Southern Living

The closest my family ever got to Southern living was fried chicken--and my own knowledge is gleaned from history books and more viewings of "A Streetcar Named Desire" than I care to admit. Yet I retain a healthy respect for Southern writers and a culture than can elevate magnolias and mint juleps to an art form. When we did travel below the Mason-Dixon Line, we headed to Miami for sun, sand and lox spreads. In short, the essence of the South--its music, its décor, its singularity--was closed to me. Until now. Southern Living is like sitting on a porch swing, sipping a bourbon and branch, as a cool summer breeze wafts the scent of clover and the strains of soft jazz.

Let's start with the cover--a plate of fresh peaches and pound cake graces an aqua-colored plate with a soft yellow rim. An alabaster-handled fork rests gently on the striped placemat. It suggests the kind of languid moment in which men in white linen suits casually light a Cuban cigar and puff contentedly, as their daughters leave for the cotillion. New York at rush hour this isn't.

Southern Living is about time and leisure, defined, I suspect, by a sense of memory and moment. Much of the magazine's charm surrounds its appreciation of all things botanical. For example, "Every Southerner recognizes the unmistakable aroma of gardenia..." By contrast, the only association I have with gardenias is Peter Lorre's business card in "The Maltese Falcon."

Nature also reigns supreme at Powell Gardens, a 915-acre oasis of junipers, geraniums, salvias, lilies and zinnias 30 miles from Kansas City, Mo., featured in the issue, while the two-day Sunflower Festival in Rutledge, Ga., (July 1-2) is an excuse to see an impressive 12-acre sunflower maze. Gospel and bluegrass groups, a tractor parade and hayrides, add local color.

I was also taken with the backyard-party recipes offered by a friendly Texan, because hot gravy, biscuits and barbecue are not on the menu. This is Southern-style sans the coronary: cold marinated shrimp with avocado and green bean and new potato salad. But to kick-start the shindig, she includes tequila mojitos--avocado only goes so far on a hot, humid Mississippi day. Every issue of Southern Living has healthy-living recipes, be it cooking light or easy pasta meals, and gardening tips. Also, I learned that the model Southerner has a porch, a white fence and loads of flowers--everywhere. If they are true-blue, they serve blackberries in food and drinks. And the part of me that crowds into the E train at 7 p.m. envies them.

Indeed, whether its writers are writing about a drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains--including the town of Erwin, where an out-of-control circus elephant was once tried and hanged--or citing the beauty of plantation houses, or waxing rhapsodic about the 7-inch-high pies at Hammett House Restaurant in Claremore, Okla., SL showcases the civility and the quirkiness of Southern life. FYI: The Hammett sits in the shadow of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, probably built on the assumption that his fans never met a pie they didn't like.

The big surprise is what constitutes the South. According to the Southern Living plant zone diagram, it's huge--spanning Texas to Delaware, or as the cartographers call it, "Middle South." Which means it includes West Virginia or, more precisely, "Upper South." Whatever happened to the Mid-Atlantic States? Calling lower Indiana Southern is like claiming Wyoming is on the West Coast, which, since that designation includes Hollywood, could send Dick Cheney into cardiac arrest.

No matter. However you define its boundaries, I enjoyed spending time with SL. It's a pleasant, no-attitude read, just a long lingering dose of Southern hospitality.

Next story loading loading..