Spit Can Roulette

by Taylor E. Hayes

Things in the South aren’t as they seem.

Spit-can roulette was in the cards for the morning routine. My father and I’s departure from home to work and school, respectively, kicked into gear as the humming fridge peeled open and squelched closed. Following was the hasty opening and closing of doors as we crossed thresholds — back door, screen door, garage door, and the car doors of the Honda Accord sitting stagnant in the driveway. Backpack and briefcase were tossed into the car followed by the pop-fizz combo-sound of opening Pepsi cans. The cans took their seats in the car’s console cupholders where it was easy to confuse my can of fizzy brown Pepsi with my father’s gritty, similarly sweet-smelling, murky brown spit and get an unexpected, unpleasant mouthful that made you eager to clean out your mouth with soap. This was the morning gamble, and the wager was my tastebuds.

Cans in console. Photo by the author. 2015.
Cans in console. Top: father’s can. Bottom: my can.

The only cans I remember touching my dad’s lips featured a red, white and blue striped orb and the words “Diet Pepsi” emblazoned on the blurrily reflective aluminum cylinder. Dark brown liquid filled the tiny ring-shaped canyon on the can’s top whether it was Pepsi pouring out or snuff spat in. Sometimes it was caffeine-free and sometimes not, but it was always the North Carolina-native amber sparkling beverage. The can was reappropriated from its original use as a storage container for a fizzy drink to a resting place for inedible tobacco byproduct. My father stacked the odds against the cans as they are made the victims of a cycle of use and reuse that he deemed inappropriate for other vessels.

From someone blessing your heart when they would rather smack some sense into you to colloquially calling a ball of fried cornbread a hushpuppy, the South hosts a long cultural history of things not being what they seem. Encounters with people and objects offer a spectrum of meaning. The spit can is one of these things as it doubles as a vessel for a morning dose of caffeine as well as the receptacle for the leftovers from a dose of nicotine, and my father is one of these people.


Spit can at mouth
Spit can at mouth

My father picked up his dipping habit in Jakarta, Indonesia. His father, my grandfather, did contract work for an oil company, and took his family where the job took him from Venezuela to Scotland with stops in Libya and Sri Lanka among others. Whenever they received shipments of equipment from Louisiana for the fracking and drilling the company did, the door prize accompanying the shipment was a few boxes full of snuff cans for employees. American tobacco could not be found in Indonesia, and was highly coveted for its quality. Workers distributed it to people working for the company, and somehow or another my youthful father snagged a can.

Can on counter.
Can on counter.

Today, my father can pick up another can from the gas station as he commutes from a Raleigh suburb to the bustling downtown. In moving from a rural region of Michigan where he worked in the production plant and managed computer systems to urban North Carolina where he had to fit in as a corporate employee balancing little “p” politics and golf courses. After living abroad for much of his life, he has settled in the South. He considers himself a southerner – but not by definitions of heritage or generational ties. To peek at his cards, one would find that he was adopted in Utah before being taken around the world. In his words, “I have lived in the South…south of the equator and with southern people for most of my life, or at least the impressionable years.”[1] His perception of himself as a southerner suggests that there’s something more to a southern identity than traditional associations of bloodlines and genealogies answered when we ask someone where they are from and their last name.

Atlanta Constitution editor Henry J. Grady may have coined the “New South” at the end of the 19th century, but we’re at least on to New South 2.0, if not New South 2015.0.[2] My father’s tobacco use is reflective of whatever iteration we’re on as his history reaches out of the South that he now calls home. He’s part of a group of southerners linked to places outside what’s generally thought of the southern United States – that “south of the equator” line he used in his explanation of his southernness. That is to say, being in the South translates into being of the South regardless of the road to get there. In physically residing in the region, my father brings his own southern culture to add to a conglomerate of southern cultures defining the contemporary South. “The South” might do well to be altered to “my South,” for indeed, everyone’s South is personal. The spit can my father uses in two ways — for drinking and spitting — is altered by the addition of my drink-filled can, and becomes part of my South as well as my father’s. The seams of the South are the intersections of personal Souths, and my father’s thread reflects the continuous shift of southern identity.


Courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Libraries. A fresh (not fried) watermelon to grace the southern table.

Seemingly, the things identified as quintessentially southern are dealt a bad hand when held up to the light. In terms of dining choices, southerners are assumed to be in the game of frying everything despite garden-grown foods that define the southern table. Beyond being the Bible Belt, the stretch of land from eastern North Carolina to Mississippi is also known as the “collard belt” for the prevalence of leafy greens in southern core cuisine.[3]

Now it’s Pepsi. Ebony Magazine, April 1962.

Things are again not as they seem when discussing tobacco use as a more-used substance in the South despite the plant’s economic success growing in the Old South’s soil. Sociologist Larry J. Griffin’s study comparing southern to northern tobacco use “found no important North-South differences” in use of the dried leaves.[4] Unseemly tobacco use is no more prevalent in the South, and it only beseems that in this shifting South my father’s chosen method of nicotine consumption does not contribute to his southernness. As for good old North Carolina-based Pepsi-Cola, the company was the first to integrate its marketing scheme in employing African-Americans to create the campaigns and directing advertisements toward the African-American consumer.[5]That spit can my father uses every morning is just as much in conversation with legacies of a changing South in terms of evolving agriculture and transformative marketing as my father’s southern identity is.


I played spit-can roulette with my father every weekday morning for a strait of years. I never bet poorly.

Can in hand.
Can in hand.


Indonesian Chicken Satay (makes 2 servings)

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. teriyaki sauce

¼ tsp. oil (enough to use for basting)

Salt and pepper to taste.

Wooden skewers.


Soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes, then place the chicken on the skewers. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Mix the sauces together and use for basting while broiling or grilling the skewers.

Peanut sauce:

Blend ½ cup peanut butter with ½ cup coconut milk, ¼ tsp. curry powder and ¼ tsp. red pepper.

Recipe modified with motherly instruction from Food’s “Grilled Indonesian Chicken Satay.” (http://www.food.com/recipe/grilled-indonesian-chicken-satay-188551)







[1] Hayes, W.D. Telephone interview by author. November 29, 2015.

[2] Grady, Henry Woodfin. The New South, and Other Addresses. With Biography, Critical Opinions, and Explanatory Notes,. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

[3] Ferris, Marcie Cohen. The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2015. 12-13.

[4] Griffin, Larry J. “The South, The Nation, and Tobacco.” Southern Cultures 12, no. 2 (2006): 66-74.

[5] Capparell, Stephanie. The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business. New York: Free Press, 2007.