Arts & Culture

The Southern Agenda: February/March 2017

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Photo: Tim Bower

A Send-Off for Old Man Winter
Helvetia, West Virginia, February 25
By late February, the folks in Helvetia are understandably winter weary. Perched high in the Appalachians two and a half hours northeast of Charleston, the tight-knit hamlet, settled by Swiss immigrants in 1869, holds fast to its Alpine roots and traditions, including Fasnacht, Switzerland’s pre-Lenten winter holiday. Celebrated the Saturday before Ash Wednesday (February 25 this year), Fasnacht is something like Mardi Gras, except snow flies instead of plastic beads. Locals don elaborate homemade masks meant to scare away winter, then form a lantern-lit parade through the town’s streets en route to an hours-long square dance and polka party fueled by beer, bratwurst, and powdered-sugar-dusted rosette pastries—distant Swiss cousins to funnel cakes. “We fry them in lard because it’s the last time you can eat rich food before Easter,” says Heidi Arnett, who helps direct the festival. (She also assists in running the town’s only restaurant, the Hütte, and the post office.) At the stroke of midnight, revelers toss a newspaper-stuffed effigy of Old Man Winter onto a roaring bonfire. “When you burn Old Man Winter, you’re burning away the cold,” Arnett says, adding, though, that the mountains tend to have the last word: “For some reason, we usually have terrible weather the next week.”

Words with Friends
The character motivation for folks attending the Southern Voices Festival (February 21–25) is easy to understand. “Readers come to connect with writers they love,” says the event’s chair, Amanda Borden. For twenty-five years, bibliophiles from across the South have traveled to the Library Theatre in Hoover, just outside Birmingham, for the five-day-long gathering of such Southern-lit luminaries as Ann Patchett, Ron Rash, and Wiley Cash. “Unlike many book festivals, this one isn’t set up as a writing workshop,” Borden says. “It’s authors talking about their lives, their books, and their inspirations.” This year, the best-selling Western novelist C. J. Box will guide the audience through his past lives as a ranch hand, a fishing guide, and a small-town newspaper reporter; Michael Farris Smith will describe the process behind writing Desperation Road, his latest Mississippi-set noir; and Rebecca Wells will give a dramatic performance inspired by her immensely popular novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Consider Southern Voices the book lover’s equivalent of a backstage pass.

Happy Transplants
On a spring day in 1910, Tinie Lochridge discovered that bugs had infested her snap bean seeds. So she walked a mile from her farm outside Dierks, Arkansas, and paid her nearest neighbor, Mattie Beane, a nickel (no small amount in those days) for a handful of healthy ones to plant. More than a hundred years later, the extended Lochridge family and friends—now scattered from Texas to Indiana—continue to grow Mattie Beane green beans. That spirit of neighborly sharing guides the annual series of early-spring seed swaps hosted by ROOST (Revitalizing Ozark-Ouachita Seed Traditions), which kicks off February 4 in Russellville. Experienced seed savers and those planting a garden for the first time can find dozens of heirloom varieties, including Beane’s hardy legumes, plus other Arkansas varietals such as Whippoorwill cowpeas, Hickory King corn, and Turkey Craw pole beans. If you’re a newbie, bring a stack of small envelopes to share—and seek out the lifelong gardeners, who are more than happy to divulge their hard-won

Meat of the Matter
A good Cubano is pretty simple: mojo-marinated roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between two slices of mustard-slathered Cuban bread and pressed on a hot griddle. Unless you’re in Tampa, that is, where custom demands adding a thin slice of salami to the traditional mix. Which is best? That’s exactly what’s up for debate at a trio of upcoming Florida festivals. Cooks from all over the state (and beyond) will ply their sandwich presses at both Orlando’s Cuban Sandwich Smackdown (February 25) and its Miami counterpart on March 12 to learn who will advance to the International Cuban Sandwich Festival (April 2) in Tampa, where thirty-some chefs compete for critics’ and people’s choice awards. “You’ll prob-ably have to give up Cuban sandwiches for six months after all this,” says festival cofounder Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla.

Treasure Hunt
Unlike the nondescript arenas where you find so many antique fairs, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, home of the 16th Annual Antiques Show & Sale (February 23–25), is itself of fine vintage—an imposing 1895 Romanesque Revival public school building constructed of red brick and topped with a handsome slate roof. Each year, twenty-one antique dealers—nearly all from below the Mason-Dixon—set up temporary shop in historic downtown Madison. Many of the current vendors have been on the show’s docket for more than a decade, and there’s a long waiting list for new retailers. “Everything you’ll see is an antique that might have been in a home in Virginia, Kentucky, or elsewhere in the South one hundred to two hundred years ago,” says organizer Paulette Long. Sellers remain at their booths throughout the show so you can learn the provenance of any piece that strikes your fancy. Sign up for the preview party to get an early-bird jump on the goods—vintage linens won’t survive a tug-of-war if another shopper gets

Italian in Bourbon Country
Bar Vetti, slated to open early this spring in Louisville, isn’t a total switch-up for chef Ryan Rogers, a veteran of David Chang’s renowned Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City who launched Derby City’s Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken. “Italian makes sense here, because it’s soulful food that’s very much about the ingredients,” Rogers says. “I think that’s Southern cuisine, too.” Expect country ham in place of prosciutto and local jowl bacon instead of guanciale on wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas. Wash it down with a Boulevardier, a bitter, oaky mixture of Kentucky bourbon (Bar Vetti is ten blocks from Brown-Forman) and Italian amaro. Or start your day with a drip or an espresso from the Louisville-based roaster Good Folks Coffee Co. and an Italian-style sausage roll. “We’re using Jake’s Fresh Country Sausage, which I get from a Quick Stop gas station in Bardstown,” Rogers says. “It’s the best country sausage I’ve ever had.”


Pooch Parade
Every dog has his day. In New Orleans, it’s February 19. That’s when fifteen hundred costumed canines—blue blood and mutt alike—take to the streets in the annual Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade. Founded in 1993, originally as a prank, Barkus is the only official Mardi Gras krewe for dogs, who lead their humans to a “pre-pawty” at Armstrong Park before promenading along a fifteen-block route through the Quarter. Pups, including those who make up the Royal Court, heel at the Good Friends Bar on the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann. The king is often a purebred, like last year’s sovereign, His Majesty Barkus XXIV, a stately Weimaraner also known as Alex. However, only rescue dogs can be crowned queen; Nee Nee Sprag, a three-legged long-haired Chihuahua, took the 2016 title. Parade registration fees and donations help support animal organizations in southeastern Louisiana, including the Southern Animal Foundation, the group that launched last year’s rags-to-royalty story.

You Are What You Eat
The same city that brought us cult filmmaker John Waters now delivers Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles as you’ve never seen them before—in portraits made of heirloom seeds. Then there are the sculptures created from marshmallow Peeps and burnt toast; silhouettes cut from pizza boxes; surrealist paintings of tropical fruits; and ostrich eggs etched with a dental drill. And that’s just a taste of the works at Yummm! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food, on display until September 3 at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, which is dedicated to the endeavors of self-taught artists. “It’s a real visual feast, a banquet of art in every kind of material,” says museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger. But there’s a purpose behind the lighthearted pieces. Yummm! aims to spur conversations about food—its scarcity or overabundance, its environmental consequences. “We’re doing this now,” Hoffberger says, “because scientists project that we’ll have two billion more mouths to feed in the next thirty years.” Food for thought

Past Lives
William Faulkner’s famous line “The past is never dead. It is not even past” is an apt description for the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science’s annual Tales from the Crypt project. Throughout the academic year, participating students select one of the twelve thousand people buried in Columbus’s Friendship Cemetery, and then spend months researching that person’s life. Many of Friendship’s inhabitants don’t appear in history books and won’t turn up any hits on Google, so students become detectives, sorting through newspaper archives and court records. Ten are selected to write scripts, and the others pitch in with research, costuming, and directing. The project culminates with candlelit public performances among the headstones. Past lives resuscitated include a Civil War soldier who survived the Battle of Shiloh and a state senator navigating the Reconstruction era. The first enactment takes place March 31, with three more during the first week of April. “The assignment isn’t just ‘Write a paper’; it’s ‘Engage the public,’” says Chuck Yarborough, the teacher who directs the project, which has gained national praise and spawned dozens of similar programs across the Southeast. “Students are really living history.” Attend a performance and you will, too.

North Carolina
The Family Meal
Most people don’t think of the South as a cradle of Jewish food tradition, but our stew of culinary influences includes latkes and matzo—and other less obvious foodstuffs, too. For example: “Thomas Jefferson credited Dr. John de Sequeyra, the only Jew in Williamsburg, Virginia, with introducing the tomato to the United States,” says Joan Nathan, a food writer who will be among the speakers at the University of North Carolina’s Jewish Food in the Global South symposium (March 4–5) in Chapel Hill. James Beard Award–winning chefs Alon Shaya of Shaya in New Orleans and Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill will join her. “Jews brought their dishes to cities like Charleston, Richmond, and New Orleans and made them Southern,” Nathan says. “I’ve even heard of people making gefilte fish with catfish, which isn’t kosher, but maybe they didn’t know that.” Whether or not you can tell rugelach from hamantaschen, you’re invited to join in two days of films, panels, lectures, and cooking classes. “Sitting down to a traditional meal for the Sabbath is what has kept all of us Jews together for so many years,” Nathan says. That’s a sentiment Southerners of all backgrounds can

South Carolina
Holy Grounds
The garden-tour circuit can get pretty hectic in Charleston come spring. While everyone else is driving west to plantation row (certainly a worthy destination), head northeast on Highway 41 instead—through Francis Marion National Forest and the Bonneau Ferry Wildlife Management Area—and in about forty-eight miles you’ll reach Mepkin Abbey. Sprawled across three thousand lush Lowcountry acres on the banks of the Cooper River, the property is the home of a community of Trappist monks that has lived and worked here since 1949, when owners Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce donated the property to the Catholic Church. The religious order keeps a good portion of the tract, dotted with moss-draped oaks and towering magnolias, private for meditative and agricultural activities—the monks grow mushrooms that local chefs like Sean Brock and Jacques Larson prize. But a few areas, including the formal gardens, are open to the public. Mid- to late March, when Mepkin’s prodigious azaleas burst into bloom, is the most stunning time to explore the manicured grounds. They’re even open on Sundays, from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00

The Better to Hear
As if music festival organizer Ashley Capps didn’t have enough on his plate running both the Bonnaroo and Forecastle fests, in 2009 he decided to start another. But unlike its larger sister celebrations, the Big Ears Festival (March 23–26) in Knoxville is an intimate gathering packed with interactive workshops and surprising cross-genre collaborations, which have earned it a reputation as one of the most adventurous music festivals in the country. The shows are spread among historic theaters, churches, warehouses, and galleries—all within walking distance of downtown. Underneath the Fabergé egg–like ceiling of the Tennessee Theatre, you might hear the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra jamming with Carla Bley, a leader of the 1960s free-jazz movement. Or catch Irish American singer Aoife O’Donovan crooning alongside bluegrass and jazz guitar prodigies Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage at Mill & Mine, Knoxville’s new warehouse turned concert hall. Film screenings and art exhibitions fill out the weekend’s calendar. “This isn’t really a nostalgic cele-
bration,” Capps says, “but a festival for the future of the arts in the South.”

Urban Cowboys
Austin isn’t your typical Texas town, and the eighty-year-old Rodeo Austin (March 11–25) isn’t your typical cowboy showcase. For one thing, the music isn’t just country and western. Oh, there’s plenty of twang. Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Dierks Bentley have all headlined, but so have Alabama Shakes, Maroon 5, and Nelly. Bull riding, steer wrestling, mutton busting, and barrel racing draw Texas-sized crowds, but so does the rodeo carnival. Open till midnight, it has all the classics—a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, traditionally impossible-to-win midway games, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and deep-fried treats aplenty—but also some local flavor. Austin Tex-Mex outpost Trudy’s dishes out such favorites as stuffed avocado and chile con queso. Pro tips: Buy your daily all-you-can-ride pass online for a ten-dollar discount; and don’t indulge at the concession stand until you’ve had your fill of the

Driven to Succeed
British driven shooting is gaining ground in the United States—and not just because The Crown helped keep our Anglophile high going strong post–Downton Abbey. On-screen, the sport looks to have a choreographed simplicity: A team of beaters drives pheasant out of woods and fields toward a line of tweed-and-tie-clad “guns.” (Traditional attire is part of the deal.) On this side of the pond, though, shooters are learning that this outdoor ballet is challenging, too—even with released birds. You can find out for yourself during the February 19 and March 5 driven-shooting hunts at Primland, a luxurious twelve-thousand-acre resort in Meadows of Dan. With support from a team of guides (one per person; he’ll even load your gun), you’ll take aim in mountain valleys and over the tops of towering pines. And if you’re any good with a shotgun, they’ll send you packing with a wealth of fully dressed pheasant
to cook at

Washington, D.C.
Points of Light
Francisco, New York, and Miami may garner the most press. But with the over-the-top success of the Renwick Gallery’s innovative exhibit WONDER, and the debut of a
cutting-edge show at the Hirshhorn honoring the eighty-seven-year-old Japanese pop-art pioneer Yayoi Kusama, D.C. is shaking off its stodgy reputation and earning column inches all its own. Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (February 23–May 14) launches its North American tour in Washington this winter with six of Kusama’s dazzling mirror rooms, which reflect intricately abstract landscapes of glowing glass-and-plastic pumpkins, giant polka-dotted pink balloons, or thousands of flashing pinpricks of neon lights. The fantastical exhibition ends with a famous installation called The Obliteration Room, a plain white space that surrenders to colorful chaos as visitors decorate it with a rainbow of circular stickers in various sizes and hues. Snap a photo—you won’t be able to resist—but be sure to step out from behind the smartphone to fully appreciate the artist’s mind-bending