Errol Laborde is among my favorite New Orleans writers.
I have long subscribed to both New Orleans and Louisiana Life and enjoy reading Laborde’s work in those magazines (he edits both). I’m also signed up to get his columns e-mailed to me each week (www.myneworleans.com).
Last week, Laborde made some interesting points about south Louisiana.
He notes that Time was planning a special issue about the South several years ago and invited readers across the region to send in brief essays about what the South means.
Laborde says he saw it as an opportunity to boost his writing career until “I sat and thought about the proposition. The South, I realized, is just not something I relate to. That was not meant to be a putdown but just an acknowledgment that New Orleans is a cultural experience in its own. I feel more New Orleanian than I do Southern. I could write volumes about what New Orleans means to me — but the South, to me, is a distant place.”
As an example, Laborde addresses kudzu and sweet tea.
“Throughout the woods in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the vine covers fallen trees, abandoned Chevys and anything else that did not move fast enough to get out of the way,” he writes. “Yet in Louisiana, kudzu hardly grows at all, as though there is an invisible shield along the Pearl River stopping its spreading. Nature concedes that Louisiana is a place apart.
“Why kudzu stops at the border is a mystery — another mystery is sweet tea. Travel east of New Orleans and order iced tea at a restaurant, and the waiter will invariably ask if you want the tea sweetened or unsweetened. Real Southerners, I suspect, always get their tea presweetened without flinching. Louisianians traveling through the South, however, are more likely to ask for unsweetened, just because that’s what they are used to, as they reach for the pink or blue packets next to the real sugar.”
Though Laborde refers to Louisiana as a whole, I think he’s really talking about south Louisiana, which indeed is a world apart.
North Louisiana is just like southwest Arkansas, where I grew up. In fact, I always figured that southwest Arkansas, east Texas and northwest Louisiana should be its own state with the capital at Shreveport or Texarkana.
Each state provides stark contrasts.
East Texas towns such as Tyler and Longview are without a doubt Southern (remember that Lady Bird Johnson Southern accent? She was from east Texas). But the South ends somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth as you head west.
We’ve debated where the South ends in Arkansas on this blog. Little Rock is without a doubt a Southern city. Fayetteville maintains a few Southern tendencies. But Rogers and Bentonville are the Midwest.
In Louisiana, I used to think about how things changed when I would cross the O.K. Allen Bridge over the Red River between Pineville and Alexandria. To the north were pine forests. To the south were fields of sugar cane and cotton. To the north were rolling hills and red clay. To the south were cypress swamps and rich, black soil. To the north were lots of Baptists. To the south were lots of Catholics. To the north were barbecue and fried catfish. To the south were gumbo and boiled shrimp. To the north it was, yes, sweet tea. To the south it was Dixie and Jax.
Laborde says a prominent Southern writer once told him that the sweet tea areas of the country were those areas filled with Baptists.
“He explained that since Baptists do not drink liquor, they have more of a fondness for sweetened drinks,” Laborde writes. “There was a sense of discovery at the dinner table as it was noted that the presweetened tea states tend to have larger Baptist populations than does Louisiana, where the Catholic culture sees wine as a sacrament, not a sin. In Louisiana it is perfectly normal to sell bourbon at a drugstore; in Mississippi it is a crime. The South is identified with mint juleps sipped on a veranda or at the racetrack, but for poor folks after those sweltering Southern days of working the red dirt soil, a chilled sweetened tea was their champagne.”
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. But Southern port cities like New Orleans are a world apart from the inland South. I also love Savannah and Charleston. All of those cities exhibit some Caribbean and even Mediterranean characteristics. Like I said, port cities are different.
So let’s put them in their own category.
And then let’s decide what’s the most Southern inland city of any size.
Little Rock? Birmingham? Jackson? Nashville? Montgomery? Lexington? Columbia? Richmond?
All are Southern.
Remember the words of the late, great Lewis Grizzard, who said Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent.
My vote goes to Memphis.
Despite the crime, the history of crooked politicians and the pothole-filled streets, you have to love Memphis if you love the South.
Another of my favorite writers is Greenville, Miss., native Julia Reed. She recently published a piece at www.wowowow.com about her frequent trips to Memphis as a child.
“The Delta probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse,” Reed writes. “Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north toward home, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.
“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’
“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”
Wasn’t it the late Willie Morris who said the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans?
If I can’t be eating dinner at Arnaud’s, Antoine’s or Tujague’s in New Orleans, then just place me in the Peabody lobby at Memphis.
Reed describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”
So my vote for the most Southern city goes to Memphis.
How do you vote and why?