Our Best Stories of 2018
Every year in late autumn, The Bitter Southerner crew finds itself in a reflective mood as the holidays approach. We like to look back at all the weekly feature stories we’ve published and see, based on data, which stories y’all read the most. We also like to look back and see, based on our own heads and hearts, the ones we loved the most — and maybe a couple we believe more folks ought to read.
As the editor of this crew, when it comes time to build this list, I have also attempted to look back at the year and try to offer a few words of unity, or of comfort, or maybe even inspiration. Mid-December of this year, I asked myself, How the heck do you sum up a crazy year like 2018? Then, I looked back at what I wrote in this space a year ago. This is how it began:
It’s been a weird year, this 2017.
Well, damn. We just had us another one. And the truth is, y’all don’t need me to sum up this year for you. You lived it. Y’all know what’s going on. We hear from you every day, and it’s as clear as a freshly washed windowpane. Y’all also know what to do every day to make this a Better South. Y’all got this. Nuff said.
So here are the best damn Bitter Southerner stories of 2018, presented in chronological order. We hope this will provide you with some armchair reading joy as life slows down for the season.
And during this season, y’all please remember it’s important to hug more necks, to abide no hatred, and to do the things you love with the people you love.
— Chuck Reece
Story by Daniel Wallace
Few things in this editor’s life bring greater joy than the unexpected message from North Carolina novelist Daniel Wallace, who, if you don’t know it, penned great books such as Extraordinary Adventures and Big Fish, among many others. In November of last year, I got an email from Daniel with this story attached. His message was simple: “I know you’re busy, overwhelmed even. But here’s something I thought you might like. You might not though, and that’s fine too.” How could I not like a story about Daniel’s long wrestling match with a story his mother told him — specifically, that the first time she got married, she was only 12 years old. As we said when we first published it, “This is what happens when you go snooping around in your family’s history.”
Story and photos by Michael Adno | Additional photos courtesy of the University of Florida
This story about the late author of White Trash Cooking was Michael Adno’s first story for The Bitter Southerner, and it took us a while for us to say yes to his pitch. Not long before we got his proposal, the Southern Foodways Alliance’s podcast, “Gravy,” had done a brilliant episode on Mickler (pronounced MIKE-ler) and the legacy of his famous cookbook. But Michael convinced us he would take the story to a deeper level than anyone could on a short audio program. He traveled all over Florida to find Mickler’s old friends and family and proved us right.
Photo essay by Leeta Harding
High-fashion photographers from the Northeast rarely contribute to The Bitter Southerner. Why would they? But Leeta Harding had a different story. A cancer diagnosis changed the path of her life in ways that led her to take up residence in tiny Murfreesboro, North Carolina. There, she began to photograph young African-American women who aspired to become models, and her photographs took on the weight of history in a way she never expected.
Photos and Essay by Andrew Moore
Art photographers from outside the South are also infrequent contributors to our publication. Andrew Moore’s work is in the collections of almost 50 museums around the world — including the likes of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. He is known for photographing places undergoing significant change — Cuba, Russia, the city of Detroit. But in 2005, he began visiting lower Alabama and continued to photograph the region for nine years. What he came back with was stunning. “Whether by chance or instinct,” Moore wrote for us, “I’ve always been drawn to places that seem to be on the verge of change, especially when the fibers of culture, politics, and history ripen into a form unique to that particular place.” This is a remarkable piece that lets us to see the South in new ways — and let the photographer, in the process, to do the same.
Story by Max Blau | Photos by Dustin Chambers
Max Blau and Dustin Chambers spent more than two years gathering threads for this remarkable story of a U.S. Army veteran raising her six grandchildren in their family home in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood. In the same neighborhood where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King lived after their marriage, Ogletree fights to keep the lights on, the bills paid, and get the kids off to school every day. This story showed how love survives and persists, poverty be damned. Blau and Chambers are working together for The Bitter Southerner on another piece you’ll see in January.
Story by Gabe Bullard
Gabe Bullard’s first story for us did something very cool: It differentiated the South, this place we live in and love, from “the South” — the version of our region conjured by television executives. This is important because even those of us who were raised on Andy, Barney, and Gomer didn’t always grow up in places like Mayberry. We didn’t all have an Aunt Bea. We think it’s time Hollywood learned that distinction, and we’re still praying somebody out there will read this story and get the picture.
Story by Keith Pandolfi | Photos by Helen Rosner
Long ago, Kentucky’s John Y. Brown, the man who built Kentucky Fried Chicken into an empire, wanted to repeat the trick with hamburgers. He searched America for the best burger and found it, he believed, in a burger shack on Miami Beach run by a man named Ollie Gleichenhaus. The result was a chain of diners in trolley cars called Ollie’s Trolley — and the hope that Gleichenhaus would become as vivid in our imaginations as Harland Sanders. Only three Ollie’s Trolleys survive today. It appears the world was not ready for a guy like Ollie.
Photos and essay by Benjamin Galland
Benjamin Galland, a photographer who lives on St. Simons Island along the Georgia coast, stopped in a gas station just south of the Florida border. The attendant asked, “You live on an island? Where’s that?” Galland replied, “Just north of here, along 95, right on the coast of Georgia.” The attendant asked, “Georgia has a coast?” The project Galland undertook to prove that Georgia’s coastline was real — short though it may be — produced these remarkable photographs. Galland sent drones into the sky to photograph the salt marshes, forests, and streams of his home. The result renders the Southern Atlantic coast almost in abstract. You see the beauty of the coastal life not from within it, but from a new perspective.
Story by Cynthia Tucker | Photos by Johnathon Kelso
This story also marked a first for The Bitter Southerner: We had never, until this proposal came in, received a pitch from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Cynthia Tucker’s hard-hitting commentary for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution snagged her a Pulitzer in 2007. For us, she did something far more personal. After the Equal Justice Initiative unveiled its memorial to lynching victims, Tucker learned something about her hometown in Alabama, which was also the birthplace of Harper Lee. “I had never heard a word about lynchings in Monroe County,” she writes. “With the April opening of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, I have learned what my parents did not tell us: The place in which I grew up was grimly intolerant, miserably cruel to its black citizens, violently committed to a particular order. Even in a state that is historically infamous for its racism, Monroe County’s 17 documented lynchings stand out.” So, for this story, she went back home and dug in. The results will enlighten you — and maybe break your heart.
Story by John Hayes
John Hayes is an associate professor of history at Georgia’s Augusta University. For years, he has studied and written about the role religion plays in Southern society and culture. When he called to propose a piece looking back at the life and career of Johnny Cash on the 15th anniversary of his death, we also learned Hayes had done deep explorations into Cash’s wrestling match with religion. For The Bitter Southerner, he turned all that academic study into a remarkable piece on how the Man in Black wrestled throughout his lifetime with the same demons and saviors that haunt almost every Southerner. “I went out walking with a Bible and a gun, and the word of God lay heavy on my heart.”
Story by Shane Mitchell | Photos by Fernando Decillis
We believe Shane Mitchell, whose family roots go deep in the South Carolina Lowcountry, is one of America’s greatest food writers. For the last few years, Mitchell has contributed to our publication four stories about the most iconic foods in Southern culture — grits, rice, peanuts, and, most recently, tomatoes — and the disturbing cultural issues that arise from the history of each. Her story for us about Rice — “Who Owns Uncle Ben?” — won the James Beard Foundation’s top prize for food journalists in 2018, the MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing. In this story, Mitchell travels throughout the South examining the truths behind our insatiable hankering for tomato sandwiches. Most of us don’t do the sweating and digging ourselves. But our hunger for them means too many people in the fields don’t get treated fairly.