The Southern Agenda

The Southern Agenda: August/September 2016

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Illustration: Tim Bower

  • Alabama: Highway to Sell

    Gadsden, Alabama

    Four days may sound like plenty of time for a shopping trip, but it’s not nearly enough to see all 690 miles of the World’s Longest Yard Sale. Beginning at Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden, the market snakes along the U.S. Route 127 corridor past front yards, parking lots, and fields in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio before ending in Michigan. More than a thousand vendors line Alabama’s ninety-three-mile stretch of the event, setting up along the scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway, one of the South’s prettiest stretches of road. “Almost every house on the route around here has a sale going on,” says Hugh Stump, executive director of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. Persistent pickers can find everything from well-loved cast-iron skillets and vinyl records to such quirky collectibles as vintage typewriters and political buttons. Plenty of taxidermied oddities, too—if you’re searching for a pair of squirrels paddling a tiny canoe, you might be in luck. Pace yourself, though, and be sure to arrange a place to sleep in advance. “The hotels book up,” Stump says. I-59 parallels the route in Alabama, he adds, and it can provide both an escape from yard-sale traffic and better odds of finding a room for the night. Another pro tip: Watch for churches, which often raise money by selling rejuvenating meals to road-weary shoppers. —

  • Arkansas

    First String

    High in the hills and down in the hollers of the Ozarks, the traditions of bluegrass, country, gospel, Irish folk, and old-time mountain music mix and mingle to create a unique regional sound. Each year, Fayetteville celebrates that musical heritage with the string-heavy Fayetteville Roots Festival (August 25–28), which presents both regional and national Americana acts in low-key settings around town. This year’s lineup includes the guitar-and-banjo-picking likes of Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels & Rope, and Fayetteville native son Joe Purdy. Intimate venues—from bars and restaurants to the public library—offer attendees from all over the world a chance to see some of their favorite big-name roots artists up close and discover such on-the-rise music makers as the Austin, Texas, duo Penny & Sparrow. Festival organizers are also working with area farmers to provide everything from heirloom tomatoes to pasture-raised chicken for the festival café, offering a taste of the Natural State as true as one of Purdy’s folk tunes.

  • Florida

    Bad Seeds

    Nobody oohs and aahs more than Southerners when the azaleas burst into bloom each spring. “But what many don’t know is the Romans once made honey out of the flowers to poison opposing armies,” says Darcie MacMahon, director of exhibits at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. That’s just one of the fascinating, fanciful, and downright frightening tidbits you’ll learn at Wicked Plants: The Exhibit (through January 15). The show takes its cues from Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, which delves deep into the dark side of botany. Wander past apothecary bottles of plant-based potions and poisons, displays of dangerous nightshades, and various weeds of mass destruction, including white snakeroot (which took Mrs. Lincoln’s life after she drank milk from a cow that had eaten it). After a walk through, put your new knowledge to the test with a scavenger hunt in the museum’s gardens. Just beware the strangler fig and voodoo lily.

  • Georgia

    Forest Gumption

    Atlantans craving the fresh air that abounds in the North Georgia mountains must first endure I-85 gridlock. Come September, though, they won’t have to work quite as hard for a little arboreal solitude. “Deep in the heart of the Fernbank Forest, you won’t be able to see any buildings or roads, and all you’ll hear are the sounds of nature,” says ecologist Eli Dickerson of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Dickerson and his team spent the last four years restoring the in-town tract’s sixty-five acres of old-growth Piedmont forest. This involved pulling away more than forty-five nonnative plants—species as diverse as English ivy and Japanese chaff flower—that had choked the land for decades. Reopening late this summer, Fernbank will feature five new interactive exhibits, an elevated tree walk, plus two and a half miles of walking trails winding through hickories, oaks, and big-leaf magnolias that shade a forest floor dotted with Southern woodland wildflowers such as trilliums, bloodroots, and trout lilies. Aside from the peace, quiet, and scenery, there’s another compelling reason to visit Fernbank in late summer. “Walk up to the edge, and you’ll notice a ten- or fifteen-degree temperature difference from the city,” Dickerson says. “The trees are like nature’s air-conditioning.”

  • Kentucky

    Chicken Out

    In Laurel County, fried chicken is more than just a Sunday picnic staple—it’s big business. Colonel Harland Sanders devised his signature blend of eleven herbs and spices here and launched an international yard-bird empire. His nephew Lee Cummings founded the less gargantuan but still beloved Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken chain. And September 22 through 25, the county is home to the annual World Chicken Festival in London, where volunteers man a three-hundred-gallon stainless-steel skillet—the world’s largest—to fry close to seven thousand pieces of poultry. Order by the cut or the plate. Local nonprofits sell a banquet of sides and sweets. In between bites, festivalgoers can try their greasy-fingered hands in the Barnyard Games: watermelon seed spitting, corn shucking, a redneck joke competition, and more. The rooster imitation contest is always competitive, too. The winner takes home $100—and plenty to crow about.

  • Louisiana

    Illustration: Tim Bower

    Historic Hospitality

    When Mark Latter took over Tujague’s, the second-oldest restaurant in New Orleans, after his father passed away in 2013, the forward-looking restaurateur got to work clearing away decades of figurative cobwebs—the landmark French Quarter eatery celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. The five-course menu went à la carte, and Latter added new dishes of lump crab gnocchi and crawfish cavatelli. It was clear from the beginning, though, that some things would stick around. The ghosts, for starters. The restless spirits, said to include an early-twentieth-century stage star and a former owner, are as much a part of the restaurant’s mythology as such beloved house specialties as shrimp doused in red remoulade and chunks of brisket with Tujague’s signature horseradish sauce. On August 11, chef John Besh will lend a hand in the kitchen for a special anniversary dinner. To fully appreciate the meal, take a spin through Tujague’s: 160 Years of Tradition (through October), an exhibition at the city’s Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where you can learn about everything from the ghosts to the gumbo. And, most important, the pronunciation; it’s “Too-jacks.”


  • Maryland

    Still Above Water

    Ever heard of a buyboat? Decades after their heyday, most of us haven’t. The vintage commercial vessels once acted as middlemen, motoring out to buy oysters and crabs directly from Chesapeake Bay watermen and haul them back to seafood sellers at the docks. “Probably just five or six buyboats are still working,” says Captain John England, commander of the Southern Fleet of the Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association, a group of owners and enthusiasts. Many more of the shallow-bottomed wooden watercraft have been restored and converted into yachts for personal use. As part of the annual Buyboat Reunion Tour, England and more than a dozen of his fellow buyboat owners will dock next to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels (August 11–14) to show visitors around their historic vessels and regale them with tales of a bygone way of life. “With these buyboats always come stories—about the captains, crew, and the family they went home to,” England says. “We can tell some good ones.” And considering August falls within peak crab season, you’d be remiss to leave town without tucking into a plate of the steaming crustaceans. 

  • Mississippi

    Be Their Guest

    If you bring your dog when checking in to the new Chancellor’s House hotel in Oxford, the staff will escort him to a mahogany kennel bedecked with Ralph Lauren pillows and, believe it or not, a custom-etched brass name tag. At your request, they will even deliver him room service of steak and mashed sweet potatoes. When it comes to amenities, that’s just the beginning. “If it’s legal, we’re going to supply it,” promises the hotel’s hospitality mastermind, Fred Alias. “If you want a jet at 3:00 a.m. to see a show in New York, you’ve got it. Want a limo? No problem. You want to go bird hunting? We can make it work.” Such VIP treatment will be available around the clock, courtesy of the property’s platoon of on-call butlers. Other indulgent touches: first editions by Mississippi authors in the library, and complimentary champagne and warmed terry-cloth robes at the spa. Scheduled to open in September just off Oxford’s square, the hotel is going to be an in-demand reservation during football season, and not only for out-of-towners. The rooftop lounge and a formal restaurant will be open to the public—butler, alas, not included.

  • North Carolina

    Illustration: Tim Bower

    Dinner and a Flower Show

    With its low-tech charm (no TVs), gloriously rural setting, and stellar fly fishing, High Hampton Inn in Cashiers has attracted generations of Southern families looking for a relaxing mountain escape. Garden-loving gastronomes come to the 1,400-acre estate for a different reason, though: Dinner in the Dahlias, an intimate outdoor late-summer affair that coincides with the blooming of the impressive flowers. The floral field feast is so popular that the inn plans double dates each year—August 29 and September 12—so hotel guests have two chances to enjoy a five-course meal seated at a long communal table among five-foot-tall dahlias growing alongside the golf course’s tenth fairway. Chef Michael Moore seasons dishes with herbs from the farm’s kitchen garden, resulting in thyme-and-rosemary-spiced Cornish game hens with a honey glaze and just-peaking-tomato tarts. As for party favors, they’re delightfully DIY. Says event planner Caroline Grogan, “We give guests mason jars and encourage them to walk around and clip the flowers.”


  • Oklahoma

    Cowboy Comfort

    If you’ve heard anything about Pawhuska lately, chances are it had something to do with prominent resident Ree Drummond. With seven best-selling books and a popular series on the Food Network, the ranch wife and mother behind The Pioneer Woman blog has become a home-cooking superstar. For the past few years, she’s also been hard at work on a brick-and-mortar project: The Pioneer Woman Mercantile, slated to open in downtown Pawhuska in late August. In the early 1900s, the building was a general store for actual pioneer women; Drummond is reopening it as a bakery, restaurant, and shop selling everything from dinnerware to deerskin gloves, alongside the sorts of down-home dishes that built a media empire. “We won’t be making fancy pastries,” she says. “But chicken-fried steak and biscuits and gravy will definitely be on the menu.” 

  • South Carolina

    Late Supper

    Ten years ago, when Micah Garrison started working at Middleton Place—America’s oldest landscaped garden, just outside Charleston—he consulted his dog-eared Farmers’ Almanac for just about everything, including how to plant by the moon cycles. That’s when he noticed the profusion of names given to the lunar body—honey moon, hunter moon, and others. The romantic monikers inspired the dinner series that Garrison, who is now the food and beverage director at Middleton, organizes throughout the summer and fall. Up next is the Harvest Moon Dinner (September 18), which will feature such late-summer bounty as estate-foraged chanterelle mushrooms, along with squash, watermelon, and heirloom tomatoes. Fifty attendees will dine just steps away from Middleton’s organic farm, surrounded by woods and pasture. The fresh produce will accent dishes made with local heritage pork and Palmetto State quail, all served family-style under the light of the Carolina moon.

  • Tennessee

    Sterling Record

    The metalsmith Kevin Burge has seen everything from broken candelabras to limbless statues at the repair lab he runs at Memphis’s Metal Museum. “But the most common item we get is silverware run through the garbage disposal,” he says. For four days every September, Burge and more than a hundred other foundry workers, welders, blacksmiths, and silversmiths volunteer their time for the museum’s metal-fixing bonanza, called Repair Days (September 22–25). The event sees upward of one thousand guests toting teakettles with missing handles, warped julep cups, twisted platters, and copper pots in need of retinning. There’s even a sharpener who spends the whole weekend giving knives and garden tools back their edge. Bring your damaged heirloom and Burge will assign you an artisan who will fix it on the spot for a fee or, if it’s a more complex job, quote you a price and arrange a later date for pickup. All Repair Days profits support the museum. “You can easily go to a welding shop or find people to fix your jewelry,” Burge says. “The weird things in the middle get a little tougher, and that’s where we fit in.”

  • Texas

    Art of a Champion

    Relatively short and stocky, the American quarter horse may lack the Thoroughbred’s lithe build and showy stamina, but the indefatigable breed excels across disciplines—dressage, hunting, jumping, rodeo, general riding, and ranch work—earning it the nickname America’s Horse. “Whatever you need them to do, they’ll do it reliably with beauty, strength, and grace,” says Crystal Phares, the curator of America’s Horse in Art Show & Sale (August 13–October 15) at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum in Amarillo. The museum’s annual sale includes over a hundred works in media from acrylic to bronze from more than fifty artists around the world, including the featured artist Iwona Jankowski, of Magnolia, Texas, renowned for her abstract-expressionist equine portraits. One thing unites all the artworks: “If there is a horse in the piece,” Phares says, “it has to be an American quarter horse.”

  • Virginia

    Ale in the Family

    Before Prohibition shut it down, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was the largest employer in Alexandria. Just minutes from the spot where it once stood, the founder’s great-great-granddaughters Catherine and Margaret Portner are resurrecting the family legacy at the soon-to-open Portner Brewhouse. They’ve done their best to re-create a few of Robert’s vintage recipes, but this isn’t just an exercise in preservation. Not only are the sisters brewing their own creative suds, but they’re also inviting local home brewers to experiment in a one-of-a-kind craft beer test kitchen, where they can create their own brews to go on tap for a limited time. “Our great-great-grandfather was the first generation in the United States, and it was important to him that he created and maintained a good name,” Catherine says. Now, thanks to his descendants, a new generation will toast it.

  • Washington, D.C.

    Imagination Station

    Last November, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery reopened after a major renovation with an immersive experience called Wonder. Record crowds were amazed by the huge-scale installations, such as Maya Lin’s map of the Chesapeake Bay, made of thousands of sea-green marbles spread out across the floor and up the walls and windows. Curators, however, fretted over what could possibly follow. Find out at the opening of Visions and Revisions (September 9– January 8), the seventh biennial Ren-wick Invitational, which highlights artists who employ surprise elements and optical illusions to captivate rather than overwhelming size. Jennifer Trask, one of the four featured artists, is a jeweler turned sculptor whose materials include butterfly wings, vertebrae, antlers, and precious stones. “You walk up to one of her flowers and you expect it to be porcelain, only to find that it’s made completely of animal bones,” says Nora Atkinson, one of the curators. “Her work will make you do a double take.” As will the pieces by Brunswick, Georgia–born artist Kristen Morgin, whose clay sculptures look as though they’re made of such found objects as cartoon clippings, car parts, and vintage toys.

  • West Virginia

    Launch Party

    When the author and former NASA engineer Homer “Sonny” Hickam, Jr., told his friends from Coalwood that he was writing about their childhoods spent experimenting with rudimentary rockets in 1950s coal country, they were skeptical. “I recall Roy Lee asking, ‘Sonny, who would care what we did back in high school?’” Hickam says. “I confessed I didn’t know but I thought we were about to find out.” They discovered their stories resonated in a big way when Hickam’s memoir, Rocket Boys, was picked up by Universal Studios as the basis for its movie October Sky and subsequently soared to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Today, an annual celebration in nearby Beckley honors the region’s creative folks, Hickam included. The Rocket Boys Festival (September 27-October 1) includes a film series dedicated to West Virginia movies, a book signing for local authors, and underground tours led by veteran miners through the dark passages of an exhibition coal mine. The highlight of the week comes before a screening of October Sky, when Hickam hosts a writers’ workshop. One tip he’ll share is something he learned firsthand: “The best advice I can give to any writer is to be a good reader,” he says.