This Mississippi native from the red clay hills of Neshoba County just moved from living up in Yankeeland. As I return home to my roots, I'm reminded that there's really no place like the Magnolia State. It thrills me that so many of the places that I remember so fondly also make your list for the best of the South in this year's Southern Living Readers' Choice Awards. Here's a look at some of your picks, as I remember them.
On the Tip of My Tongue
For Southerners, food ranks right up there with God and football, so it's no surprise that y'all listed more choices for restaurants than for any other category. Swoons abound at the mere mention of Leatha's pork ribs in Hattiesburg, where the secret is in the sauce, and Miss Leatha herself is a legend. Nothing beats picking up a Little Dooey's pulled pork sandwich to wolf down in the (sometimes rowdy) Left Field Lounge at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville. (My daddy signed me out of school many a day to watch Ron Polk and crew win it for the Dawgs.)
If I'm in Philadelphia on a Friday, it's a pretty safe bet you'll find me at Peggy's restaurant for fried chicken from the makeshift hallway buffet. With communal-style dining at mismatched card tables, you never know who you'll rub elbows with. Or head up to Oxford, where, in addition to the finest tailgating in the South, you can get anything from down-home (fried catfish and a brown-bag beverage at the creaky Taylor Grocery) to high-end (thank you, City Grocery's John Currence, for proving you don't need a big city for lip-smacking, innovative fare).
Columbus gets high marks from you for a favorite Southern town. In high school, spring blossoms on the azaleas meant it was time for me to put on the requisite hoop skirt to host visitors through the antebellum homes (at the late Carl Butler's Temple Heights home, we'd fight to get a prime spot on the lawn playing croquet for the evening). In Natchez, at the stately yet gracious Monmouth Plantation, you can tuck yourself under a live oak dripping with Spanish moss and indulge your inner Scarlett (or Melanie) for a weekend.
Follow the Trace
It's nice to know you can still slow down (to 50 mph) and take a step back in time on the Natchez Trace Parkway. My grandparents live in Raymond, and given the choice I'd head there via the Trace any day (and so, apparently, would you). As you snake along the two-lane byway, you pass great swaths of virgin forest, murky marshes, sacred burial mounds, and waterfalls--an ode to Mississippi's natural history.
The Gulf Coast is on its way back and is very much on your radar. Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis, all the places I explored as a kid when my family had a house on Shorecrest Road in Biloxi, receive honors as some of the South's best beach towns. I fondly remember catching "Biloxi bacon" (or mullet) in the brackish backwaters; taking day-trips out to Ship Island and looking for horseshoe crabs; and learning to ski (while avoiding barges) on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Thanks for your votes for some of the best places in the South and for reminding me of my Mississippi. Be sure to enter again. Here's to 2008.