, but withholding judgment and contemplating the alien flavors of cheeses, raw oysters, pickled herring, and even the common Ho-Ho. I asked Andrew about it, and as if by reflex or brainwashing, the question produced from him a five-minute diatribe about what it was that southerners were forced to eat out of desperation after the Civil War. The speech was impassioned and informed, impressive both in its content and ardor. I still have no idea what boiled peanuts should taste like. Confusion took root then, in the form of an unsettling peanut, and, kudzu-like, grew to consume my experience with its inexorable progress.

The next confrontation to my senses was minutes away by car, in the form of the Interstate Mullet-Toss. There is no word that invokes the concept of "redneck" as clearly and completely as "mullet." But here, it does not indicate that dreadful bi-level hairdo that saw some success outside the south in the 1980's. Instead, it signifies an unassuming one-pound fish, small, silver, and reasonably aerodynamic. To some, the mullet is food. To others, it is an instrument of destiny. To me, this fish is more synonymous with "redneck" than the haircut ever could be.

The Mullet-Toss was originally the brainchild of two regulars to the Flor-Abama, a small and otherwise unremarkable bar situated on the border of two states. After a number of beers, the two went outside to smoke, and as the legend goes, came across a bucket of mullet tossed out by the kitchen. Our protagonists took this rejectementa in hand, and, with great purpose, hurled the fish from Florida over the border into Alabama. Perhaps our heroes retrieved their little fishes and hurled them back over the border. Perhaps they left them to the seagulls. The mythology is unclear at this point, although the modern-day version requires competitors to retrieve the fishy and replace it in the Florida-side bucket before it is put out for the birds.

Our first introduction to the Mullet Toss was through its astonishing traffic-creating abilities. Sixty thousand people in various states of sobriety arrive with as many vehicles as can physically exist on a two-lane highway. We stopped and picked up a newspaper published specifically for the event. They did not carry the Washington Post. We educated ourselves. We talked to locals. We continued on.

It was a gorgeous day for a wedding. The bride and groom stood barefoot on the beach, the sun shining, waves lapping peacefully on the sand. Family and friends were happy and tearful, and passed around tissues as bride and groom recited their vows. The couple was joyfully reunited, the groom having just completed a one-year prison sentence, the bride one month from delivering the first of their litter. The wedding was beautiful. I sat and thought of dead fish raining down from clear Alabama skies.

The trip back to the hotel involved another hour and a half in Mullet-Toss traffic. Andrew had time to get out of the car and walk around the event while we, car-bound, inched forward. Andrew's mother talked, and talked. I daydreamed about fish missiles striking Floridian sands. Traffic started and stopped. I imagined the freedom of flight, the graceful parabola of a scaled creature arcing through the air, the pervasive smell of rotting fish. A thousand seagulls, the true beneficiaries of this contest, adding their shrieks of expectation to human ones. I saw, in my mind's eye, small children, basing their dreams of fame and fortune on the incredible spectacle of an Olympian food fight. The sun beat down on the roof of our cramped car, invoking a can of sardines. Sad sardines, who would never know the liberation of the sky.

I could have opened the door onto the whole world of women in tube-tops and men in tattoos and baseball caps that waited just outside, drinking beer and cheering fish-flinging champions… but somehow I knew that this was a realm where my imagination was going to guide me on a safer journey than callous reality had in store. Fish tossing is not for the meek.

The Flor-Abama was blown away by hurricane Ivan the fall following our visit. I do not if the Flor-Abama was rebuilt or the fate of the displaced Flor-Abamians, but sometimes I like to think that somewhere, a parent has handed a child his first mullet, and the dream continues.


P.S. More on mullet-tossing:


Jerri said...
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Jerri said...

"You got your religion in my scientific education, you rat bastards."

The Flora-Bama was built anew.

I cannot explain boiled peanuts. I have no idea why people are attracted to hand-made signs saying "boiled peanuts" on roadside stands, but they never go away. My best advice is to avoid them.

Hard times in the South led us to eating almost anything (e.g. Louisiana) and focusing on fat-laden foods that provide the most energy. This is my justification for the existence of biscuits and gravy. If a person does not like biscuits and gravy, that person has not had good biscuits.

I have enjoyed my time at Orange Beach, near the Flora-Bama. My first experience with the ocean was the white sands of the Gulf. When I first saw Atlantic Coast beaches, I thought they looked dirty.

I still do.