Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2000 / 4 Tishrei, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- UH OH. An old friend, colleague, buddy and fellow inky wretch has got hisself into a heap o' trouble.
Maylon T. Rice, once my stablemate at the Pine Bluff Commercial in the southeastern corner of the state, has managed to get on the wrong side of both the NAACP and his boss at theNorthwest Arkansas Times up at the other end of the state.
What can poor Maylon have done? He was always such a nice guy -- somebody Who Wouldn't Hurt a Flea, as the neighbors always say when the police pick up the ax murderer who's gone berserk and wiped out everybody in the immediate vicinity.
Here's what ol' Maylon done done. (That's the Southern emphatic tense, in case you're wondering, as in: do, did, has done, and done done.) It happened in the course of what seemed an otherwise unnotable discussion among the usual news types on the state's public television station, a most unlikely venue for a crime or even a controversy.
But that's where Maylon Rice did the deed: He committed political incorrectness in the first degree. Now don't misunderstand me, he didn't go to do it. (Translation for those unfamiliar with colloquial Southern: He didn't intend to do it.)
Ol' Maylon was just criticizing a couple of political candidates, and what could be more patriotic or bipartisan than that? He said they were playing the race card.
But it wasn't what Mr. Rice said that offended his critics so much as how he said it. These two candidates, he opined in a fatal flourish, should realize that this election is "not just about watermelon, fried chicken and MoonPies.''
Our fearless opinionator couldn't have put his foot in a bigger mess of sensibilities. (Note to non-Southerners: MoonPies are a Southern, commercially distributed confection out of Chattanooga that might best be described as a kind of soft, overgrown Oreo.) It was a poor choice of words, all right. Imagine some commentator in New York saying that Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio shouldn't be spending so much time courting the Jewish vote because this election is about more than gefilte fish.
In the old days, when the Irish vote was still identifiable, some equally ham-worded commentator might have criticized pandering pols for not realizing that an election ought to be about something other than corned beef and cabbage.
It was an impolitic thing thing to say, but poor Maylon's misstep wasn't exactly in the same league as John Rocker's. If only he'd just indulged in some more acceptable stereotype -- like calling Christian fundamentalists the Religious Right, for example, or badmouthing rednecks -- no one might have said a word.
But when you start identifying people by their food, you risk being taken for a lout, whether you're babbling about mackerel-snappers or krauts.
In this case, my old friend Maylon was also inviting confusion. Watermelon and fried chicken may be to soul food what pasta is to Italian cuisine, but MoonPies? In my hungry memory, MoonPies were never associated with a racial group, but with a class: sharecroppers, and usually white ones at that.
In an attempt to check out that impression, I conducted a little poll of my own around the newsroom and some distance beyond -- a barber shop and a local eatery. The results were mixed. Yes, some folks associated MoonPies with black folks, but just as many dissented vigorously, identifying the much-denigrated MoonPie as the kind of food your middle-class mama of whatever complexion might warn you against, so you ate on the sly.
After intensive questioning, during which a good time was had by all the respondents, black and white and other, my oh-so-serious conclusion is that MoonPies are an indicator of class, not race. And I am mightily offended to see old Jim Crow come back and try to claim some exclusive racial identity for that treat. If Maylon T. Rice is to be criticized for anything, let it be for an assertion of racial exclusivity for a staple that long crossed the color line, like Twinkies.
It's always been my fond fancy that ethnically identifiable food will one day unite us all, the way pizza and bagels and nachos and, yes, watermelon and fried chicken have done. Those dishes now belong to all. Like hot dogs and sauerkraut at a ballpark.
Nothing may promote the brotherhood of man (or should that be the Sisterhood of Mankind in all political correctitude?) like talking things out over chicken enchiladas and a Carta Blanca. (Make that a cool, clear margarita for you, amiga.)
Instead of censuring and censoring some hapless newspaperman, why not MoonPies all around? Everybody would feel better, and we'd soon lose all interest in shutting folks up. Good will is the most efficient force in the world, and good food and drink the best social lubricant.
Here's the worst thing about this kind of oh-so-serious weighing of the pros and cons where ethnically identifiable references are concerned: Start passing resolutions and forbidding the offender to appear on television, and you invite a kind of ethnic McCarthyism. Soon enough, everybody goes rigid when the camera's on, afraid to mention anything with a racial, religious, or ethnic connotation -- which limits the conversation considerably.
Instead of enjoying one another's lingo, cuisine and culture, we grow fearful, narrow and humorless, afraid to open our mouths lest we offend. And we lose the full savor of the variegated cultures that have produced an Americanism greater than its parts.
My solemn conclusion: We need to relax and enjoy one another more, and to fear offending one another less, even at the risk of committing an occasional stupidity. That's how we learn better, and should learn to laugh at ourselves.
The alternative is to limit public discourse to the kind of sterile exchanges in which no one risks offending because no one dares say anything funny, biting, colorful, personal or meaningful.
This whole subject, I now realize, has made me mighty hungry -- for food of any race, creed color