Sometimes, I forget I am from the South. But when I do, I recall a day trip to Jefferson, Texas, where I encountered all the Southern stereotypes I had always heard about but only marginally experienced. The town in Marion County, less than an hour’s drive away from my home in Louisiana, has a population of about 2,000. Its official website boasts stately bed-and-breakfasts, homemade praline shops, and other marks of “Southern grace and romance.” As I scrolled through the photos, I could not help but smirk. I had experienced 11 years of what lies behind-the-scenes of this “grace and romance”: hungover and dilapidated streets the morning after Mardi Gras parades, the way even the most put-together ladies seem to wilt on the hottest summer days. For me, my life in the South was life as it might have been somewhere else—the closest I had ever come to a cotillion was looking through photos in the “Society” section of our city newspaper.
But as I stepped out of our car onto the brick-paved road that was Jefferson’s main street, I got the impression I had just entered a Walt Disney rendition of Southern Town, USA. I stood under the shade of a wooden awning, lined with a string of Texas flags, and took it all in. Trucks the color of robin eggs, speckled with rust. A single-stoplight. Faded wooden signs whose painted words advertised diner burgers, homemade fudge, and hot breakfast. Each general store and candy counter had shelves upon shelves of packaged preserves and jams, with apricot honey butter for the cautious and apple pepper relish for the bold. As we sat down to lunch, I noticed on the wall a photo of our waitress, the one young woman in the restaurant. She was wearing a crown and a sash with the words “Miss Marion County” in bold black letters.
We were among a large crowd of tourists coming to Jefferson from all over the tri-state region. It was a warm March Saturday—perfect for antiquing. Antiquing life in Jefferson is known throughout the South, with three to four large antique emporiums on each block. I sifted through blue and white porcelain plates and old models of ships, photographing rusty silverware and old coke bottles. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that Jefferson specializes in antiques. This picture of a “Southern Life” it offers is one of nostalgia. It is not nostalgia for a particular time, but rather, it is the longing for a mood created by a town with a slow pace and a community of trusty “regulars.” Purchasing antiques is a way to consume nostalgia, to recapture and take home dreamy What-Could-Have-Beens, even if they never existed in the way we imagine.
When I am at school, away from Louisiana, I have a tendency to over-romanticize the South, to create a beautiful world of swirling white dresses and cotillions and state fairs for my friends who have never left New England. I may start savor to this world myself. The moment I arrive home, though, and return to driving through my town’s suburban streets in my SUV, this delicate image fades and gives way to real life, to the un-glamour of intolerable heat and chain restaurants.
But as I walked through that small Texas town, the taste of pralines still lingering in my mouth, I felt every caricature I had ever drawn of the South stand before me: a quiet, simple life. Like my descriptions of my hometown that I give to classmates at Yale, it is an aesthetic that creates an idyllic impression of the South. Old money oil families, strawberry ice box pie on a porch, a world I’ve only ever seen, or think I’ve seen, in Jefferson.
Joy Shan has grown up all over Louisiana, a fact that surprises everyone she meets. She looks forward to every vacation when she can bike, photograph, bake muffins, and eat delicious strawberry ice box pie from a diner in her hometown. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.