Culture: A Peculiar Placeby Priya Jain
Queen of the Turtle Derby: And Other Southern Phenomena
(Random House, 2004)
When I saw the title of Julia Reed’s book, I immediately became defensive. You see, I grew up in the South, and as Reed herself points out, there is “the deep-dyed fear that lives in the heart of every Southerner, myself included: that a Yankee is putting us down.” Reed is from the Mississippi Delta and now lives in New Orleans and New York, but to be a Southerner is to fear that even this part-time Northerner is to fear that even this part time Northerner is making fun of us. In fact, Reed dose poke fun at the South, but in the way you poke fun at the people you love the most: with great affection and a deep identification with the butt of the joke. Reed isn’t laughing at the South; she’s laughing with it. And by the end of the book, the rest of us are too.
As Reed explains, there are two prevailing theories about the modern South. The first, which she calls the “Scratchin’ and Spittin’” school, has it that “we are, at heart, gun-toting, beer-swilling, Baptist-church-going, pickup-truck-driving, Republican-voting good ole boys and girls with names like Billy Earl and Rayette. “ The other school says that the South has become like every place else in the country, “full of Home Depots and Blockbusters and people wearing Dockers pants.” Feed sets out to prove that the truth is “much more complicated and more interesting than either caricature indicates,” and she does this, thankfully, without trying to impose her own neat theory on the region.
Or course, as Reed knows, there is some truth in both stereotypes. The first three essays deal with the Southern phenomena of God, food and guns, and Reed returns to the themes of eating and violence throughout the book. She doesn’t deny that there are rednecks, drunks, and trigger-happy grandmas in the South, or that there are Wal-Marts with seas of parking lots. The point that Reed elegantly makes is that the beauty and poetry of the South can be found in these very sour-looking things. In the mouth-watering essay “Eat Here,” Reed contends that the Southerners use packaged foods like Triscuits and Philadelphia Cream Cheese in ways that are so particular to the South that, rather than contribute to the demise of Southern cooking, they simply become a part of it. You can smear your Triscuit with cream cheese up here, too, but only in the South can you top it off with Jezebel Sauce and pepper jelly.
Reed is a senior writer at Vogue and often writes about food for The New York Times Magazine , so it is little wonder that the best of her essays deal with Southern women and with cooking. Most of the pieces culled for this collection were originally published in these magazines or The Oxford American, and they haven’t been properly edited for the book. Repetition runs rampant, sometimes in short, yet annoying reminders of small facts, sometimes in longer recaps of what we’ve already read in previous chapters. But Reed’s enthusiastic voice is strong and entertaining, so the inflicted déjà vu is only a minor irritation.
A true stereotype is that Southerners love to tell stories, and at the heart of Reed’s collection is one often told by her father: before she was born, during a barge and towboat operators’ convention in Greenville, Mississippi, several of the conventioneers were having drinks when they met a young lady from Arkansas. The girl told them that she held the pageant titles of Miss Pink Tomato, second runner-up to Miss Arkansas, and Queen of the Turtle Derby. The men decided that, if they had a crown, they would immediately dub the girl “Queen of the Waterways.” The girl returned to the motel where she was staying, pulled a crown out of her suitcase, and brought it back to the men.
Reed is “blown away by the fact that that girl traveled with her crown,” and she finds “a pride and resourcefulness in this idiotic child-woman that speaks to me.” The Queen of the Turtle Derby (crowned annually is Lepanto, Arkansas) indeed may be an “idiotic child-woman,” but there is also something marvelous in her story. It is this Queen, of course, that Reed honors with her collection’s title. And it is the girl’s ability to be graciously prepared for anything that fills Reed with affection and cultural pride. “The Queen of the Turtle Derby and her crown price to me one all-consuming fact,” she writes: “Southern women know how to rise to the occasion.”