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Robert St. John

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

Birthplace

March 27, 2024

PETROGNANO, ITALY— It’s true that there’s no place like home, and I deeply and dearly love my hometown of Hattiesburg and my home state of Mississippi. I could live other places, but I never will. My roots are in South Mississippi. I am a seventh generation citizen of the Pine Belt and I am Mississippi to the core. Texans are known for being proud of their home state. For me, I have Texas pride— times ten— for Mississippi.

Though it’s strange, when I first traveled to Tuscany in 2011 as part of a larger and longer European journey, I felt at home. It’s wasn’t Italy necessarily, as I covered the country that month, from the southern tip of Sicily to the Dolomites. It was Tuscany, specifically.

From day one, Tuscany has always felt a lot like the American South, and more specifically, my beloved Mississippi. When one breaks down the comparison, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. Tuscany is an agrarian society. Though, instead of cotton and soybeans, they are growing grapes and olives. The people are warm and friendly. Mississippi is known as the hospitality state. The Tuscans are family oriented, it’s the same back home. And the Tuscan people love sharing a meal. Sound familiar?

Granted the landscape has more rolling hills, but the summer heat and humidity are comparable. Though Tuscans don’t know— or more specifically, they don’t put as much of a priority on— air conditioning. We love our central air units from May through September. I won’t make apologies for that.

One would say that their history is rich and storied. What is new around here is considered very old back home. New Orleans just celebrated a 300-year anniversary, certainly old in our part of the world. But there is a 2,700 year old Etruscan tomb across the road from our villa, which is just one small historic detail in any direction on any road in this part of the world. Three hundred years ago is yesterday around here. The Via Roma which stretches through town, just a mile away from here, is so old that when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem, there were people walking on that road. It’s the same road I travel every morning as I head to the local bakery for breakfast.

But we have an ancient history as well. In 8,000 B.C. there were nomadic natives in North America. There’s just no written history to chronicle their past. Our recorded history begins around 1492.

I still feel at home when I come here. These days I host five tour groups in the spring and five in the fall. Last week I led a group through Spain and beginning April 24th, I’ll be leading a group through England and Scotland. In between I am hosting three groups in Tuscany. Last week, when we were leaving Barcelona and flying into Florence it almost felt like I was going home. I have probably spent close to two years here since 2011 (most of that since 2016) and I know the area well.

But I am not home. Mississippi is my home and will always be my home. This is work. It’s filled with long hours and challenging situations, but I come from the restaurant business, a week of problems that could occur over here is equal to one bad dinner shift back home. And if one must work somewhere, this ain’t a bad place to work.

Actually, Tuscany made me appreciate my home state more. I live in a state with the tag, “Mississippi the birthplace of America’s music.” I remember hearing that line back in the 90s and thinking, that’s a nice marketing slogan, but I didn’t give it much thought. I don’t think I even believed it.

Back on the original trip in 2011 we were invited to a bed and breakfast in the Tuscan countryside that was hosting a dinner event with a live band. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a British cover band sing American rock and roll in Italian. We were seated with two couples who were visiting from Milan. In the middle of a rousing chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama,” one of the ladies asked, “Where do you live in America?”

“Hattiesburg, Mississippi,” I replied.

“Like the river?” They all know the river over here, but many don’t know the state— we can be a landmass over here, too.

“Yes, like the river that borders us.” But that doesn’t really give them any bearings. “I live one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico,” I say.

“Ah, Mexico.”

“Yes, but the Gulf. We are 90 minutes northeast of New Orleans.” That always brings recognition.

“New Orleans. I love Jazz!”

“Yes, that is where jazz was invented. And if you drive a little north of New Orleans, you’ll hit Highway 49. I was born in a hospital beside Highway 49. And if you follow that highway to the Mississippi Delta, it crosses Highway 61 and that is where blues was invented.”

“Ah, blues! B.B. King. Muddy Waters.” They all know B.B.

“That’s right. And if you believe Muddy Waters— and I do— when he sang “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll,” you can travel just a few hours east and hit Tupelo, Mississippi and that is where Elvis Presley was born.

“Elvis!”

“Yes, Elvis,” I say. They definitely know Elvis.

I was halfway down Highwy 45 to Meridian to tell my newfound Milanese friends about Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music, when it dawned on me, in the public room of a bed in breakfast near San Donato, Italy— Mississippi IS the birthplace of America’s music. Europeans appreciated that way before we did, and we’re Mississippians.

To many Europeans, Mississippi is an exotic land filled with amazing music. After that epiphany I began to see Mississippi as a magical place filled with amazing music. Of all the cultural gifts one state could give to the world, several genres of music tops my list. I just couldn’t see the forest for the pine trees until that night.

I have hosted several of my Italian and Dutch friends in Mississippi. They all love it. The comment I hear most is, “Everyone is so friendly.” That’s hospitality.

Europeans I meet over here will often say, “I’ve been to America,”

I always reply, “Let me guess, New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles?”

“Yes!”

“You haven’t really been to America,” I say.

A statement that is often attributed to William Faulkner— but it’s doubtful he said it— states, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” I don’t believe the source of that quote— whomever it was— was speaking glowingly about my home state at the time. But in 2024, I believe the world would be a lot better off with the cultural richness and attitudes of the friendly people of Mississippi.

There is truly no place like my home.

Onward.

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