I'm coming up on the point in my career when I need to start thinking about where to go next. There are a lot of reasons not to return to Texas. Gun-toting NRA supporters. People who call eating chicken instead of steak one day a week "environmental conservation." Unnerving prejudice against all Spanish-speakers or "furriners" as my friend Sabahat jokingly called herself. A kind of pride in an unwillingness to change.
But despite the deficiencies, there's something about home that gets in my blood and stays there. In that ironic voice that would become her calling card, Flannery O'Connor once said, "You ain't nobody unless you are FRUM somewhere." And I'm "frum" Texas, but what does that mean?
The answer to that is tied to family but since I'm removed from them, it's tied to food my family made for me. When I first moved away, my first night in this big empty house I wanted to make enchiladas. My version incorporated jalepeno cream cheese, but when I went to the store shelves to find it, it wasn't there. Of course it wasn't there. I was in the Deep South, not the Southwest, and then it hit me how far away from home I was. I sobbed right there in front of the shredded cheese. No one noticed.
Home is also in that dark, earthy spice cumin, and in the rich warmth of chili powder, which my mother used to dust over cheese toast. Anything topped with cilantro makes my heart hurt a little. When I feed friends in my new home, I serve them what I know. Homemade salsa spiked with lime, hot with chipotle peppers. Avocados mashed with garlic and cilantro and sweet chopped red onions. Pitchers of tart, cool margaritas. Some approve and teach me about their own regional fare. Some, though, poke the avocados, saying, "Ew. It's green. I don't eat green mashed food." Some say -- "This food is hot. I do NOT eat hot food." I cannot fathom what heat they're talking about, and this is not some weird, faked, food-bravado if there is such a thing. I cannot explain to anyone why this is like insulting my mother and father, but it is. (Upon reflection, then, D.W., I apologize for any disparaging remarks about pork barbecue, which I have grown to love.)
Texas is about more than spices, of course, though that's enough for me really. The air is different, for one. While my current home smells overly sweet, especially during the summer when the magnolias vie with the honeysuckle, my birthplace smells like linen and hot pine needles. Even the ground is different, the dirt a dark red clay. My friend used to tell me that if you dug up clay and shaped it into quarters, you could set out the discs in the sun to dry, and they would turn to gold. We tried it one night at a catfish fry near Club Lake, laying out rows upon rows of rust-colored earth, dreaming of what we'd do with our riches the next day.
There are a dozen other distinctions as well, though you may think none of them remarkable. While I still live in the South, the twang in Texas is different. East Texas words are flat but not long like here. Central Texas has big hair but clipped speech and no trees. The sky seems bigger.
But no one can say if we will call it home again. Academics don't pick their careers, not really. Even if we return there, I'm not sure people can ever return to the place they remember.