How to Be Southern
(In case you forgot)
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
Down through the years; through thick and thin, good times and bad, we Texans have been the perfect fair-weather friends of the South. We’ve had the credentials to be Southern when we wanted. Texas was part of the original Confederacy. Most of East Texas still is. But when the going’s been tough we’ve been able to step neatly aside into our Southwestern identities.
Real Southerners understand the fickleness of our devotion, Jimmy Carter likes to say that he’s the first president since Zachary Taylor to come from the South. Our own Lyndon Johnson, who certainly seemed ‘Southern” to people in the North, is not even on Carter’s list.
We’ll show him. We Texans are miles ahead of the hostesses in Washington, D.C., who are measuring their drawing rooms for square dancing. What your daddy and granddaddy tried to forget we will help you remember. So put on your white suit, polish off your grits, get your coon dog, and take a good look at what it takes to make it as a born-again citizen of the South.
How to Be a Southern Belle
A Southern belle is born, not made. (Some of them can be made, too, but we’ll get to that later.) And the place where she is born is in the mind of the Southern man.
Down through the tangled thickets of Southern chivalry, there was one figure who stood for everything that was pure—spiritually, culturally, racially, and sexually. That was the belle, and she was a great comfort to the Southern gentleman who had a hard time sticking to the highroad. When he was out dueling, he knew she was home embroidering. When he was succumbing to base desires in the bawdy house she was in raptures over the romances of Sir Walter Scott. When he was cheating his neighbor in business she was tending her sick mammy. And when he came home she loved him still. The belle worked the same magic as the Catholic church in Italy. After you got so dirty, it felt wonderful just to be around someone who seemed so clean.
Well, things are more complicated now, and everyone has trouble sticking to the highroad—as the young lady here suggests. But here are a few simple hints. Southern belles are usually smart, but they musn’t seem to be—that was Scarlett O’Hara’s big mistake. Be tough on the inside and soft on the outside. Avoid excess in all things. You should speak in a low voice, keep your legs primly crossed, and dress in clothes that are tastefully seductive. But in a pinch, don’t worry about taste.
How to Wear a White Suit
Observe the gentleman in the photo.
Does he look cool? That is because the white suit is especially designed to ward off the wilting rays of the sun.
Does he look stylishly wrinkled? That is because the genuine white suit is made of cotton, which adds character with a wrinkle the way double knit never can.
Does he look better than you? Yes, he does, so get yourself a white suit of your own.
Note: this is the one bit of masculine apparel with which you do not wear white socks.
How to Wear White Socks
There’s just one rule—don’t wear anything that looks as if it was designed for athletics, especially not any off-white woolen tennis socks. They were wearing white socks down at the Humble station before tennis was even invented. What you want now is what they wore then—the bleached white unstretchable cotton socks that bag around your ankles after the first few wearings. You won’t find them at Neiman-Marcus, so make Sears or J. C. Penney’s your supply headquarters. Cap them off with black shoes and you’re ready to step out on the town.
How to Get a Good Coon Dog
If you want a good coon dog, don’t look for a fancy breed or a big nose or a brother to the best coonhound in the county. What you want is a dog that can prove himself before you buy. You’re going to pay between $100 and $500, so you might as well get one that’s trained.
Breeding isn’t everything, but most good coon dogs are black-and-tan coonhounds, Plott hounds, blue ticks, or any combination thereof. As one veteran coon hunter puts it, “It’s in the dog hisself whether he’s any good or not.”
Before you get into this sport you may want to consider its level of gore, if your dog doesn’t finish off the coon on the ground you have to shoot it with your .22 after the hound trees it. Coon hunting is a nighttime pursuit since that’s when coons are on the prowl. During the day your dog can double as a squirrel or cattle dog, or he can just lie around. Coon dogs wrote the book on that.
How to Make a Mint Julep
Watch out for false prophets on this one. Some “experts” say you should use catnip instead of mint for a julep. That is fine if you’re a cat. Others say that you should add the sugar water last, instead of first, as clearly you must for a good julep.
If you want to do it right, this is how: Start with a Derby glass—which will contain twelve ounces. On Derby Day in Louisville, sterling silver is the metal of choice. On Southern 500 Day in Darlington, Styrofoam is preferred.
Pour in one jigger of “sweet water,” which is simply sugar water. There should be about an inch of it in the bottom of the glass.
Add a couple of mint leaves and mash them on the bottom of the glass. Then fill the glass up with shaved ice.
Add two shots of bourbon. Kentucky, of course. If you have no respect for tradition top with a splash of 7-Up.
Wet one more stem of mint and roll it in powdered sugar. Put the mint in the glass, a straw is optional.
Now you’re set.
We hear that Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate general whose name adorns many of our public schools, was the inventor of the julep. He wanted to prove that “mountain dew,” the homemade whiskey of the South, could be converted into something palatable. Too bad he’s dead. His next assignment would be pushing citrus wine from the Rio Grande Valley.
How to Whistle Dixie
Let’s face it. “Dixie” has fallen on hard times. The only people who have felt good whistling it recently are the kind who like to run around in sheets.
But “Dixie” has been down before and always comes back strong. The tune was American long before it was Southern. When Robert E. Lee surrendered, Abraham Lincoln said that one thing he was glad about was that all Americans could whistle Dixie again. He had a sense of priorities.
What this country needs is a new national song. Not one that ruins your throat, like the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Not one that sounds Pollyanna, like “America the Beautiful.” And of course not “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But a song that captures the spirit of playing while working, that moves along easily, that is not too much of a strain. A song like “Dixie.”
Pucker up those lips. Lift up that chin. Study closely the lady, then let’er rip. You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie no more.
How to Whittle
A Southern old-timer is about as likely not to have his knife on him as not to have his pants. The pocketknife comes in handy for a good many things besides whittlin’, like cutting plug tobacco and getting fish hooks out of your thumb.
If you want to be one of the old-timers who hang around the square and whittle, you need to find a piece of straight-grained soft wood like cedar or pine. (If you move up into hardwoods, you’ve moved up into “carving”—and it can be like carving concrete if you use woods like hickory or oak.) The basic idea is to see who can cut the longest shavings of consistent thickness and width.
The best whittlin’ knife is a sharp knife. If you’re going to carry a dull knife you might as well stay home.
The ultimate in whittlin’ is gadget carving—devoted whittlers can always tell you about someone’s grandfather who whittled a 42-foot chain or a ball in a cage. But most are happy if they end up with nothing but shavings on the ground and a toothpick in their hands.
How to Rig a Trotline
Rigging a trotline is not the height of adventure. But it is Southern: slow and easy. The skills involved are more mental than physical: the trick is not in wrist action, but in how to pick a good hole where the fish are biting. It may not exactly be a sportsman’s idea of a thrill; it is a good way to put supper on the table.
First check with the local game warden to see whether trotlines are legal in your area. In some counties, the fisherman is restricted to two lines, with no more than fifty hooks each, and the hooks must be three feet apart. Trotlines are often forbidden near public, boat docks or swimming and boating areas, or in small bodies of water. Usually a trotline must bear the name and address of the fisherman and the date when it was set out.
If the coast is clear, get a heavy nylon line which will resist rot and some empty plastic Clorox bottles for buoys; tie to the line a number of “staging lines” made of lighter-weight line that will hang vertically into the water. If you haven’t been saving your Clorox bottles for the last ten years, don’t despair. Find an isolated stretch of shoreline, tie one end of your line to a tree or fencepost close to the water, and sink the other end of your line, in the lake. Attach 3/0 to 8/0 hooks to the staging lines if you are after catfish.
Your choice of bait will depend on your choice of prey. Channel cats, go for soap, especially Procter and Gamble products which contain a lot of animal fat. Cut the soap into cubes and put on the hook. Yellow catfish, however, insist on live bait, usually perch.
Set your trotline out in the evening, before the catfish begin to feed. It’s best to check the line in the early morning—if you don’t the turtles are likely to come and chew the hooked fish and all your: work will go for nothing.
How to Eat
The main thing to remember when you are sitting down to a real Southern meal is to look like you know what you’re eating. You won’t have any trouble with biscuits, crackers, or tomatoes, and you can probably identify the lettuce your hog maw salad is resting on, but we think you’d better have a little more information on the rest of the exotics dished up to your right.
No plain ole bacon and eggs breakfast for the bona fide Southerner—what you see are grits (these are boiled, but you can do almost anything you want with them—put them in the icebox and fry them later or use them for glue when you run out of Elmer’s), homemade biscuits with Georgia peach jam, stewed okra ’n tomatoes, and fried fatback (which comes, naturally, from a pig, and is really salt pork). Don’t let yourself think about Wheaties or waffles—if you can just make it through breakfast, your chances are very good for enjoying dinner and supper.
Don’t show up at 7 p.m. when you’re invited to a Southern dinner. Only a nouveau Southerner wouldn’t know that dinner is what everybody else calls lunch. Our suggested meal is the perfect menu for a meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Since none but the most authentic Southerners can properly say hog maw (“ha-ug maaw,” with two syllables in the first word), it’s not likely you’ll have any spies from other ladies’ groups.
Hog maw salad looks pretty much like chicken salad with pink mayonnaise (thanks to the ketchup) and if you keep that in mind you should be able to attack it with confidence. Pity the poor cook. She is the only one who has to know that hog maw is a huge pig’s stomach, extremely vile to look at, to smell, and to touch (all of which she has to do often to make your salad). The sliced tomatoes should come in a slightly darker shade than the salad for a color-coordinated, meal.
Trust the brown Betty. It’s made from apples, bread crumbs, and brown, sugar. The only thing weird about it is its name (Betty?). Saltines and punch of a pleasing color finish off a smashing plate.
Supper must be the biggest and the best. You must cram everything you can onto each plate. The omnipresent pork has top billing once again; not only is it the entree, but also it’s in the greens and the beans.
There are all kinds of edible greens, but we chose mustard for supper. Part of the fun of cooking greens is the washing. They are so full of grit (the dirt kind) your hostess will have spent at least an hour rinsing them off while her kidney beans boil and boil.
Plain white rice and applesauce make up your starches, with the sweet roll, which is definitely not the kind you find under glass in the drugstore.
The mint in the iced tea is for color and extravagance: You should have had your mint julep on the porch before supper.
There you have it: three perfectly Southern meals. With fortitude and good table manners you can fool any descendant of Robert E. Lee into thinking you have eaten this food all your life. But here are a few extra pointers: remember that there are myriads of other Southern foods you’ll have to learn about (i.e., eat); always fold your napkin after a meal; and keep your Alka-Seltzer out of sight.
How to Avoid Pellagra
Pellagra, the disease of “pig and pone,” is native to the Old South. It’s characterized by diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. That’s what you get for eating nothing but corn and pork. Eat a diet with enough vitamin B3 and you’ll avoid those effects of pellagra that make for the stereotypical Southern cracker. Feed Abe Lincoln pig and pone all his life and you’ve got 99 and 44/100 per cent pure white trash.
How to Be Baptized in a River
To begin with, it helps to be black. Until the recent evangelical revival, white churches were switching to indoor baptisteries—more class, less mud—whenever they could afford them. Still, to be a Baptist it follows you must be baptized.
The moment for baptism comes when you make a conscious decision for Christ. Generally this occurs in adolescence. Most candidates down by the riverside are between the ages of eight and fifteen.
Watch out for a recent trend toward rebaptism. Some ministers have applied the theory of built-in obsolescence to baptisms, making their parishioners feel unprepared unless they have taken the second or third plunge. In some places in East Texas people have been baptized fifteen or twenty times. Standard Baptist theology says that once is enough.
How to Chew Tobacco
This is where we separate the men from the boys. (And we’ll use all the sexist metaphors we want in this section.) If you’re going to chew tobacco, your teeth will turn brown and your lips will drip with dark sticky juice. Your tongue will feel like leather and you will wilt flowers with your breath. In short, you will be disgusting. If you are serious about being a Southerner, that will not hold you back. If you’re not serious, go suck a Virginia Slim.
Step One: you must choose your tobacco, looseleaf or plug. In the old days, when every man who was a man carried a knife, the choice was easy. You bought yourself a plug and cut yourself a chaw. You favored respectable old brands like Buzz Saw, Prune Nugget, Mule Ear, and the immortal Dat’s De Stuff. You don’t need a knife for looseleaf—you just roll it up in a wad. The way a man’s defenses are being taken away from him, we will all be chewing looseleaf soon. Beechnut and Red Man are popular brands these days. If you have any loyalty to the barn roofs of the Old South, you will search out Mail Pouch.
Step Two: stick the chaw in your cheek, like the gentleman below. You’ll know you have it right when you appear to have a tumor in your jaw. Work it around to the other side after a while for balance.
Step Three: spit out the juice. The hard part these days is finding a decent place to spit. If you have servants or a little woman trained to empty cuspidors, life looks fine. If you’re in a pasture or barroom or trying to insult an enemy, just let fly. Everywhere else you will just have to settle for an empty beer bottle or a paper cup. That’s what the world has come to.
The spit is most effective when used to punctuate a story. “So Daddy to the sheriff”—spittt, plop—“to go straight to hell.”
Remember: when chewing is outlawed, only outlaws will have chaws.
How to Plant a Magnolia
If you live in West Texas, forget it. Magnolias won’t grow there. They like an acid soil, and the soil of West Texas is too alkaline.
Magnolias are adaptable when it comes to sunlight and shade. But because of their large leaves they can’t withstand stiff wind. Wherever you plant them, be sure soil is well drained. If you are in a hurry, don’t start from seed. You may have to wait between ten and twenty years before you see the first bloom. If you start with a potted plant, be sure that the soil line is the same in the ground as it was in the pot. If the tree is a large one, stake it to hold it upright. Use as much of the native soil as possible when filling in around roots. Keep the grass trimmed back. Don’t fertilize the tree for the first year or two. Instead mulch it well with hay or, if you are really getting into the spirit of Southernness, with sugarcane pulp.
How to Start the Year Right
Possibly the reason you have never had good luck or kept your New Year’s resolution is not because you broke ten mirrors or lost your willpower; it’s because you never ate cornbread and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. This is a Southern must, and as long as you eat at least one pea and one bite of cornbread (with an optional swallow of buttermilk), you will have enough to eat for the rest of the year. And if you keep yourself busy with eating all year, you won’t have time to worry about luck or willpower.
How to Square Dance
Square dancing will not only make you a Southerner—it will also make you young. Look at these people. They will still be dancing sixty years from now—probably dancing on your grave.
Square dancing makes great demands on your physical and mental skills. No Jax or Miller’s on dance night. You will need your wits about you.
Longtime dancers can dance every night if they want to. They just make the rounds of the other clubs in town that meet on the nights of the week when their own club is idle.
Some dancers have as many as twelve fancy dress costumes. Your partner’s outfit matches your own. If you’re a man, you also wear a little matching towel or handkerchief on your belt, because square dancing is strenuous. That’s why you’re there. Remember?
Every night you have a new caller. If you aren’t doing a standard dance like “Birdie in the Cage,” the caller will keep you on your toes as you anticipate the next call. He’ll make an effort to stump everyone, in which case you go back to home base until you all get untangled.
There’s a little unauthorized step in every dance called “yellowrocking,” which allows the men to get in a free hug with whatever woman they can find. Everyone is moving fast and concentrating hard, and you’re all good friends by the end of the dance. So what’s a little yellowrocking between friends?
How to Handle a Watermelon
Prize Dixie watermelons can run a hundred pounds—big enough to get you in trouble if you don’t know how to handle them: Most people don’t. Jackie Onassis could not eat a watermelon. With her knife and fork she would look as if she thought it were a very large canapé. You have to go headfirst, as the young lady is doing lower left. In private, hands are OK.
The next step is to spit out the seeds —if you don’t, your choices are drooling them onto your plate or fishing them from your mouth with a spoon. Watermelons were made for the outdoors.
When: you’re done, you’re ready to pickle the rind. Cut off the skin and flesh and cut the rind into one-inch squares. Boil them ten minutes and drain. Prepare a syrup of 7 cups sugar, 2 cups vinegar, and 1½ quarts water.
Boil it and pour in on the rinds. Let it stand overnight, then drain off the syrup. Boil it again, and pour it back on. Let it stand overnight again. The next morning do the same thing. Finally, on the third morning, put the rind in sterile jars, boil the syrup one last time, and pour it to the top of the jars. There’s nothing like it store-bought.
Crawdads (aka crayfish) are simple little crustaceans that look like miniature lobsters. They share with lobsters a common trait, namely, that they are good to eat.
In the South (including the East Texas woods) crawdads live in what are called bayous (in the rest of Texas the term is gullies). Whatever you call their haunts, crawdads act pretty much the same wherever you find them. They live in holes they have bored in the muddy bank of the bayou, usually just above water level. When the water is high, crawdads don’t mind. When it is low, they just hunker down in their holes where it is still wet. A crawdad always backs out of awkward situations—usually into its hole. (For this reason, do not be flattered if someone ever calls you a crawdad.)
The way to coax a crawdad out of its hole is to tempt it with a piece of salt pork or slab bacon tied to a string. (Some members of the weaker sex attach the bacon to a safety pin tied onto the string to make it more secure, but that is being overly cautious.) Upon spying the bait, the crawdad stupidly attaches itself to it with its claws and tries to drag it home. It’s blindly tenacious and will hold on as long as it can’t see any trouble coming—which means that you can grab it from the back and drag it home in your bucket. Professional crawdadders use a seine to net the poor crawdads in quantity, but that’s about as sporting as dynamiting fish. Stick to the mano a mano method.
Once you get it home, boil it and eat it as if it were a shrimp. One more thing to remember: if you’re a real crawdadder, you’ll suck the concentrated fats and juices from the snapped-off head and smack your lips with delight.
How to Step ’n’ Fetchit
The great black actor Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) made a career and a fortune out of what we now consider a degrading stereotype. But he was merely putting on a masterful version of the con that blacks have long used on white folks—and Southerners have always used on the North.
Our modern Stepin Fetchit is Jimmy Carter’s friend Charles Kirbo. He says yassuh and nossuh and he speaks mighty slow, but he don’t care because the last laugh’s his.
Study his example. It helps to start each sentence, “I’m just a country boy myself . . .” You’ll drive the Yankees crazy.
For the record, making moonshine whiskey is still illegal. Under federal law, you can go to prison for five years or face a $10,000 fine, or both, for brewing your own.
Worse, moonshine can kill you. Some moonshiners make their stills out of old truck radiators, or use lead solder to hold the coil together. The finished product may contain lead salts that will make you blind, crippled, or dead. Some home recipes call for a dash of lye to make the fermentation go faster. This too is hard on the consumer.
But some people will stop at nothing. Up in the hills, lawless old boys still make their own whiskey.
This is how they do it: They start with a 55-gallon drum. Into that they put the “mash”—corn (or occasionally rye), sugar, water, and yeast. Usually they’ve boiled the grain first, which converts its starch into forms of sugar that will ferment more easily.
They add the yeast when the mash has cooled down and then let the mixture “work off” for awhile. The outside temperature determines how fast it will ferment—the hotter the faster. Most batches take a week or two. The mash stops fermenting when all the sugar has turned to alcohol or when, the rising alcoholic concentration kills off the yeast, whichever comes first. At that point the liquid is about thirty proof. Some old connoisseurs with refined palates can tell by tasting with their fingers when it’s getting ready.
Next they siphon off the liquid, which they save, and throw away the mash. The liquid goes into the “cooker,” or pot still. This is a metal pot with a tight lid. A coiled pipe leads away from the hole in the lid, and when the liquid boils that, naturally, is the only place the vapors can go.
When the pot boils, the alcohol evaporates before the water and is collected in the coil. The moonshiners keep this process up until there’s nothing left in the cooker. From the thirty gallons of liquid they took from the drum they end up with one gallon of moonshine—clear, colorless alcohol which smells like paint thinner.
Our man at the Alcoholic Beverages Commission says he has heard of one case in which a moonshiner actually stored the alcohol in a charcoal-lined wooden barrel to give it the familiar golden color, so appealing to the fastidious. Just one.
How to Deal with Chiggers
If you’re going to be a Southerner, you must take the bad with the good. That includes chiggers.
Chiggers are the larvae of harvest mites—from the genus Trombidium, if you must know. Contrary to popular conception, they do not actually burrow into your skin. They are so small that they can get right in through a pore or hair follicle.
The best way to cure chiggers is not to get them in the first place. If you are going walking through the grassy areas where they thrive, use sulphur powder or a commercial repellent, or tuck your pants into your socks. If you happen to be in the Ozarks you can take advantage of the chigger-repelling properties of the wild mint called pennyroyal.
But you’ve ignored our advice and got the chiggers. Next step is to bathe right after you walk in hopes of washing them off before they get established. If that fails, you can suffocate them by covering the afflicted portions of your body with nail polish or Chapstick. That kills the chiggers but leaves their mouthparts embedded in your skin. Washing with Clorox will also kill them but has a similar drawback. Patience is the only answer: use a camphor product or calomine lotion to relieve the itching and wait till the chiggers fill up and drop off of their own accord.
Cheer up: Jimmy Carter went through all of this and look where he is now.
How to Plant a Tire
You already know that a planting-tire can improve the diversity of your garden, which also contains plastic flamingos, a sundial, a birdbath, and a hitching post.
But you may not know that a tire can also hold moisture around your plants during the hot summer. And if your topsoil is plain wore out from too much cotton and peanuts, you can fill the tire with new soil to create an oasis of fertility.
Your tire must be painted white before you lay it on the ground. Variegated petunias are the planting of choice. Marigolds show a slightly lower level of taste but are also acceptable.