Forget those lists the glossy lifestyle magazines dish out – cocktails, a string of pearls, a hand-crafted hunting rifle – this is a list based on reality, not fantasy. Two things to keep in mind if you are not an American Southerner: the region extends from Virginia to Texas, which is 1962.5 miles from Washington DC to El Paso, Texas. The Upper South has the same climate as Pennsylvania and other Mid-Atlantic states. The Deep South and Florida have tropical, humid climates. Texas in the eastern half is similar to Louisiana, and in the western half to New Mexico- that is, arid desert. It is generally hot for 6-10 months of the year, especially in the Deep South. Once predominantly rural, our “sunbelt” cities are automobile-centric and now it would be difficult to figure out how to go back and add trains and subways (not always supported by the soil). I have a close childhood friend, himself a native Texan but moved to NYC long ago, who has forgotten what life is like here although he visits frequently. He is perpetually “surprised” by our clothes, our lifestyle, and our habits, but just like those of people who live in Helsinki or Tangiers, they have evolved from our climate.
Sure, we drink cocktails – gin and tonics, Sazeracs, margaritas, locally produced and imported beer and wine, just like anyone else. But even more important to our survival is non-alcoholic hydration. We must drink cold beverages with ice, all year long, just to survive. It is no coincidence that both Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper soft drinks originated in the south. We drink iced tea, “sweet” (with sugar) or “unsweet” (no sugar), all day long by the gallon. Just as with any of the ancient beverages of the world (Read The History of the World in Six Glasses, by Stoddard) tea evolved to deal with the uncertainty of clean water. We kept what had been introduced by our founding British colonists, but changed it to iced tea bc who wants to quaff a boiling cup of liquid when it’s 108F outside? Iced tea is even more refreshing than water on a hot day bc the tea acts as a mild diuretic, helping you sweat and your kidneys to function better.
CEILING FANS (and A/C)
Even though no one lives in the American south without electrical “air conditioning” (nothing at all like what they call “air conditioning” in Italy), sometimes even that powerful blast of frigid air is not enough. Our offices, shopping malls, hospitals and other public buildings will frequently be refrigerated to the point that you need a sweater to tolerate the temperatures. Our homes, however, aren’t run quite as cold bc it is too expensive. (I hope that someday cheap readily available solar power will eliminate this struggle.) So we add to the air conditioning of our homes with ceiling fans. My granny had ceiling fans in every room of her house, before air conditioning was invented. I have ceiling fans in every room of my house and some of the hallways. They run just about year-round bc for 10 months of the year I need them and for the other 2, even in the winter, I like to move the air around and keep it from getting stuffy and too hot in pockets. Additionally, I have small portable a/c units in the bedrooms upstairs bc my central a/c unit just can’t pump out enough cold. The reason the American “sunbelt” wasn’t settled until after WWII is bc no one had invented air conditioning yet.
I grew up learning to use hairspray as a very little girl, and it wasn’t to keep my giant bubble-head bouffant hairstyle in place all day. Most places in the American south have high humidity year- round, and our mamas teach us to control our errant strands, so we can be “lady-like” at all times, with the lacquer that comes from these cans. Note: Expensive, designer, salon or other high-end hairsprays never work very well. IDK why, they just don’t. Perhaps the level of control wanted by the designer’s clients in NYC and LA isn’t what we need here in the south. Generally speaking, the cheaper the hairspray, the better. You want it to glue your hair in place like invisible cement. Sure, it is painful to comb it out- you have to wash your hair every day. We do that anyway, bc it is so hot and humid we sweat in our scalps all the time.
DEODORANT / ANTI-PERSPIRANT
Right along up there with hairspray is deodorant. Americans are notorious for being offended by their own bodily smells, and living in a climate where we sweat all the time, even in the winter, our smells are even worse. We all know that fresh sweat- like when you just finished exercising- isn’t all that bad for a few minutes. But when you dwell in a hot humid place all the time, that sweat quickly grows bacteria and results in a stale funkiness no one wants to experience. Even living and working in air-conditioned spaces, I work up a sweat just walking to my car in the parking lot, and can smell awful by the end of the day. The sort of human sweat stink you smell on the subway on a hot day where you feel like you are about to choke from all the human fumes is truly overwhelming. So yes, we bathe nearly every day. And we use a lot of deodorant. Be thankful we do.
SWIMMING HOLES/ SWIMMING POOLS
One is found in nature, the other is man-made. They both serve the same purpose. We frequently get streaks of 100+F degree days in the summer, sometimes 40 or more days in a row with no rain. Just about the only thing that keeps us from killing each other is the ability to cool off and relax. You have seen old newspaper photos of cities such as Detroit or Chicago opening the fire hydrants and letting city kids run around in the streams of water produced. The only difference is, their hot streaks last a few days, and our last a few months. You have to have a plan to survive it. Every single year.
Padre Island, Texas
We are fortunate in the American South that the ocean is never too far away. Beaches are everywhere. Thank god.
Top: gumbo, a thick stew made with okra, chicken or seafood, spices, and served over riceBottom: chicken frying in a pan
STOVE TOP COOKING
People make fun of southerners for eating too much fried food, as if we do it bc we are ignorant and lazy. The real reason we eat fried food, as well as gumbo, potato or macaroni salad, and anything that can be cooked in a pot or skillet on top of the stove, is bc it is too hot to heat up the oven. A hot oven heats up the house, even with a/c. Think about that for a moment. I had a college roommate whose mom would mail her a big package of home-baked treats- cookies and stuff – as soon as the weather cooled down enough to bake, some time in the fall. My own mother loved to bake, and her cakes and pies and cinnamon rolls, all from scratch, were legendary. She only made these things for 4 or 5 months of the year. Never in the summer.
Below: This is a grill : It is used to quick cook thin cuts of meat and vegetables, in 5-10 minutes. The fire is under the food.
GRILLING, BBQ-ING, COOKING OUTDOORS
We cook outdoors, too, for the same reason- we don’t want to heat up the kitchen (even with air conditioning). Grilling, or BBQing are our general terms for meat or anything else that is cooked outdoors on an open fire brazier or grill. In the Upper South, people will refer to BBQ as chicken, pork, hotdogs, burgers, corn or whatever, slow-cooked, quick-cooked, anything cooked outside. Some even use the term as an all-purpose word that means “picnic” or outdoor party. In Texas, BBQ always means one thing: smoked beef (brisket, ribs, or links) that has been slow-cooked, often 20+ hours or more, over low heat and smoke, in a special kind of grill, called a smoker. At my house, we grill almost year-round. We go out to eat BBQ at a restaurant, due to the time commitment involved. There was a rumor in the 1980’s that grilled meat caused cancer, but my only thought in response was, “humans have been cooking meat over fire since the dawn of time- why stop now?” Plus, I like the taste.
OUTDOOR COOKING - ADVANCED - KITCHENS
Southerners like to cook outdoors so much, there’s been a hot new building trend the past 5-10 years: outdoors kitchens. Outdoor kitchens can be large or small, plain or fancy. This is in addition to having an indoor kitchen, and often the one built outside in the back yard will be far more luxurious and certainly larger, than the original indoor kitchen. Remember when having two bathrooms was a status symbol? Now it’s two kitchens. People like to have them near their swimming pools.
I was trolling through a catalog the other day, looking for some end-of-the-season sale items, and I noticed a bunch of tencel sheets. I thought to myself, “Who the hell sleeps on tencel sheets?” Why did they ever think that was a good idea? I can’t even imagine sleeping on such a thing up in yankeeville…. apparently no one else did, either, bc this catalog was full of them. No one bought them. Tencel is what? Modal? Another word for rayon? Wood/bamboo pulp bathed in chemicals? Do you know how rayon is made? “The cellulose xanthate is bathed in caustic soda, resulting in a viscose solution…. rayon is a manufactured fiber composed of regenerated cellulose.” Thank god we have cotton (and linen, too). Thank you, ancient Egyptians/Indians/Persians or whoever figured out how to harvest and use these natural fabrics. My NYC friend (the one who grew up in Texas, and ought to know better) is constantly amazed that we wear sheer cotton and linen clothing, in light colors, in our hot climate. People around the globe who live in hot climates do , too, so I am not sure why he is perpetually surprised, but he is. My new luxury item is linen sheets- they wick away the sweat on a hot summer night.
It’s not just a fashion statement- it’s a necessity. My poor hubster is as bald as a billiard cue and never leaves the house without a hat. Even I, with a thick head of hair, wear a hat in the summers bc my dark head absorbs more heat from the sun.
Most folks wear these at least 9-10 months of the year. I once knew someone who wore them year round, but she was from Colorado and thought our winters were a joke.
Which brings us to pedicures, bc if you are going to wear sandals, you had better not have nasty rough feet with chipped polish or – heaven forbid! No polish at all. I have continuously worn nail polish on my toes since I was 12 years old. I don’t even paint my finger nails as often as I do my toes (weekly).
SHADE aka PATIO COVERS
100 years ago, homes in the south had covered porches, often with ceiling fans. My grandmother’s house had porches that wrapped around nearly the entire house. Increasingly today, we want to be able to relax and entertain in the privacy of our back yards, and we leave the front porch, as a “public” space, alone. We might decorate it seasonally, but we don’t hang out there anymore. We hang out in the back of our homes. Even urban apartment dwellers will have a small back porch or balcony for plants and a grill. Whether fancy or bare bones, creating a bit of shade is a must – especially if you live in one of those newer neighborhoods that have no trees (bc, you know, the developers mowed the trees down to build the houses….then planted new ones.)
NATURE and TREES
Sure, NYC and Boston may have a few trees scattered here and there. LA will have palm trees. But in the south, we need trees, and we need nature. Even Dallas, a city dominated by freeway culture, built a double-deck freeway and used 80% of the top layer as a park, with trees. It changed the entire character of downtown…..people love it.