My wife and I moved to North Carolina last fall after many years of living and working with Quakers in Indiana, the Adirondacks, and New England. Quick take: it’s a little different here.
I’d been impressed for many years by the Friends from North Carolina who showed up at FUM Board meetings. Their gentleness, discernment, good humor and dedication made me wonder what it would be like to live and work there.
North Carolina culture – both in general and among Quakers – is different. The accent is definitely Southern, but it’s far from what people from the rest of the U.S. think of as Southern. It’s a soft accent, easy on the ears.
People use old-fashioned words in everyday conversation – yonder, young ‘un, y’all (I quickly learned that “y’all” is singular, while “all y’all” is plural). You don’t turn off the A/C, you cut it off. There’s a big difference between the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Triad (High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem).
When I made an unworkable suggestion to the head of the House and Grounds committee, he turned me down with a smile, saying, “That dog won’t hunt”. Dinner is still the noontime meal here, supper is what you eat at sundown. The standard everyday greeting here is “Hey!”, used to and by people of all ages.
There’s a difference between “fixin’” (getting ready to do something) and “fixin’s” (the side dishes of pinto beans, slaw, biscuits, fries, etc. which accompany a meal). “Right quick” means pretty soon – maybe in an hour, maybe next week, maybe later this year, depending on circumstances. But “directly” means right now, immediately, no fooling around, no side trips or stopping to chat with friends (“Y’all come home directly!”)
One of my favorite phrases here is “might could”, which expresses just the right amount of possibility or indecision in any situation. “Do you aim to go to the mountains next weekend?” “Might could, if the car don’t break down.”
Respect is a big part of the culture in North Carolina. I have never been called “sir” so many times before in my life, often several times in a single sentence. I strongly suspect that children in North Carolina get whomped upside the head by their parents for not using “sir” or “ma’am”. It takes some getting used to, especially since I always thought that Quakers didn’t use titles.
Many people are addressed by both their first and middle names – and it’s astonishing how many people here have “Lee” as a middle name. Quite a few women are addressed by their middle name, usually a treasured family name, whether or not the middle name is typically female. Some women are often called “Miss Ruby” or “Miss Helen”, which can indicate a) age b) status c) love and respect d) all of the above, and has nothing to do with whether they are or ever have been married.
People here still pull over to the side of the road whenever a funeral procession goes by. Cemeteries are meticulously maintained, with flowers changed regularly several times each year. Even though Baptists make up a very large percentage of churchgoers, they come in for a good deal of kidding – people here tell Baptist jokes in the same way people told Polish jokes and Italian jokes when I was growing up in Buffalo.
There’s also a great deal more publicly expressed faith here – the first week we were here, we were startled to have the check-out clerk at the supermarket, the cashier at the bank, the attendant at the gas station and the waiter at the restaurant all say, “Have a blessed day!” I’m not sure who’s teaching people to say this, but it’s nearly universal.
“Bless your heart” is different – it can be used in a straightforward and warmly sentimental way, but it’s also used with irony to suggest that the person being blessed is slightly stupid. “Special” can also be a put-down, depending on the emphasis given by the speaker. “Isn’t that special?” can be a real zinger.
Food is a big deal here (isn’t it everywhere?) and in North Carolina the staples are sweet tea and barbecue. I find sweet tea almost cloyingly sweet and usually opt for ice water – another local alternative is a carbonated beverage called Cheerwine (similar to Cherry Coke).
Barbecue is something people here love to compare and argue about endlessly. Old-timers swear it’s best cooked over a hickory fire (even though 90% of restaurants now use an electric oven). Here in the Triad, they favor a vinegar-based sauce, and scorn the ketchup-based sauce preferred in the eastern part of the state. Last week, one of the elders of the meeting took me to his favorite barbecue place, Speedy’s in Lexington. He worships there at least once a week, and claims it’s the best in the whole state.
Fried chicken runs a close second to barbecue in the hearts (and appetites) of people from North Carolina. Home-made is best, but Bojangles is a favorite place for families to take their kids after meeting on Sunday.
Other North Carolina foods to try include pimento cheese (used as a dip or as a sandwich spread), hush puppies (cornbread mixed with grated onion and deep fried), nabs (snack packs of peanut butter crackers, originally made by Nabisco), ‘maters (fresh tomatoes) and of course Krispy Kremes (freshly made doughnuts with an almost toxic level of sugar).
It sounds as though my first impressions of North Carolina mainly revolve around food, and you’re right. People here love to eat! Almost every conceivable occasion involves food, often jokingly referred to as Quaker communion. The standard meal at the meetinghouse is a “carry-in” (known to Midwest Quakers as a “pitch-in” and Quakers in most other parts of the U.S. as a “potluck”).
The old ways of speech and the old culture have been affected by the hordes of people who have moved to North Carolina from out of state, attracted by the climate, jobs or the more rural atmosphere. It saddens me to see the old ways fading, and to meet kids who have never heard the lovely, haunting ballads of the Appalachians which I’ve learned and shared for years.
For generations, the economy of this area centered around furniture, textiles and tobacco. All three have taken major blows in the last few years. During the Reconstruction, a couple of Quaker families started a small factory making chairs. This grew and grew until High Point, North Carolina became the furniture-making capital of the entire country.
Today, much of the manufacturing has shifted to China, and many of the remaining jobs are taken by immigrants from Mexico and Pakistan (at the Allen Jay Elementary School, the first language of over 50% of the students is Urdu). This fuels a lot of low-key resentment in the community, although Quakers are trying to reach out and start new community ministries.
It’s a different world, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. The Friends here are great, and they’ve accepted me in spite of my ignorance and lack of experience. I’ll post some other impressions as time goes on, but meanwhile, thanks for the welcome!