"Tell me about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?"
-- from Absalom, Absalom!
As a senior writer at Vogue, it was Julia Reed's job in 1994 to act on an idea and prove a point. The experiment: Take a German supermodel named Georgia Goettmann, fly her to four American cities, and get her a major makeover in each. Reed's theory: In the battle for beauty, geography says it all. Here were her findings:
In Minneapolis, Goettmann got an all-natural, squeaky-clean, down-to-earth look to go with a state (home of Hazelden) where people come to sober up and stay that way.
In New York, Goettmann got the opposite treatment: ramrod-straight hair and cutting-edge coloring to go with a city that's drop-dead in the style department.
In Palm Beach, Goettmann got supersized: fat blond streaks to go with a big blond hairpiece to go with a good tanning, which turned her skin a deep, dark bronze.
But the winning city, according to the team at Vogue, was Memphis, where the keyword at Diva Colour Studio was "soft" and where Roy, the colorist with the mostest, pronounced the Palm Beach approach a "tragic mistake." Nine shades of blond went into Goettmann's hair. "Subtle" was the word for Goettmann's pale-pink lips. (For that "Maid-of-Cotton effect.") And "She sure is pretty" was the verdict of two women eating at the Four Way Grill, where Goettmann sat down to a bowl of turnip greens and mashed potatoes.
Reed's own verdict on the Four Way: "some of the best fried chicken and cornbread muffins in America," and she should know. In addition to her work at Vogue, Reed is a food writer at The New York Times Magazine and past contributor to The Oxford American, which means she knows a thing or two (make that, a lot) about the South. Her hometown is Greenville, Mississippi, and her new collection of essays is called Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena (Random House).
That title is a dual reference to the annual turtle race staged in Lepanto, Arkansas, and to the one lucky lady crowned queen. But for "other Southern phenomena" (and more queens), looky here: You can point to the regional statistics (most guns in the nation, most Bibles, most churches) and you can point to the man in the street (who, on average in America, exercises the least and eats the most). Or, as Reed the reporter does here, you can simply show, don't tell, which is how you'll meet a Southerner who works in the "used-grease" business.
Or Emma Abraham, an "amnesiac" out of Mississippi, who was charged with shooting her husband then storing the gun, wrapped in aluminum foil, in her deep freeze. (The jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity; diagnosis: "acute brain syndrome.")
Or Tammy Wynette, who's ex-husband George Jones wants her remains moved nearer his own (future) grave site. (Said Jones, "She doesn't even know anybody over there where she is.")
Or Jones himself, whose recipe for sausage balls Reed reproduces and highly recommends.
Or Hurricane Georges, which missed New Orleans but not before citizens stormed Terranova's grocery store for its entire supply of vermouth. (Reed's party-minded best friend by phone to Reed in New York: "Girl, you are really missing it.")
Or Neil Cargile Jr. of Nashville, "a burly, athletic sort" in his 50s, introduced to us in these pages, as he was to Reed inside the Belle Meade Country Club, wearing a pleated tennis skirt with eyelet-trimmed bloomers. (Reed's grandfather, after the author pointed out Cargile's get-up: "I know that. He's been wearing them lately. Now come on.")
Read on, and you'll also get some good-natured glimpses of Reed herself. You'll learn, for example, that, next to a frozen salad, a rare tenderloin makes the most welcoming funeral food.
You'll learn not to admit to your mechanic that you've never once checked the oil in your broken car. (Reed's right way to communicate the fact: "You know, that engine just blew out on me.")
You'll learn that, with regret to this day, Reed turned down an opportunity to be crowned Catfish Queen by the Catfish Farmers of America. (And with it the chance to share a Mardi Gras float in Mobile with Jerry Clower.)
You'll learn that several years ago, Reed "temporarily lost [her] mind" and hosted a black-tie New Year's Eve dinner for 32 at her house in New Orleans. The next morning, she learned (because she didn't remember, because she was too hungover) that the fireworks from her courtyard, which brought in the fire department, were in fact Roman candles that guests had ignited in her bedroom.
And you'll learn, if you're a newcomer, to borrow the advice of author John Shelton Reed (no relation to Julia), advice that makes it easier on everybody. It's called "Reed's Rule for Successful Adjustment to the South," and it states: "Don't think that you know what's going on."
But again, do show, don't tell. Julia Reed does and doesn't. William Faulkner did and didn't.