From Grit to Grits

By Whitney Allen

Front Porch Life Magazine

Being in the South has settled me and made me softer but not weaker. I came from grit and it has served me well. I’d never trade my yankee roots but after twenty years below the Mason Dixon I don’t think I will be giving up my adopted Southern home anytime soon either.

Whitney allen

My Yankee Roots

I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, a stone throw from the New Jersey border. I always identified myself as a Yankee. I flipped a lot of people off and I was always just a little skeptical of people’s intentions. I readily spoke my mind and was proud of it.  I knew what a traffic circle was and how to drive one.  I drove on the defense at all times. I knew how to drive in the snow and rarely missed school because of the weather. 

I ate at diners regularly and when I wanted an iced tea I just ordered an iced tea without qualification of sweet or unsweet. I ate perogies, halupkies and gravy fries and most of the recipes I knew and loved were German, Polish or Slovik. 

I attended Catholic school for twelve years wearing a catholic school uniform everyday and I sported some seriously big hair. I grew up listening to Abba, Elton John, Simon and Garfunkle and of course Billy Joel. Knowing the words to Piano Man wasn’t an option, it was a requirement. 

We were loud and talked over each other, but mostly with friends and family, not random strangers. Not that we aren’t friendly, but you just didn’t stand in line chatting up the check out girl. You bought your things and you moved on. Otherwise the person behind you would say something about moving the line. And if it wasn’t the person behind you, it was the person behind them saying something to the person behind you. 

I went to college in “Jersey” and my first job out of school was in midtown Manhattan. I took the train into the “City” and then hopped on the subway to get to work every day. I hailed cabs and argued with the deli manager for charging me a different price every day for my everything bagel with cream cheese. 

Front Porch Life Magazine
Front Porch Life Magazine

But there was also some country to my upbringing. We dodged getting hit by deer on the back roads, had bonfires and corn mazes. When I ran off to college it was to Centenary College (now University) in podunk Hackettstown, NJ. So my northern upbringing was pretty balanced between running wild and barefoot in the summer, picking raspberries and Indian corn and holding my own, hailing cabs and navigating the NYC subways. 

The stereotypes are mostly true. People are always in a hurry and quick to lay on a horn, flip the bird and drop the “F” bomb. None of which anyone takes offense to. You either flip them off right back or go about like nothing happened. 

I grew up in a working class area. The Bethlehem Steele provided an income for a lot of families, including my father and grandfather. There is a grit and a pride to the area I am from  that is hard to explain, but now as I go back and see those old abandoned steel smoke stacks I see beauty in those rusty towers. They stand for pride and hard work from when men were men. They stand for family and country. They are raw, real, and gritty, much like the people that drive by them each day. 

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North Meets South

My first job in NYC relocated me to Lexington, KY. So I packed up my horse and loaded down my green VW beetle with my meager belongings and all my grit and determination. I was a damn yankee, I could make it anywhere. Besides, I was only going to stay for a year or two. 

When I got to Lexington I knew two things right off the bat. One, I LOVED it there. It felt like home, not on the surface but on a cellular level. I felt it in my bones. This is where I was supposed to be. Two, this was a LOT different than the home I was used to, but somehow really similar. 

Front Porch Life Magazine

When I arrived I was a bit ferrell. I was 22, my hair was still a little big from the mid-90’s, I was single, fearless and 100% yankee. So my first year here took some getting used to. First of all there were no diners. Let me say that again, there were NO diners. I was crushed at this realization. It almost made me move back home. No one had really heard of gravy fries or perogies or halupkies. Blowing your horn was apparently very rude and MY GOD did people talk. Just talk and talk and talk to everyone, everywhere without a care in the world how long it took to finish their conversation. 

I remember my first year here I was at the grocery store one day and after painfully holding my tongue because the woman in front of me told the cashier her life story. She then asked to break a $100 bill and then wanted it broken down further. I saw red. I could not TAKE it anymore, I said “LADY, this is not the first national bank of Kroger.” The woman and cashier stared at me like I was the one out of line.  I was quite proud of myself. I mean, I didn’t even curse. Of course I feel bad now and now I am that person sharing my day with the random cashier or talking about how to cook spaghetti squash but back then, not so much.

It’s Sounds Like English

In a lot of ways it was like coming to another country and learning the language and the culture. I mean it sounded like English. To this day, after 17 years together, my husband and I still debate that pin and pen are in fact pronounced differently. When I first arrived in Lexington I recall being mortified that people pronounced the next town over (Versailles)  as Ver-sales and not Ver-si or Athens as A-thans. I would hear people say “ool”, which I now know as “oil”. It took some getting used to but I no longer hear the accent. My family and friends back home accuse me of dropping a little twang from time to time . I deny this but at the same time I smile on the inside that someone thinks I have a little twang to how I now pronounce certain words.

There were some other words that took me a while to get used to. Growing up in the North terms of endearment were reserved for people you actually knew and liked so being called ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ by a random stranger was a bit of a put off. Honestly it took me years to get used to. I would get so annoyed when someone would say this to me. I’d think “You don’t know me, and I am NOT your honey.” Oh and ma’am. I thought “WHAT?? I am twenty-two. How dare you call me ma’am.’“But twenty years later…I EXPECT to be called ma’am and a little put off if someone doesn’t say it. What can I say, there’s just no pleasing me. I still don’t love it when someone younger than me calls me sweetie. It’s one of the times my inner yankee makes an appearance and says “Seriously?? I could have birthed you.”  But all in all I now find it endearing. 

There are still a few things that get my yankee hackles up. I have to exhibit great restraint when people don’t lay on their horns for the person taking a second too long when the light turns green. AND if I am being honest I fail at that often. But at the same time, over the years I came to appreciate the slower pace, the kinder interactions and the company of my neighbors. 

It’s Own Kind of Beauty

There is a beauty of its own here. It’s just as real and raw as it is back home but in different ways. Here its beauty is in the vulnerability that shines through as people open up to you more easily, readily extend hospitality and are more trusting. Don’t get me wrong I will forever crave gravy fries and perogies and late night diners but I have come to equally love back road corner stores, cheese grits and okra  (though I would still give just about anything for a real diner in these here parts).  

Front Porch Life Magazine

There are a lot of stereotypes of the South that are true, just like there are of the North, but what I never counted on and I am so grateful for is the way this southern town and these southern people have humbled me, calmed me and embraced me.  They took one look at this yankee, said “Bless her heart” and made me one of their own without further judgement.  Being in the south has settled me and made me softer but not weaker. I came from grit and it has served me well. I’d never trade my yankee roots but after twenty years below the Mason Dixon I don’t think I will be giving up my adopted Southern home anytime soon either. I love the slower pace, the kind smiles, monograms, college sports, chatting with strangers and the sweet subtle twang of just about everyone that is from here. Even if it means I will never hear the difference between pen and pin when it is said by a true Southerner. 

I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from the New Jersey border. I now reside in Lexington, Kentucky, with my husband and beautiful dogs.

Whitney Allen

If you love this article you will want to check out “A Sit Down With Wild Wood Farm”. It’s a wonderful interview!

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