Immigrants are active Southerners. They choose to live here, to raise families, to grow businesses. Despite unfavorable odds that may, in this new age of American isolation, temporarily thwart innovation, active Southerners are reinventing the region. In the process, as an already complicated region embraces new people, and cultural nuances accrete, much is gained. Especially for eaters.
My friend Dan Philips, a wine importer, likes to drag me into discussions of the Civil War. Though he lives in California, Dan has roots in the South, eats and drinks his way through the region often, and reads voraciously. Dan is smart. And he asks great questions. But I rarely take the bait. The reasons are complicated.
“I will fix this, if they let me,” says Will Harris of White Oak Pastures as he machetes through a briar-tangled bamboo thicket and scampers over a mossy boulder, plunging toward a ruined concrete-bordered public pool glossed with emerald slime and swarmed by dragonflies. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this bottom-of-the-bluff park at the heart of Bluffton, a farming town on Georgia’s southwestern fringe, was a symbol of civic commonwealth for white settlers who staked claims after Andrew Jackson killed off and kicked out the Creek Indians in 1814.
“At first, I couldn’t come in a place like this,” Helen Summerville told me one recent afternoon as she forked into a mound of cornbread dressing and giblet gravy at Kairos Kafe on the south side of Birmingham, Alabama. “And then, for a while, I wouldn’t come in,” she said. “None of that matters now.” Prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Summerville, who is black, would not have been served in most white-owned dining rooms in Birmingham. Back then, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q—which was open from 1926 through 2001 and claimed three locations in this neighborhood, including the one now occupied by Kairos—was among the staunchest defenders of the Jim Crow laws and practices that dictated separate eating facilities for whites and blacks.
When attacks on my beliefs and stances occur, they come from the right. Or from someone who has a score to settle. But here came Tunde, without personal malice, and with great charm, saying things that made me supremely uncomfortable, making it clear that he saw me as a kind of colonial force, appropriating black cultural processes and products.
On a summer day in 1949, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, novelist Donald Windham, painter Buffie Johnson, playwright Tennessee Williams, and writer-provocateur Gore Vidal gathered at Café Nicholson, a bohemian supper club set in the back courtyard of an antique store on New York City’s Upper East Side.