I do, however, like to pretend I’m from the Land of Cotton-and-Coca-Cola from time to time, just to entertain myself.
And I do like to entertain myself. Someone has to. Since I live alone and don’t watch television, that someone is usually me.
One of my favorite (printable) forms of self-entertainment is talking in voices– accents, really– that are not my own. I’ve been doing it for years.
Get me around Canadians, and my vowel tones suddenly become rounder; put a drink in me and I’m a Kiwi. Put my friend Edward in front of me and we get into all sorts of dialects. Sadly, no one ever gets it when I do my Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is a pity, because I do her so well.
I don’t want to be other people, mind you, just talk like them. I just really like the way other people speak. I enjoy putting their sounds in my own mouth, you might say.
Thanks to an early childhood obsession with Gone With The Wind, I decided that, since an English lady could get away with pretending she was a Southerner and win an Oscar for it, adopting an accent myself seemed like a very good idea.
In the privacy of my bedroom, I started reciting lines from the film like, “Oh Rhett, you really don’t mean that!” and then, when I tired of the pre-written dialogue and became frustrated by the fact that there were no root vegetables to dig out of our garden to gnaw on before delivering a speech so grand that one had to pause for an intermission, I decided to apply the accent to my voice in the vain hope that it might add a bit of grandeur– of drama— to my own, less-than-dramatic suburban life.
By adding the accent to my weekly chores, the act of cleaning up after the dogs was could be turned into one of heroic suffering by uttering the words, “As God as my witness, mother, I’ll never scoop dog shit again!” All that was needed was for me to raise my fist and look to the Heavens and I would have been bound for Oscar glory.
Fortunately, I had the good sense not to actually do this in front of my mother. In was inner drama I was going for, not a mocking roll of the eyes.
In high school, I’d test the fake accent waters by dropping a word or phrase into my conversations to see what would happen. No one batted an eye when I started giving the word “pen” its two-syllable dues. I thought I must have been convincing. I stretched my dialect wings further until one summer day, I committed myself to speak in a subtle drawl for the whole afternoon, if only to relieve my boredom.
I was stuck indoors for the day, issuing student identification cards with our school president and her boyfriend. It was mind-numbingly dull, and so was the company. I took over the laminating machine and the conversation, talking of this and that: movies, how awesome it was to be a junior, etc. You know, important things. And I did it all with a drawl until the boyfriend finally asked:
“Hey, where are you from?”
Was he serious? Where was I from?
“Lake Charles, Florida,” I said, not even knowing if such a place existed or not. I just said the first not-too-obvious, Southern-sounding place that popped into my head. I inwardly cringed that I had voluntarily selected to be from Florida.
“Really. Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s cool.” Suddenly, I became a little more interesting to him.
Just as suddenly, he became a little less smart to me. We’d been in High School together for two years, and this was not the first conversation I’d had with him. I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt until I remembered the encounter I’d had with his father who, upon reading my name tag at a student government function shouted, “Procopio?! Bill’s son?” He then started wildly tapping on his front teeth with his index finger. “Get it?! Your dad’s my dentist!”*
Stupidity must run in the family, I thought. I suddenly dropped the accent and told him I’ve never been to Lake Charles, Florida, if there even was one. I was feeling very superior. I was being a total jerk. Of course, I was 16. That’s what happens to insecure teenagers when you give them a little bit of power.
Needless to say, he never signed my yearbook.
I pretty much gave up on trying to be Southern the moment someone actually believed I could have been. Instead, I moved on to college where I spent the next few years trying to figure out who I actually was, which is, after all, what going to college is for. Apart from seeing how much you can drink before throwing up, I mean.
Somewhere along the way, I got over the fact that I wasn’t a true Southerner, but instead a Southern Californian of Southern Italian extraction who collects Southern friends as a hobby.
It’s a different kind of Southern entirely, but I think I can make it work for me.
Now if you’ll please excuse me, I must leave you to go work on my latest accent. Last night, a Russian woman– in the same breath, no less– told me I was a liar and that I was trying to kill her mother because there might be a stray fish bone in her sea bass. I want to make sure I get her voice down pat before I wander into her place of business and accuse her of something equally horrid.
The best part is: I actually know where she works.
Collard Greens, Southern (Italian) Style
It’s the sort of dish that makes me a very happy fellow. It’s a little bit pretend me, a little bit real me. A little bit Palermo, a little bit Palmetto, if you will. Hearty greens and ham– the side dish of my fantasy people– made even heartier with the addition of Pecorino cheese and bread crumbs– the topping of my real people.
Give it a go, if you like. It just may have you speaking in tongues. Whether you choose to go with a slow, honeyed drawl or a mile-a-minute staccato complete with exaggerated hand gestures is entirely up to you.
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish. 2 to 3 as a main.
3 bunches of collard greens
1 smoked ham hock (smoked turkey products, like wings work, too, if you’re not into ham)
2 quarts water
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon of chili flakes (more or less, depending upon your preference)
Several dashes of tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese.
1. Wash greens thoroughly. Remove the stems and spines from each leaf and tear the greens into small pieces. Set aside.
2. Bring two quarts of water to a boil. Add sugar and a few dashes of tabasco sauce to the water, stir, then add ham hock and reduce to a simmer. Continue to simmer for about 20 minutes.
3. Add greens to the simmering mixture. Next add garlic and chili flakes. Turn the greens around in the water until they have wilted enough to have become submerged. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the greens have become very (and I do mean very) tender.
It might be a good point to suggest that you keep returning to your pot to check the greens every few minutes. I had tried an earlier batch made in a smaller pot and with less water, which seemed to work very well at my family’s mountain cabin, which lies at 7,500 feet above sea level. Do not go off into your bedroom to answer emails and what not only to ask yourself, “What’s that smell?” and return to your kitchen to a nearly ruined dutch oven, realizing that you had forgotten to add any water at all and had turned the heat up to high, rather than down to low.
4. Preheat oven to 375º F. Remove greens from the remaining liquid, which has magically transformed itself into something called “Pot Likker.” Place greens into a baking dish, spooning a little of the “likker” as you go. Shred whatever meat there is from the ham hock and mix it in with the greens. Sprinkle with crushed chili flakes, season with salt and pepper, and add more tabasco sauce, if desired.
5. Combine the grated cheese and bread crumbs, mix well and sprinkle over the greens. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until the bread crumbs have sufficiently browned. Remove from oven (using some sort of hot pads or other form of hand-protection. Or remove it with your tongue, if you feel like being a daredevil. Let me know what happens.)
Serve these greens with Mrs. Webb’s Fried Chicken, which happens to be the best fried chicken ever in the history of mankind. Really. And offer it all up to your friends and family, using whatever sort of accent you feel most comfortable using. Or break in something new, like a Croatian or Southern Thai dialect. Whatever floats your gravy boat.
Southern Thai. Fried Chicken. I think I smell another blog post coming on.
*Sadly for the state of California and the nation, the boyfriend’s father was later appointed United States Senator from California, replacing the one who was about to become our Governor. Mercifully, he wasn’t there for very long.