Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cheerwine: "The Nectar of North Carolina"

I managed, in a 27-yr Air Force career, to be stationed in or next door to North Carolina for ten of those years. The other 17 were split between Colorado and California. During the 10 years in Colorado, I used to get my "southern fix" in a couple of different ways, largely with the help of my Dad. Sometimes he just made sure when I was packing up to drive back from a visit that I wasn't forgetting essentials. Other times, he would ship those essentials to me. Essentials, in this case, translates to cases of Cheerwine and gallon jars of Duke's mayonnaise--two of the first things to enter my fridge in the new place here on the SC coast.

So, I thought it worth noting that there were two articles in the hometown paper Thursday about the soft drink I grew up considering a natural part of the world. The first regards "a new branding, packaging and marketing campaign" and the second tells us that, "Cheerwine has taken a foothold in New York City."

I couldn't help but smile at both of these. I could smile because it doesn't sound, for now at least, as if the company is trying to make itself into anything new. Rather, it sounds as though they're wisely attempting to do a better job of marketing what Cheerwine has always been. The article's quote from the company's CEO pretty much nails it: "Those who know and love Cheerwine have always connected the brand to simple and relaxed times, hanging out, eating Southern barbecue and being laid back." So long as they don't mess with that, I don't expect too many people will get bent out of shape about new packaging. It's changed before.

And that image of what Cheerwine is really all about is why I also had to smile at the second article. I recently had a series of conversations with several friends about the difference between Yankees and damned Yankees. You can't really fault a person for the geography of his or her birth. But you can sure fault them for their attitude, blue and grey alike. I have good friends who are Yankees; damned Yankees give me a fairly wide berth.

Here's why. Throughout my sojourns into over a dozen foreign countries through the years, I've tried, everywhere I've gone, not to be the obnoxious American (I'd have said Yankee here, but it might have muddied my point, despite the upsetting behavior being pretty much the same in either case). I've tried to make it clear that I've been interested in learning about the culture of the place I was visiting, in occasionally immersing myself in that culture, in appreciating it for its own values and pace. I have tried, studiously, to avoid giving any impression that I expected that culture to conform to my values, my pace, my concept of the shape the world should hold. I have tried, tried consciously, carefully, consistently, not to be a "damned Yankee."

I've noticed, especially now that I'm back here in the land of y'all somewhat permanently I hope, that some of these people are noticeable before they say a word. They wear an expression much as if someone had just waved a teenager's unwashed sneaker under their nose a good month into gym class. They hate it here. The pace irritates them. The culture we treasure, they revile. They cannot understand why, if the North won the war over a century ago, the South should remain so utterly foreign a place to them. They want quick service, they don't want to know how you're doing, and would rather you didn't ask about them. Their desire, their expectation even, is that we should have been just like them by now. On the whole, they are a good example of the very things that make the stereotypical obnoxious American abroad obnoxious. They are, if you think about it, a good example of some of the most misguided features of American policy abroad: the inappropriate drive, not to thoroughly understand a foreign culture and work within it to emphasize the better qualities, but to reshape it wholesale toward an American model. I'm well aware that we don't always get it this wrong, but on the whole, I think we far too frequently do.

But, I digress. My point is simple. The war goes on folks, never doubt it. It's not for real estate now though. It's for hearts and minds. The culture is both the battleground and the prize. And in that war, food is one of our main weapons. So when I read in that second article:

Brother Jimmy's Barbecue, which has six restaurants in New York, has begun offering Cheerwine with its traditional North Carolina-style barbecue and hush puppies. 'We have finally brought the nectar of Carolina to New York City,' said Jim Goldman, an owner and founder of Brother Jimmy's BBQ.
I couldn't help but smile. I had to smile at Brother Jimmy's slogan too: "Put Some South in Yo Mouth." Yeah! Take that ya'll.