Living the Southern Dream

Illustration: Jack Unruh
My unlikely career as a Southern Living columnist | By Rick Bragg

I was born in red mud, hemmed in by cotton poison and johnsongrass, across a rusty pasture fence and down the shimmering blacktop from a clear-cut mountain. My first textbook on Southern history described slavery as an inconvenience. I grew up in a time of Wally Butts, Boone's Farm, Molly Hatchet, Merle Haggard, and Walking Tall, and was grown before the last pink-and-blue Wallace stickers faded to a ragged nothing on the bumpers of $200 cars. As a young man I left it, left for a good while, then came home to stay, to get old in the thick air and descend, in time, into my ancestral soil. I have found my South just as troubled and imperfect as ever. If anything, the mosquitoes and nitwits are winning.

I have always known this South is not idyllic; it will break your heart. But the good in it, the best of it, held us fast, even if we could only go home in a dream, to a dream, to houses hewed from heart pine and decorated with a lace of dogwoods, the kitchens smelling of the best food on earth. It even had its own magazine, this finer, gentler South. It came to us stacked in a cardboard box, faded, torn, dog-eared, with rectangular holes where the coconut cake used to be.

We never got a new Southern Living when I was a boy; relatives and friends would send them to us, sandwiched between yellowed Constitution newspapers, a few Sports Illustrated magazines with Frazier and Ali on the covers, and a stack of sports pages from the Sunday Birmingham News, syrup rings encircling the scores of games played a season gone. I didn't care that they were out of date, those copies of Southern Living. I read about eggnog in August, and cooling cucumber concoctions as the water pipes froze 3 feet underground.

I will not lie and pretend I read with interest insights on gazebo architecture. I was in elementary school and did not greatly care about how I could construct a koi pond. But I would in time come to see the magazine as an oasis. It was not a society sheet; its writers told, instead, of a life we might one day live, when we caught our breath, when we got a little bit ahead. Women like my mother found in its pages an escape, just as surely as if they had scaled a chain-link fence. I would hear, in time, even the rich ladies saw it that way. It came every month in the mail, like a file in a birthday cake.

Me, I consumed the stories on food. It is a wonder I did not actually tear out and eat the first picture of a bone-in rib roast I ever saw. Much of the time, the accompanying recipes had been cut away, but that did not bother us. My mother never looked at a recipe; God Himself whispered the ingredients into her ear. But for the less blessed, these stories and photos were a promise, a raising of the quality of life one breakfast casserole at a time. They showed me a wider world, a richer one, as close as next door.

The fact that I would one day grow up to write for it is as big a surprise to me as anybody else, proof that you can, if you can get him to stand still, sprinkle perfume on a hog. I fit inside these pages because I write about Mama, and mudholes, and tides and Tupperware. I guess I will continue, until they raise their standards. I have gotten used to reading it, unsnipped.

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