In High Cotton

It has taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I’m a full-fledged Southern girl. While the label might seem obvious for someone raised in Houston from the age of three, truth be told, I never really considered myself a Southerner growing up. Instead, I clung to my California (with a splash of Italian) birthright, and reluctantly accepted being branded “a Texan” by everyone around me. Granted, I did own an authentic pair of cowboy boots in second grade and embraced my family’s annual trips to the rodeo — who doesn’t love a corn dog the size of your arm and the chance to wear five glow necklaces at once? But in most ways, being a Texan (let alone a Southerner) just wasn’t a badge I wore with pride.

Since moving to Tennessee eleven years ago, I’ve slowly but surely begun to understand how the culture of a place can seep in and become a real part of you, one that you actually celebrate. I’ve watched the Southern spirit work its way into countless aspects of my life — everything from my taste in music to my choice of a wedding caterer to what I named my children. I notice it cropping up in all sorts of places, like my garden brimming with mint for a summer cocktail. I see it in the checkered button-down I bought for my husband that he insists looks like a tablecloth (but happily wears), in my affinity for floral handkerchiefs, and in the sweet gingham dresses with embroidered collars that fill my daughter’s wardrobe.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

Give me a porch swing, a balmy night, and some fireflies buzzing around, and I’m a happy clam. From March to September, our turntable crackles with Louis Armstrong’s Louisiana jazz. On weekend evenings we go no farther than our front steps to hear the best local fiddle players; their songs echo through a field of oak trees between our house and our town’s local dive bar. And as much as I like to pretend I have a modern bent, a homespun aesthetic politely oozes from inside our home, too. I’m instinctively drawn to cream-white pitchers with hairline cracks and curtains made from tea towels. Oh, and there are doilies — lots and lots of doilies. Surely I can call myself a Southerner now.

Just last week at the grocery store, I was zipping down the magazine aisle en route to the diapers and stopped short at the image of a woman in an eyelet dress perched on the steps of a rustic log cabin. I’m not sure if it was the knotty wooden beams behind her or the title, Garden & Gun, that beckoned me, but into the cart atop a box of rigatoni it went. After burying myself in the pages of the magazine with its alluring subtitle, Soul of the South, it was plain to see I’m not alone in my belief that a plate of cheesy grits and a glass of sweet iced tea is totally sublime.

One only needs to watch an episode of Top Chef to find renowned cooks from all across the nation putting their spin on Oysters Rockefeller or sweet potato pie. But it doesn’t stop with our cuisine. Alabama fashion designer Billy Reid, with a boutique here in Nashville, now offers his line of seersucker blouses and stylish trucker hats to lower Manhattan. And who could help but be taken by The Avett Brothers’ haunting, Southern-bred sound on this year’s Grammy Awards, even as Bob Dylan loomed behind the curtain? Like flies to Tupelo honey, it seems, there’s something about the South that draws folks in and keeps us coming back for more.

Photo: Kierstin CasellaSome of the best vacations I can remember have been to Southern towns. New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston all hold special meaning for their soulful music, timeworn architecture, and gourmet restaurants with that unmistakable down-home flavor. A spontaneous trip to Oxford, Mississippi, with my husband several years ago stands out among my favorites. Just four easy hours from our front stoop, we felt like we’d traveled back to a time of deep nostalgia. Here was a place that had no need for iPhones, where a handshake of hospitality met us on every corner.

We spent two days in the small, quaint center of town. We got lost among the shelves at Square Books before moving to a pair of rocking chairs on the upstairs balcony, slurping chocolate chip ice cream as it melted into puddles from the evening heat. Below us on the sidewalks, people weren’t rushing off to catch a movie or heading home to their televisions. They were gathering near the courthouse steps to listen to music. They were mingling with their neighbors. It was as if we stepped on to a page of Americana and I had never felt so welcome.

After dinner at City Grocery, we nestled down in a bed and breakfast before starting the next morning with coffee and fresh-baked scones at Bottletree Bakery. Down the road, we came upon Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s former home place. Peering through the darkened windows, we imagined him in his chair, pen in hand, pipe in mouth, The Sound and The Fury swirling around in the thick, humid air. Through the shadows, we could see faint pencil markings along one wall where he’d sketched out ideas for a novel.

We spent the afternoon rather aimlessly, following the twisting roads past cemeteries, past farm stands with hand-painted signs offering okra and plump green tomatoes. Our journey dead-ended in a vacant town where time clearly stood still. One little gas station that doubled as a café was the only landmark. The fuel pumps were ancient but still in use, and a man in dusty overalls waved his glass-bottled coke in our direction as if to say, “Hello.”

Photo: Kierstin Casella

What I remember best about that trip, even more than all the unpretentious beauty, delicious food, and rich history, was how we felt as we drove home. It was as if two days of walking under moss-slung trees and drinking from mason jars had managed to melt away the chaos of the world, reminding us of all things simple and true. I can’t remember another road trip we’ve enjoyed nearly as much. We even took a half-day detour through Memphis to prolong our vacation. We sampled the world’s best barbeque, meandered down Beale Street, then breezed through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel before returning home to the land of Johnny Cash.

It probably sounds highly impractical coming from a busy mother of two who requires close proximity to Indian take-out and babyGap, but sometimes I dream of a huge plantation house with loads of open windows and a wraparound porch. Quilts on the lawn, hydrangeas in bloom, everything-wicker — then again, I recognize that my life doesn’t exactly lend itself to lazy afternoons fanning myself while gazing at the azaleas. Our slightly shabby one-acre farmhouse with its scrolled corbels propping up the doorframes will just have to do. It suits us much better than a house in the city and has an antebellum quality of its own.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

I suppose if you had asked me twenty years ago, I’d have said I’d be on the first plane back to San Francisco as soon as I could buy a ticket. Despite my best intentions, though, the South with all its charms (even its stereotypes) has endeared itself to me in unexpected ways. The people are friendly and the biscuits come with three kinds of homemade jam. And while I certainly never imagined that “y’all” would become a permanent part of my language, it has. And honestly, I don’t mind. No matter where I go, it lets people know I belong here.

Kierstin Casella is an artist, writer, and photographer who looks for beautiful things in unlikely places. She lives just outside of Nashville with her husband, their two small children, and a flock of backyard chickens. You can also find her on her blog, A Net for Catching Days.

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