The High & the Low

The South by the Numbers

We don’t look so good on paper, but who cares? Pass the pork rinds, please

Illustration: Michael Witte

A couple of months ago, Parade magazine put out an issue with a cover story called “America by the Numbers: Fun Facts from the 50 States.” Once again, the South was shunned. We were glaringly absent from the top rankings in the Physical Activity, High School Graduation Rates, and Recent Dental Visits categories. None of our cities was voted best for online dating or bike culture; we are not the most vegetarian friendly nor do we eat the most fruits and veggies (Vermont, not surprisingly, took that honor). We don’t give the most to charity and we don’t get the most sun. Shockingly, we do not even have the most strip clubs, but Richmond did come in at number three among the most tattooed cities. The South was hardly mentioned in the rest of the article except for the Sleepiest States category (West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida ranked one, two,three, and five, respectively) and the Cosmetic Surgery category. But even that was weird. The South Atlantic states get the most buttock implants, while South Central states go for the most hair transplants.

To recap: According to the portrait painted by Parade’s “Fun Facts,” we are a region of sleepy, tattooed, but slightly vain people who try to cover up our baldness and want bigger butts. Okay, they didn’t come out and say it quite that way, but I found myself wishing they had dug a little harder to come up with a few more fun facts for us. They could have said, for example, that we have the most state dogs and the most state horses. Everybody can claim a state flower and a state bird, but only twelve states have official horses and eleven have dogs, and ours are unquestionably the prettiest.

In Louisiana, there’s the noble Catahoula Leopard Dog, for example, who not only can have gorgeous white-blue eyes but is also tough enough to catch and pen wild cattle and hogs. By contrast, the Massachusetts dog, the Boston terrier, has cute ears but is pretty much good for nothing. All our dogs do stuff. Texas’s beautiful and highly intelligent Blue Lacy, which originated in the state, can herd livestock, tree game, and run traplines, while South Carolina’s adorable Boykin spaniel is an excellent small hunting dog with the added benefit of not rocking the boat while on the water. Likewise, Virginia has the American foxhound, Maryland has the Chesapeake Bay retriever, North Carolina has the Plott Hound, and if the state legislature would get off its collective ass and finally vote on the thing, Georgia would have the ever lovable and highly useful golden retriever. Finally, we have the really cool distinction of having the only two state bats in the country, the Virginia big-eared bat and Texas’s Mexican free-tailed bat.

Now, those are the kinds of state stats I can get behind, but it must be said that a lot of our facts are not so fun—and certainly not by Parade’s wholesome standards. We have the most violent crime, the most guns, and the most shooting deaths. We have by far the lowest health rankings, which translates into the most heart attacks and cases of diabetes, the highest cholesterol, and a whole bunch of smokers (Kentucky smokes the most, with Mississippi not far behind). We have the least amount of binge drinking, which would be good news, except that there are no statistics that I could find for people who drink pretty much all the time.

We are also the fattest people in America—Mississippi is the most obese state, followed by Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. (Which begs the question: If we are already so damn hefty, what are we doing getting all those butt implants? Trying to keep up with the Joneses?) Not surprisingly, Vermonters, who chomp on all that healthy roughage, are among the skinniest, along with folks from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Colorado.

Parade got its fruit and vegetable consumption info from an outfit called America’s Health Rankings, but its research is sorely lacking in interesting facts like, say, who eats the most spaghetti and meatballs or who drinks the most Dr Pepper. I mean, I can make a pretty safe bet that we eat the most grits, the most barbecue, the most red beans and rice, the most boudin and andouille, the most perloos and pilaus, the most gumbo…I could go on. I tried really hard to find out who ate the most pork rinds, and I’m pretty sure we do, but we have some stiff competition from Ohio, where there is an annual festival and at least three producers. But what we do have are the only religious pork rinds.

One of the many significant facts about us that Parade left out is that we go to church with way, way more frequency than anybody else. (Vermont is in the bottom ten on church attendance, so we’ll see how far all those leafy greens get them.) Anyway, an ingenious—or, more likely, just extremely pious—pork rind outfit in Tennessee has combined our love of the mighty rind with our love of the Lord. Bartlett-based Brimhall Foods makes a number of pork products, including Brim’s Pork Fatback Cracklin Strips, which are described as “fried-out pork with attached skin.” On their bags there is always a Bible verse, usually from John, so that it is possible to be munching on some pure pork while also being reassured that “God is light and in Him is not darkness at all.” The rinds from Ohio, let me just make clear, do not come with such added pleasure.

I have also never read of a case in Ohio—or anywhere else outside the South, for that matter—that involved bribery with pork rinds, which is another piece of evidence supporting my theory that we eat them more than anybody else. (If we didn’t like them so much they wouldn’t be successful bribe material. In fact, a lot of our more notable foodstuffs will do the trick—I once got out of a speeding ticket in Beulah, Mississippi, by bringing the justice of the peace a pecan pie from Sherman’s in Greenville.But I digress.)
Anyway, recently, in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, a small coal-mining town just miles from the Kentucky border, Mayor Ben Cooper and thirteen others were charged in a scheme that included buying votes with cigarettes, beer, and pork rinds. One of the cops booked with Cooper was also charged with pilfering prescription drugs and two guns from the evidence room, as well as recklessly handling a firearm when he used one of the guns to shoot himself in the leg at headquarters.

Festive stories like these have got me thinking that if Parade made just a tiny shift in its attitude and general outlook, those Fun Facts cover stories could be a lot more entertaining—and still very informative. They would also be far more inclusive of our region. By using the Appalachia case alone, the magazine could have had a nice little package handily illustrating the South’s penchant for pork rinds, cigarettes, beer, and firearms, and if the pork rinds happened to be Brim’s, religion would have made the mix as well.