When it comes to family connections, Southerners are a curious lot. The minute we meet you, we have to know what brought you here, who came with you, and what you left behind. Or as Marcelle Bienvenu put it in what remains one of the most brilliant cookbook titles of all time, Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?
We are a roots-obsessed people. And we have some colorful origins, too. (Please tell us about yours in comments.)
Just look at Louisiana, with Native American, French, Spanish, German, and African American influences. German settlers populated an area on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, earning it the name “Côtes des Allemands” or German Coast. (You have to love a place where locals used a French name for a German settlement.)
The Mississippi was like a cultural highway, bringing people from Italy, China, Mexico, and Lebanon into the Delta, with its strong African American influences. That’s why you can find outstanding barbecue, catfish, tamales, chicken parmigiana, and stuffed kibbe there.
If you live in Texas, you know that “east is east and west is west.” The two are nothing alike, in part because of their terrain, but also because of the way they were settled. You won’t find cowboy culture in the “Piney Woods” of East Texas because this area was settled by European-American and African-American Southerners. In towns like Tyler and Corsicana, you’ll hear the up-and-down swing of a Southern drawl, not the dead-level accent of the West.
So what do Southerners hope to find when we start chasing our family’s roots? There are a few common denominators:
Is there a duke or duchess in the house?
After we’ve worked all week and made our Saturday morning run to the Pig, we’d really like to settle in with a cup of coffee, log onto our search site of choice, and discover that Queen Elizabeth is our distant cousin.
Was anybody in the family at Valley Forge?
We love discovering relatives who played significant roles in history. In other words, we like to keep history in the family.
Can we claim any ties to legendary outlaws?
On this front, we’re a little ambivalent. We don’t want to be closely related to Dillinger or Bonnie & Clyde. But if Great Uncle Herschel ran the mercantile where the gangsters once stopped for a Co-Cola, why, that would do us proud.
We like “firsts.”
Whether Great-Great-Great Grandma was the first woman to lead settlers through the Cumberland Gap or our 12th cousin thrice removed invented gumbo, we’re all in.
We treasure eccentricity.
Most people would bury all evidence of circus performers in the family, but not us. Isn’t it just fascinating to learn that somebody in our very own family was a sword swallower and camel wrangler for P.T. Barnum?
What about you? Tell us all about your colorful family characters!