The most Southern city

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.

Atlanta?

No way.

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?

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20 Responses to “The most Southern city”

  1. Ramjet says:

    Atlanta?
    No way.
    Well to hell with you and I hope you enjoy the limited dining choices you have in, say, Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham, and oh let’s say Jackson.

  2. CBurn says:

    This is somewhat off subject. You mention some of your favorite southern writers in this post. I’m curious, what are some good essential southern books, authors, etc.
    I am about to take a vacation and need some good reading for the beach!
    Keep up the good work…Great blog!
    Thanks!

  3. Phil W says:

    Ramjet – Atlanta is NO LONGER a southern city. Half of my family lives there and it lost it’s sourthern identity long ago. How many restarauns a city has is meaningless to this discussion. Atlanta is a city of transplants now.

    Most southern is likely Birmingham, but I enjoy Nashville much more.

  4. Rocky says:

    I agree with Laborde that Louisiana is a world within itself, especially the southern half. If someone has never spent any time in Abbyville or New Iberia they owe it to themselves to go down to the Crawfish Festival. Some the finest food anywhere. But I agree with you about Memphis. I love it’s checkered past and all that it is today.

  5. rexnelson says:

    Ramjet: I think you would be surprised with the quality of dining in Little Rock and Birmingham. But as Phil points out, fine dining does not a Southern city make. If that were the criteria, New York and San Francisco would be Southern cities. I want places with history and character. Speaking of Jackson, the Mayflower downtown fits those criteria — Rex

  6. rexnelson says:

    CBurn: Anything and everything by Willie Morris. It’s not exactly beach reading, but some Faulkner is a must. For more modern books, anything by Rick Bragg — Rex

  7. Bubba Wayne says:

    A southern city is somewhere that the tornado siren is tested at noon on Mondays, the mosquito fogging truck cruises around town all summer at twilight, and the stars can be seen at night. Main Street in the downtown area is where all meet, shop, see a movie, or visit under a shade tree. Food is home cooked, church bells can be heard on Sunday morning, and ethnicity is not defined in a hyphenated format. All people were closer in these small ‘burgs than in the big city. But, America the melting pot is melting all into an undefinable mob. Vestiges of the southern culture of my memories are now located in site specific locations or perhaps a few blocks in town. I am hopeful it remains to be found in some more rural locations, where your addressed as sir or maam and good manners are seen as maturity, not weakness. By my standards and memories, a true southern city may no longer exist.

  8. Neil Young says:

    Being Southern is not a matter of geography, it is a state of mind, of being. First off, Texas, not Southern. Missouri, not Southern. Florida, not even close. Seersucker suits and white bucks, very Southern. Big gaudy hats and floral print dresses, Southern. Bourbon in some form served with every meal, again, Southern. Taking all of these into consideration, I’d like to suggest Louisville, Ky., and Savannah, Ga., both have their regional flavors as well as a strong Southern atmosphere.

  9. Bubba Wayne says:

    I hope this is not Neil Young the musician. You already had your attempt to define the south and you failed.

  10. Neil Young says:

    I agree with Rex about New Orleans. It is not so much Southern as an entity all its own. There are parts of that city that little if anything in common with any other city in the country, and that’s the way it should be kept. Have a Sazerac, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  11. CBurn says:

    Thanks Rex! Have you ever read any Larry Brown?

  12. RWF says:

    Tough to call but my top two are Memphis and Birmingham. Each has their own “flavor”. Ultimately though I have to go with Memphis: the river, the BBQ, Blues, etc. Now you have started an internal debate in my head as to whether I like the Rendevous or Interstate BBQ the most.

  13. rexnelson says:

    CBurn: Yes I have read Larry Brown and miss him.

    I enjoyed that whole Oxford crowd — Rex

  14. rexnelson says:

    RWF: I enjoy both places. Rendezvous caters more to tourists, but it’s a fun place. Interstate is a bit harder for tourists to find down there on South Third Street. I get ribs at Rendezvous. At Interstate, it’s barbecue spaghetti, which may just be my favorite single dish in Memphis — Rex

  15. paulaustin says:

    Southern writer? How about Tom Franklin. An Alabama boy who is a graduate of the MFA program at Fayetteville. Poachers is a wonderful short story collection and his novels Hell at the Breech, Smonk and the new one, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter are great.

  16. Most Southern city? Memphis, without a doubt. Despite FedEx, AutoZone, International Paper, et. al., it’s resisted the corporatization that’s swamped Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham. New Orleans is more cosmopolitan than Southern, with France, Spain, the Caribbean all coming together with the South. Little Rock? Eh, Memphis on a smaller scale with a smaller river.

    Southern literature? Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy. Best treatise on the South and Southernness ever written. Fiction? Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee (what a waste she only wrote one book).

    And I’ll take the limited dining choices in Memphis (Felicia Suzanne’s, Restaurant Iris, Erling Jensen’s, wherever Wally Joe is cooking these days), or for that matter, Little Rock, any day of the week. (Hot Springs ain’t no slouch, either, particularly when it comes to Italian and barbecue and corned beef at Oaklawn!)

  17. BVC says:

    How appropriate that we turn to food to define our quintessential Southern city. I see a lot of restaurants mentioned where I have never had the pleasure of dining. Where probably most Southerners have never dined.

    To me, the South is much better defined by waffles at Huddle House and Golden Flake potato chips and Milo’s sweet tea. It is the anticipation that comes with the season’s first Vidalia onion. Boiled peanuts sold on the side of the road.

    There are any number of cities that meet these criteria, and that’s why it’s so hard for me to pin down just one. Little Rock, as much as I love it, is a fringe city. Lexington, even more so. Ditto, Columbia, though it is probably more Southern than Little Rock. Memphis and Nashville are thoroughly Southern, but Tennessee has a culture all its own in addition to being properly Southern.

    Travel Interstate 20 from Monroe, LA to Atlanta, GA, however, and you are exposed to 500 miles of highway that is in lockstep, in attitude and geography alike. It is the heart of the Deep South, and the cities along that stretch must get my vote. It has to be either Jackson or Birmingham.

  18. Texanbornandraised says:

    Texas (especial Eastern Texas) is most definitely apart of the south. Travel across from Louisiana to Dallas and stop at some small Barbecue joint or live there to know what your talking about. All those small towns between Louisiana and Dallas are strongly Southern

  19. Texanbornandraised says:

    Either Cosby, TN or Greenville, MS

  20. EM says:

    Agreed- Memphis is the most “southern” US city.

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