On the cold, wet second day of spring this year, I sought refuge from the lashing sleet with a group of New York transplants who, like myself, hail from warmer climes. For two hours, an impossibly well-decorated studio near 71st and Park was, as the location for March’s meeting of the Southern Supper Club, for all intents and purposes, the heart of Dixie.
Once a month, this group of a dozen or so young ladies in their early to mid-20’s convene to reminisce over cheese grits and sweet-potato casserole-foods they once ate at the family dinner table and now pay $26 for at dimly lit restaurants with quaint one-word names that evoke comfort and soul-about horse races and lawn parties past. They have left, in body if not mind, places like Greenville, S.C.; Louisville, Ky.; and Charlotte, N.C., for a life, a career, in a city big enough to accommodate their aspirations. The products of “good Southern schools” (except one girl who went to Vassar-“a bit more forward-thinking in its teachings, but still a damn good school”), they are now bankers, buyers, editorial assistants, event planners. And when they are together, the talk inevitably turns on one topic: being Southern in the city.
Ever since college, I’ve been on the defensive about my Southern roots. Attending a school literally named the University of the South, I found myself repeatedly reminding friends from Alabama or the Carolinas that my hometown (Richmond, Va.) was, at one point in time, the capitol of the Confederacy. I fervently defended my pronunciation of my mother’s sister’s relation to me (“ont” as opposed to “ant”) as not Yankee-speak, but a holdover from the Scot-Irish and British forebears who settled along Virginia’s James River. Sometimes I would ever so imperceptibly-perhaps try to?-slip into their buttery, sweet Deep South accents.
Since I moved to New York 10 months ago, it has only gotten worse. When colleagues comment on the neutrality of my accent, when I have a phone interview with someone below the Mason-Dixon Line, I find myself, once again, turning up the twang.
Like other immigrants-the Irish and Italians particularly come to mind-Southerners everywhere, but especially in this cradle of Northeastern elitism, are fiercely loyal to their heritage. I drink bourbon because I like it-tastes good, does the trick. I drink Jack Daniel’s because I went to college in Tennessee. (I will settle for Maker’s Mark because I’ve dated three guys from Kentucky.)
Perhaps this is the difference between Southern girls and G.R.I.T.S. People in the South are proud of being Southern (something which my ex-boyfriend from Vermont found hard to believe), but only when a Girl Raised in the South is taken out of it does she guard it-and flaunt it-with the marked intensity, bordering on flamboyance, of an outsider.
Preparing my pecan sandies (an appropriate dessert for the night’s spring-themed menu) out of a South Carolina cookbook in my East Village apartment, I found my stomach twisted again with the self-doubt, the recrimination, the fear. Was I Southern enough for the Southern Supper Club? In college, I opted to spend a semester abroad rather than tens of thousands of dollars to make my debut. My college sorority was more a local drinking club that just so happened to have Greek call letters than a national sisterhood with secret handshakes and codes of conduct. There is nothing remotely dainty about me.
This being my first supper (the S.S.C. is very exclusive-so exclusive, in fact, that when several girls cancelled due to illness, vacation or fatigue, our party was reduced to four), I could only imagine the manners, the pearls, the perfectly manicured hands. I knew better than to fall into the despised (and often totally erroneous) stereotypes, but judging from my friend who got me the invite, these were the kind of girls who inspire bumper stickers like “Girls don’t sweat, they glisten.”
Our hostess, in preppy cas’ and a yellow and blue toile apron, was utterly delightful. She, and her apartment, smelled like flowers (if I had a more discerning nose, I could say orchids or magnolia). There were monogrammed linen napkins and Herend porcelain rabbit figurines. There were miniature dishes of cocktail nuts. There was the prerequisite name game: “You’re from ___? Oh! Do you know ___? Then you must know ___? I went to ___ with him/her!” (Southerners perfected this game long before you could navigate Hollywood with Kevin Bacon and six degrees of separation.) There was lively conversation about art and literature and dating. There was a tangible air of politeness (I blushed when I realized I’d said “screwed” without pardoning my French), and there was the drawl. I wanted to hug a girl from Louisburg, N.C., when she pronounced “entire” entar.
But for me, the most palpable question of the night-one that hovered at the edge of conversation-was how and when can we go back? With every visit, Richmond gets smaller. Like a dress I bought in high school, even if I could manage to squeeze into it, I wouldn’t really want to. But just because I’ve outgrown it doesn’t mean I want to throw it out.
At one point, must we make a choice-New Yorker or Southerner? Or will it be a slow, unmeditated transformation? One year becomes two years, which become 15, until one day my naturalization is complete and I unself-consciously call a piece of pizza a “slice,” or find it reasonable to pay four dollars for a quart of milk. Must I accept the fact that to call someone “sir” or “ma’am” in this city is to make them uncomfortable? Resign myself to the idea that, in New York, taking one’s time is considered just lazy? If I don’t wear my cultural identity on my sleeve, will it become not just others who don’t recognize it, but me as well? I suppose I refuse to believe that if these cultural accouterments fade, they’ll take that part of me with them.
Overall, it was a very successful night. To my great relief, the pecan sandies were a hit, I knew people they knew, and I managed the entar dinner without dropping the F-bomb. My Southerness was reaffirmed (as was my relative unladylikeness: my nail beds are atrocious and my home will never, ever, as a point of principle, resemble a layout from Southern Living). And I was reminded of a lesson I could get from any book out of the Barnes and Noble young-adult section: Define yourself; don’t let anyone else do it for you. I am not the fragile, languid debutante of a Tennessee Williams play. I don’t know if I could even pass for a steel magnolia. Perhaps I resent the old stereotypes because, even while I don’t aspire to them, sometimes it’d be easier to wedge myself into one. But I know where I come from, even if I’m not exactly sure how-or if-I’ll get back. And if someone thinks my accent isn’t Southern enough, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.