Check it out: Learning about all things Southern

By Jan Johnston, Columbian book reviewer


photoJan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at


“The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life”

By David DiBenedetto and the Editors of Garden & Gun; HarperCollins, 287 pages

What does it mean to be a Northwesterner? I'm not a native, so my perspective might be a tad askew, but after residing in the beautiful state of Washington for nearly 20 years, I think I can claim to have some valuable experience under my Birkenstocks. To me, being a Northwesterner means several things: going about my business in the rain without using an umbrella; never having to travel more than a mile to find a coffee shop (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but I'm sure you know what I mean); and learning to live with slugs and moss. Remember, this is my list. Yours might be different, but I'll bet that rain shows up somehow, somewhere. It binds us together, this rain, and love it or hate it, you cannot deny that our wet climate acts as a mighty powerful symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Isn't this week's book titled "The Southerner's Handbook" and not "The Northwesterner's Handbook"? It is indeed. My point in opening this column in a Northwest vein is that whatever you take away from today's book, keep in mind that all geographical regions possess unique features and mannerisms -- and by golly, let's be proud of them! Whether its the Northwest trademark of wearing sandals with socks, or the Southern preference for drinking sweet tea, what identifies us makes us all the more distinctive.

One of the reasons I wanted to check out "The Southerner's Handbook" is that as a Southwest native who transplanted to the Northwest, I am fascinated by cultural differences. And while I have no plans to "re-pot" myself in the South, life often has a curious way of changing your direction.

So, in case I wake up in, say, Georgia or Mississippi one day, I'd like to know something about Southern culture. For instance, I'll need to learn how to drink that sweet tea. This is a little concerning since I don't like sugar in my tea, but reading a funny story about the classic Southern libation, as well as a recipe, might aid in a possible conversion.

When it comes to Southern food, I'm golden in two areas: grits and okra. My dad is from Texas, and even though he married a Yankee and moved out West, he somehow convinced my mom to keep grits and okra on the menu. But boiled goobers (peanuts) and baked onions with kudzu? I'm going to need some encouragement.

The South is about so much more than food, so when I get through with this handbook's recipes, I will need to become educated in the finer points of style, outdoor adventures, home and garden, and the all important Southern arts and culture. Perhaps I'll skip the section on wrestling alligators, but learning how to remove a tick (apparently a common event in the South), brushing up on Southern colloquial expressions (such as "I'm happy as a tick on a fat dog" -- see what I mean about ticks?), picking out a perfect Derby hat (go big), and understanding how to talk about William Faulkner at Southern social functions just might permit me to fancy myself as a Southern belle.

Have fun with this guide to all things Southern. As David DiBenedetto, the editor-in-chief of "Garden & Gun" magazine says in the book's introduction, "while you'll find all sorts of wise advice (including the secret to making good biscuits), you'll also find great storytelling." It's all in how you tell it, and these Southerners will make you "grin like a possum eating a sweet potato."