The Southern Agenda

The Southern Agenda: February/March 2016

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Illustration: Illustrations by Tim Bower

  • Alabama: Earning Frequent Flier Miles

    Illustration: Illustrations by Tim Bower

    Dauphin Island, Alabama

    Southerners returning home from abroad often touch down on native soil at Hartsfield-Jackson. A first stop for travelers of the avian sort lies a little farther south—Dauphin Island, a narrow spit of sand and coastal forest at the mouth of Mobile Bay. It’s a famously good place to encounter buntings, warblers, hummingbirds, and other colorful species en route home from South and Central American wintering grounds during the Spring Bird Migration, which usually starts in March and lasts through April. “It’s one of the top ten birding spots in the country, period,” says Don McKee, an avid birder and prominent local conservationist. “And in the spring, the birds are all in their mating plumage. Those are their fancy colors, their brightest blues and yellows.” (Extra bird-nerd points for spotting an elusive black-billed cuckoo.) Early on spring mornings, you might hear dozens of the three hundred varieties of native and visiting birds in the trees. On the other hand, the professional and amateur birders who flock here are often rendered speechless.—

  • Arkansas

    Historic Perspective

    What began with a few family photos became a personal obsession for Joshua and Mary Swift, who have spent thirty-five years collecting the vintage portraits now on display at the Butler Center in Little Rock. Photographic Arts: African American Studio Photography from the Joshua & Mary Swift Collection (through March 26) contains more than ninety additional photographs that the couple rescued from garages and estate sales all over Arkansas and first hung on the crowded walls of their home. Produced in studio settings between Emancipation and World War II, the photographs, some hand tinted and embellished, often depict unknown subjects but illustrate an important slice of African American history. “At the time these photographs were taken, some of the subjects didn’t have a lot of money,” says Butler Center art administrator Colin Thompson. “These pictures were cherished things.” They still are.—

  • Florida

    Illustration: Illustrations by Tim Bower

    The Shipping News

    The U.S. State Department cracked opened the doors to Cuba last year, but traveling to the island is still a tricky proposition. Until restrictions loosen further, it’s tough luck for many sportsmen who’d like to get a glimpse of one of the most famous fishing boats on earth. Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar, the Brooklyn-built, thirty-eight-foot cabin cruiser that saw the writer through wars, wives, and the writing of such classics as The Old Man and the Sea, remains dry-docked at Finca Vigía, his estate outside Havana. Good thing, then, that Pilar’s sister ship, which served as the model for Hemingway’s custom Wheeler, will be the headliner at this year’s Miami International Boat Show (February 11–15). She will make her way to the Miami Marine Stadium Park, joining such good, if less culturally august, company as the turquoise Wellcraft Scarab that Sonny Crockett used to chase down bad guys on Miami Vice.—

  • Georgia

    A Joyful Noise

    You’ll hear more than country, blues, and bluegrass drifting through the oaks during the Savannah Music Festival (March 24–April 9), held in churches, theaters, and other historic venues along the moss-draped streets of the port city. There’s plenty of all that, sure—the lineup includes Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Del McCoury, the North Mississippi Allstars, and Dr. John. But you’ll also find classical pianists with string ensembles, jazz acts, and other eclectic sounds. And this year, the festival is hosting more international acts than ever. Malian star vocalist Kassé Mady Diabaté will bring his fifty-year catalog to the festival; award-winning Spanish guitarist Vicente Amigo will serenade with real-deal flamenco; and Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles will lead a Caribbean dance party. It’s a musical mash-up as diverse as the vessel log at the city’s sprawling port.—

  • Kentucky

    Heirloom Status

    On the hunt for vintage julep cups? Head straight to the birthplace of brown water for the Blue Grass Trust Antiques & Garden Show (March 4–6) in Lexington, one of the finest Kentucky sources for sterling silver, heirloom jewelry, Edwardian chesterfields, Georgian armoires, and equine memorabilia of all sorts. You may have to dodge a few obstacles before you reach the displays, though. The event occurs at Kentucky Horse Park, just north of town, which encompasses not only show-jumping arenas and an equestrian museum but also a working farm. “Driving in, you’ll pass pastures and barns, and you might have to stop so that the horses can go from one field to another,” says the Blue Grass Trust’s director, Sheila Ferrell. Once you do arrive, you’ll find wares from ninety vendors, who travel from across the country to set up shop. “We also have lectures on everything from art to whiskey,” Ferrell says. G&G contributor and Southern hostess extraordinaire Julia Reed is scheduled to provide one of them.—

  • Louisiana

    Toasting Tennessee

    “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans,” Tennessee Williams famously said. “Everywhere else is Cleveland.” So it’s fitting that the literati honor his legacy in the Crescent City, though the playwright grew up in Columbus, Mississippi. The Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival (March 30–April 3), which marks its thirtieth anniversary in 2016, gives the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright top billing. Organizers will stage productions of Orpheus Descending and The Glass Menagerie, along with lectures, panel discussions, and readings devoted to the writer. You can even put your acting chops—and your vocal cords—to the test at the annual Stanley and Stella shouting contest. The festival is rooted in the past, but it also enthusiastically celebrates the work of current writers, playwrights, actors, and patrons of the arts. This year’s speakers will include Alabama author Rick Bragg, whiskey writer Clay Risen, and South Carolina–born novelist Dorothy Allison, among others.—

  • Maryland

    Jump Start

    Steeplechasing is serious business in the Old Line State. Not only is Maryland the home of the National Steeplechase Association, but it also hosts some of the country’s most prestigious races. Each season, they begin with the Foxhall Farm Cup Team Chase in Glyndon on March 20. Organized a century ago by East Coast sportsman Foxhall P. Keene, the chase doesn’t take place on a groomed track. “As a foxhunter, you want to be able to jump from field to field without opening a gate,” says Michael Wharton, one of the organizers of this year’s race. Teams of three horse-and-rider pairs—who must be members of a foxhunting club—traverse four and a half miles dotted with creeks, ditches, hedges, and fences. The team with the best time earns a sterling silver trophy and the right to host the event the following year. Watching the race is a low-key affair. If you attend, dress warmly and bring your own picnic spread. A thermos full of spiked hot cider might be just the ticket.—

  • Mississippi

    Bird Brains

    Didn’t stack up to the competition at your family quail hunt last year? Enroll in the Orvis Quail Hunting School (February 8–9, March 17–18) at the Prairie Wildlife sporting estate in West Point, a conservation-driven property dedicated to reviving Mississippi’s wild bobwhite quail population. The two-day class begins with lessons on basics, like shooting at targets that don’t just move so much as burst wildly and erratically into the sky. Whether you’re an upland-bird-hunting beginner or a pro in need of a tune-up, there is plenty to learn here. Students will practice on clay targets before putting their skills to the test in the field during a quail hunt on the area’s famous but endangered Black Prairie—part of the larger Black Belt, a fertile swath of dark soil that stretches from northeastern Mississippi across Alabama. They’ll also get to work alongside top-of-the-line dogs. Seasoned shooting instructors will be on hand for in-the-moment coaching that’ll help you trounce the cousins next time.—

  • North Carolina

    Illustration: Illustrations by Tim Bower

    Gimme Some Sugar

    If you’ve ever driven by the Krispy Kreme Challenge Children’s Specialty Clinic in Raleigh, you might have wondered why a children’s medical center would take its name from those devilishly tempting rounds of fried dough and sweet glaze. It’s all thanks to a charity race that has raised nearly a million dollars for the hospital over the past twelve years. The Krispy Kreme Challenge (February 6) began as a college dare: In less than an hour, run two and a half miles from North Carolina State University’s Memorial Belltower to the nearest doughnut shop, wolf down a dozen, and run all the way back. That first year, ten friends completed the test of athletic and gastronomic fortitude. Today, thousands run. For those who feel queasy even contemplating the prospect, there is an eating-optional category.—

  • Oklahoma

    Bloom Town

    Come Valentine’s Day, roses make for brisk business in the floral trade, but orchids are the best-selling potted blooms year-round. “People who love flowers become obsessed with them,” says Maureen Heffernan, director of the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City. “They’re beautiful, varied, and to get them to bloom is a real skill.” Impress your V-Day date with a stroll through the gardens’ new exhibition, Deceptive Orchids (on display from February 14 through March 19), which highlights how these exotic flowers have evolved to attract (or repel) attention. For a crash course in orchid care, reserve a space in the Myriad’s class on the subject, held February 27. And if you want to take one of the tropical plants home, visit the conservatory the day after the show ends its run in March. “We’ll have so many orchids we can’t keep,” Heffernan says. Which means…they’ll all be for sale.—

  • South Carolina

    A Restaurant Rises

    Chances are your grandma never made biscuits quite like the ones at Biscuit Head in Asheville, North Carolina. They come in a dizzying number of combinations. You can get one stuffed with smoked goat cheese or sriracha slaw, topped with barbecue hollandaise, or garnished with options from the self-serve toppings bar: sweet potato butter, maple bacon butter, fruit punch jam, and more. People gobble them up so fast that the owners, Jason and Carolyn Roy, decided it was time to open an out-of-town outpost, and now Biscuit Head Greenville is slated to open in late March. “Greenville seemed like the most fun,” Jason says. Only an hour and a half from Asheville, the former mill town is an on-the-rise dining destination where tarragon marmalade and smoked tomato gravy ought to fit right in.—

  • Tennessee

    Avant-Garde in Appalachia

    At first glance, the painting doesn’t suggest any place in particular, but its three panels of winter-morning blue spattered with yellow, orange, and black are in fact an artist’s take on her Smoky Mountain surroundings. Trees and Sky by Joanna Higgs Ross is one of the most iconic works from the crew of abstract expressionist painters and sculptors known to history as the Knoxville Seven, now enjoying a retrospective exhibit by the same name at the Knoxville Museum of Art (through April 17). Between 1955 and 1965, the like-minded band of University of Tennessee art professors and local up-and-comers combined forces for exhibitions in what was then a sleepy river town without much in the way of a modern art scene, producing what was most likely the first abstract art in East Tennessee. “They brought international art trends here, but they also firmly planted their flag in the soil,” says Stephen Wicks, the curator who organized the show. “They paved the way for our museum.” No exaggeration: The Dulin Gallery, which displayed much of the Seven’s work, in 1990 became the Knoxville Museum of Art.—

  • Texas

    Lone Star Carnival

    On Mardi Gras, any restaurant worth its liquor license brings out the green, purple, and gold to celebrate. Danny Trace of Brennan’s of Houston, who learned to cook at the New Orleans landmark Commander’s Palace—also owned by the Brennan family—knows he has a particular responsibility to observe the holiday the right way. And, boy, does he. During the annual Mardi Gras at Brennan’s (February 9), the restaurant houses a faux parade float and also hosts bead tossers, a palm reader, and a live jazz band to set the stage for a three-course prix fixe menu devoted to the culinary delights of New Orleans but largely supplied by Lone Star State farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. The menu changes from year to year, but you can always expect such traditional staples as turtle soup, alligator-and-oyster gumbo, cream-cheese-filled king cake, and, of course, bananas Foster, which was invented at the original Brennan’s back in the 1950s.—

  • Virginia

    An American Classic

    Thomas Jefferson once spent three weeks taking soaks in the mineral-rich waters of Warm Springs, Virginia. Incredibly, the same bathhouse where he sat for nearly an hour three times each day of his vacation is still in use two and a half centuries later at the Omni Homestead hotel. Many other things have changed as the property has grown from a humble eighteen-room lodge nestled in the Allegheny Mountains to a palatial getaway on 2,300 pristine acres with 483 guest rooms. Today there’s a much larger spa, two golf courses, a shooting club, a fly-fishing school, a tennis center, and a collection of restaurants and bars. The Homestead’s 250th Anniversary is a yearlong celebration that honors the centuries past while making it easier than ever to get a taste of the present. Freshly baked birthday cakes—perhaps soused with whiskey, or layered with peanut butter and jelly—will mark the occasion each day, as will historic menus at the resort’s main dining room, meaning you can dine like a founding father, too.—

  • Washington, D.C.

    Yard Work

    If you’ve been to D.C. in the past decade or so, chances are you’ve visited the World War II Memorial, which means you’ve seen the work of the late landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. The duo has probably influenced your own backyard, too. Throughout the 1970s, the designers laid out rustic gardens all over the country—including properties in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland—populated with hundreds of native plants back when many of their contemporaries were preaching harsh modernism. “When you look at gardens today, there’s an appreciation for plant material that they brought back,” says Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the co-curator of The New American Garden, on display at the National Building Museum until May 1. To tell the pioneering pair’s story, the museum employs photographs, drawings, hand-sketched plans, and video interviews. “Their designs weren’t just aesthetic,” Birnbaum says. “They were sustainable. Ahead of their time.”—

  • West Virginia

    Glass Act

    For William J. Blenko, a talented but unlucky entrepreneur, the fourth time proved the charm when he finally secured success with a glass factory in the small town of Milton in 1921, after three failed ventures. His factory has been a fixture in the area for generations, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not only has it taken orders from the White House and the Country Music Awards, but its handmade pitchers, vases, bowls, and other pieces decorate stylish homes across the country. The best time to stock up is during the Blenko Glass Warehouse Sale (March 19–April 2). Shoppers come from states away to browse the storeroom for the colorful glassware at generously discounted prices. (Consider, for example, a classic water carafe for the guest bedroom.) Before you leave, make sure to watch the glassblowers in their workshop. All these years later, the real beauty of these products is the old-fashioned hands-on approach that creates them.—