Saturday, April 12, 2008

My South

by Robert St. John
(believed to have been written some time in 2001)

Thirty years ago I visited my first cousin in Virginia. While hanging out with his friends, the discussion turned to popular movies of the day. When I offered my two-cents on the authenticity and social relevance of the movie Billy Jack, one of the boys asked, in all seriousness, "Do you guys have movie theaters down there?" To which I replied, "Yep, and we wear shoes, too."

Just three years ago, my wife and I were attending a food and wine seminar in Aspen, Colorado. We were seated with two couples from Las Vegas. One of the Glitter Gulch gals was amazed, amused, and downright rude when I described our restaurant as a fine-dining restaurant. "Mississippi doesn't have fine-dining restaurants!" she demanded, as she snickered and nudged her companion. I fought back the strong desire to mention that she lived in the land that invented the 99-cent breakfast buffet, but resisted. I wanted badly to defend my state and my restaurant with a 15-minute soliloquy and public relations rant that would surely change her mind. It was at that precise moment that I was hit with a blinding jolt of enlightenment, and in a moment of complete and absolute clarity it dawned on me--my South is the best-kept secret in the country. Why would I try and win this woman over? She might move down here.
I am always amused by Hollywood's interpretation of the South. We are still, on occasion, depicted as a collective group of sweaty, stupid, backwards-minded and racist rednecks. The South of movies and TV, the Hollywood South, is not my South.
My South is full of honest, hard-working people.
My South is colorblind. In my South, we don't put a premium on pigment. No one cares whether you are black, white, red or green with orange polka dots.
My South is the birthplace of blues and jazz, and rock-and-roll. It has banjo pickers and fiddle players, but it is also has B.B. King, Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and Elvis.
My South is hot.
My South smells of newly mown grass.
My South was the South of The Partridge Family, Hawaii 5-0, and kick the can.
My South was creek swimming, cane-pole fishing, and bird hunting.
In my South, football is king, and the Southeastern Conference is the kingdom.
My South is home to the most beautiful women on the planet.
In my South, soul food and country cooking are the same thing.
My South is full of fig preserves, cornbread, butter beans, fried chicken, grits, and catfish.
In my South we eat foie gras, caviar, and truffles.
In my South, our transistor radios introduced us to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the same time they were introduced to the rest of the country.
In my South, grandmothers cook a big lunch every Sunday.
In my South, family matters, deeply.
My South is boiled shrimp, blackberry cobbler, peach ice cream, banana pudding, and oatmeal cream pies.
In my South people put peanuts in bottles of Coca Cola and hot sauce on almost everything.
In my South the tea is iced, and almost as sweet as the women.
My South has air-conditioning.
My South is camellias, azaleas, wisteria, and hydrangeas.
My South is humid.
In my South, the only person that has to sit on the back of the bus is the last person that got on the bus.
In my South, people still say "yes, ma'am," "no, ma'am," "please," and "thank you."
In my South, we all wear shoes . . . most of the time.

My south is the best-kept secret in the country. Please continue to keep the secret . . . it keeps the idiots away.

Robert St.John
Robert St.John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Café, Crescent City Grill, and Mahogany Bar in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He writes a weekly syndicated column in several newspapers throughout the South.

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