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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

My South 2018

May 16, 2018

Over twenty years ago my hometown newspaper called my office and asked if I would be interested in writing a weekly column. I begged off. They called again, and again, and again. I finally said, “yes.” It was a dubious beginning.

I was almost 40-years old when I began this weekly column. At the time I told myself, “I’ll spend the next 40 writing about the first 40.” The first columns were bad. Really bad. Some probably think they’re still bad. Fair enough.

I had shown a proficiency for writing in high school, but spent the next 20 years focused on restaurants, and everything having to do with restaurants. Over the course of those two decades, it was a labor for me to even write a letter to someone.

A few years in, I returned to college and began taking courses in writing. After a several semesters I enrolled in a few graduate level courses. The column began to get a little better. More newspapers began to carry the column. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Eventually I developed a passion for it.

I grew as a writer. I spent the first eight years writing in a voice that wasn’t even mine. It was a rookie mistake, and one that would typically be made in someone’s early 20s. Eventually I found my voice. It was around that time that I signed a three-book deal with a national publisher in New York. Today, over one thousand columns, a million column-words, eleven books, and several side projects later, it’s become an additional career— and one that I love.

The first national recognition I received for something I had written came in a very inauspicious manner— through personal annoyance. In the late 1990s I was attending a dinner at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival. My wife and I were seated with two couples we had never met. One of the ladies asked what type restaurants we owned and where they were located. After explaining that one of the concepts was a fine dining restaurant in Mississippi, she made the snide remark, “Mississippi doesn’t have fine dining restaurants.”

The day is memorable because it was the first time something like that had happened to me and I didn’t automatically reel off my laundry list set of awe-inspiring Mississippi facts— William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Elvis, BB King, Muddy Waters, on and on and on and on. Instead, I just kept my mouth shut. Why go on a PR rant with this woman, I thought to myself?

I have always been frustrated by the stereotypical way that the South is portrayed in movies and television. A guy with an accent like mine walks into an office in Los Angeles or New York, and as soon as I open my mouth, I’m seen as Gomer Pyle or Jethro Bodine. To many, the south is divided into two worlds— Big Daddy sitting on the porch, in a rocking chair, drinking a mint julep, in a seersucker suit, or the poor, barefooted kid, walking down a dirt road.

That Aspen event weighed heavily in my mind for a week or so. I sat down in my chair one day and, in 15 minutes, wrote the piece that sort of started this other career of mine. It was called “My South.” Someone cut-and-pasted the column from one of my newspapers and emailed it to several friends. Those friends emailed it to more friends. It turned into a viral email before I even knew what that term meant. Within a week I had hundreds of emails in my inbox from people who identified with the sentiment of the piece.

The Turner South network purchased the non-exclusive rights to use the My South piece in their imaging and branding. I signed a deal with Rutledge Hill Press to release a book based on the piece. Another book of collected writings was released. For the next 10 years I ended every speech by reading the piece. I eventually mothballed it.

It hit a chord with Southerners who were also tired of dealing with the worn out, old stereotypes. Something— or someone— must have referenced the piece recently, because over the past few weeks I have received several requests for it. So, for one final time, here’s My South:

Thirty years ago, I visited my first cousin in Virginia. While hanging out with his friends, 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, and 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 amazed, amused and downright rude when I described our restaurant as a fine-dining restaurant. “Mississippi doesn’t have fine-dining restaurants!” she demanded, as she snickered 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 but resisted. I wanted badly to defend my state 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 and 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 and racist rednecks. The South of movies and TV, the Hollywood South, is not my South.

My South is full of honest, hard-working people.

My South is colorblind. In my South, we don’t put a premium on pigment. No one cares whether you are black, white, red or green with orange polka dots.

My South is the birthplace of blues and jazz, and rock-and-roll. It has banjo pickers and fiddle players, but it is also has B.B. King, Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Elvis.

My South is hot.

My South smells of newly mown grass.

My South was the South of The Partridge Family, Hawaii 5-0 and kick the can.

My South was 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 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.

In my South, family matters, deeply.

My South is boiled shrimp, blackberry cobbler, peach ice cream, 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.

My South is humid.

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 all wear shoes… most of the time.

My South is the best-kept secret in the country. Keep the secret… it keeps the idiots away.

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