Years ago I watched a movie called Fried Green Tomatoes and thought yuck. Not being a fan of the round red fruit that masquerades as a vegetable, I couldn’t understand why anyone would eat a tomato that clearly needed a few more days basking in the sun. If it wasn’t bubbling in a pot with a whole bunch of Italian meatballs I couldn’t see the point.
I have been schooled.
I lost my fried green tomato virginity in Charleston, South Carolina, a city that is clearly auditioning for Gone with the Wind part II. With its antebellum mansions shaded by massive live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, it lived up to every expectation we had for the south.
Spanish moss, a strange cobwebby plant that looks left over from Halloween, is neither Spanish nor moss. It drapes from trees collecting chiggers, little biting bugs that are the insect world cousins of northern ticks.
Southern people are excruciatingly polite. The lady checking us in at the RV park said ‘yes ma’am’ so many times I thought she was having a seizure. The Dude hasn’t been called ‘darlin’ this often since he was in diapers. The only way to tell if a southern person is displeased is if they preface comments with a “bless your heart”, which we have been told is code for “piss off”.
Southern people like their grits, an unfortunately named creamy cornmeal concoction served with almost everything, breakfast included. If y’all like your food fried, come on down. Now let me see that steak. You know how to make a perfectly wonderful piece of meat better? Answer: drench it in batter and fry it up. (See fried green tomatoes’ epiphany above.)
No visit to the south is complete without a visit to a real plantation, one without the sanitized version of slavery that Washington’s Mount Vernon offers up. They may be polite down here but pickup trucks still sport confederate flags in the back window, unsettling reminders of the less than perfect relationship between races.
The Magnolia plantation house, built beside a swamp where black workers literally slaved growing rice, has a gothic vibe to it. Its long winding driveway weaves past algae-covered ponds that glow bright green in the shafts of sun filtering through a canopy of giant live oaks hung with the ubiquitous Spanish moss. Perfect camouflage for the alligators that lurk beneath the surface. Hot moist air brings a sweaty sheen to the faces of all who enter. Even in late autumn. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to work in the summer months when temperatures reach the high 90’s with energy-zapping humidity.
The plantation tour has everything you’d expect–massive home with gift shop, check; expansive gardens with white bridges spanning ponds, check; a hedge maze for lazy Sunday wandering, check; boat launch and river access, check; slave cabins, check.
The open-car shuttle to the slave quarters puts the trappings of wealth on display in perspective. Slavery kept the ‘white gold’ economy rolling. Cotton and rice fueled the economic engine of the south. Picking and growing the crops was labor intensive but if you cut out the labor costs there was money to be made. Serious money. Enough to pay for elaborate town homes (read colonnaded multi-storied mansions) in Charleston, where plantation owners entertained their genteel friends and toasted their success with mint julips after attending Sunday services.
Our guide, a black man and noted slavery historian, paints a picture of life for slaves on the plantation. The tiny shacks beside the swamp sat well away from the main house and gardens, out of view and out of mind for the southern ladies taking tea on the veranda. Slave families staked out their precious space, with up to a dozen people crowded into two rooms. Drinking water came from a communal pump outside, which did double duty as a place to wash off the sweat after back-breaking 12-hour days in the fields. Lining up for the outdoor bathroom became a legs-crossed time to socialize with the neighbors. Geckos, roaches, spiders and mosquitoes blew inside with the wind through cracks in the cabin walls.
But the slaves were not without hope. Toe the line, show the right amount of deference and the master might pick you to be a ‘house nigger.’ Working 12 hour days in the relative comfort of the mansion before returning to your shack increased your life expectancy. A ‘house nigger’ might catch the wandering eye of the master or a teenage son, whose Christian values and superior blood lines did not keep them from coupling with the help.
You would be forgiven for thinking the slaves gleefully burned the shacks the day after the Civil War ended. Not so. Most stayed on, working for slave wages. The shacks were occupied with minimal upgrades, which did not include running water, until the 1990s.
After our sobering, if infuriating, history lesson it’s time to venture into the swamp and annoy some gators. The plantation’s current owners, who do not have the benefit of slave labor to keep the old place up and running, have thoughtfully served up the plantation experience a la carte. One price for the house and garden tour, a little more to see the slave shacks, more again for the swamp and so on.
We splurged (who can pass up a good swamp) but forgot to get the code to unlock the gate leading to the wooden catwalks. After a steamy consultation back at the gift shop, we enter the mozzie breeding grounds on high alert, eyes scanning low-hanging branches for poisonous water moccasins and high grass for evil lurking alligators. The danger and mystique are somewhat mitigated when we encounter two giggling young women, cell-phone cameras in hand, who direct us to a large pond deep in the swamp where a solitary gator lays motionless, soaking up the sparse sunlight filtering through a heavy cloud cover atop a partially submerged log, looking as menacing as… well… a log. We did not have long to contemplate whether it might slither off the log in our direction before the clouds closed out the sun and unleashed a torrential downpour. It rained so hard that my partially opened purse filled with water, soaking my cellphone, which required a day submerged in rice to dry out (thank you google).
The Dude’s mood, already darkened by the money shelled out for what he considered an overly pricey a la carte plantation experience, is not improved by the dousing. He continues to mutter and mumble about modern day exploitation by the plantation’s moneyed class as rainwater runs in rivulets through his matted hair and onto his forehead, forming elongated droplets on the end of his nose.
Time to move on.
Some of you might remember Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a so-so movie starring Kevin Spacey in an early precursor of his evil southern gentleman persona, which he refined as Frank in the Netflix series House of Cards. The movie, with its quirky portrayal of Savannah society and picture postcard filming of the city’s many tree-lined squares, put the Georgia-peach-of-a-city high on the Meandering Maloneys travel bucket list.
It did not disappoint. Savannah is painfully picturesque. Walking its streets is to pine for a more genteel time, when southern gentleman in vests and suicoats held out their hands to help ladies in long dresses into the horse-drawn carriages that would carry them to glittering chandeliered ballrooms worlds away from the slave shacks. The city is architecture porn for a picture taking tourist. Every street, every home adjacent to its 22 town squares is photogenic.
Mercer house, featured in the movie which is based on a true story, is open for tours. Strangely, the sister of Jim Williams’, the gay accused and acquitted murderer of his rough trade rent boy, still lives there on the mansion’s second floor. Nothing like coming down for breakfast in your jammies to find a bunch of sweaty tourists in your living room.
Williams was a compulsive collector with eclectic taste that ranged from 16th century portraitures to the mounted animal heads and large sea turtles in the library. The dining room table is set with china recovered from a ship wreck in the 1700’s. We are told he owned several other mansions and warehouses in the city crammed with art and his odd acquisitions.
In a nod to the movie, pictures of Kevin Spacey posing with various Savannah denizens of social standing rest on desks and tables in the office where Williams shot his gay lover to death. Though acquitted by a jury of his southern peers, Williams answered to a higher court when he died of a heart attack shortly after the trial. Quaintly the cultured southern gentleman conducting our tour refers to the office as the room where ‘the incident’ took place.
I told you Southerners were polite.