Romancing the South

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As a child, I consciously rejected the culture of the South when I moved back after four years of elementary school spent in the granola-green haze of a progressive’s dream known as Madison, Wisconsin. Turns out it was a South I never really knew to begin with, a South that was projected on me, at once romanticized and ridiculed, a South I wouldn’t begin to claim as my own until I spent my late 20s in Brooklyn, a desperately hip place where all things Southern were decidedly so.

I was starting fourth grade when we moved back. I made sure not to pick up colloquialisms like “fixin’” and “y’all.” Despite my love for their drop-dead-gorgeous sentences, Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner annoyed me. This sort of literature romanticized the South in a macabre way, reiterating stereotypes I wanted so desperately to escape.

Not that my childhood was that Southern at all, whatever that means. I was raised with German-American traditions in a family full of classical musicians. We grilled out brats paired with potato salad underneath banana trees in my grandparents’ backyard on Markham Hill, just up a ways from Razorback Stadium. I grew up playing “Chopsticks” on a harpsichord in their living room—they were early music scholars—and didn’t have a top-secret pie-crust recipe that’d won a blue ribbon passed down generations, or even know how to cook fried chicken. Hell, the only cornbread I’d ever made came out of a Jiffy box.

Fast-forward to 2004. I pile all my belongings into a U-Haul, move to New York City and chase my dream of being a writer in the big city, where I spend my late 20s in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, a place anointed the epicenter of all things hip.

I see an urban bucolic decay that I deem the Brooklyn Pastoral. There are abandoned warehouses overcome with weeds not too unlike the kudzu overtaking the low ancient Boston Mountains. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway carves out the sunset, and I’m somehow reminded of the way the Buffalo River carves out the majestic bluffs of my old Arkansas Ozarks homeland, though the landscapes are nearly opposite.

It’s in this setting that all things quaint and rustic, all that South I tried so hard to not pick up, are all the rage. Take for example the popular hangout in my neighborhood, Enid’s, where the wait for brunch is at least 30 minutes.

The restaurant and bar serves cheese grits, collard greens, biscuits and gravy, mac ’n’ cheese—basically all that food that everyone thinks I must’ve grown up on when they find out where I’m from, but that I didn’t really eat much of at all until after moving to the city. Enid’s is a hipster haven, with a giant sequined camel on the wall and whatever music du jour—back in the mid-aughts that meant a ton of Ratatat and Band of Horses.

In the late aughts, trendy vintage boutiques sell vintage cowboy boots for $100, and vintage-wearing young things pair them with flowery sundresses and oversized sunglasses. All the chic places serve $12 drinks in Mason jars and have at least one menu item that prominently features rhubarb. In essence, it’s easy to become incredibly broke partaking in all things “Southern” so I can be cool while working 60 hours a week in my low-level book-publishing job.

At one point I begin baking pies. The first one I latch onto is strawberry rhubarb with streusel topping. I take it to a cookout in Bed-Stuy, Spike Lee’s childhood neighborhood, full of grandiose brownstones as well as poverty. Because I’m headed there, it means gentrification is rapidly raising the rents on those brownstones.

The pie’s a hit. Everyone thinks I’ve been baking it for as long as I’ve been able to wield a rolling pin. “You made this from scratch?!” I grin and tell them I found the recipe on Food Network Canada after a quick Google search.

I begin to somewhat regret working diligently not to pick up a Southern accent. I begin to notice that “Southern” is one of two things to those who are decidedly not Southern: It’s either romanticized and turned into an ethos of hip, or it is trashed, and sometimes that white-trash ethos is romanticized, too.

Those years now seem a lifetime ago as I write this from my rental house that sits on the edge of a historic hill in the center of Fayetteville, back where the trumpet vine’s thick, and redbuds burst afire, and I return home to bunnies hopping in the yard. It’s the last day of my birth month, and my wild April heart is bursting.

I now romanticize filth and depravity from my time in the big city like the bed bugs that infested my third-floor walk-up apartment and the stench of human waste wafting through the air from the massive sewage-treatment plant near my apartment. Funny how our memory seems to trick us into believing the past is always rosy.

Perhaps it’s our nature to cultivate nostalgia for the past we never actually had, to idealize cultures we’ll never understand. I’ll say this: My time in Brooklyn, that pastoral urban decay and filth combined with the manufactured quaint and love of all things Southern, realigned me, somehow. I can’t change the traditions that made me or the fact that I really don’t feel like my roots are very Southern, but I embrace the weird amalgam of my being and occasionally laugh at how much people spend on that romanticized South, like that $150 pair of vintage cowboy boots that look just like the hand-me-downs I got for free. I still bake pies, but that’s a tradition of my own inventing. We make our own magic.

Katy Henriksen is a cultural journalist and a classical-music host for KUAF in Fayetteville, who tweets as @helloloretta.