Perhaps it's because there just seems to be something different about the South. You don't often see T-shirts bragging about the Pacific Northwest or bumper stickers proclaiming the greatness of the Mid-Atlantic States. Quick! Name a ballad about the Great Lakes States. For better or worse, the South occupies a singular niche in American culture. So of course it was one of the first localities to propagate its own magazine.
And that magazine plays to such demographic strengths. This happens to be an excerpt from the "Keeping it Southern" editorial by Editor in Chief Eleanor Griffin in the June issue, but it might just as well be the mission statement for the publication itself: "[T]ransplants to our region may not go for sweet tea, but they surely go for our kinder, gentler approach to life." Like a lot of born-and-bred Yankees, I can't help approaching such a declaration a little squeamishly, while recalling all the un-kind, un-gentle moments in the history of the former Confederacy. But, hey -- this mag is about sections dubbed Home and Garden and Food and Healthy Living, so it's only fair to focus on the topics at hand.
And for the most part those are topics Southern Living covers well. What strikes you almost immediately is the art direction. The design is first-rate all throughout, and flipping these pages feels as breezy as sitting on an open veranda; nearly every image is bright and clean and colorful, and pastels rule. I'm a guy and I don't usually notice colors (to many, such a statement is redundant) but color seems to be an intrinsic editorial component in SL.
As for the words that bracket those colors, it's clear this is a staff that takes every assignment seriously. Unfortunately, so many regional mags feel quite fluffy -- many pages read like press releases have been cut and pasted and passed off as "content." Not so with SL. Take "12 Ultimate Trips for Kids," which includes age-appropriate advice and compelling reasons to visit such venues as Sun Studio in Memphis and -- credit where it is due -- the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery.
Such meticulous attention to detail spills over into all the sections. What's more, while I don't think anyone would read SL without an interest in all things Southern, the magazine does seem to reach two audiences: those who live in the South and those planning on visiting.
Two features in this issue stand out. "How We Built Our Dream Cottage" contains eight full pages of photos and text detailing how one family remade a gorgeous beach home on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Many other magazines would cover this with two pictures and a sidebar, but SL clearly loves the nitty-gritty. The other feature -- "Float Through the Heart of Texas" -- is a good concept wedded to a strong execution. Author Les Thomas traced the Guadalupe River across Texas and details a multitude of interesting stops along the way.
A first-person account dubbed "My Week at Surf Camp" by Amy Bickers effectively offers the twin perspectives of a mother and her young son when they learn not to be afraid to fall. And the food feature of the month offers more than you ever considered doing with both blackberries and peaches.
That said, however, I have to take gentle exception to "BBQ 101." There's no question author Chris Lilly is an expert in the field, and his detailed recipes are ripe for emulation. But in the South barbeque often ranks much higher than mere sustenance and only slightly lower than the most firmly held beliefs. There's dry rub and wet rub, vinegar-based and tomato-based, sweet and smoky, and on and on. Tastes vary not just by state, but even within specific regions of certain states, such as North Carolina. So while Lilly's creations are first-rate, they represent a sliver of Southern barbeque, not the entire plate; it's as if a regional magazine in Dublin highlighted only one lager.
In the end, most SL readers will forgive such sins. Is today's South truly kinder and gentler? I'm not sure. But these pages are, and they transport the reader to such a place -- even if it doesn't exist.
MAG STATS Published by: Southern Progress Corporation (Time Inc.)
Frequency: Monthly (with extra Best Of Southern Living issue in December)