The South Rises Again!
April 10, 2003
Oh, quit being such a snob.You saw the headline, and you groaned. The American South! Humidity. Bugs. Deep-fried everything. That unpleasant business with the Confederate flag. And that drawl (Aaaaashley Wiiilkes).Well, think again. This reporter recently visited the South and was totally smitten. I went to New Orleans, which no more typifies the South than Aspen does the West, but you have to start somewhere.So, like all born-again zealots I’m here to spread the good word to you, Gentle Reader, that the South is a hot spot (so to speak) once more.The following is a list of reasons why the South is THE “in destination” these days. Read them all, and I promise you’ll be whistling Dixie and pouring yourself a tall bourbon by day’s end. The South needs to rise again in some fashion; who are we to deny Southerners their rebirth?1. Convenience! The first reason to consider the South is because it’s cheap and nearby. Forget Nepal – not only is it pass and dangerous, but the trip leaves you rumpled and the food is nothing to speak of. Besides, who the hell wants to see more big mountains? Talk about selling snow to Inuits.Let’s face it, the economy is in the toilet and there’s a war on. Travel just ain’t what it used to be. We need to get you someplace warm, and fast. Well, New Orleans, for example, is a short trip from Denver.From subalpine fir to swamps in just two hours, thanks to the miracle of flight. There’s also no need to drain what’s left of our NASDAQ-weary investment accounts to take the chill out of our bones. At press time, a nonstop round-trip flight from Denver to New Orleans cost a mere $318 (www. orbitz.com). Compare this to a $4,998 trip to Kathmandu, and save! You’ll have plenty of money left over to buy voodoo knickknacks.2. The heat! Unless you’re one of those unbalanced souls who heads to Alaska to helicopter ski when the lifts close, winter has gotten to you by now. Like this reporter, you’re so done with winter that you’re ready to kick the stuffing out of that no-good groundhog. You need to unclench all of your muscles with some flip-flop wearing, sleep-naked heat.Well, guess what? The average high temperature in, oh, say, New Orleans is 71 degrees in February, 78 degrees in March and 85 in April. (The average April temperature in Aspen is 49 degrees.) One of my traveling companions, a former Aspenite and native son of the greater New Orleans area (we’ll call him Jay, because that’s his name) said spring starts at the end of February. “Valentine’s Day is usually the turning point,” he said, “when it starts to warm up.”3. The humidity! It’s not just the heat you need, it’s the humidity – a little known beauty secret. Sorry to break this to you, honey, but Colorado is making you look old. Those chapped lips and cracked cuticles. Oy! With an average humidity level of 33 percent in Colorado, this is no surprise. The good news is you don’t need glycolic acid peels or to inject your crow’s feet with botulism. You need a trip to the South.After a mere day in the semitropical Crescent City – average humidity 76 percent – this reporter’s skin was plump, youthful and dewy. The downside: My frizzy hair was a better barometer than any bum knee. Moments before a rainstorm, ma coiffure had reached Southern big-hair proportions (Remember, the higher the hair, the closer to God). Perhaps this was because New Orleans is 39 feet below sea level. It’s called the Crescent City because it wraps around the M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I (it’s still fun to spell out after all these years). Did you know that the city would flood if not for a big ole pump? But I digress. 4. It’s historic! Look, this reporter loves Colorado as much as the next ex-Californian, but she gets a wee bit tired of the constant battles over the same little patches of overgrazed, parched earth. This reporter needs history, real history, once in a while. And because Europe is so far away and trs miffed with us at the moment, we’ll just have to get our history a little closer to home.Good thing New Orleans is so bloody European! Here’s why: Louisiana was once a French colony. France, and then Spain for nearly 40 years, ruled NOLA, which was founded in 1718. It’s the only American city in which la langue franaise was the predominant language for more than 100 years.Also, this reporter took a New Orleans “Ghost Tour,” which was not only eerie and incredibly historic but the tour guide was also sexy in a Gomez Adams sort of way. The spooky tour included a stop at the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley, which may or may not be inhabited by vampires. It’s no wonder that Anne Rice makes her home in New Orleans.And since I brought up history, let’s address the whole War-Between-the-States thing now: Yes, there are a bunch of neo-Confederates who make a fuss about their flag and who think the Civil War was all about states’ rights rather than slavery, but you have to go out of your way to find them. And with all that cash in your pocket and plenty of eating to do, who has time?5. The architecture. Speaking of history, don’t you just get a little sick of tilting miners’ shacks and Queen Anne Victorians? Well, the built environment of the South, or parts of it, has character. New Orleans has more buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places – 35,000 – than any other American city (Take that, Santa Fe!). New Orleans is a feast for the peepers, from the gaily colored Creole cottages and filigree balconies (called galleries) of the French Quarter to the gracious columned homes of the Garden District. This reporter and her companions took a streetcar (patently not a trolley, but not named Desire, either) through the Garden District on the St. Charles Line, where her heart was only slightly broken by the presence of Walgreens and Popeyes chain stores.6. The deep-fried everything! Speaking of eating, if you haven’t heard, high-protein, high-fat diets are in and low-fat diets are out! Pass the fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, corn bread and sweet-potato pie. Of course, New Orleans is known for its Creole and Cajun cuisine and is in a class of Southern cooking by itself. With more than 3,000 restaurants to choose from in NOLA, choice is the operative word. We went with recommendations from the owner of our B&B (B&W Courtyards in the French Quarter).”I eat out every day, so don’t edit me, honey,” Rob drawled. (A visual on Rob: flowing silk shirts that match his hand-tooled cowboy boots, accessorized with an assortment of papal rings.) Among Rob’s fabulous recommendations was dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro. The B stands for Brennan, a family of New Orleans restaurateurs who Rob claimed are “always suing each other.”Mr. B’s is known for many things, including its gumbo, but don’t miss the spicy barbecued shrimp, which requires a bib and lots of wine to deglaze the arteries. (Note: When Southerners say “it’s a good shrimp year,” they mean that the shrimp are the size of dachshunds.)Rob’s best recommendation, however, was Uglesich’s. “Honey, take a cab. You can walk there, but we’d never see you again,” said Rob. “It’s in a bad neighborhood.” Uggies was indeed in a part of town that featured a lot of razor wire. Not that it mattered. Uggies could be on Jupiter, and people would make the trip.My companions (Jay and his petite amie, Kelly) and I used polite restraint to share orders of fresh, glistening oysters, shrimp remoulade over fried grits, a potato pancake stuffed with sweet crab and yet more plump shrimp, served with potatoes in a spicy, peppery oil. After Uggies we managed to stuff ourselves into a cab, which whisked us off to the famous Caf Du Monde for caf au lait and beignets, which is New Orleans lingo for a really yummy, high-class donut sort of thing. Quite a slimming regimen.7. That drawl! Neither Texas tinny nor Northern nasal, a nice Southern patois is as unhurried as Southerners themselves. Nothing is shouted. Have you ever heard your own name pronounced with a soft, Southern lilt? Fill in the blank: “Miss/Mr. _____, may I get y’all another sweet tea?” You haven’t? Well, get yourself to the South and enjoy it while you can because regional accents are vanishing faster than beignets at a Weight Watchers’ meeting.Mes amis, I could drone on and on about Southern charms if it weren’t for a hovering editor and my good manners.Speaking of manners! Except for one waiter – a snide pant load named Chris at Mr. B’s Bistro who has made it my life’s mission to get him fired – Southern politesse was noticeable. The first time someone called me ma’am I turned around to see if there was an old lady behind me! But Southern hospitality is no joke, and here’s an excellent example of Dixie warmth: I returned from the South, homesick for its gentle weather and its lite (not!) cuisine.Luckily I was saved from my melancholy by Jay’s momma, who gave me her heavenly recipe for Grits Souffl. This is a big deal: A family recipe given to a Yankee scalawag! There’s hope for me yet. And hope for you – empty the change jar, peel off those wool socks and reconsider the South.Look away, Dixieland!Lou Bendrick dreams of cheese grits and warm Southern evenings from her home in Telluride, 8,700 feet above sea level.