Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born in North Carolina, weaned on beer and oysters, Braxton Younts lived in the heart of Appalachia. After that he roamed the cold streets of America, Europe and Japan, chasing elusive dreams, writing a little, things mostly for himself, and trying to forget something very sad that happened long ago.
The Bullish 80s
Mom and Dad named me after Braxton Craven, a prominent educator from North Carolina. They hoped I’d love learning as much as my namesake and grow up to be a teacher, too. The kids in our subdivision mispronounced my name, Baxter, Brandon, Brayden, Buford, and Buxton, and in the long run, reduced it to simply “B.”
At Christmas and Thanksgiving, my paternal grandmother didn’t cook much, other than oyster stuffing for family gatherings. Still, I loved my grandmother, and PBS’s Julia was a picturesque stand-in. A fixature of the 80s fitness movement, punctuated by the blockbuster Physical, food and food television caught my attention. The Galloping Gourmet. Woking with Yan. Chef Tell, Dom DeLuise. The Frugal Gourmet. Justin Wilson. On the TV, they all flashed in our faces. Chop chopping away.
I thought Dad looked like “Meathead” from television’s All in the Family. To avoid crotch rot, he daily dusted his scrotum with talcum powder. The powder-smell irritated my nose and my eyes. Never absorbing enough love for him, I observed his ritual from the safety of the bathroom mirror. Dad was a heavy drinker and I never wanted to be like him. Good night kisses were sullied by cigarettes, whiskey, and onions. He reeked to high heaven. I’d never be a drinker, I insisted. Across the street at the neighbor’s for supper, my brother Thomas mistook bourbon and water for iced tea. The color was the same in a clear glass. Swallowing a mouthful, he sputtered, spit and gagged. He and I agreed (because good christian boys don’t swear) to never touch the stuff. Dad guaranteed us that someday we would walk into a bar, order a liquor drink, and be enamoured with the tranquilizing attributes, thus modeling the behavior of the men in our lives.
Mom was a stout Southern lady, ruddy faced, who announced, “I’m fixing a mess o’greens” for the weekly covered-dish supper at church, and when surprised and shocked by someone’s actions she declared, “Well, if that don’t take the rag off the bush!” And daily exclaimed “Bless your heart!” when socially acceptable. She never smoked a cigarette. Said if you don’t like a camp fire blowing in your face, then why you purposely inhale cigarette smoke. Mom would have been a cheerleader, but bobby-socks and lipstick would have insulted her Southern sensibilities.
While perched on cedar posts, birds shat out vegetal seeds, bramble grew, lining barbed wire fences with twisted vines. Bare-chested boys loafed in summer humidity, and in sprinkler mist squealed girls, bikini-clad.
Bicycles both BMX and 10-speed played an important part in our subdivision carved from cow pastures. For a decade, we neighborhood knuckleheads rode bicycles so frequently, like the handlebars, chain, and wheels, I figuratively became a working component of a bike. A third wheel of sorts. A bicycle is a conglomeration of simple machines amassed to create joy in children and adults alike. Comparable to a girls accessories, bicycles were instrumental in attracting sexual attention. Boys rode to stay in shape, to burn off excess barbecue calories, to build burley leg muscles, to develop a repertoire of BMX tricks to showcase in front of teen girls, to actively work on our summer bronze, and transport us in the pitch black of morning after sneaking out of a slumber party and stealing away to a girl’s home to woo a waiting damsel in teenybopper distress. We needed bikes the way a chain sprockets needed lubrication and the way Suzy Simpson needed Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” record. Accessorize! And accessorize we did.
BMX was a gateway to skateboarding which matured into punk rock: Black Flag. The Clash. Dead Kennedys. Circle Jerks. Bad Religion. Minor Threat. The Damned. Bad Brains. Social Distortion. Joy Division. Wire. Descendents. Buzzcocks. X. Talking Heads. The Cramps. NOFX. Suicidal Tendencies. If you were a middle-class white boy in oppressive Southern climes and sun-beaten, brow-beaten and ostracized, then you know the prize of tripping over punk rock. I found my people, my home, in the lyrics. An older brother’s mixtapes and a skateboard was a suburban kid’s Lost Ark. Sure, there were girls, but they simply swooned, because we groomed ourselves nothing like their daddies who wore khakis, collared shirts, and boat shoes: the Southern uniform.
We lived in North Carolina, but everyone called it The South. Unintelligent, scoundrel movie characters talked with a drawl—like my parents. A speech impediment landed me in special sessions, during first and second grades, with a speech pathologist who fixed my speech and broke my accent.
We begged our mothers for bland, high school-dropout delivered pizza instead of cornflake-crusted, green-bean casserole. Knowing better, moms never heeded to our pleas. Our lunch money quarters were hoarded for weekend escapades at multiplex cinemas, housing video game arcades. BurgerTime, DonkeyKong, PolePosition, and PacMan: we must have played them all. Older siblings were pinball wizards with multi-ball experiences.
Shenanigans had nearly cost Dad graduation from high school, so his parents, both of whom had served our country in World War Two, enrolled Dad in military school for a gap year before college. There he tasted regimented life. And, subsequently, he passed down the regimen to my brother Thomas and me. Clothes must be neatly folded, beds strictly tucked, and hair closely cropped. By God, his sons served their country by serving Jesus and attending church services each Sunday at eight o’clock. Borrowing a prayer from his dad, we blessed each meal before digging in: “Heavenly Father, bless this food to our use and us to thy everlasting service. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
Eating habits confounded ritual and nomenclature. Persnickety, Mom only ate the food her mother had prepared for her as a child. Mostly meat and potatoes. Casseroles were forbidden to grace her lips or the family dining table. Food items were to never touch, and juices may never mingle. Some vegetables, like lima beans, were only served in separate smaller dishes to avoid accidental “contamination.” Extra seasoning was eschewed. In her sticky kitchen, Grandmother seasoned food properly, so guests and family needn’t question her additive authority. Old school southerners, specifically on Sundays, referred to the second meal of the day as dinner.
Whereas supper was the evening meal. And lunch was nowhere to be found. Did Jesus or the Methodists not sanction lunch on Sundays? The answer was as convoluted as the honeycomb structure of tripe. To the dismay of my maternal grandmother, at Sunday dinners, I piled and mixed all culinary offerings into one mishmash. She pitched a fit and declared I was a scoundrel with no respect for her gastronomic wishes. Dad taught me to eat oysters and sushi. Delicacies that he liked to posture and be seen with persons above his station in life. He passed an affinity of extra-cultural delights down to me. Sushi bar birthdays were common. Had it not been for Dad’s adventurous eating he experienced from business travel all over the globe, I would likely have been mired in the foodways of my ancestral Southerners.
If you are what you eat, then we became ketchup and mayonnaise at McDonald’s. And obese. We ate pecans and cloying pecan pies, day-long cooked vegetables, grits as a delivery mechanism for butter and salt. And blue-crab meat cocktails drowned in ketchup and horseradish. Well-done T-bone steaks, chipped-beef gravy over toast or biscuits. Country sausage gravy over biscuits. Biscuits with butter and jelly. Biscuits with country ham. With eggs and cheese. With bacon. With city ham. With livermush. With hog jowl. With voracity.
Country-style steak. Homemade chicken pot pies. Beef stew. Fried shrimp and Flounder. Every part of the revered hog. Creamed corn with bacon drippings added. Fried eggs basted in bacon drippings. Spanish rice. Chicken bog. Frogmore Stew. Brunswick Stew. Oysters on the Half Shell. Grilled mayonnaise and cheese sandwiches. Banana and mayonnaise sandwiches. Pulled pork and coleslaw sandwiches. Cornbread, collard greens, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for alleged prosperity.
Nana’s Red Velvet Cake at Christmas. Fried fatback and barbecue by the pound. A cellophane-wrapped pack of nabs and a coke for a quick lunch. Chicken Cacciatore without wine. Cherry-Lemon Sundrop. Barbecue slaw. German spaghetti. Fried frog’s legs. Fried chicken livers. Fried chicken gizzards at the hometown landmark oddly named The Shrimp Boat. Ambrosia and assorted Jello molds. Chitlins. Deviled eggs. Baked potatoes heaped with butter and sour cream. Ranch dressing on pizza, French fries, chicken strips as well as nuggets, and potato chips. Celery with cream cheese and mayonnaise.
And at Hooters on Sunday, after church. Hidden Valley became the valley of gluttony, the valley of death. We refused to acknowledge it as soul food, recipes taught to us by former “house negroes,” our African-American counterparts. Peasant food is what we ate. What everyone ate.
In my hometown, Gastonia, in the mall footprint, there was a restaurant called Po’ Folks. As if the state of impoverishment was something to celebrate, Friday and Saturdays, hard working folks and welfare collectors, drove from miles around to tuck into troughs of fried and stewed Southern delicacies. Big portions and small prices. Fresh-frozen. No tipping allowed. “Strap on your feed bags,” Dad said, as he turned across two lanes of speeding traffic and steered the car in the lot. No booze served. It was a family restaurant.
Food transcended the kitchen table. “Families, punk rock, the businessman: I’ll dog anybody with an egg in my hand. Not like the crack that you put in a pipe, but crack on your forehead here’s a towel now wipe,” rhymed the Beastie Boys, three Jewish reprobates from Brooklyn. MTV rapt my teen mind.
Each afternoon, our motley crew from the block boarded a yellow bus, transporting us to the suburbs where we lived. A boy, a bus mate, nicknamed “Wrong Hole” for manipulating a girl’s belly button instead of her vagina, brought condoms to junior high. My peers and I could only guess what they were. I offered up the idea these packets were Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on takeout pizza, until someone tore one open.
During the Bullish Eighties, we three Younts boys were inseparable. Sunday mornings found us showering together, cleaning ourselves, preparing to receive the word of Jesus. On Friday nights at Gaston County’s finest fish camps, in triplicate, we filed into the lavatory and lined up, hip to hip, at a trough urinal. Dad always exclaimed, “Shoot, that water is cold and deep.” The value of a large penis was instilled at an early age, and reinforced throughout puberty and adolescence into adulthood. Male value was in his genitalia—not his knowledge or compassion. Porn starts got rich for having big junk. Wishing for a large penis was every boy’s dream. Bigger was best.
When feminism entered the teenaged-female lexicon, I was popping bra straps. 1988 was the year girls’ undergarments started containing boobs. And I was hooked. Empowered, Sally asserted her equality, intimidating me. What’s good for the gender gap wasn’t good for a timid kid like me. Small minds in small towns received trickled down pontifications from Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan magazine and the like. The conservative working class filtered the sexual revolution’s mumbo-jumbo. And if it weren’t for booze, then likely I’d have never gotten laid.
To my delight and the envy of most other fifteen-year-old boys, in 1989, I wooed a girlfriend. Dad and his fishing buddies took notice. I bounded down the stairs, out the front door, and onto the front stoop, where the neighbors were gathered, drinking beer. August temperatures scalded North Carolina’s lawns, leaving the fescue parched and brown.
“Where’s Mom?” I said. “She driving me into town.”
Dad blurted, “Where’s that little razorback you been a-courting?”
“You mean Ashley?” I said. “She has a name.”
“Yeah, baby doll.”
Ashley was my first. My high school sweetheart. The one to whom I’d compare to every other girlfriend and lover. During the interlude between Gorbachev tearing down the wall and Tiananmen Square protesters being murdered, I lost my virginity. Ashley was demanding, busty, and had a mouth full of braces. I was smitten. Our relationship doused the embers of homoerotica glowing inside of me. Ashley gave me blowjobs in the basement and by the lake. After her parents rented a house at the beach, her grandmother and I were invited to come along for a week-long vacation. While grandmother napped upstairs, Ashley and I sneaked out to have teen sex. After fumbling with the rubber, I lost turgidity. In the salty room, virgins we remained. God knew we didn’t want AIDS. God knew I didn’t want to be called daddy. It would be hours before we finally got it right. Then the rubber broke after all, and the lovebirds cried all the way home.
I remember the first time I tasted tartar sauce. It’s a condiment Mom turned her nose up at, so she never served it to us kids. At our kitchen table, on our den couch in front of the TV, ketchup was served with fish sticks hot from the oven. But in 1988, Dad and I traveled a few hours north of Charlotte to buy my first car. His parents had given me $12,000 for my purchase. We rose early, and Dad test-drove it and wrote the salesman a check before noon. He thought he was getting a deal since he knew the owner of the car lot. The car would be delivered to our local auto dealership in Gastonia. When we were back on the interstate, Dad said, “Lunchtime. There’s a good seafood place at this exit.” We both ordered Calabash shrimp platters. Previously, I was put off by tartar sauce’s onion flavor. In the same way I was off-put by hibachi sauce’s flavor. My palate was still sensitive and hadn’t been numbed by years of smoking and whiskey.
The ‘80s closed unremarkably. No absolute line of demarcation. No nothing. In the next decade, I’d flunk out of college, disappear on the west coast, and reappear as a dysfunctional line cook, bathing his anxieties in beer and whiskey. The ‘80s did a number on me.