The Southern Agenda

The Southern Agenda: February/March 2014

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Illustration: Tim Bower

Columbus, Mississippi, March 29

Columbus’s Catfish Alley earned its nickname back in the 1800s, when African American residents would hook river cats by the tubful and fry them up to sell along a section of Fourth Street that became famous for food, music, and culture. Catfish in the Alley honors that heritage with a huge Saturday fish fry in the same spot—$7.50 buys a heaping plate of crispy catch, hush puppies, and coleslaw. Festivities also include a catfish cook-off and live blues headlined by regional favorite Grady Champion, a hard-blowing harmonica player with a voice like Clarence Carter. Hungry for more? Stop into Jones Café, home to some of the Alley’s best catfish for more than fifty years. Once part of Black History Month, Catfish in the Alley now coincides with the town’s annual Spring Pilgrimage, a two-week tour of historic homes that hosts another big feed on March 31—a crawfish-and-shrimp boil on the lawn of Tennessee Williams’s boyhood home.


Double Exposure

The award-winning Alabama photographer Jerry Siegel could teach Hollywood paparazzi a thing or two about manners. Instead of lurking in the shadows hoping to snap photos of fellow Southern artists, he simply knocks on their doors, camera in tow, and politely asks to take their pictures. A new exhibit at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Creator–Created: Jerry Siegel Portraits and Artists from the MMFA Permanent Collection (March 8–June 1), displays twenty-six of those intimate images. Taken over a sixteen-year span, the photos capture Alabama-bred luminaries such as William Christenberry, Thornton Dial, Sr., Crawford Gillis, Dale Kennington, Charles Shannon, Mose Tolliver, and Yvonne Wells, largely during moments of contemplation in paint-splattered studios and tidy home offices from Alabama to North Carolina to Louisiana. Each Siegel portrait is paired with original works created by the pictured artists. For an even more personal experience, hit the April 10 reception to meet Siegel and many of his subjects in the flesh.


Blues Central

“We got paid three dollars a night plus all the whiskey we could drink,” bluesman Pinetop Perkins once recalled of the mid-century juke joints in Helena, home of the legendary King Biscuit Time radio show, which inspired everyone from B. B. King to Levon Helm. A lot has changed since old Pinetop first took the stage—the pay is better and the venues have a bit more polish—but Helena still has the blues. The Live on the Levee concert series kicks off the town’s unofficial musical calendar in late winter (check the website for exact dates and venues). For the first show, Mississippi singer-songwriter Paul Thorn, who has opened for everyone from Sting to Carole King, will play music from his chart-topping Americana album Pimps and Preachers, among other hits. After that, the town plays host to a rotating roster of wailing bluesmen throughout the spring and summer. The music doesn’t stop until the last set wraps at the annual King Biscuit Blues festival in October—fueled, no doubt, by a whiskey or two along the way.

For blues lovers who can’t 
make the trip to Helena, festival organizers have curated an exclusive playlist of classic and current tracks, celebrating the history and heritage of the Delta blues.


Field Days

Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort might bill itself as the most magical place on Earth, but central Florida outdoor enthusiasts would most likely disagree. Especially during the weekend of February 8–9, when the Old Florida Outdoor Festival turns the nearby lakeside town of Apopka into a wonderland of birding, fishing, hunting, and shooting sports. The Fishing & Hunting Pavilion offers seminars on everything from offshore fishing to gator hunting. Beretta’s Travis Mears and Benelli’s Tim Bradley put on trick shooting demonstrations, and retrieving dogs from around the country splash down for a national Dock Dogs competition. If you get peckish before the official Ducks Unlimited calling contest, load up on samples at the Chili Cook-off or a pulled pork sandwich from the barbecue tent. Tours of the 20,000-acre Lake Apopka Restoration Area, home to 346 bird species, can be arranged too. Best of all, nobody has to get their picture taken with a princess.


Book Review

Savannah’s gothic charm has certainly been a source of literary inspiration, but during the annual Savannah Book Festival (February 13–16), the city aims to work its magic on readers instead of writers. With events unfolding in the historic Trustees Theater and other venues around stroll-worthy Telfair and Wright squares, and an impressive lineup of more than thirty authors including blockbuster best sellers such as Anita Shreve and Mitch Albom, that shouldn’t be a problem. Authors appear in one-hour solo sessions instead of group panels, and with the exception of three ticketed headliner addresses, admission is free. Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so scope out the schedule in advance and arrive early.


Stage Presence

Three Pulitzer Prize–winning plays, including Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, eight scripts adapted for television and film, and more than 400 shows produced nationally all started as humble submissions to the Humana Festival of New American Plays (February 26–April 6), put on by the venerable Actors Theatre of Louisville. So, yeah, you could say the festival has a pretty good track record when it comes to launching theatrical works into the big leagues. The six plays set to premiere this year include The Grown-Up by Humana vet and Guggenheim Fellow Jordan Harrison, and Steel Hammer, a reexamination of folk hero John Henry directed by Anne Bogart, head of Columbia University’s Graduate Directing Program. Offstage events are equally enthralling, starting with a party on February 20 that features sneak peeks at festival productions, and ending with a closing bash that doubles as a celebration of the Actors Theatre’s fiftieth anniversary season.


Fired Up

Southerners don’t need much of an excuse to spend the weekend drinking around a barbecue pit. Provide a noble reason, and we really pull out all the stops. Started by two friends in 2008 as a benefit for a four-year-old boy fighting brain cancer, Hogs for the Cause (March 28–29) has since exploded into an annual two-day porkapalooza that draws nearly eighty cooking teams and more than 10,000 people to New Orleans’s City Park, raising big money for families from across the country faced with pediatric brain cancer. This year, the Fatback Collective, an all-star group of chefs and pit masters including Sean Brock, Donald Link, and Nick Pihakis, returns to spearhead a seafood feast for Friday’s opening-night gala dinner. Meanwhile, competing barbecue teams prep (and party) through the night. Saturday brings judging along with live music on two stages—expect the likes of Pat Green and the North Mississippi Allstars. Plus, there’s ample opportunity to sample mountains of slow-cooked ’cue and cast a vote for your favorite. Need second helpings to make an informed decision? Go for it.


Ship Shape

Handcrafting a traditional wooden boat from start to finish might seem like a skill practiced only by wind-chapped seafarers of a bygone era, but you don’t have to know a transom from a gunwale to enroll in the WoodenBoat School (March 24–29) at the Chesapeake Light Craft shop in Annapolis. Each student is supplied with a kit, then carefully coached by master boatbuilder Geoff Kerr on how to assemble, sand, and paint an eighteen-foot Annapolis wherry. Modeled after nineteenth-century livery boats on England’s River Thames, the wherry offers dependable stability, making it a wise choice for rowing in choppy Chesapeake waters. Choose a sliding seat for added power, and a wherry can hit cruising speeds of five to seven knots. Tuition and materials cost a minimum of $2,229. But skippering your own hand-built skiff—that’s priceless.


North Carolina
Catch a Buzz

Beekeeping might be the latest do-it-yourself backyard craze, but when it comes to wrangling thousands of critters equipped with stingers, a hands-on tutorial probably isn’t a bad idea for the novice apiarist. Sponsored by the Buncombe County Beekeepers, the 2014 Beginners Bee School (March 1–2) at Asheville’s Folk Art Center is a crash course in honeybee basics. Session topics include hive prep, maintenance costs, equipment, pollination and nectar sources, and, of course, how to harvest your honey—pain free. Part of one of the largest apiculture organizations in the country, these folks are serious about their sweet stuff, going so far as to have Asheville designated the country’s first Bee City, USA, to raise awareness of the critical role bees play in the local ecosystem. With their help, you’ll have your colony up and running faster than you can say “tupelo honey.”


South Carolina
Night at the Museum

Disco is back—at least for a night, when Studio 58: Your Ticket to the Arts Beyond the Velvet Rope (February 7) takes over the Gibbes Museum of Art, in Charleston. At this seventies soiree, inspired by the star-studded scene at New York City’s fabled Studio 54 nightclub, dueling DJs transform the gallery space into a lounge, and guests are encouraged to don disco-era duds and mingle with celebrity ringers (Hi, Mick! Hi, Liza!). Organized by the museum’s young patrons group Society 1858, the annual winter party regularly attracts more than five hundred revelers. This year, there’s added reason to celebrate, as the group launches its new 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art (formerly the Factor Prize), which awards $10,000 to a practicing Southern artist. Hundreds of artists will enter, and the selection process—led by a panel of expert judges—is grueling. But the payoff is worth it. Just ask the 2012 prizewinner, mixed-media figure artist John Westmark, whose solo show opens at the Gibbes on April 4.


Riding High

Nobody’s suggesting you go filling your CamelBak with pinot noir, but at Tour de Smokies (March 30–April 2), a cycling-centric weekend hosted each spring by Blackberry Farm, fine wine will flow. Participants join veteran coach Robbie Ventura, popular cycling commentator Bob Roll, and Blackberry owner Sam Beall in Walland for three days of instruction and winding rides through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (You don’t need to be a hard-core cyclist, but you should be comfortable enough on a touring bike to complete the longer routes.) Post-ride, cyclists are rewarded with massages, gourmet meals, and, yes, plenty of wine. Each bottle is expertly selected by renowned wine importer Todd Mathis. Plus, there’s enough free time to enjoy other Blackberry activities such as fly fishing, horseback riding, and sporting clays. Never before has a cycling workout seemed so indulgent.


Meet and Eat

It’s inevitable; the more people talk about food, the hungrier they become. To keep the stomach grumbling to a minimum, the 2014 Foodways Texas Symposium (March 20–22) mixes its programming of expert speakers with plenty of satisfying eats. Held at the new AgriLife Center on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, this year’s event takes on Texas agriculture. Sure, food scholars and panels will tackle the weighty stuff—eat-local advocacy and agribusiness innovation included—but there’s lighter fare on the docket, too. Don’t miss the culinary history of powerhouse Lone Star State crops such as the Ruby Red grapefruit, Texas pecans, and the 1015 onion. Beginning with the opening session and welcome dinner on Thursday evening, all seven (yes, seven!) of the three-day gathering’s meals are prepared by a roster of Texas’s top field-to-fork chefs, including Randy Evans of Houston’s Haven and Sharon Hage, formerly of Dallas’s influential York Street.


Heirloom Education

You know those people who seem to always stroll away from cluttered estate sales laden with the best treasures? Well, the 66th Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum (February 14–18) is the type of event that fosters that sort of expertise. The theme of this year’s forum is “New Findings in the Arts of the Coastal South,” with top curators and collectors—including Thomas Savage of the Winterthur Museum, Carter Hudgins II of Drayton Hall Plantation, and Carol Cadou of George Washington’s Mount Vernon—leading more than twenty-five talks on everything from Southern portraiture to early Annapolis cabinetmaking to Charleston silver. Attendees can also participate in hands-on workshops or go on day trips to view the architecture and antiques at public and private historic homes in surrounding counties. The next time you stake out an estate sale, prepare to put your new knowledge to good use—and be sure to bring the truck.


Washington, D.C.
Tide to Table

Named for a Motörhead song, Eat the Rich isn’t your average oyster bar. Rock pumps from the speakers, and craft cocktails like the Hollowed Apple, made with Fidencio mescal, apple shrub, fresh lime, and spicy bitters, come in thirty-two-ounce pitchers to share. But considering that the recently opened Seventh Street haunt is the brainchild of prolific District bartender/chef Derek Brown (Mockingbird Hill, the Passenger) and Travis Croxton of Virginia’s Rappahannock Oyster Company, you can bet the menu delivers. Slurp briny bivalves by the dozen—plucked from the Chesapeake and delivered fresh daily. Or sample executive chef Julien Shapiro’s seafood-centric menu brimming with Mid-Atlantic bounty—from grilled swordfish with smoked pork sausage, sauerkraut, and North Carolina head-on shrimp to trout roe with Route 11 potato chips.


West Virginia
Weekend Explorers

With 710 rooms, 10,000 acres, and even a Cold War–era government bunker, the venerable Greenbrier resort offers enough opportunities for exploration to tucker out Lewis and Clark. And yet the staff apparently isn’t quite satisfied, dreaming up the Discovery Series, a succession of nine themed weekends running between January 24 and March 30. Want to learn about interior design under the tutelage of Carleton Varney—protégé of Dorothy Draper, the resort’s world-renowned designer? There’s a weekend for that. Jonesing for an insider’s tour of Greenbrier’s private antiques collection? No problem. And if a couple of days spent knocking back some of the region’s best microbrews while listening to live blues bands sounds like a good time, they’ve got you covered there too. Each weekend is filled with expert talks, hands-on demos, and gourmet dinners, but guests still have more than enough time to take advantage of the five-star spa, sporting facilities, and—since you’re bound to be feeling lucky—the on-site casino.


Beyond the South
Planet Whiskey

Even the staunchest bourbon purist can appreciate the annual Whiskies of the World Expo (March 29). When the event started fifteen years ago in San Francisco, “Scotch snobs ruled,” says director Douglas Smith. No longer. With the rise of craft distilling in the United States, a quarter of the more than two hundred labels poured at tastings are now bourbons and other non-malt whiskies. This year, the 1,400 whiskey lovers who board the San Francisco Belle three-deck paddle wheeler would be wise to keep their minds open (and glasses proffered) to taste even more offerings from breakthrough distillers. Many hail from the South, such as Texas’s Balcones Distilling and Tennessee’s Corsair Distillery. But for surprising flavors from abroad, try Japan’s Nikka whiskey, India’s Amrut, or Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove’s single malt. A $125 ticket buys access to a lineup of fine spirits, whiskey gurus, and a fancy dinner buffet. Cough up $180 to score a first look at limited pours and admission to a VIP party the night before. Because the only thing better than one night of whiskey…is two.