Southern Agenda

What’s Happening in the South: February/March 2024

Goings-on in the region

By Susan B. Barnes, Jim Beaugez, Larry Bleiberg, Caroline Sanders Clements, Jennifer Kornegay, Lindsey Liles, and Suzanne Wright


Enough to Go Around

Carolyn Quick Tillery has associated food with storytelling since childhood, when her mother would weave yarns to keep her in the kitchen helping. Decades later, she blended the history of her beloved alma mater, Tuskegee Institute (now University), with related dishes and served it up inThe African-American Heritage Cookbook: Traditional Recipes and Fond Remembrances from Alabama’s Renowned Tuskegee Institute. First published in 1996, the volume was recently rereleased with updated photography and extras like profiles of notable graduates (Lionel Richie, Rosa Parks) and stories of the institution’s oft-overlooked role in the civil rights movement. “Students diverted police attention away from Selma-to-Montgomery marchers by walking, driving, or busing from Tuskegee to the capital city themselves,” Tillery says. Remaining are recipes for silky collards and fried chicken, hearkening back to her memories of meals at Dorothy’s (a restaurant that’s still open on campus), as well as George Washington Carver’s Dandelion Salad and Tillery’s springtime favorite, Carver’s Red Lemonade. “Students would serve gallons of it at his annual farmers’ fair,” she says. “The addition of raspberries would tame the tartness, but fresh strawberries work wonderfully, too.”

An illustration of a leprechaun crossing a start and finish line at the same time

A Big Moment for Leprechauns

March 17 marks the twenty-first running of the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which means it’s now old enough to drink—although, make no mistake, the green beer has always flowed freely. The route follows Hot Springs’ ninety-eight-foot-long Bridge Street, which has been called the world’s shortest city street in everyday use. The event starts with an official measuring of the thoroughfare and has included such participants as the World’s Largest Potato on Wheels, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and the International Order of Irish Elvi (marching Elvis impersonators). “It’s not your normal parade—it’s not boring,” says Steve Arrison, who helped scheme up the celebration over beers at a nearby German restaurant. The festivities now stretch over two days filled with concerts and celebrity appearances. Local tire shop owner Monte Everhart, who is seventy-three, will again serve as the World’s Largest Leprechaun, an official parade position he has held for sixteen years. “If you can’t have fun at this thing,” Everhart says, “you can’t have fun anywhere.”


Wild at Heart

Every year, the little Old Florida town of LaBelle, just east of Fort Myers, throws a party for swamp cabbage, the local term for the tender hearts harvested from the state’s native sabal palms. The two-day Swamp Cabbage Festival, held on the last weekend of February, began as a Jaycees project to inspire community pride; currently in its fifty-eighth year, it now draws thousands to oak-shaded Barron Park on the scenic Caloosahatchee River. An abundant food source historically significant to Indigenous populations and early pioneers, the versatile vegetable can be used in hearty stews and soups or sweeter concoctions. Black bears are also known to scale sabal palms, which can tower forty to fifty feet. “They stomp down the tops and then devour the heart,” says Jerri Blake, of Blake’s Cupcakery. Luckily, festivalgoers have it easier. Blake brines fresh-cut swamp cabbage in lemon—to keep it from turning an “unappetizing gray,” she says—and wields spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to impart a nutty flavor. “It’s the sweetest way to eat a tree.”


A Modern Gilded Age

When the Jekyll Island Club opened as a private hunting lodge in 1888, it was dubbed “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world.” Drawn to a warmer climate and its hidden location—at the time, one could reach the island only by boat—the country’s wealthiest families, such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors, flocked to this natural oasis ninety miles south of Savannah. In 1896, a small group of the Club’s founding members built Sans Souci, a six-unit building that is widely considered one of the country’s first condominiums. Other members erected “cottages” (mansions, really) as their island home bases, while others settled into suites in the Clubhouse. Inspired by that past, Jekyll Island Club Resort recently finished an extensive refresh of its guest rooms, suites, historic cottages, and grounds—all open to overnighters. Douglas Rucker, area managing director at the resort, says that the redesign also draws heavily from the surrounding landscape. In the guest rooms, floral prints festoon the headboard fabrics, highlighting the deep purple vining passionflower that blooms across the island. In the Grand Dining Room, new carpeting features a whimsical motif showcasing horses and other island animals like squirrels and broad-winged hawks as a nod to the spot’s hunting club roots.

An illustration of personified objects (a bottle of bourbon and two metal stills) pouring glasses of bourbon for four people

A Toast to the Bourbon Trail

Even before the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was established twenty-five years ago, brown-water aficionados had long flocked to the state, which produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. “Before 1999, people would show up to a distillery even if it didn’t have a visitor’s center, and whoever was available would just show them around,” says Mandy Ryan, director of experiences for the Trail. “They got so much traffic that distilleries finally decided they needed to formalize this.” What started as a choose-your-adventure route connecting seven distilleries has grown to include forty-six stops in four regions across Kentucky. Hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops followed, encouraging Bourbon Trail travelers to slow down between tours and tastings. In 2017, the distillers’ association successfully lobbied for permission to sell cocktails and food within the distilleries themselves, so now trekkers can pull up a stool at the Bar at Willett in Bardstown, for instance, and order a bourbon and mezcal sipper alongside an egg salad sandwich so good it has its own Instagram account, or stop in at Louisville’s Copper & Kings for sausage and mushroom gnocchi and a tasting flight. “The Trail is designed now for people to stay all day and relax,” Ryan says. “There are cocktail classes and experiences: You can thieve straight out of a barrel, bottle your own bourbon, see the barrels being charred.” Soon, the Trail’s newly revamped website will allow visitors to create their own itineraries. Ryan’s advice: “Book ahead. Derby 150 is this year, too. It’s a big year for Kentucky.”


Crescent City Rebirth

At the height of segregation in the mid-twentieth century, traveling through the South could be a perilous journey for African Americans. They could count on the Dew Drop Inn, however, as a reliable stop in New Orleans where they could fill up on local standards like red beans and rice, get a haircut in the barbershop, and find a cozy room for the night. But the real action went down in the lounge, where at various times Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Ray Charles performed. “The Dew Drop Inn was a place that symbolized Black economic resilience,” says Curtis Doucette Jr., who acquired the property in 2021 and began restoring it to its mid-fifties layout and decor after years of neglect. Slated to reopen early this year, the seventeen-room boutique hotel, music venue, and restaurant—complete with midcentury-modern furnishings and preserved curiosities like the original paint-chipped interior columns and the alley between the conjoined buildings—will be singing once again on Lasalle Street.

An illustration of a beaver studying a tree and a bird with a notebad in its hand

As Cool as Ice

Finzel Swamp in western Maryland is frozen in time—literally. The 326-acre preserve is a “frost pocket” left over from Pleistocene-era cold weather. “When the Ice Age glaciers retreated, everything moved north,” explains Deborah Landau, the director of ecological management at the Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/D.C. chapter, which protects the property. “But due to its unique geology and location between two mountains that trap cold air, we still have some species that you’d associate with Alaska or Canada.” Red spruces dot the area; so do tamarack trees. Eastern red-spotted newts float the shallow waters, and in early spring, black-and-yellow spotted salamanders migrate to breeding ponds. In the early evening, whip-poor-wills sing. Threaded with a main trail and boardwalks, Finzel welcomes the public (Landau recommends a four-wheel drive in the winter), and visitors might spot alder flycatchers, a beaver lodge near the end of the trail, or mink playing on the ice. “But stand quietly, and you can hear the swamp itself,” Landau says. “Even when everything looks frozen, trickling water is moving through—Finzel is the headwaters of the Savage River.”


Bottle Rocket

Coca-Cola was created in 1886 in Atlanta, but the soft drink really grew legs in 1894, when Joseph Biedenharn noted Coke’s strong sales at his Vicksburg, Mississippi, combo candy shop–soda fountain, and secured the parent company’s permission to bottle it for the first time. (Previously, people could only sip it on-site at soda fountains.) From March 11 to 16, the city and the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, housed in the original Biedenharn building, will celebrate the fizzy first’s 130th anniversary with a sock hop, a drive-in movie, and bourbon and Coke tastings. Nancy Bell, the executive director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, oversees the museum and explains the festivities’ midcentury flavor. “The fifties and sixties were Coke’s heyday, with movies and popular culture of that era showcasing it,” she says. On March 12 (the actual anniversary), visitors touring the museum’s replica soda fountain (which serves Coke floats!), reproduction bottling works, and collection of memorabilia can enjoy a free glass-bottle Coke. Bell would love to give the world a Coke, but only the “real thing.” “New Coke wasn’t Coke,” she says of the reformulation that notoriously flopped back in the 1980s. “I don’t think anyone liked it. We have a single New Coke item: a T-shirt with an X through the New Coke logo.”

North Carolina

(Don't) Pick Your Poison

On the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office’s website, false hellebore comes with a little red label for high-severity poison. In nature, not so much—and the perennial plant, which harbors an alkaloid that can send an unlucky eater off to the hospital, looks a lot like a ramp. Appalachia’s favorite wild onion comes into season in early spring, and foragers can look out for some giveaways to differentiate it from its poisonous doppelgänger: The leaves of ramps grow directly from the ground, while false hellebore leaves rise from a stalk. Ramps love high-elevation, north-facing, forested slopes, but false hellebore prefers to hunker down in floodplains, marshes, and swamps. If in visual doubt, follow your nose: A ramp will smell like an onion. Once you’ve stumbled upon a patch of the real thing, clip above the roots so they can grow back next year, and fry up the bounty at home with ham and potatoes. Or follow the advice of the Asheville chef and longtime ramp lover Billy Dissen: “Make an omelet and stuff it with fresh morel mushrooms, goat cheese, and ramps,” he says. “I eat that and I think, okay, spring is here.”

South Carolina

Palmetto State Parties

Early spring in South Carolina brings blooming dogwoods and azaleas, spring break sunshine, and events that highlight the essence of the state. Start in Charleston at the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (February 16–18), where some of the country’s leading sporting artists, including plein air painter Kathleen Dunphy, exhibit their works, while outside in the Holy City’s parks, birds of prey flash their feathers, Orvis anglers demonstrate their casting know-how, and sporting pups take flight at the fan-favorite DockDogs Competitions. Then, March 7–9, buy tickets at the door of the Spanish Galleon in North Myrtle Beach to watch the most decorated shaggers in the world pivot, belly roll, and boogie walk across the dance floor at the fortieth annual National Shag Dance Championships. “A lot of former winners over the past forty years will be there competing,” says organizer Barry Thigpen. “And after the elimination rounds, Saturday night will be the cream of the crop.” Next, in the Midlands, the eighty-ninth Carolina Cup (March 30) attracts crowds in colorful frocks and fascinators to Camden for a day of tailgating before the horses line up in the paddock for a slate of exhilarating steeplechase races. Toby Edwards, the executive director of the Carolina Cup Racing Association, says, “I like to call it South Carolina’s largest outdoor cocktail party—that happens to have championship horse racing in the afternoon.”


Motor On

In the 1950s and ’60s, when road trips were the trips, motor lodges dotted Southern highways. With the opening of Tennessee’s Rocky Waters Motor Inn (Gatlinburg) and the Wayback (Pigeon Forge), brothers Mahavir and Dev Patel have added upscale renditions to the resurgence of these retro roadside accommodations. The recently opened Wayback features a flashback-Florida feel that fits quirky Pigeon Forge—a palette of white, accented with soft pink and seafoam green, and a cabana-ringed pool offering swim club memberships. Dating to the 1930s and left to the Patels by their parents, Rocky Waters reopens in March after a top-to-bottom revitalization. With a preserved shape and the exterior’s new natural hues, it blends into its streamside surroundings. “You might not even notice that there’s a hotel there,” Mahavir says. Inside, guest rooms sport minimalist yet luxe cabin style plus extras like a kit for fashioning a fly-fishing hook. Both properties invite guests to check into a bygone era; for the Patels, the throwback appeal is personal. “Growing up at Rocky Waters, we’d get excited about every guest,” Mahavir recalls. “Dev would engage with them and, at bedtime, share stories as if he knew them. There’s something extraordinary about people we meet on the road.”

An illustration of three women, wearing sombreros and capes, riding horses

Dancing With Horses

Not all rodeo contestants wear jeans and Stetsons. In the sport of escaramuza, female competitors perform choreographed maneuvers sidesaddle on galloping steeds, their bright hand-embroidered dresses and shawls, or rebozos, flying in the wind. “It’s like synchronized horse-riding ballet, choreographed to music,” says Dora Tovar, who produces a competition for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. A new multi-gallery exhibit at Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame celebrates the team sport with displays of costumes, sombreros, and traditional textiles, as well as contemporary portraits. Escaramuza, Spanish for “skirmish,” takes place at charreadas, Mexico’s version of the rodeo. Its roots reach to the Mexican Revolution, when female soldiers would gallop into battle with rifles hidden under their rebozos. “Those dresses aren’t about being pretty—it’s about the guns,” Tovar says. The competition is all business, notes Diana Vela, the museum’s associate executive director. Judges follow a strict rule book, and riders get scored on their clothing, coordination, and equestrian skill. “These women are cowgirls,” she says. “They know how to handle their horses.”


How Sweet It Is

When you think of maple syrup, chances are Virginia doesn’t come to mind first. “Most people aren’t aware you can produce maple syrup this far down south,” says Chris Swecker, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce. A far cry from Vermont’s annual output of some 2.5 million gallons, a small percentage of Virginia’s maples produce between one and two thousand precious gallons a year, most of them tapped in the Allegheny Mountains region. Over the course of two weekends (March 9–10 and March 16–17), the Highland County Maple Festival heralds the “opening” of the trees with tours of local sugar camps that demonstrate tapping and the boiling of sugar water until it reduces to syrup. Festivalgoers indulge in pancakes and buckwheat cakes, maple doughnuts and candies, and even maple BLTs. The sugar camps, several of which open for tours during the festival, sell bottles of the stuff year-round, and area restaurants honor it, too: Try a scoop of ice cream flavored with local maple syrup at the Split Banana Co. in Staunton.

West Virginia

Rocket Boys Revival

Twenty-five years ago, the filmOctober Sky introduced the world to Coalwood, West Virginia. The story of teenagers inspired to build rockets by the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 continues to reach new fans, says Homer Hickam, whose best-selling memoir,Rocket Boys, inspired the movie. “There’s a whole new generation that’s seeing it for the first time,” he says. The film streams on Amazon Prime Video, and “every substitute teacher in the world” seems to show it, he says. “It works for every class”—science, English, history. Hickam, who worked for NASA and lives in Huntsville, Alabama, is planning a movie sequel,December Sky, based on his bookThe Coalwood Way. While the original was filmed in Tennessee, Hickam wants to shoot in West Virginia this time. Although Coalwood is much smaller now than when Hickam lived there, fans still visit and find a few interpretive signs and landmarks. “The church is still standing, and across the street are the machine shops where we built our rockets,” he says. A rough road leads to “Cape Coalwood,” the slack coal field where the boys drew crowds for test launches. “A lot of people make that pilgrimage.”