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What Makes Southerners Different? We Have a Culture of Our Very Own

Old South Marion Post Wolcott photo
Photographer Marion Post Wolcott captured stunning images of the American Deep South during the Depression. Remnants of old buildings like this one can be found to this day in rural areas. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

How different are Southerners? It was in New York City in the early days of my yankee imprisonment that I first caught on to how different Southerners were.

After graduating from the South’s premier finishing school (y’all know where I mean), I woke up one morning on Wall Street. Here I found a diverse group of well-educated expatriates from across the globe. After we all became acquainted, the questions about Yankees poured forth: Why do they ask “how are you” if they don’t care about the answer? Why do they mock my accent? Why do they wave their arms so loudly when they speak? Sometimes my fellow expatriates would ask me if I owned any slaves – well, that’s the media-driven stereotype for you. The revelation? My fellow expatriates believed me to be from another country!
I have more good news about news – or maybe it’s more of a silver lining. There are some very influential people who recognize Southern Culture. They, however, are at the other end of the scale from the well-educated expatriates: the Media. Consider this: Whenever there is a news story from Texas to the Carolinas, CNN will find a stereotypical character from CMT central casting to interview. They have to. Mother always told us, “A person should have their names in the news three times only: birth, death and marriage – in that order.” (My mom is a funny lady.) Next time you’re stuck in the airport with a dead phone, watch CNN. News from the South will always feature a “Bubba.” News from Scranton to Sacramento won’t include someone who looks like Uncle Sam.
So what exactly is a “culture”? LiveScience.com defines it as: “The characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, cuisine, religion, social habits, music and arts.” Bingo, Southerners, it’s game on.
Language: Accents will be your audience’s first clue that you are Southern. Well, I suppose you’ll stand out out for other things, too, like making eye contact, smiling and not smacking gum. The South has two dominant linguistic influences. First came Elizabethan English, then the West African languages. The blending of the compromise (Creole) and the base language (English) into a dialect is called “decreolization.” This is how most of the South got its unique, melodic sound and love of idioms. Due to the 800-ish languages spoken (no joke) in New York, accents there are more about ethnicity than areas. Southern accents are all about geographic area.

Fried chicken plate
The fare at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Oxford is about as southern as you can get.

Cuisine: New York has made few, arguably zero, contributions to cuisine. The ethnic choices, however, are tremendous. On any street you may find everything from pizza to pita, but mostly pizza. Fully 1/3 of the nearly 30,000 restaurants serve pizza. Manhattan is essentially a giant food court of Americanized knockoffs of other cuisines. I cannot list all of the Southern foods I miss, but the cobbler, cornbread dressing and yeast rolls from the Southaven Elementary School cafeteria would be close to the top. New York has contributed hot dogs, cheesecake and Manhattan Clam Chowder. Note to my readers: Manhattan Clam Chowder is the tomato-based version, and the dirty little secret is that Boston Clam Chowder is preferred in Manhattan.
Religion: Legend has it that Voltaire said, “In New York, there are sixty different religions, one sauce, and no college football.” New York is home to as many as 800 languages – no one knows how many for certain. There are 176 different languages spoken in the city’s public schools. I cannot get an accurate fix on the number of religions because I would imagine that more are being invented every day. Suffice to say that there are more religions in NYC than “Carter’s got pills.” The food we just discussed: all the wonderful varieties of cooked cough in a food court setting. College football is easier to count – there isn’t any.
College football in the Deep South
College football is integral to southern culture. Most New Yorkers couldn’t care less. Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Social habits: Conversation is a treasured art form in the South. In the New York Metro area it’s an opportunity for conquest. You might expect the give-and-take similar to tennis: One person speaks, the other listens. Serve, rally, repeat. But conversation in New York is like two or more (it doesn’t matter how many since no one is listening) people shooting a fire hose at each other in a duel to the death – or maybe to the deaf. The “duel” is probably a pizza controversy (arguing over which of the two dozen “Ray’s Pizza” restaurants is the real one), or some other pointless dust-up regarding the Mets, Phillies or Nets. Remember, no college football; you’ll need a plane ticket down South to discuss that.
Music and the arts: Most of the popular modern music in the world was born in the South: jazz, blues, rock, country and bluegrass. NYC did invent rap. I like some of it. Rap is like an art museum; some of the art is very enjoyable, some of it is popular for shock value, and all of it stolen from the original artist.
I certify this article as authentic Southern Culture as I wrote it while eating Pimento Cheese on fried green tomatoes.

BlessYourHeartTim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at tim.h.heaton@gmail.com. His new book, “Bless Your Heart, You Freakin’ Idiot: Southern Sayings Translated” is available on Amazon as well as “Momma n’ Em Said: The Treasury of Southern Sayings.”

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