Southern Agenda

What’s Happening in the South

Goings-on in the region and beyond this June and July

by Nick Allen, Jim Beaugez, Larry Bleiberg, Crai Bower, Elizabeth Hutchison Hicklin, Jennifer Kornegay, Lindsey Liles, Keith Thomson, and Suzanne Wright

An illustration of a baseball fields

The New Old Ball Game

In 1991, Chicago’s Comiskey Park became a parking lot, bequeathing the title of America’s Oldest Baseball Park to Birmingham’s 10,800-seat Rickwood Field. Built in 1910, the spearmint-green, mission-style gem had been home to Birmingham’s minor-league Barons and Negro League Black Barons, as well as, from 1912 to 1927, Crimson Tide football. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd played there—a 1974 concert included the band’s new single “Sweet Home Alabama.” Since the Barons left in 1987, though, Rickwood had served as little more than a restroom for birds, and it appeared an errant feather away from collapse. But the Friends of Rickwood, preservationists who raised $2 million, put more sweat into the park than any team that ever played there, and reinstituted minor-league baseball on the site, winning listings in both the National Register of Historic Places and ESPN’s “101 Things All Sports Fans Must Experience Before They Die.” Next, Rickwood added high school and college baseball, and, on June 20, it will debut as a major-league venue by hosting A Tribute to the Negro Leagues, a game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals with a significance summed up by its honoree, Giants—and Black Barons—great Willie Mays, who’s now ninety-three. “I never thought I’d see in my lifetime a Major League Baseball game…on the very field where I played baseball as a teenager,” he says. “To learn that my Giants and the Cardinals will play a game there and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues…is really emotional for me. We can’t forget what got us here, and that was the Negro Leagues for so many of us.” Major League Baseball has invited all of the 150-plus living Negro League alumni to the game.


Tickled Pink

In the rapturous words of Arkansas’s 76th General Assembly Regular Session of 1987, the South Arkansas vine-ripe pink tomato had a “taste, texture, appearance, and aroma second to none”—and therefore deserved designation as both the state fruit and vegetable. In the tomato’s heyday in the fifties and sixties, farmers in Southeast Arkansas were shipping out some 290,000 tons of the sweet, mild gem, bred for its ability to be picked at “first breaker,” or right when the top of the fruit turns pink. “It’s the soil here in Bradley County that makes our tomatoes taste so good,” says JeNelle Lipton, a chairman of the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, which the town of Warren has hosted since 1956. This year, the festival continues June 14 and 15 with tomato-eating and -packing contests and an all-tomato luncheon, featuring a chicken salad–stuffed tomato and tomato cake. Visitors to Bradley County can also pick up the state ’maters at booths on Warren’s courthouse square throughout June and July.


Shake and Bake

The Sandshaker Lounge is toasting a half century of serving the Florida Panhandle’s favorite boozy milkshake, the Bushwacker, to generations of sunburned Pensacola beachgoers. “We figure in fifty years, we’ve made more than two million—we have that on a shirt!” says general manager Joe Campbell, touting the bar’s anniversary merch. The ’Shaker’s creamy, chocolaty recipe, which includes Kahlúa, has its roots in St. Thomas, and originally, bartenders whipped up single Bushwackers in a blender. These days, a row of frozen drink machines meet the demand, but there’s still no premixing of ingredients; all batches get handcrafted, with rum added last. Bushwacker veterans know to stir it, and sip from the middle to temper the slushy concoction’s strength.

An illustration of a paddler and surfer on a river

Catching the Chattahoochee

From the Outer Banks to Cocoa Beach, the Southern coastline boasts some notable surf breaks. Now there’s another bucket-list entry, and it’s conspicuously inland: Columbus, Georgia. 

Situated three hours from the nearest beach, the state’s second-largest city is known for its nearby army base and its world-record two-and-a-half-mile-long urban whitewater rafting course. Those rapids, formed by steel wave shapers installed in the Chattahoochee River in 2012, have provided a springboard here for the rare pastime of river surfing. A ragtag band of local adrenaline seekers, many of whom work at local whitewater rafting companies, have paddled their shortboards off Waveshaper Island at Columbus’s popular RiverWalk to attack the face of the region’s least likely surfing destination.

The river has two surfable waves—dubbed Good Wave and Ambush—report brothers Hugh and Hudson Carney, employees at Whitewater Express. Videos on YouTube show these two and other surfers elegantly cutting across roaring waves that seem to crest eternally and never crash. But the best view might just be from a raft, leaving from Woodruff Riverfront Park, floating by, and cheering on the river shredders.

Nick Allen


For the Trees

This summer, the 16,000-acre Olmsted Brothers–designed Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont presents L+A+N+D (Landscape + Art + Nature + Design), an outdoor exhibition of immersive art installations that will explore beauty in the landscape, touching on such topics as biodiversity and sustainability. The experiences appear on a newly created trail that threads through woodland and meadow environments. One example: The Denver-based artist Nikki Pike drew on her childhood memories of outdoor play to craft Chrysalis, where a bark-covered sculpture dangles between two tulip poplars. Farther along, the British artist Stuart Ian Frost drilled Fibonacci spirals into a fallen sycamore trunk to create Sylvan Sycamore, invoking nature’s patterned paradigms. The journey continues among a “living” kinetic structure that withers during dry spells but blooms anew in rain.

An illustration of chefs holding pastries

Sweet Victories

New Orleans hardly lacks for culinary talent, but this June it will enjoy an embarrassment of tasty riches when the city hosts the Western Hemisphere’s top chefs for the Pastry World Cup (June 11) and the Bocuse d’Or (June 12–13), global competitions often lauded as the Olympics of cuisine. Winners will qualify for finals taking place in Lyon, France, in January, a biannual showdown that packs bleachers with horn-blowing, cheering gourmands. “This is a moment in your career when you can showcase a piece of you with the world,” says Mathew Peters, the only U.S. chef—so far—to win the Bocuse d’Or. Peters wowed the judges in 2017 with his poulet de Bresse aux écrevisses, a chicken and crayfish dish. Each team gets five hours and thirty-five minutes to create a platter and plate for the judges. The pastry competition is similar, requiring teams to produce more than a dozen desserts, one of them American-style cheesecake as a nod to the host country. The food looks as good as it tastes, says Gavin Kaysen, who coached the U.S. Bocuse team and now heads an affiliated organization: “It’s almost like walking past the Tiffany store and seeing diamonds.”


Oysters for All

Like many of us, chef Jasmine Norton remembers her first oyster. “My dad would bring a sack home, open ’em up, and add a little lemon or hot sauce,” she recalls. “He promised they were good, so I threw one back, and loved it. I want to do that for others.” This past winter, after years as a popup, Norton’s restaurant the Urban Oyster landed a permanent home in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, where she can continue encouraging folks to shuck their trepidation and give oysters a go. The long, sleek raw bar serves four varieties on the half shell daily, and she also offers four chargrilled preparations (including Volcano, a spicy bite splashed with chili garlic sauce), as well as deviled eggs crowned with a golden-fried oyster fritter. And contrary to persistent myth, there’s no wrong season to eat these treats. “With initiatives contributing to the health of bodies of water, along with aquaculture, oysters are more sustainable and healthier, year-round,” she says. Norton’s oyster evangelism isn’t the eatery’s only distinction; it’s the country’s first oyster bar owned by a Black woman, something Norton hopes to build on. “Our culture has historic ties to oysters; we were the ones harvesting them back in the day,” she says. “I want to see more minorities enjoying oysters, raising oysters, and selling oysters too.”


All Shook Up

The Gulf Hills Hotel & Resort in Ocean Springs has been a secluded escape for the famous—and infamous—for nearly a hundred years. Established in 1927 by two brothers from Chicago, its shaded lawns and frontage along Fort Bayou granted cover and a getaway route for mobsters like Al Capone. During its second life as a dude ranch in the fifties, Elvis Presley became a regular. Now a major renovation campaign has given the resort yet another new life. “We’re trying to bring back that country club feel from when it was built originally,” says co-owner Roxy Condrey. The history of its famous guests still enhances the allure—choice rooms are named for stars like Judy Garland and Jayne Mansfield, while pictures of Hollywood’s midcentury elite frolicking at the pool, lounge, and ranch adorn the walls. But they saved the best for the King himself. The Elvis suite features original wood paneling from his beloved villa #9, marked with the waterline from the hurricane that destroyed the structure in 1969, plus archival photos of Presley entertaining guests on the piano and learning to ski on the water just beyond.

North Carolina

Fairway Legacy

This summer, all cart paths lead to Pinehurst: The esteemed “Home of American Golf,” tucked into a longleaf pine forest in the sandhills southwest of Raleigh, hosts the 124th U.S. Open championship (June 13–16). The competition will take place on Pinehurst No. 2 for the first time since the legendary course designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw reshaped the greens and added sand areas that pay homage to its original layout. Golf House Pinehurst, the United States Golf Association’s second headquarters, also recently opened here. The new facilities house research and testing labs (the epicenter of golf ball and other equipment studies—did you know the clubhead hits the ball with an average force of more than two thousand pounds?), and the relocated World Golf Hall of Fame. And this spring, Tom Doak, the dean of natural golf course design, unveiled No. 10, Pinehurst’s first new championship track in nearly three decades. Doak schemed up an undulating, sand-enveloped menu of challenging shots rewarded with vistas of the primeval dune topography.

South Carolina

New Hotel Ahoy

The colonial seaport of Georgetown, South Carolina, is abuzz with a fresh sleep-and-eat pairing about an hour’s drive up Highway 17 from Charleston. This spring on Front Street, the George Hotel opened as a fifty-six-room boutique spot full of designer Jenny Keenan’s nods to the area. “We all wanted something that blended into the town and the landscape,” she says. To that end, pecky cypress forms the floor and paneling. A painting of an alligator and a mermaid by Charleston artist David Boatwright hangs in a hallway. Sweetgrass baskets grace the lobby—which offers peeks into the Independent, a restaurant named for a nearby family-owned seafood market that recently closed after eighty years, but whose legacy endures in such regional specialties as shrimp and grits and blackened flounder with lump crab and andouille sausage pileau.

An illustration of a person with a fork and knife behind a steak

All Sizzle, All Steak

So many contemporary steak houses are shiny, clubby affairs, where the asking prices for massive hunks of beef climb to upwards of a hundred dollars. But Nashville’s iconic Sperry’s Restaurant, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, is a more approachable old-school outfit, despite its tony Belle Meade address. In the English-inspired dining room centered around a large stone fireplace, even the choicest cuts top out at around fifty bucks. And locals line up for the five-dollar martini happy hour. “Steeped in Nashville history, Sperry’s is like your favorite pair of old shoes: It’s comfortable and reliable; there’s no intimidation factor,” says the co-owner Al Thomas, who runs it along with his wife, Trish. Thomas purchased the place from his father and uncle in 2000 after stints at the Hillstone Restaurant Group. “I spent months fine-tuning our recipes,” he says, because until his arrival, the haphazardly jotted-down instructions for Sperry’s standards like twice-baked potatoes and creamed spinach only existed in notebooks and on napkins. “We don’t want to be doers of all and masters of none. Consistency is key.” You might say it’s also the secret to the restaurant’s success and why Nashvillians continue to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, and holiday dinners here, stopping to chat with friends and neighbors on the way to the venerated salad bar or lingering over that last bite of homemade peppermint ice cream running with rum-spiked chocolate sauce.


Hallowed Land

Chase Kahwinhut Earles was playing a drum during an afternoon celebration at East Texas’s Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in 2019 when his ears began to pop. He looked at his brother, and they knew it was a tornado. Seconds later, the on-site museum exploded around them, the wind destroying everything in its wake. Miraculously, the storm spared the lives of his family and the nearly eighty others attending the Caddo Cultural Day celebration at the archaeological site, although one person died in a car accident nearby. “You had the whole culture of the Caddo there: the artists, a large portion of the dancers,” Earles says. “That could have been it for the tribe.” This summer, the state is dedicating a new $2.5 million museum designed in partnership with the Caddo tribe. It includes tornado shelters, and honors the burial and temple mounds built by the Caddo people who lived in the region from 700 to 1300. “It’s where we carried out our rituals and ceremonies,” Earles says. “It’s sacred ground.”


Off-Road Oddity

Hundreds venture to Centreville, Virginia’s countryside on summer weekends for fresh doughnuts, live music, pickup volleyball, pulled-pork sandwiches, and garden goodies (such as a hundred varieties of tomato plants) during Cox Farms’ Smokin’ Saturdays. But there’s another literally massive draw that only welcomes Smokin’ visitors: Foamhenge, a true-to-size replica of Britain’s Stonehenge, rendered in Styrofoam. Created by the Virginia artist Mark Cline and originally located in Natural Bridge, the work was acquired in 2017 by the farm, where the faux stones now equal real fun. “When we heard it was available, we snapped it up,” farmer Lucas Cox says. “We love to make people laugh, and Foamhenge is ridiculous. People are like, ‘What?! Why is this here?’”

West Virginia

Climbing Paradise

West Virginia’s outdoors cred is scaling new heights with the unveiling of the first state park to be added in more than thirty years. The 177-acre Summersville Lake park along U.S. Route 19 preserves revered rock-climbing routes, a one-mile shoreline, and hiking and mountain biking trails. “Guests can venture out here in any direction for outdoor adventure,” says Jesse D. Anderson, the district park manager. The Pirates Cove Trail leads to a waterfall, and boulderers can turn onto the Climbers Trail to access some of the best rock face in West Virginia. Billed as America’s first climbing-focused state park, the spread has plans to include a zip line, new cabins, and camping sites. Not big on heights? The famously deep and crystal-clear lake entices scuba divers with a surprising underwater view of Appalachia.