I just returned from a month in Mississippi, the state were I was born and lived until I moved away at age 21. It was a deep immersion into a culture that influences me every day. The South drives my writing and changes the way I think about things. Mississippi shows up in my food preferences and my speech patterns. I suspect that will be true for as long as I live. But my post-Mississippi life has a strong influence too.
For example, I cannot remember seeing banana pudding on a restaurant menu in Denver. I’m sure it’s out there at barbecue joints and southern diners, but I’m more accustomed to seeing things like flan or mousse or creme brûlée on menus here. Pudding, particularly old-fashioned banana pudding made with slices of fresh banana and lots of ‘Nilla Wafers, does not hold a place of reverence in the Mile High City. In Mississippi it is often the first dessert on a menu. If you want it, you’d better get there early and order it before your meal. Twice, we were told preemptively that the restaurant was already out of banana pudding. Fortunately my mother makes an excellent banana pudding at home and she whipped up a huge batch for Easter. Other gastronomic specialties of my home state include boiled peanuts, fried catfish and hushpuppies, and a variety of vegetables cooked to death in pork fat. All of it is undeniably delicious. If I’d stayed in Mississippi, I suspect I’d be carrying around a few extra pounds.
The food menus are an obvious but trivial difference. The subtler disparities are actually more important. For example, there is a strong religious undertone to almost everything in the South. At dinner with some friends a drunken stranger approached us to talk about his pending divorce, his fight for custody of his young daughter, and, most likely, to try and hit on one of my attractive dining companions. He struck out all around, but not before talking about how women like his daughter should be revered and raised up on a pedestal. He did not have the same reverence for his soon-to-be ex-wife, though I assume he must have felt that way about her at some point. This is an idea based in and promoted by Christian churches, particularly those evangelical churches that are so prevalent in the southern states.
Look, I don’t care at all who does the dishes or earns the larger paycheck or changes diapers in anyone’s home as long as the division of labor is mutually agreed upon and everyone is treated with respect. And respect is at the heart of this mindset. The idea that women must be set apart from men implies a fragility of body and mind that is insulting. Women are not encouraged to think too deeply about this. They are supposed to be thrilled to have a man who makes the hard decisions and who keeps her always in his mind. You need look no further than our current vice president to see this sort of thing at its most extreme. Most men in this religious culture do not take things so far as to refuse to dine with a woman who is not his wife or, apparently, be interviewed by a female reporter without his wife standing next to him. (It’s weird, right?) Nevertheless, the quiet understanding that men make decisions and women make dinner is a corrosive one. It is damaging in the context of male-female marriage, and it completely and deliberately ignores same sex marriage.
This idea of male supremacy is an idea largely driven and promoted by men, but I know women who believe it too. They believe their husbands should be the spiritual and moral center of the family. They believe their husbands should have the final word on big decisions. Someone has to be in charge, they say. I disagree. Some things don’t require a CEO. Some things are better run as a true partnership. I say this as a woman married to a man who treats me better than I deserve to be treated most days. While I was eating my way through Mississippi, my husband did the following: touched up the paint in the kitchen, fixed the bead board in our bathroom, built a compost sifter, replaced the garden fence, washed all the windows in our two-story Victorian home, cleaned the house from top to bottom, got my car washed and my oil changed, and sent me a mountain of postcards. I am probably omitting a few things.
Now I can’t know for sure, but I’m betting the drunk guy at the bar never did quite so much for his soon-to-be ex-wife. And I have a hard time picturing our current vice president running a vacuum and folding laundry. The problem with men who consider themselves the boss of the household is that they are all too comfortable delegating tasks and shifting blame. The women I know who live with these sorts of men complain that their husbands don’t do housework or cook or run errands. They certainly don’t take care of the kids. That pedestal comes with a lot of hard work and very little hands-on support.
To each his own, but I’ll take my hardworking, good-natured equal partner over one of those head-of-household, pious Christian men any day of the week. I might even whip up a batch of banana pudding for him. Not because he expects it, but because it’s a nice thing to do for your partner.