Ask G&G

Pine Straw Pilferers and Tailgating Titleholders

Answering your questions on pine-straw bandits, billfish bites, and top tailgates

Photo: Britt Spencer

I’m loving pine straw, for pretty much everything that needs mulch. Is it true there’s a shortage?

Pine straw’s godly tidying power and tawny golden palette have made it de rigueur for well-dressed gardens, especially in regions not graced with the South’s bounty of pines. Hard to rake it up out in the Rockies, you know? But, like whiskey or any other gracious Southern product, pine straw can be tricky, given the shortage you astutely notice (due largely to a lockdown lack of labor). Before you toss a couple of rakes into the pickup and head to the woods to scrounge up a DIY bale or three, let’s glance at what we might call the Flannery O’Connor side of the South’s police blotter. Legally, pine straw—a.k.a. “brown gold”—is only slightly less well regarded than gold itself. Stealing it in North Carolina has counted as a Class H felony for the past two decades. In Alabama, the crime is a Class C felony, just a cut below stealing cattle and hogs. Back in the Tar Heel State, where pine straw is an estimated $35-million-per-annum business, authorities reckoned 10 percent of what’s supplied to stores is stolen straw. Its black-market value has made it the go-to product for what the gifted Ms. O’Connor would call “flim-flam” men. Even before the shortage, police in Alabama and Georgia reported this scam: There’s a knock on the door. Some landscapers are “in the neighborhood,” they’ve just finished a job, and they’ve got a few extra bales of longleaf, the best. Would you like them spread around? Of course you would. Midway through, they let drop they might need a bit more than they planned. Thousands of dollars later, you’re staring at the door, wondering what just happened.

We’re noticing a lot of billfish tournaments on the Gulf of Mexico. When’s the bite really on down there?

Short answer: The bite’s never really off. The Gulf’s fishery remains the nation’s best blue-water-angling-secret-in-plain-sight. Coming up are the Texas Billfish Classic in Freeport, August 10 to 14; the Old Salt LOOP Billfish Tournament (now in its fiftieth year) from August 17 to 21 out of Treasure Island, Florida; and the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club Labor Day Invitational, in Orange Beach, Alabama, from September 2 to 6. Billfish are apex pelagic predators, but they’re set apart by their loner status and fantastic musculature, enabling them to forage rips and canyon walls at great depths. The Gulf’s billfish bounty is produced by its tectonics—seafloor spreading that began 180 million years ago—which created a lattice of food-rich depressions and canyons beloved by the species up into the Gulf’s flank of our continental shelf. The mouth of the Mississippi spins a giant flourishing rip out into the blue water off Venice, Louisiana, and the oil platforms strewn from Mobile to Corpus Christi, Texas, serve as reefs and feeding grounds for marlin and sailfish. The blue marlin and the heart-stopping, tail-walking sails use the Gulf as a breeding ground, the purest compliment nature can pay to any chunk of the planet.

Surely you people can rate the South’s best tailgate experiences. Athens? Nashville? Tuscaloosa?

I’d like to see you try. Say, at a home game in Oxford against Mississippi State, you’re taking in the genteel Grove scene, kicking back with your fried chicken and exquisitely deviled eggs and you’re moved to say, “Y’all been in Tuscaloosa when they play Auburn? Those folks really know how to put on a spread.” Rating tailgating isn’t just ill-advised for safety or etiquette reasons. The century-long football rivalries, our endlessly hospitable people, and their finest indoor/outdoor cuisine make the South’s tailgating customs this country’s ne plus ultra. Talk about a party: For Tennessee games, the tailgate can be a quarterdeck. Hundreds of so-called Vol Navy captains moor their yachts in ten-deep rafts at the Knoxville docks just downriver from Neyland Stadium. In Baton Rouge, the LSU campus becomes a food fair—forget the grill, go for the crawfish étouffée. For what it’s worth, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey rates Oxford and Baton Rouge as having the nation’s “best” tailgate experiences. God knows what his security detail faces when he’s in Georgia among the “Dawgs” or over in Columbia with the rabid Gamecock boosters in their foam rooster headgear.