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Column: Trip retraces familiar (kudzu) roots

What do cotton, kudzu and Carolina barbecue have in common? Not much, actually, but the convergence of the three precipitated some occasionally stimulating and sometimes inane conversation recently as two buses full of cotton breeders from across the Sunbelt wandered through the Southeast — North Carolina to the southern tip of Georgia — stopping along the way at key research facilities and not a few fine eating establishments.

Research to make cotton production more efficient, in both public and private breeding programs, took top billing during the near week-long excursion. Tour participants viewed efforts by Cotton Incorporated, in both production and fabric development, and also saw variety development work by private and public — USDA and land grant university (N.C. State, Clemson and the University of Georgia) — breeding programs.

The tour included a stop in historic Savannah with trips to the Lummus Corp. plant and a monument dedicated to Eli Whitney.

Along the route, trekkers got glimpses of kudzu-covered forests (natural topiary) and fields of cotton beginning to open. They also sampled Southern culinary specialties, including black-eyed peas, peach cobbler, and vinegar-based pork barbecue, an acquired taste, I must admit. I acquired it during more than 45 years as a resident of the region.

As a native, I felt a certain obligation to explain to some of my fellow travelers from Texas and other western realms why the iced-tea resembles syrup. We like it sweet. A good thing about the Southeast, one rarely has to ask for sweet tea. It’s readily available.

A few folks wondered if kudzu could be cultivated in West Texas. Maybe, but one would probably have to irrigate it and I can’t imagine anyone actually willing kudzu to live.

I grew up within a rock’s throw of a kudzu jungle and we lived in constant fear than one morning we would wake up with the plant’s prolific tentacles around our necks.

Rumor has it that the vigorous vine will grow a foot a day. That may be conservative. But kudzu serves a useful purpose in the Southeast. How else could folks make old pick-up trucks, refrigerators and abandoned houses disappear?

And the shapes kudzu forms on trees, telephone poles and abandoned buildings provide a constant source of merriment to travelers who can find as many interesting animals, vehicles and people in kudzu patches as they do in cloud-watching.

I once observed a family of large green bears cavorting in a viney forest.

A further word on pork barbecue, realizing that I tread a treacherous trail. We like our tea sweet and our barbecue with a bit of bite. That’s where the vinegar comes in. It’s sort of a Southern sweet and sour sensation.

I pointed out another interesting fact about traveling through the Southeast. The rivers all have water in them. And humidity in the summertime is a normal weather condition. Sweat comes easily to the brow, even without vigorous exercise.

The best thing about this tour, however, was being able to share it with folks I’ve known since I was a too-green reporter for Farm Press Publications, working from the Florida Panhandle to the Delmarva Peninsula, as well as with some relatively new but equally appreciated friends from the Southwest.

The barbecue may be different, the tea sweetness meter a few degree off one way or the other and the flora as different as cactus and kudzu, but good folks are pretty much the same whether they’re sopping sweat in the sultry Southeast or dodging dust in windy West Texas.

And I am privileged to count a number of good friends in both locations. It was good seeing them all.

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