Living And Writing The American South

Jul 27, 2018

With Jane Clayson

Life and culture in the American South. We’ll talk with native daughter and author Julia Reed about her new book “South Toward Home.

Guests

Julia Reed, author of “South Toward Home: Adventures and Misadventures in My Native Land.” Contributing editor at Garden & Gun magazine where she writes the columng “The High & the Low.”

Aaron Harmon, owner of the award-winning restaurant Hot Tamale Heaven.

Roy Blount Jr., writer and humorist who grew up in Decatur, Georgia and now splits his time between New Orleans and Mississippi. Columnist at Garden & Gun magazine, author or “Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South” and “Save Room For Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “South Toward Home” by Julia Reed

In 1967 Willie Morris wrote a memoir, North Toward Home, in which he recalled his childhood in the Mississippi Delta, a place with its share of dark history, but also one of abiding grace and goodness, humor and eccentricity. Like Willie, I grew up in the Delta, in Greenville, about seventy miles up the road from his birthplace in Yazoo City and, like Willie, I went north, first to Washington, D.C., and then to Manhattan, not toward home exactly, but for a career in journalism and what I hoped would be a rich, full life. It was. But a few years after Willie returned home, I came back South too, first to New Orleans, where I have lived off and (mostly) on since the early 1990s and, more recently, to my beloved Delta, where I’m building a house.

Until I came back, I don’t think I realized how much I’d missed the landscape and the sense of community, the humor and the good-heartedness, the agricultural scent of earth and chemicals more powerful to me than any of Proust’s madeleines. Most of all, I’d missed the fact that fun was so damn easy to get up to. I had some fun with Willie a time or two before he left us in 1999, but his prose is what I remember best. I frequently quote his line that “it’s the juxtapositions that get you” down here, because they sure as hell still abound.

A couple of years ago, for example, I found myself slap in the middle of some typically jarring contradictions when my good buddies Roy Blount, Jr. and William Dunlap and I served on a panel together in Jackson, Mississippi, the city Willie ultimately called home. Our assigned topic was fairly loose, but we knew we’d be touching on possums—Roy and I have both written about them (there’s an essay about the misunderstood marsupial on these pages) and Dunlap has not only painted one, he is the creator of the tasty opossum cocktail (vodka, a splash of cranberry juice, a dash or two of orange bitters, and an orange slice as garnish). As a prop of sorts (and perhaps a spot of inspiration), we decided to bring the cocktails with us onto the “stage,” which was actually the chancel of a Methodist church that had been commandeered for the occasion.

As it happened, a few months before the event, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant had signed a bill into law that allowed handguns inside churches. For an added flourish, Bryant chose to do so with his own personal handgun, a Glock, atop the large family Bible on his desk, a newspaper image greeted with an alarming amount of equanimity by a large segment of the populace. Roy and Dunlap and I, on the other hand, did not fare so well with the locals. Weeks after our panel, we learned we’d caused something of a scandal for drinking alcohol in the Methodist sanctuary. Too bad we weren’t packing heat instead. No one would have flinched.

This is the kind of stuff that keeps you pretty much constantly on your toes. It also provides ample fodder for people like me who make a living documenting the various goingson in these environs. The particular goings-on in this volume were all penned for Garden & Gun magazine, where I’ve been writing since its happy inception more than a decade ago. Its very name is a juxtaposition, taken from a fabled, sadly long-shuttered bar in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was lucky enough to be taken as an underage college student visiting the city for a friend’s debutante party. There were ceiling fans and balconies, sailors and socialites, the occasional drag queen and the frequent sockless Gucci wearer. It was an eclectic, high-low mix of folks, one not entirely representative of the South, but close enough that the founders of a magazine about Southern culture chose to take its name.

My column in the magazine is called, appropriately, “The High & The Low” and I have a great time brainstorming its wide-ranging topics with my intrepid editor, David DiBennedetto. I write about our music and our food (two of the region’s best gifts to the rest of the country), our critters (and our penchant for hunting and making a meal of them), our drinking habits (prodigious), our talent for making our own fun (highly necessary), and some of our more embarrassing tendencies (including our seemingly bottomless propensity for committing a whole lot of craziness in the name of the Lord). I still get mighty embarrassed by the behavior of some of the folks in my region, but it also has been my fellow Southerners who have brought me the greatest joy—on the page, over the airwaves, around the dinner table, at the bar or, hell, in the checkout line.

Willie contended he could best write about the land of our birth from the distance Manhattan afforded him. I find it useful—and endlessly entertaining—to be right here in the thick of things. What I love most about where I live is that my fellow residents have always had an enormous capacity for laughing at themselves—for good reason, of course, but it’s a quality we could all do with a lot more of in these fraught times. It’s hot and even more humid, the mosquitoes are murderous, and we might all be half crazy, but I am grateful every day that I ended up returning South toward home.

Excerpted from SOUTH TOWARD HOME by Julia Reed. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

We’re hitting the road and heading to the Deep South. Our guide: Mississippi native and writer Julia Reed. For years, she’s delighted readers with love letters celebrating the food, spicy characters and the whimsy south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Hot tamales, and dancing the blues. Alligator ranchers, pastors and southern comfort chefs. But she takes on the hard stuff, too. Cultural stereotypes and more.

This hour, On Point: Julia Reed heads “South Toward Home.”

— Jane Clayson

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