The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reese begins here.
photo by Jodie Morgan via Unsplash
Chuck’s train of thought is interrupted by the sound of a dish being set carefully on a white wicker table gracing a wide screened porch. (I’m imagining.)
CR: Oh my goodness, what is that, sweetheart?
Stacy [Chuck’s wife]: Blueberry muffin.
CR: My wife just brought me a fresh blueberry muffin.
Stacy: Homemade from scratch.
CR: Homemade from scratch. Wow!
I protest, “It’s not nice to tempt me like that over the phone.”
CR: I’m sorry, man, but I gotta take a bite of this thing here. Hang on a minute. [sounds of someone munching ostentatiously] Mmm, that’s good!
AJ: Yeah, go ahead, go ahead.
CR: It kind of tastes likes blueberry cobbler, actually. I think she put a lot of butter in it. That’s really good!
AJ: Well I’m gonna have a good crab cake tonight.
CR: Well, dude, when I was at the grocery store I was picking up hotdog buns, ok? That’s gonna be our dinner.
AJ: I don’t feel too bad then.
Chuck’s interest in counteracting the cardboard cutout stereotypes of the South goes back to his sojourn in New York City in the 1980s. Just out of college, he covered the media for Adweek magazine. “One of the things that I noticed was that, anytime I saw a TV show that was set in the South or magazines that purported to cover the South in anyway, I typically saw only two versions of the South. It was either debutantes or dumbasses. I mean it was either something that looked like affluent white people having a garden party on someone’s veranda or something that looked like rednecks. And there were no black people. I was like, ‘That’s not the South! It’s not the South I grew up in!’”
In Dave Whitley, his partner at The Bitter Southerner, Chuck found a brother in arms. “Dave and I started talking about my experience of that and he was like, ‘It reminds me of that song by the Drive-By Truckers—‘The Southern Thing’ [where it says] “duality is a Southern thing.”
“I was like, ‘That’s it!’
And they were off, collecting a mostly volunteer staff that now includes Tim Turner, Eric NeSmith, Kyle Tibbs Jones, and Butler Raines. The site publishes new articles biweekly and has developed a fiercely loyal community that has set up a Bitter Southerner corner of Facebook.
CR: It’s like the last sane place on Facebook, Dude. It’s people having civil conversations with each other and posting an article [saying,] “Isn’t this interesting?” or a piece of a big green tomato half-eaten by bugs and going, “How I do I stop this?” So many people are expatriate Southerners who say it gives them a place to feel at home again.
The first couple of years the most common emails I got were the obverse of each other:
“Thank you for doing this site because I moved to Seattle and whenever I talk about how much I miss the South people look at me like I’m crazy. So, I show them your website.”
Or it was people saying, “I moved to the South from wherever 20 years ago and I love it. And whenever I talk to the people back home in Massachusetts about why I stay down here they look at me like I’m crazy, so I send them your website to look at.”
I think our audience is everybody who’s ever felt like a misfit in the South.
Finances have been helped by the addition of membership pledge drives and an online General Store which sells quality Southern-themed T-shirts with slogans like ‘Make More Biscuits,’ tea towels, and tote bags with Flannery O’Conner’s immortal observation that “You shall know the truth, & it will make you odd.” Besides making apparently awesome blueberry muffins, Stacy also does the screen printing for the tea towels & totes. “I certainly never dreamed that I would be the editor of a journalistic institution that survives primarily on the sale of T-shirts and dish towels, but we do,” Chuck says.
I’m still waiting for The Bitter Southerner’s religion department to come on line. I wasn’t intentionally doing a pitch for it as I stood in the cemetery longing for the iced tea that I was certain Chuck used to wash down his muffin. But I don’t think it was a sop of appeasement when he said he’d been toying with the idea, noting, correctly, that it’s hard to tell the story of the South without talking about God.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the output from Atlanta. And I’ll nod towards the mission because it is a noble one. As it says on the site:
Still, the tension — the strain between pride and shame, that eternal duality of the Southern thing — remains. Lord knows, most folks outside the South believe — and rightly so — that most Southerners are kicking and screaming to keep the old South old. But many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things.
Keep at it, Chuck. Keep at it.