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"Travel occurs between these two diametrically opposing perspectives."

Fan palms, a massive magnolia, ancient oaks, and a raft of fauna for which I have no label surround me this morning. I imagine myself sitting beside a tranquil bayou but I know I'm sitting on the backside of a rusty-silled tourist motel beside a shimmering cement pond. I possess an iconic rather than an eidetic memory, which means I hold patterns rather than specific images, matching presumed similarities rather than actual characteristics. My world view carries caricatures in lieu of actual examples. My memory bank seems more cartoon store than authenticator. I hold my prejudices more prominently than I suspect, imagining my neighbors as I have been entrained to imagine them based upon studiously superficial examination. I hardly know myself well enough to posit a credible theory of my own existence yet blithely presuppose that I understand my surroundings well enough to interpret them.

The atmosphere this morning feels like a warm damp blankey draped over my shoulders.
This motel decaf tastes strangely sour. Our yesterday's drive toward New Orleans left my back aching from long hours of relative inactivity and my mind racing to assimilate all I attempted to see and all I'm still struggling to assimilate. I'd never before been in Arkansas, though I'd heard plenty about the place. I expected to find hillbillies. The Muse and I committed one of the cardinal crimes of road travel. We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant parodying itself. Any place self-conscious enough to trade on self parody probably produces lousy fare. Hillbilly Hideout, regardless of its TripAdvisor comments, will reliably produce a memorably crappy breakfast more parody than actual meal. It will promise anything congruent with its caricature and deliver predictably hollow meals. The Muse wondered how anyone could so royally screw up a simple eggs over easy breakfast order, but the self-proclaimed hillbillies did.

This was our own fault. Enticed by our lovely Ozark surroundings and aching for breakfast, we put two and two together and came up with minus eleven. The result would have been no different had we chosen a place with a 'K' replacing the 'C' in its name. Kountry Kitchen is reliably neither country nor very much of a kitchen but a kitch instead. The self-aware Cajun restaurant seems more like a Disney modified authenticity creation than an actual supper house, replete with the obligatory stuffed "'gator," faux Spanish moss, and piss-poor "genuine" Cajun house band to drown out any hope for conversation. There, the combination platter arrives as an undifferentiatable pile of greasy chitterlings stuffed with indeterminate chewy bits described as representing crawfish, alligator, possibly hush puppy, and Lord doesn't even want to know what all else. Gumbo seasoned with an indifferent hand. Redfish cleverly hidden beneath so much flamboyant stuffing and saucing as to render it into a cruel game of find-the-fish-stick. Those not finding it are the lucky ones.

Travelers cannot hold themselves fully responsible for these all too frequent lapses in judgement, for we are continually played. The locals become aware of their reputation, lorded upon them by their local chamber of commerce and their branding agencies. Why not play up the prejudices these strangers quite naturally carry with them and offer some form of the authentic caricature they carry? Offer a studiously illiterate menu in a primitive font. Serve the beverages in genuine Mason jars. Hang a dusty banjo from the rafters and include pickled toad testicles on the appetizer menu. It's what these rubes who imagine that we're rubes expect. The locals' reputation pre-shot to preserve the visitors' high opinion of themselves, each guest aches to be taken advantage of.

Authentic feels too awfully off-putting, like when The Muse and I, searching for a restroom on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Little Rock, chose a Kroger's supermarket in desperation, only to realize that we're the only white people in the place. The locals don't seem to care, but we notice right away. A clerk directs us to the back of the store where we do our grateful business before finding those batteries I'd been aching to buy, purchase them, and leave. Authentic catches everyone involved in the middle of unselfconsciously simply being themselves, no parody or caricature involved. The realization that segregation has become self-regulating now, with no notion that the President might call in any National Guard to safeguard integration. Them and us inhabit different neighborhoods and very different worlds. In the South, one can happen into cultures that TripAdvisor never thinks to mention and for which the local Chamber of Commerce sincerely hopes no-one will stumble into.

We learn something authentic about ourselves when we wander into different cultures. My prejudices pop up to display more prominently than I care to acknowledge. I find myself uncertain which spoon to choose, which caricature of my authenticity I care to display, and so likely show something of my less than best self. I cannot for the life of me understand what the clerk says to me. I stand mute and seemingly dumb. The Muse, who once lived within this culture and had been coaching me on the finer points of the local dialect, steps in and responds for me, a mildly humiliating experience for all involved. I believe that we show our most authentic selves when we blush in humiliated recognition, not when we get the joke that was not ever really a joke at all. There are no hillbillies. Never were. They were a prejudice intended to denigrate and never a description meant to illuminate. The possum pie on the menu is a parody acknowledging what you secretly hoped you'd find. You don't understand what it means to push a shopping cart overfilled with collard greens through a Sunday supermarket. We travel and see what we should not comprehend while seeking what we expect to find but never existed. Travel occurs between these two diametrically opposing perspectives.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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