The High and the Low: Going Deep in Dixie
It was easy and it was fun and I guess I’d been visiting for at least fifteen years when I discovered another photo of my grandmother at the beach, this time at a friend’s vacation house on the bay near Destin, a place I never knew she’d been to. She has on capri pants (then better known as clam diggers), a sleeveless blouse, and no shoes. She doesn’t know the photo is being taken, and she’s leaning forward on her toes laughing, with what appears to be an actual can of beer in her hand. The photo astonished me for a great many reasons, not least because in all the years I knew her I had never seen my grandmother refresh herself with anything other than Beefeater’s in a Baccarat glass, or shed her shoes in public for any reason other than to have someone paint Revlon’s Windsor on her toenails.
Maybe that “deep southern” pull was strong enough to get my grandmother, a woman who once took my cousin and me trout fishing in exactly the same getup she had on in the photo from the Breakers, to shed her shoes. Whatever—I was just so relieved to learn that at least once she’d had some fun in the sun. The rest of us are still at it, though when Destin got a tad too overrun with high-rise condos, we moved our base of operations about twenty miles southeast to Seaside, which brings me back to the article.
First, let’s get past the fact that the writer seems to imply that the same fate that’s befallen pretty much every luxury real estate developer in the entire country happened to St. Joe because its land happened to be in a place that’s hot and feels like the Deep South, and move on to the term itself. On this point, Mr. Whelan is right, at least historically. There are endless discussions about which states make up the Deep South, but by at least one definition they’re the seven that left the Union prior to the firing on Fort Sumter, which are, in order of secession, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
In the century and a half since the war, the makeup of Florida has changed dramatically, but the Panhandle, bounded by Alabama to the west and the Apalachicola River to the east, remains essentially—especially—Southern. Beginning as early as 1811, its citizens lobbied to be annexed to what is now Alabama at least seven times and finally passed a successful referendum in 1869. By that time, though, Alabama’s carpetbagger government rebuffed the annexation as too expensive, a blow happily remunerated almost a hundred years later by the opening of the Flora-Bama Lounge, which straddles the line between the states.
The problem is not that the Panhandle can’t be correctly called “deep southern,” I just didn’t know we were still being “derided” for it, and not just occasionally but “often.” With the exception of some pesky periods in our not-so-distant history when we could rightly be called inhospitable or far worse, our good manners and friendliness have generally been considered a draw. What I think Mr. Whelan really means by “deep southern feel” is “redneck reputation.” Let’s not forget that there’s an annual mullet toss at the Flora-Bama, or that Tom T. Hall’s song “Redneck Riviera” includes lyrics that recall the likes of my old friend Larry: “Nobody cares if Gramma’s got a tattoo or Bubba’s got a hot wing in his hand.”
But Mr. Whelan has clearly not visited in a long while, if ever, because I’m worried that the redneck aspect of things is dissipating at far too fast a clip. Were she still with us, my grandmother could find plenty of dry martinis to sip on as well as swanky restaurants in which to wear her finery. Within walking distance of my mother’s house alone there are three places to get sushi, an amazing handmade pizza place, an organic juice bar, two wine bars, a gourmet grilled cheese stand, a James Beard–nominated restaurant, and a “shrimp shack” that sells melt-in-your-mouth lobster rolls accompanied by splits of champagne. Then there are the facts that the New York Times regularly sells out by 8:00 a.m. and Sundog Books in Seaside is one of the three or four best bookstores in the whole country.
All of this is actually good news, especially since there’s still plenty of ingrained grit and goodness to go around. Seaside’s Modica Market reminds me of the family-owned Italian grocery store I grew up going to in the Delta. Charles Modica and his sister Carmel always greet me with a hug (and, usually, a draft beer on the house), but they also know to reserve some bottles of my favorite olive oil, which, until now, I’ve only ever found in Córdoba, Spain, and Charles’s hand-cut rib eyes are the best I’ve ever eaten. Likewise, the weekly farmers’ market features fresh eggs, collard greens, and pink-eye and purple-hull peas among the more gourmet offerings, and equidistant from the nearest sushi place is a diner that still sells deep-fried grouper on a bun. On balance this “deep southern feel,” if not flat-out redneck vibe, is still working for us. Add the clearest blue-green water in the world and the powdery white sand (made of quartz washed down from the Appalachians by ancient rivers), and I’m with Tom T.: “Down here on the Redneck Riviera there ain’t no better living anywhere.”