“The Professional Southerner” — and why

IMG_3349I think I was living in Indiana the first time I was referred to as a “professional southerner.” As I recall, it was around 1994 and I was frustrated because I had been unable to find okra in the produce sections of the local grocers. Someone innocently asked why I ate okra and my shock made me launch into a monologue of the virtues of okra and all the ways in which it could be consumed. But my favorite way was breaded and fried in the particular way my Grandmother Harbison had always made it and I had been craving fried okra around that time of that Indiana summer.

This led to questions about other ways in which okra could be consumed (I told them pickled okra was my favorite Bloody Mary garnish), other foods I like, and other queries about Southern foodways. Someone in the group mumbled, “I never realized you were such a professional Southerner,” and we all laughed but over the years, as I lived and traveled in other parts of the country, I became aware that I was often the go-to guy for issues dealing with the South and what it means to be Southern.

Having said that, I am a proud Southerner but very few people would classify me as a “typical” Southern male with all of the misconceptions and stereotypes that label evokes. But I realized, after traveling and working in different places – and to my surprise, really – that not only was the South my home, but that it was the place I best understood and the place where I felt most comfortable. It was the place I wanted to come back to. My politics, for one thing, are not typical of the South, but they are also not as atypical as some might suppose and I resent the whole “Blue State / Red State” way of thinking because it gives such a divisive idea of what is really happening in our country.

Not long ago, my friend Cindy and I attended a “Piggy Bank” dinner at the Factory of Alabama-based fashion designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama. The event was to honor Southern food and to benefit Southern Foodways Alliance. The chef for the evening was Vivian Howard who owns and runs Chef and the Farmer, a farm to table fine dining restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, with her husband Ben Knight. Between the entrée and the dessert, Shonna Tucker, an Alabama-born musician who has recently moved to Florence after many years on the road, sang her striking and original songs. The dinner guests were a wide range of people who shared an amazing communal meal and one of the most convivial and relaxed evenings I have enjoyed in a long time. At the end of the evening, all of the diners stood and sang “You Are My Sunshine” to Vivian Howard, led by Natalie Chanin, one of the most innovative and conscious fashion designers working today.

That night, walking from the Factory to the car, I commented to my friend that “This is one of those nights when I can’t imagine living anyplace else but Alabama.” And I decided that I – who have always detested the idea of blogs and the label of “blogger” – would make an effort to record and share some of the things that make my South so special to me. Plus, I have been told that I “think loudly.” Maybe, by writing this online journal, my loud thoughts will become more specific and defined.

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