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Posted: November 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.

It’s Southern pride, battered and fried

My hero and professional role model, Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko, had an astounding piece recently. According to Royko, at an auto plant in Normal, Illinois, an executive asked the company that ran the plant’s cafeteria to offer some more variety.

"Man cannot live by tuna patty melts alone," wrote Royko.

So the cafeteria people decided to offer some Southern cooking one day. They picked the wrong day.

The Friday before the Monday what was the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the cafeteria was to serve barbecue ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collards.

Two black employees at the plant, Royko further explained, went to see the executive and complained such a meal, just two days before Dr. King’s birthday, was stereotyping of black dining habits. They threatened a boycott of the meal. The executive, who was also black, ordered the Southern dishes be stricken from the Friday menu. Meatloaf and egg rolls were served instead.

What is astounding to me is, in our search to become politically correct and more sensitive, in this one instance at least, food became an issue. Southern food. What has come to be known as soul food. And my food, too.

I think it is very important to point out barbecue ribs, black-eyes peas, grits and collards may, in fact, be a choice dish to many black Americans. But it also sounds pretty darn good to me, a white man.

I grew up on soul food. We just called it country cooking. My grandmother cooked it. My mother cooked it.

Friends cooked it. Still do. I might not have made it through my second heart operation if it hadn’t been for the country cooking of one of the world’s kindest ladies, Jackie Walburn, who delivered to me in the hospital.

And my friend Carol Dunn in Orlando has served me many an enchanting spread featuring her wonderful roast pork. My Aunt Una cooked me fried chicken, speckled-heart butterbeans, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, and creamed corn as recently as Thanksgiving eve. The creamed corn, the best I ever ate, was provided by my Aunt Jessie.

Don’t tell me serving food like that is an affront to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What it would have been in Normal is a celebration of the sort of cooking that has been prevalent in the South, both for blacks and whites, for 200 years.

Royko asked, "Next Columbus Day would it be an insult to serve spaghetti and meatballs?" What a plate of hogwash, and I can get by with that. I have a pig valve in my own heart, and I can eat my share of barbecue ribs with anybody, black or white or whatever.

To charge stereotyping over food trivialized the King holiday. The man didn’t give his life for something like that. It’s silly and it’s stupid and it makes me want to throw up. Had I eaten meatloaf and egg rolls for lunch, I might.

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