In a number of Western discourse conventions, narratives have beginnings, middles, and ends. More narrowly, we know that the least that can be said about a narrative is that one thing follows another, and the causality is often implied or inferred. And it does not hurt that we folklorists are fond of etiologies, both in terms of the object of our study or in how we came to study folklore.
To embark upon my own etiology would be tell a form of homesick narrative in which our protagonist travels from south Louisiana to central New York for graduate study and suffers a form of climactic-cultural shock wherein he discovers that snow actually occurs — and can occur from October until May — and that not everyone eats rice and seafood as the mainstays of their diet. Which is to say that, like many folklorists, I was studying folklore before I realized it and that my coming to folklore studies was simply a dawn awaiting the right moment to occur.
I left the South for the same reasons that many young Louisianians do: we worry about the future of a state perpetually at the bottom of most rankings and seemingly happy to wallow in such statistical mud. We find our opportunities for intellectual interchange limited and the desire to ignore the South’s “peculiar” legacy, racism in its many forms, just too hard to swallow. I give this bit of origin story for a particular reason: the necessity of grappling with the central tensions of Southern life are at the heart of my research and teaching interests. Like other parts of the nation and of the world, the complex layering of history and people that form Southern folk cultures in general and Louisiana folk cultures in particular can produce some of the most beautiful things and can also reveal human ugliness and cruelty in its worse forms.
Hewing strictly to one side of the story or the other tells neither very well. My current project, Gumbo This: The State of a Dish, focuses on the history and geography of gumbo in Louisiana...