Fifteen of Our Favorites From the Past Year
The Bitter Southerner throws tens of thousands of words at you every year. And we know that even our most loyal readers don’t have the time to read them all.
But in this week after Christmas, we expect more than a few of you will have a little extra reading time — at least between all those college-football bowl games. Our little staff has assembled a list of our favorite stories — and yours — from the past year. The list is a mix of the stories that were most widely read, according to the data, and the ones our own crew loved best. We present them here in chronological order.
Enjoy your reading, enjoy your football, and know that The Bitter Southerner wishes you quiet times in the warm arms of family and the happiest new year ever. We raise our glasses and offer you a toast from the words of Charles Dickens: “God bless us, every one.”
Story By David Wondrich | Illustrations by Emily E. Wallace
Published: January 12, 2016
As did The Bitter Southerner itself, this story began in a bar. In Oxford, Mississippi, for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s fall symposium, our editor went to the upstairs bar at City Grocery and ran into the king of all cocktail writers and historians, David Wondrich. There, Wondrich told us his research into the history of African-American bartenders had left him with a story that didn’t exactly fit the amusing-anecdote-plus-recipe template of his regular gig at Esquire magazine. As a result, The Bitter Southerner got this amazing piece on an overlooked part of Southern history — a story that turned on a counterintuitive idea, which was, as Wondrich writes here, “the question of why black bartenders were tolerated and even embraced in the South and utterly rejected in the North” in the late 19th century.
Story by Rob Rushin | Photos by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee
Published: February 9, 2015
We’ll never do this again, but we’re sure glad we did it this once. Florida writer Rob Rushin’s “Kosher Gumbo” will forever hold the record for the longest story The Bitter Southerner has ever published — just a little bit north of 14,000 words. But we just couldn’t bear to chop up this delightful ramble through the New Orleans of today and the deep, parallel histories of two musical forms — the American jazz that New Orleans gave birth to and the folk music of Eastern European Jews, known as klezmer. We promise this one is worth your time if you didn’t read it back in February, because it demonstrates in detail how disparate threads of Southern culture can weave themselves together in a place like New Orleans and “just get all up in you.”
Story by Chuck Reece | Photos by John Fulton
Published: March 8, 2016
Chuck Reece went to South Pittsburg, Tennessee, home of the Lodge Manufacturing Company, expecting to do a story about Southerners’ romance with the cast-iron skillet. What he found, instead, was a remarkable business story: how a family-owned company has kept its hometown alive and thriving by building a truly global enterprise, while taking nary a dime from the Wall Street investment banks. And best of all, Lodge is a company with a CEO who says, “Our employees are dear to our heart,” and actually means it. He means it so much, in fact, that he cries every time he talks about the generations of Tennessee families who have depended on Lodge for their livelihoods.
Interview by Chuck Reece | Photographs by John-Robert Ward II
Published: April 05, 2016
We wondered how it was that a Georgia boy became the biggest star in the history of food television, so we went to visit Alton Brown on an early spring morning. We found him to be a delightful conversationalist, an astute observer of American culture, and a Big Nerd. But mostly, we found him to be as human as the rest of us, with problems that aren’t unique to stars. “I'm 53 and single,” he told us. “That wasn't supposed to happen. I think I'm one of those people who uses work as avoidance. I'm eventually going to have to deal with myself, but I'm going to wait a little bit.”
Story by Janisse Ray | Photographs by Fred Bennett | Editorial Cartoons by Jim Powell
Published: April 12, 2016
Few people have written about the natural environment of the South with as much passion and insight than Janisse Ray. Her 2000 book, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” is a landmark every Southerner should read. The Bitter Southerner was delighted when Ray wanted to turn her passion loose on our behalf to cover a story about the fight — still being waged today — between the citizens of Wayne County, Georgia, and a corporate monolith, Republic Services, that wants to turn part of their county’s wetlands in a dump for toxic coal ash. We were happy also to collaborate with The Press-Sentinel of Jesup, Georgia, on this piece — giving us the pointed rallying cries of Jim Powell’s editorial cartoons.
Story by Steve Oney | Illustrations by Gentleman
Published: April, 2016
To our editor, Georgia-born Steve Oney was a journalistic hero, a product of the University of Georgia’s journalism school who went on to become a magazine writer of national repute and the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise,” the definitive book on one of the South’s darkest nights: the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank. Chuck was floored when, after the death of the great South Carolina writer Pat Conroy, a query e-mail arrived from Oney, proposing a story about one particular night in Conroy’s life among the Atlanta literary community. This story — about basketball and other, greater things — is a jewel.
Story by Pate McMichael | Photo-illustrations by Gentleman
Published: June 21 & 22, 2016
Andrew Howard Brannan was the first person to be executed in the United States in 2015. Years before, he had been a decorated Vietnam veteran, but one who came home to Georgia with deep post-traumatic stress disorder. Then one night in 1998, Brannan killed a deputy sheriff. Veteran journalist Pate McMichael’s riveting, two-part piece followed the life of Brannan from childhood to death row, where he spent 15 years waiting to become the last casualty of the Vietnam War. It’s a deep look at the American justice system and our treatment of veterans, all through the story of one man’s life.
Story by Jodi Cash| Photographs by Ethan Payne
Published: July 12, 2016
“Possessed by demon weed, beach kids make millions!!!” Oh, what joy it was to publish this tall but true tale from 40 years ago, when six Florida beach boys and a shrimper named Bubba smuggled more Jamaican weed into America than the nation had ever seen. They made millions, then one night in 1973, they put too much weed on too small a boat at low tide, leaving them busted and on their way to federal prison. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett (who is actually pictured in this story, on a boat with the pirates), they made enough money to buy Miami, but they pissed it away so fast.
Story by Jessica Handler | Photographs by Beth Lilly
Published: August 9, 2016
Jessica Handler is one of the South’s finest memoirists, and she gave us one of our finest stories with this meditation on something most of us did as teenagers: sneak out of the house and into the hot, summer night to make mischief with our friends. “I conducted a study with a dozen people between the ages of 20 and 60 — a casual survey of random colleagues and students,” Handler wrote. “The only rule for consideration? Have you now or ever been a teenager in the suburbs in the South? Of my dozen, all but one snuck out at night, and the one who didn’t knew someone – a sibling, the cooler kid, the wild kid, the sad kid – who did. You did. If you didn’t, you wanted to.” Never have truer words been written.
Story by Erin E. Tocknell | Photographs by David Andrews
Published: August 23, 2016
In the summer of 1961, two young African-American men decided to go swimming at one of Nashville’s municipal pools — one that was reserved by Jim Crow for whites only. Days later, the city closed all its public pools — and left them shut for three years. This brilliant piece from Tennessee writer Erin Tocknell introduced us to one of the men who first tried to integrate Nashville’s public pools — and explored how the legacy of Jim Crow still lingers over every public pool in the South 50 years later.
Interview by Chuck Reece | Photos by Jason Hales | Video by Nathan Bach
Published: September 27, 2016
This story was published three days before Hood’s band, the Drive-By Truckers, released “American Band,” its 11th studio album over 20 years. Since then, the album — a firestorm of righteous, political rock and roll — has topped critics’ lists all over the place and put DBT higher on the charts than they’ve ever been. This interview was a long stroll through the band’s history with one of its founders. We did it all at the Star Community Bar, the Atlanta dive where DBT first put itself on the map two decades ago. Photographer Jason Hales’ photographs are stunning, and Nathan Bach delivered two videos, exclusively to The Bitter Southerner, of Hood performing “The Living Bubba,” a song that dates back to DBT’s Star Bar days, and the masterful “Ever South” from “American Band.”
Story by Tom Maxwell | Illustrations by Phil Blank
Published: October 13, 2016
“We Salted Nannie” marked The Bitter Southerner’s first publication of a real-life, Southern ghost story. Its writer, Tom Maxwell, once fronted North Carolina’s Squirrel Nut Zippers, but this story took place two years ago, when Tom and his family scored a surprisingly cheap rental of a grand old home outside Chapel Hill. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Nine months later, they broke their lease, loaded up the truck, and ran away as fast as they could from the spirits and apparitions that had tortured them. Only afterward did Maxwell dig into the house’s history, and he found out why 300 years of bad mojo had piled up in the house they called Nannie.
Story by Jonathan Bernstein | Illustrations by Gentleman
Published: October 25, 2016
The great Nashville songwriter John Prine turned 70 in October and released a new album of duets with women, “For Better, or Worse.” As those grand occasions approached, writer Jonathan Bernstein approached The Bitter Southerner with a novel idea: What if we did a story about John Prine by interviewing not the man himself, but a host of his friends and collaborators? Y’all loved the result. Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer David O’Brien tweeted, “Asking other artists to talk about the icon Prine yielded what amounts to the most revealing piece I've read on him.” We thought so, too.
Story by Chuck Reece
Published: November 11, 2016
The Bitter Southerner’s regular weekly editorial meetings occur first thing every Wednesday morning. On November 9, the morning after the presidential election, we all walked in, sat down and basically just looked quizzically at each other, until someone said: “We can’t just run a story about a folk artist next Tuesday and act like nothing happened, can we?” The answer was clear: We could not. Too many of our fellow Southerners — particularly those whose race, gender or sexual orientation make them “others” in the eyes of society — were hurting. We felt it necessary to make a restatement of The Bitter Southerner’s purpose, thus this essay. We’re still figuring out how to tell our stories differently in the wake of an election that split even families apart, but if you ever want to know why we’re here and what our intentions are, this is the story to read.
Story by Jennifer Crossley Howard | Photographs by Johnathon Kelso
Published: November 29, 2016
While we were preparing to publish “We Are Bitter: No. 2,” writer Jennifer Howard and photographer Johnathon Kelso were packing their bags for a visit, on the Sunday after the election, to Plains, Georgia. Apparently, The Bitter Southerner was the only news organization that decided to cover the Sunday school class of former President Jimmy Carter five days after the election. Jennifer and John met people who had come from all over the South and beyond in search of solace and perspective that Sunday, and the 92-year-old Carter provided them just that — along with a lesson in how to love the people who don’t love you back.