Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The ways of blogging are mysterious. My hitcounter shows that for some unfathomable reason most of my visitors today are from Oklahoma. Many years ago, I read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and since then always wanted to see for myself whether Oklahoma was truly as sad a place as this great novel made it out to be. I got my chance to see Oklahoma (and many other places) during my academic job search. I was invited for a campus visit to a university in that state.

The members of the search committee who picked me up at the airport drove me through the outskirts of Oklahoma City filled with bunker-like buildings that were depressingly dirty orange in color. Then, we traveled through a bleak landscape dominated by a low, oppressive sky.

"If you hear strange sounds in the night," a prospective colleague said brightly, "it's the coyotes howling."

By the end of the visit, I was ready to join my howling to that of the coyotes. The tiny little town where the campus was located was dominated by churches. It doesn't really deserve the name of town but I don't know how else to call it. A village? A hamlet? A ghostly outpost of civilization in the midst of nothingness?

"We have 70 churches here, so you'll have no problem finding one to suit your taste," another future colleague said. "And please don't think we are completely backwards here. We even had a Starbucks open here last summer. So we are civilized now."

The thought of coming to consider the opening of Starbucks as an important cultural event was daunting.

"So where do you go for groceries?" I asked after 40 minutes of driving around the area which did not result in a discovery of a single shop.

"Oh, that's really easy. We have this great supermarket 50 miles from here. Of course, you can also drive into Oklahoma City, which is pretty close. It only takes a little over 2 hours to get there. There is never any traffic here, so you'll be fine."

It was not surprising that there was no traffic in a place where there was one Starbucks per 70 churches, but I kept that insight to myself.

"Are there any apartment buildings where I could rent a place?" I asked.

"Oh no, why rent?" the colleague responded. "There is this great little development where new houses are being built right now. You can just buy one of them. Let me show you, it's just 20 minutes away from campus."

Twenty minutes driving, of course. I considered telling the colleague that I didn't drive but thought better of it. This kind person was trying so hard to make me like the place. Why demonstrate how truly unsuited I was to it from the very start?

In the evening, the search committee took me to a restaurant. As everybody who has spent any time doing campus visits knows, you can never show any disrespect towards the local fare. Literature departments are poor and taking a prospective colleague out for a meal is quite expensive for them. It simply won't do not to demonstrate extreme enjoyment of the meal you are being offered.

I'm a very fussy eater, which is the main reason why I became a cook. When I saw the food that was being served, I realized that yet another sacrifice to the cause of an academic job search was being asked of me. The menu was filled with dishes I'd never heard of before. In my experience, chicken is always a good choice of campus visit food. Ordering vegetarian might alienate some of the older members of the search committee who'll think you are a hippie in disguise, a political activist, or a trouble-maker. Beef is too heavy and takes a lot of time to chew, which is not something you can afford at a dinner where you'll be bombarded with questions. Pork will provoke a host of questions about how come I wear my Star of David and still eat pork. Fish smells, and you don't want to breathe a fishy smell onto the people who are interrogating you. (As you can see, I could write a doctoral dissertation on the subject of campus visits.)

So I ordered something called "chicken-fried steak." Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this dish didn't contain any chicken. It was a steak deep-fried in some rock-hard batter that made me think of dentists' bills and dentures. (And if that seems obvious to you, then maybe you've spent too much time in Oklahoma.) Every dish was smothered in a weird-looking grayish sauce (you can see it on the picture.)

"What is this sauce made of?" I asked one of the search committee members.

"Oh, isn't it delicious?" she asked. "It's lard mixed with flour."

This revelation led me to panicky attempts to recollect how people went about purging.

Everybody at the department was really understanding when I rejected their kind job offer on the grounds that "I simply can't imagine ever living in this place."


dead chicken said...

Gravy is made with a roux, right?

a mix of fat and flour used to thicken sauces of all kinds.

Clarissa said...

Yes, I believe the word "roux" was mentioned.

Oh, those fond memories are rushing in. . .

Patrick said...

To each their own, I guess. I looked at your first picture of the Oklahoma landscape, and immediately thought "What a gorgeous place!"

And the meal looked delicious. My wife makes a fantastic bacon gravy that we put on homemade biscuits. Those of us who are easy to please.

Obviously, it was a very wise move for you to reject their job offer. Knowing what you want (and what you don't) is a skill far too many people don't possess. They then wonder why they're depressed and miserable in their job, home and culture.

Clarissa said...

Campus visits always take place in February/March, so everything looks a lot sadder than in summer.

When I first came to the place where I work right now, my only thought was: "Well, that's one place where I'll never live!" And now I love it with a passion. :-)

dead chicken (fried steak) said...

As I recall, white gravy is really just bechamel sauce. But hey, I'm an okie. :D

Clarissa said...

Oh no, that wasn't bechamel.

Funny nickname change. :-)

I hope nobody gets offended by the post. I, for one, would love to read a parody of life in Montreal, which is my home and the best place in the world. :-)

eric said...

Sounds rough. Actually, my wife was born in Oklahoma. Of course, she is of Cherokee descent, and though she frequently highlights her high plains/Southern roots, there's a good reason she doesn't live there now ;)

You'd think they at least would have treated you to some good Mexican cuisine, but I guess they don't serve Tex-Mex that far north (nor Santa Fe-style that far east).

Clarissa said...

There was just that one single restaurant in that little town. And no Mexicans in sight.

Off-topic: did anybody notice who just left a comment in the post on Politically Correct Bedtime Stories? I feel very important now because until this moment authors only came by to say how my reviews are completely horrible. :-)

Patrick said...

I would think this may be the least offensive post possible. So you were not enamoured with rural living? That's not a crime, it's a preference.

And there is something inherently amusing thinking "Starbucks" is cultured. It brings back memories of my hometown, when "Burger King" opened in town!! WOW, what a big deal! We were a 'real' town now! I look back in horror at my own insanity.

Clarissa said...

Often, people fail to see my attempts at humor for what they are and take everything very seriously. Maybe there is a problem with my sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

BroadSnark said...

I also had a very Grapes of Wrath dustbowl idea of Oklahoma. But my bfriends family lives in Tulsa. The first time I went was in spring. There were rolling green hills covered with wildflowers. It was beautiful. Tulsa is a different world than OK city. Except for the chicken fried steak. That is everywhere.

Tom Carter said...

Oy, Clarissa! You should have stayed a while longer -- it grows on you. I lived in Oklahoma a while and in Texas a lot longer. I also got a graduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, so I spent a lot of time in Norman and driving to and from. I would guess that's not where you were being wined and dined (sort of), based on your description.

Seriously, Oklahoma is a beautiful place, although I'll admit that it's culturally lacking. And chicken fried steak? It's all over the South, not just in OK. That's one of the best things in the world you could possibly eat! Really, I mean it. You should have it once a week for a year, and I guarantee you'll be hooked!

Clarissa said...

With my high blood pressure, I don't think I'd survive a year of deep-fried. :-) :-)

Where haven't you lived, Tom? :-)