Rappahannock Review | Matthew Gavin Frank
1827
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A Reception for Perloo

Rapt are the indignities of perloo, pale-faced as they are before the emerald earrings and red lipstick and clove purses of Charleston, and the racist white men who make the state’s best barbecue sauce. Here, even our most deliciously prepared rice is sister to this, brother to that. A version of another original, born in destitution, its oozy starch never empowered to whip like hair from the passenger seats of Charleston’s 1,001 convertibles in the sort of wind that rises like ghosts above the lowcountry.

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Sister to jambalaya, brother to pilaf, cousin to paella, to risotto and biriyani, our perloo becomes itself in one bastard pot, the wider the better. Here, we lard our rice with shrimp, watch the pinkish meat try to stretch itself straight like some arthritic old ballerina, listen to the hunched joints crack themselves young again, breach the shell, which tries, in all of this chicken broth, to soften.

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The shrimp tells us about the good ol’ days, when the body responded to our commands without hurt, when the cows were wholesome and celibate, the clamshells ever shut tight, our secret horrors trapped in the nooks of perfectly working kneecaps, the bogs of our once-good eyes, and tight-lipped bivalves, escaping only when we turn the heat up to medium—right in the middle of the knob—and coax the quiet simmer from the pan with our sexiest of broken fingers.

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Here, we wonder about the point at which shell becomes skin, the softer thing easily punctured, the quickest journey of the fork to the blood.

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Or we lard our rice with clam, with oyster, anything with a hard shell from which we can scoop meat so cottony soft, with pinkies, into our mouths. Sure, we’ll add our diced country ham, our onion, garlic, tomato, chili pepper, and oregano.  We’ll ask to see ghosts in the steam, listen, in the simmer, to stories of King Charles II naming our state with a booming voice and absolutely no chest hair; stories of lakes named Strom Thurmond, hurricanes named Hazel, earthquakes named Intraplate. We’ll ask this joining of history and ingredient in a single pot to be more metaphor than meal, though, when we finish our bowls, it’s only our stomachs that are full.

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The hazel is the tree that gives us hazelnuts, the nut most often related to our eyes—the size of the iris, the murkiness of color and cataract that even our best optometrists in Charleston describe only as “in-between.”

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Our perloo straddles land and sea, chicken and shellfish, shit like batteries and shit like bridal veils. In the steam, we think we see our dead aunts trying again for this world, for this state, in which, not so many years ago, we solicited our slaves especially from the rice-growing regions of Africa, and, with the aid of irrigation and weather and blood and family, made of this lowcountry something we dupe ourselves into believing is our culinary birthright.

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Here, in death, we grasp for any kind of matrimony. Here, fertility is a false inheritance. We cook it all down in one wide pot, and feed the entire family.

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It’s popularly believed that the Bessinger family makes some of the best barbecue sauce and best perloo in South Carolina at one of their many restaurants, though supping one of their meals has become, recently, a political act. Just after noon on July 1, 2000, after the state legislature took down the Confederate flag from the Capitol Dome in Columbia after the long protests of the N.A.A.C.P., Maurice Bessinger, in full Colonel Sanders regalia (facial hair included), stormed from his plantation (which he named Tara), past his original barbecue pit (which served as South Carolina’s “Pat Buchanan for President” headquarters in 1996) and responded by hoisting the loaded flag outside each of his nine restaurants. Red-faced, he publicly called the politicians who voted to take down the flag, “turncoats,” and proceeded to weigh in on “slave gratitude.” After all,  they were “blessed” with a move from Africa to America.  In this wake, national chain stores began to pull Bessinger’s sauce from its shelves.  Melvin, Maurice’s brother, tried to stop this backlash, and to strip the “racist” label from his family name, declaring in The New York Times, “I don’t say anything about black people, as long as they’re educated and do right.” In spite of such rhetoric, and in spite of Melvin’s son David’s declaration that, “I’m ashamed to use my last name,” Bessinger’s remains one of the more popular barbecue outposts in our state, appearing in guidebook after guidebook, on TV show after TV show. We eat with heavy hearts and happy mouths the good sauce and the good meat and the good perloo, as if our morality divorces itself from our mouths, if only in half-hour intervals, lunch breaks, and becomes briefly estranged—cousin, sibling, ghost, the old woman, hunched like a shrimp, who, in dream, allows her body to pirouette like a hurricane.

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If our eyes are hazel, it’s due to an elastic scattering of light—a misrepresentation, a fistful of rice grains dropped to the linoleum. Our eyes, like our brains, like our wooden spoons, struggle so desperately to do right. Still, once in a while, our perloo burns onto the bottom.

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Some South Carolinians are fond of saying, You can eat your perloo when the pan starts to moo, referring to the low drone that emanates from the concoction at the intersection of the simmer and the burning-onto-the-bottom-of-the-skillet. To us, though, this sounds less like a cow speaking than a cow crying.

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April 27, 1991, in Waltersboro, a deluge nearly foiled the annual Rice Festival. In spite of the rain, a record number of people turned out to witness the famed morning Rice Run, during which the mayor repeatedly conducted a mass prayer for better weather.  According to the Post-Courier, “The clouds parted halfway into the parade just as Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., waving from the back ledge of an open convertible with umbrella in hand, rode past… Damp head looked skyward…”

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Other major events at Rice Festival: the soap-box derby (“It was a wet experience,” said one participant), and a communal perloo cookout in The World’s Largest Pot of Rice.

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Here, our dead aunts swim together in a really big pot. Our uncles, ever shed, float to the top like shrimp shells.

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This is both elastic and scattered.  Diffuse, and snapping back on itself.

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“In perloo,” our uncles tell us, “juxtaposition is of the utmost importance.  Shrimp’s gotta go with ham. If you do chicken, you also oughta do oysters. It’s not just a junk pot. This isn’t North Carolina.” We stare out the kitchen window-screen, and the wrens, singing Dum spiro spero, thread the hazel.  In the living room, to the lullabic simmer, our uncles have fallen asleep again on their couches, their drool collecting like Doppler on the pillows, dreaming again, briefly, of fish.

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Juxtaposition: flanking the Post-Courier’s Rice Festival article, these headlines: LIQUID ASPHALT SPILLS FROM RUPTURED TANK, MT. PLEASANT MAN FOUND DEAD IN HOME, MT. PLEASANT MAN HELD IN RAPE OF 9-YEAR-OLD.

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The perloo knows: beneath the broth is the bottom of the pan. We rupture and rupture like oyster meat to the boil, and only then do we become tough, still edible, lifted to the mountains of each other’s mouths, where we cool, spill our terrible pleasantries.

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Strom Thurmond conducted the longest non-stop filibuster ever by a lone senator—at 24 hours and 18 minutes straight—against civil rights legislation and African-American voting rights, and in favor of the maintenance of segregation. “All the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army,” Thurmond said, “cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” Our uncles, speaking now in sleep, wonder how such a mindset adapted to the Senate elevators in which, not too long before his death at 100, Thurmond was infamous for groping African-American women, or how such a mindset adapted to the Thurmond family maid, a 16-year-old African-American woman named Carrie Butler, and her bedchambers, in which Thurmond conceived with her a mixed-race daughter who would only come to national attention after the racist senator’s death in 2003. The perloo can only simmer, unable to deny in sound and smell, any ingredient suspended within it.  The rice soaks up the evidence, but lets it loose in our mouths, compels us to speak poison, until we can enable someone else to speak truth.

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We are communal in this, if nothing else; the World’s Largest Something…

*

“Who is beating my child?

Is it sleep?

Is it hunger?

Is it sickness?”

-traditional African lullaby

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Here, we push ourselves toward dream with reminders of starvation, coughing, dream itself. The perloo says nothing of state history, or of flags, even as the clams open up creaking like basement doors.

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When a heifer goes into estrus, she becomes more talkative, wandering and wandering the pasture in search of a mate, nuzzling the vulva of the other cows as she passes, her tail skyward, her back hair spiky, singularly focused, unable to untangle acts of love, and acts of violence, sexual hunger and sexual sickness, the history of the rice in her mouth, from the history of those who sewed it, so rapt are the indignities…

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According to BessingersBbq.com, under the tab marked “Our Story,” and the sub-tab marked “History,” THE LEGEND: THE BESSINGER’S LEGACY is being updated.  Check back later.

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The rice is there to vacuum all this up. Spit it back to us so we can feel full of something.

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Lake Strom Thurmond was man-made for the purposes of “power production and incidental flood control.”

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The flag’s down in Columbia. More cheers than boos. Wrens choking on the sorts of nuts that resemble the cloudiest colors of our eyes. Non-colors. One thing morphing into another, depending on the light. Yellow jessamines open their blooms, split like peaches. The honeybees, flying in from the Atlantic and Sassafras Mountain finally get to open their legs to the sounds of waves crashing, of the earth trying to get up and stretch.

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Incidentally, and obviously, water finds the path of least resistance. We need to add rice, and an awful bastardized name, to foil its drive for power, its desire only to flood.

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The late poet James Dickey, professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, said of Columbia, “[It’s] halfway between the ocean and the mountains. The soil here will grow anything. There were lots of flowers and birds. They’re all blood kin. I particularly like the cooking.”

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In a single pot, man-made, perloo is both the flood, and the dam.

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The rice is burning. The pan makes an in-between sound. Something like a moo.

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None of this done. We must be patient, wait for updates, check back later.

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Our uncles tell us: in the old days, our aunts would add a little fresh milk to soften the taste of the burnt rice. They tell us: Here, we used to milk the sleeping cow as if climbing out of a well. As if raising a new flag, dyed hazel with the dust of dried bees. But we used to save the wings as paper, write on them the rough drafts of our wills. We get up, follow their instructions, add milk to deglaze the pan, worry about what it will bring up.  On the nightly news, a quick shot of an exposed brain, followed by a commercial for biscuits and butter substitute. Our Uncles can’t stop talking. When Auntie and I made our first perloo—God, we were just kids!—a stranger knocked on the door as it simmered, looking to buy a cigarette and two ounces of sugar, as his wife and son waited on an idling tractor. Above them, in the sky, I confused a wildfire for a waterspout. In the diesel, the black mirage of all first lovers, you know? The boundary where good dreams go bad.  Anyhow, he paid with a sack of chicken heads—thirteen count—and I remember his wristwatch kept falling forward toward his fingers. Auntie said that we did a good deed, that tonight we’ve sweetened the throats of a family. I don’t know. I just sensed some plea for rescue. For receipt. Reception, you know. Proof of it. Anyhow, we ate our perloo. The best either of us had ever had. It was the milk, I’m telling you. We went to sleep and did not dream. and woke up the next morning, and the rice was gone. I ran to the barn—not really knowing what it was that I wanted to check for—but I ran, and opened the doors.  Someone had driven a long nail into the udders of the cow. I kept thinking: this is a mistake. This is a mistake. Auntie came in, fistfuls of rice. I still didn’t know what she was doing with it, looking for any passing bride or something. She bent to the cow. She let go of her fistfuls. Such clattering… Her knees were down, and she reached with her finger for the head of the nail. I tried, and failed, to say, “Stop.” When she pressed it, she dreamt of her calves. 

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