My first dose of country ham came from the hard-working, divorced mother of a student on the heels of one of our many conversations. She was a Southerner, but her son had lost most of his accent, probably on purpose. She would call me out of desperation, just wanting someone to listen to her talk about her son, and I couldn't not take her calls. This ham was probably a bribe, and had he known about it, the student would have added this gift to his list of grievances against his mom, but what was I to do? Mail the box back? He was failing my class, but I had already decided to give him another chance before the box came to the house. That mother-son relationship with complicated. As soon as he did well in a class, as soon as he aced an exam or a paper, as soon as he received praise from his professor, he would disappear. It was difficult for him to hide his fierce intelligence, but he needed to flunk out so that he could show his mother that she hadn't won. His every failure was a victory in a battle of wills, but I didn't get close enough to either of them to find out why. I gave him an incomplete, but then he never did write the paper, and so he still failed the class. In the time between I gave him the not-0 and the time I did, in my memory, there was country ham on every shelf of the fridge. It was too salty for my taste, but I ate it anyway so as not to let my husband eat it all and get a stroke. I thought of this sad mother with every bite. She was trying to figure it out, trying to understand what had gone so terribly wrong, and there was nothing I could do to help.
At the bistro on Topsail Island I want to order chipotle shrimp with sausage and cheese grits, but after a week of eating only brown rice, bananas, apples, and toast, I'm not quite ready for the spice. I choose, instead, grilled mahi mahi fresh from this Carolina coast with a shrimp tomato sauce with corn in it that drawls Southern yum with every bite. Mashed potatoes with the skins on, and an organic green side salad. The place is so packed we have to eat at the bar, but we don't mind. My first full post-flu meal in almost a week is more scrumptious than I remember food ever tasting. I eat every bite and if I could, I would lick the plate. Our bartender/waitress is from South Hadley, Massachusetts, and it's apparent that she loves it down here on the Carolina coast. She looks like someone from Western Mass, with her dark ponytail and dark eyes and thin lips, but she's going to fit in just fine. I see a y'all dying to break out, and soon we'll be honey and how y'all doin'? and it will come out sweet as sweet tea.
That's what could happen to me, too, and then my visiting friends would laugh at me because I'm the most Northern Northerner we know. I wouldn't be like Madonna getting that odd English accent; it's more like my crisp Yankee consonants would soften like cornbread after red-eye gravy and grits brush against it.
And outside the ocean keeps announcing its presence, as steady as urban traffic. Walking on sand works up an appetite just as ample as walking on snow, and I will savor every taste. But as for the country ham, it's my husband's. I don't need to eat it to write an ode to it in a post, and just smelling it is enough to remind me that we are vacationing where it is made, and it's quite a lovely, salty where.