Recently I was at a gallery in Atlanta for the opening of a friend’s painting show and had a conversation about “the real South.”In the months that have passed since that conversation, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve read so many articles and think pieces about what “real southerners” are/do/wear/eat/drink/believe/think, and I have to say, they all blend together. The culture described is homogenous, at best a highlights reel of Southern culture and at worst a caricature. They touch on all the stereotypes: pearls, manners, butter, grits, bourbon, seersucker, y’all, bless your hearts, and come to Jesus.
In a rush to compete over what areas of the American South are the most Southern we have lost sight of what actually makes the South special—regional traditions and pride in such.
In North Carolina alone there are 100 counties stretching from the Smokey Mountains to the Outer Banks. Over the past two years, I’ve started the process of researching and cooking my way through all 100 of those counties through a project I’m working on called Tasting North Carolina. The work is slow going (I just finished my 11th county) but incredibly rewarding. From the fish stew of Lenoir County to the pickled beans of Mitchell County, each community has food, ingredients, traditions, and celebrations that set them apart from each other. In the same way, the traditions of North Carolina are vastly different from the traditions of South Carolina, Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Texas. Which is exactly how it should be.
The South can be defined by geographical borders, or by where kudzu grows, or even by where you get sweet tea without asking for it to be sweet. But more than any of those superficial and tangible things, I think it can be can be defined by spirit. We are Southerners because we choose to define ourselves as Southerners. I care deeply about my North Carolina roots, and that identity defines who I am—in my kitchen, in my community, on my blog, Biscuits and Such. We are a collection of people loosely tied together by geography and customs.
Instead of competing against each other and trying to determine what the true South is like some sort of grade school popularity contest, we need to embrace the simple fact that the South is big enough for all of us. The South is made even better by our unique identities and traditions. We are so much more than stereotypes and caricatures, and it is time to hold up high what makes us special, what makes us weird, what makes us Southern.