This was written by Robert St. John, executive chef and owner of the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar of Hattiesburg , MS.
Thirty years ago I visited my first cousin in Virginia. While hanging out with his friend, the discussion turned to popular movies of the day. When I offered my two-cents on the authenticity and social relevance of the movie Billy Jack, one of the boys asked, in all seriousness, “Do you guys have movie theaters down there?” To which I replied, “Yep. We wear shoes too.”
Just three years ago, my wife and I were attending a food and wine seminar in Aspen, Colo. We were seated with two couples from Las Vegas. One of the Glitter Gulch gals was amused and downright rude when I described our restaurant as a fine-dining restaurant. “Mississippi doesn’t have fine-dining restaurants!” she insisted and nudged her companion. I fought back the strong desire to mention that she lived in the land that invented the 99-cent breakfast buffet.
I wanted badly to defend my state, my region, and my restaurant with a 15-minute soliloquy and public relations rant that would surely change her mind. It was at that precise moment that I was hit with a blinding jolt of enlightenment, and in a moment of complete and absolute clarity it dawned on me: my South is the best-kept secret in the country. Why would I try to win this woman over? She might move down here.
I am always amused by Hollywood’s interpretation of the South. We are still, on occasion, depicted as a collective group of sweaty, stupid, backwards-minded, racist rednecks. The South of movies, TV, and Hollywood is not my South.
This is my South:
My South is full of honest, hardworking people. My South is the birthplace of blues and jazz, and rock n’ roll. It has banjo pickers and fiddle players. But it also has BB King, Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, and Elvis. And Nat King Cole, Gloria Estefan, Leontyn Price, Anita Baker, and Beyonce. And Morgan Freeman, Dakota Fanning, Jeff Foxworthy, and Julia Roberts.
My South is hot. My South smells of newly mowed grass. My South was kick the can, creek swimming, cane-pole fishing and bird hunting.
In my South, football is king, and the Southeastern Conference is the kingdom.
My South is home to the most beautiful women on the planet.
In my South, soul food and country cooking are the same thing.
My South is full of fig preserves, cornbread, butter beans, fried chicken, grits and catfish. In my South, we also eat foie gras, caviar and truffles.
In my South, our transistor radios introduced us to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the same time they were introduced to the rest of the country.
In my South, grandmothers cook a big lunch every Sunday. So big that we call it dinner. (Supper comes later).
In my South, family matters. Deeply.
My South is boiled shrimp, blackberry cobbler, peach ice cream, (or peach cobbler and blackberry ice cream, if you prefer), banana pudding and oatmeal cream pies.
In my South people put peanuts in bottles of Coca-Cola and hot sauce on almost everything.
In my South the tea is iced and almost as sweet as the women.
My South has air-conditioning.
My South is camellias, azaleas, wisteria and hydrangeas.
In my South, the only person that has to sit on the back of the bus is the last person that got on the bus.
In my South, people still say, “Yes, ma’am,” “No ma’am,” “Please” and “Thank you.”
In my South, we wear shoes… Most of the time.
My South is the best-kept secret in the country. Please continue to keep the secret. It keeps the idiots away.