Biking in Charleston. Credit: Alex Van Buren, Instagram
It’s an oft-repeated refrain among the women I know: “You know, you should leave New York before it makes you hard. That’s what Nora Ephron said.”
Nora Ephron didn’t say that, nor did Kurt Vonnegut, but it remains solid advice. And I really didn’t think I was one of those. I thought I was pretty chill. I certainly wasn’t that woman on the subway with the sharp elbows, who pinned me in the fleshiest part of my arm for the duration of the ride. Or the guy who double-parks in the bike lane, swings his door wide without looking, and almost nails me as I cruise by on my clunky hybrid. I’m pretty nice—maybe even the nicest one in my whole subway car.
And then I went south. For two months. Two months of the greasiest pulled-pork sandwiches, which I ate alone, in the dark, in the passenger’s seat of my rented Jetta outside of Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue in Durham, North Carolina. Hushpuppies as fat as your fingers, and deep-fried, snug in a paper bag. I ate it all, between two other dinners in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. (“Because who knows when I’ll be back in the South?”) Two months of fried chicken, the best of which came from a gas station in New Orleans. Two months of insistent small talk with strangers, and hugs instead of handshakes for hellos.
This was a challenge for a New Englander. My heritage is all snow, khakis, and icily quiet masses. I am not a hugger of strangers.
It is not, I now realize, that Southerners are necessarily nicer, but they tend (broadly speaking) to go into a situation from a neutral or positive stance—and Northeasterners tend to go in neutral or negative. And everything stems from that: It’s the difference between making friends at the Nashville honky-tonk dive or fighting for stool space at the bar.
The 10 best things I ate in NOLA are here. The 10 best things I ate all over the damn South—in Nashville and NOLA, Charleston and Durham, Atlanta and Raleigh—are here. I gave props to the late Mr. Duncan Hines, America’s O.G. food critic, here. I wrote for Travel + Leisure as I rambled, stopped off at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, visited beautiful Blackberry Farm, and attended a cool writers’ colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. (I’d snagged a merit scholarship from the Southern Foodways Alliance to work on a book proposal.)
I met some amazing people along the way: The super-sweet baking savant Lisa Donovan, of Nashville. BBQ superstars Sam Jones, Nick Pihakis, and up-and-coming Charleston brisket hotshot John Lewis. Angie Mosier, the talented photographer who met me on a bus full of barbecue nerds and gave me a place to hang my hat in Atlanta a few weeks later.
I’m still tweeting and Instagramming my adventures (which have taken a slightly domestic turn of late, because I missed cooking and just signed a new lease in Crown Heights, Brooklyn). Spring—and its tulips, asparagus, ramps, and farmers’ market mobs—is fully, totally sprung.
It’s a marvelous time to be in New York City, but my reminder to myself of the South—and how I moved a little more slowly, and thoughtfully, there—is now right on my “to do” list. It says, gently, “Don’t try to do too much.”