Below the Mason Dixon, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

What follows is a sampling from the one hundred plus e-mails Dish readers wrote about the South. Expect another later in the day.

-- When traveling below the Mason Dixon, drink the sweat tea - out of a styrofoam cup, from any rural restaurant, and never from a fast food chain.

-- Attend a Revival.  For the uninitiated, this is when a church hires an out-of-town speaker to rejuvenate the congregation.  Revivals are held over several nights and often happen outdoors by a natural spring.  This makes baptisms easy and hearkens back to a time when indoor plumbing was rare. 

-- Attend a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway in Eastaboga, Alabama.  Track capacity: 175,000, camp out the night(s) before, shirts and shoes discouraged.  People-watching like you wouldn't believe.

-- Climb Stone Mountain, a huge quartz monzonite dome just outside of Atlanta.  The largest bas-relief in the world is etched into the north face of the 825-ft mountain.  Nothing says culture like Confederate heroes immortalized on the promontory and further glamorized with a 45-minute laser show.

-- Eat boiled peanuts at roadside stands, and ask around to find good barbecue restaurants.

-- The Cumberland Gap historic park, though small, is quite interesting, with the "Pinnacle" outlook extraordinary.  During the Civil War this peak was called the "United States' own Gibraltar".  This gap in the Appalachian mountain range was literally the Gateway to the West, when "the West" still counted as western Kentucky, and trails here were blazed by no less than Daniel Boone.

-- I was raised Southern Baptist (still practicing, or at least doing my best) in a county that had only one red light (still probably only has about 10 or so).  One thing that most people who are not from the South, simply cannot fully appreciate about many parts of the South, is just how deeply religion permeates the culture.  I don't mean this in a bad way, it's just that, for many people who live in very rural, small towns, the church, and their church family, is..simply put... a deeply significant part of who these people ARE.  There are no museums or opera houses, concert halls, or live theater in these small towns.  Just one generation ago, there were no counselors; the local church provides ALL of these functions.  The local church pastor IS the counselor many turn to. The Christmas play is the ONLY "theater" many of these people have ever seen, or care to.  This past year's Easter pageant IS the concert outlet for them.  Now this is not true everywhere in the South, you will find splendid museums in Nashville, and dozens of music and theater outlets in the megapolis of Atlanta, but small-town, rural areas that make up much of the South's countryside are definitely like this.  This is why, criticizing or challenging one's religious beliefs in the South is tantamount to challenging their entire life and culture.  

-- Family is extremely important, and babies are of paramount importance.  I cannot begin to tell you just how different people in the South are when around small children and especially babies.  In big cities, like Dallas, babies are rarely commented and often simply ignored by most everyone in public.  In the rural South, I defy you to take a baby in a stroller anywhere without being flocked by people wanting to hold your baby or compliment you and your child.  Children matter you see, they are not considered noisy and loud and to be shunned to their appropriate corner of the world until they reach adulthood. 

-- Although often ignored even in the South (except maybe as “that weird old guy with junk in his yard”) I think one of the most unique and interesting aspects of the South are the visionary folk artists, some of which maintain “environments,” often huge pieces of land filled with outdoor outsider art.  Once you find one (which can be a task in itself), they can often lead you to others.  There are such environments all around the country, but there is a higher concentration in the South, they seem a more natural part of the region of kudzu, and you will meet some real Southern “characters.” 

-- Washington, GA - Go to the main inn run by a two French immigrants who drive around in an old Rolls Royce - Guillame and Succun Slama.  Living an immigrant dream in a small Georgia town.

-- Dixie lives an honor culture quite different from the cultures of the northern and far western states. Children in the South are instilled with respect for elders and visitors, and they - and even their parents in their adulthood - express this by habitual use of formal forms of address and appellation, e.g., Sir; Ma'am; Mister Friedersdorf; Mrs./Miss/Ms. (pronounced almost uniformly as "Miz") Lobo. Like all manners and courtesies, southerners use them to show genuine respect, admiration, and affection, but they also use them as blinds for disagreement, disrespect, and dislike.

Then there's another expression which is used complimentarily, neutrally, or - and just as often - as an expression of distaste masqueraded as a pleasantry: "Bless your heart." Since a northerner isn't hip to the southerner's inflections, the most effective means a northerner has of judging the southern speaker's regard behind these expressions is to watch the faces of other southerners within hearing - reading what registers on those faces will most often tell you the character or degree of the regard behind the expression, and lend a clue to the way the alpha speaker in the group expects his inferiors to hew to his meaning.There are times when southerners' seeming circumlocution can irritate the northerner's eagerness to conserve time, to get directly to the point. Be patient with this, but by the same token use your own judgment to figure out when a southerner is using circumlocution to bullshit your Yankee ass.

-- Down south it helps a lot to be mindful and exercising of your manners: be in no doubt that that you should always use the formal forms of address; and wait until after formal introduction for invitations to address or refer to southern individuals informally. Bear in mind that even after formal introductions, southerners are in the habit of then prefixing an addressee's Christian name with Mr. or Miz - as in Mr. Conor, Miz Jordynne - and for many in the south informality goes no further than that. This can feel irksome or seem corny to Yankee visitors, but it is for and by southerners genuine and well meant, and many northeners who experience this formality find it refreshing, a pleasant antidote to the common northern presumption of instantaneous informality, not least because it restores not just the sense, but the reality, of personal privacy that seems to have been stripped  deliberately and callously away among northeners and far westerners.

 -- "There's Yankees and there's Damn Yankees. Yankees come to visit; Damn Yankees come to stay."

-- While I appreciate that a non-Southerner (or as we call you, Yankee) is actually exhibiting interest in the South beyond ridicule, your question is part of the problem. If you're looking for somewhere to see how Southern the South is, you're looking for a stereotype, which is exactly what we need to move past. (Especially since the romanticizing you've mentioned is something I rarely see, it's much more often a negative stereotype.)

I'm not a born Southerner... but I did spend some time working there and got to rub shoulders with people every day. Did I see the southern stereotypes fulfilled pretty much every day? Yes, I did. I heard the accents, I ate the grits, I was called "darlin." But it was much more than that. Was there some place to go there that would provide the kind of "local color" you're looking for? Probably, there's usually something to that effect in every small Southern town. But that's exactly the kind of thing I'd tell you to avoid. If you want to immerse yourself, just immerse yourself. Go to a town at random, or go to several. Stop on the highway whenever you feel like it. What drives me so crazy is that people who haven't been to the South continue to avoid it, which just keeps the status quo.

I'm sure you'll receive loads of email telling you to try this barbecue joint or that small-town museum. I don't really care where you go. Just go.

-- WV is uniquely situated and hard to define. Is it the northern most southern state? The southern most northern state? Definitely not part of the Mid-West and definitely not an  Atlantic state.  In a way the state is undefinable, but I don't think we would have it any other way. But the majority of us consider the state to be part of the South.  I find WV to be one of the most unique states in the nation; however, the state at its current trajectory has no real future. 

-- I lived in South Carolina for about 2 years while stationed in North Charleston (Goose Creek, to be exact) with the U.S. Navy.  I'd be lying if I told you my time there was spent peregrinating through the back-country with an eye for history and nuance--I was 19 years old, most of my time was spent trying to find a place to get served alcohol.  But living a hair north of Charleston focused my attention on one salient fact about the South: her cities are islands of cosmopolitan excess in seas of poverty and (relative) provincialism.  This is not to suggest that cities in the South spring up solely to function as respite for northern boys like me.  The state of suburbs are as much the result of deprivations from cities as they are from the poverty of the inhabitants. 

I spent those two years in South Carolina relatively unaware of this dynamic between cities and suburbs until I read Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline, a novel set in a barely fictionalized military academy in Charleston.  Conroy lavishes time on Charleston in a fashion similar to Berendt in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but what comes to life is the abrupt distinction between Charleston and North Charleston.  While this is obviously not a suggestion to travel specific roads, visit towns or cities, I felt that reading that book shocked me into watching the city rather than living in it. 

-- Start in New Orleans. Stay at the Monteleone, famous for its carousel bar and for where Tennessee Williams liked to have a toddy or two or three. Stroll down Royale and soak in the French Quarter architecture (which is actually Spanish architecture), relishing the spirit of laissez le bontemps roulez and the price tag on fine antiques. Eat at Commander's Palace and The Court of Two Sisters. Stroll up and down Bourbon Street. Listen to jazz at Preservation Hall. Have a hurricane at Pat O'Briens. Drink chicory-laced coffee and eat beignets at Cafe du Monde. And ride uptown on the St. Charles streetcar and have your breath taken away by the most beautiful homes in the world.

When you head for the Mississippi Delta, make your way up Highway 61 - the blues highway - stopping for lunch in St. Francisville, La., where Spanish moss hangs from the oaks, where the cemetery and the haunted Myrtles will spook the bejesus out of you. Move on to Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi where it will take an act of God to keep from stopping for the night just so you can admire the antebellum architecture.

In the South, we move much slower - literally and figuratively - than the rest of the world. We blame it on the excessive heat. But you will be a man on a mission so make your way to Greenwood, Mississippi. Feel the monotony of about 4000 square miles of the agricultural flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. Feel why its people sing the blues.

-- There are so many great barbecue places that you’ll find off of Route 80 and other routes coming from DC or NY.  Do definitely try them out.  But better yet, to really get good Southern food, focus on fried anything, gravy and biscuits, more gravy, grits, greens, that kind of stuff.  You’re best to go to to get the best selection and itinerary. But you know what is honestly more real Southern in terms of what does the average Southerner actually eats on a daily basis?  The Cracker Barrell chain of restaurants, as ubiquitous down there as trees.  I kid you not.  It is definitely not “great” food by any means, but it’s quality at a very good price.  It is like the South meets Denny’s.  You will see a cross section of the “average” modern Southerner there, of all races and ages. 

-- I'd point you to a map of the Mississippi River delta and how its geography has changed the lives of people living in southeastern Arkansas and northwestern Mississippi.  Notice the lack of bridges.  In Arkansas, if you want to go east, you have very few options -- the bridge at Greenville, MS is the last one across the river for a long while, until West Helena.  A bit further north are the two major interstate bridges at Memphis, and that's it; your next chance to cross the river isn't until Missouri.  Drive through these communities and remember the moral of the story is simple:  "you can't get there from here." How does that change the outlook of someone who lives there?  How do you encourage education when there's not much to aspire to?

-- Seek out megachurches, both white and black; look in urban centers for those.  Then compare them with tiny, rural churches, both black and white.  What do you pray for when you have everything?  What do you pray for when you have nothing?

-- See the Jack Daniels distillery in rural Tennessee, and reflect on the fact that it's situated in a dry county. Be sure to walk around the city square afterwards.

-- Edenton: again, an off-the-beaten track place with some fascinating places to visit, including what's said to be the oldest continuously used Episcopal church in the nation.  A feel for the Scottish-English culture of the 17th-century Virginia-NC tidewater, with its deep roots in the tobacco trade dominated by Glasgow.  I'd seek out some of the hidden and rather old houses around Edenton, including Scotch Hall south of the city.  And I'd go to the library there and read about the history of these places, and talk to the older staff members--especially some of the older local ladies who often staff the local history room--about the history of the region.

-- If you're outside the big cities (or even if you aren't), pay attention to your instincts and the hair on the back of your neck.  The standard issue peckerneck *likes* to hurt people, and his rightful prey is a Northern intellectual.  He will smile while he beats the crap out of you and feel a righteous pleasure in doing so.  *Don't* get in arguments, particularly intellectual ones, though moral and ethical ones are a close second.  Watch your manners (much prized in the South because they defuse tension) and your mouth.  Understand that the quieter many people get, the  closer they are to tearing you a new one.

-- The value of any such trip would be the exposure to parts of southern Appalachia.  I feel like everyone has some idea of the Old South, the plantation culture, and beyond Atlanta or Nashville they also know cities like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.  Those places can be great, but by themselves they do not communicate much of the southern highlands, which are a particular and important part of the South.