Why We Created The Bitter Southerner
in the First Place
The essay below was originally published August 6, 2013, the night The Bitter Southerner was launched. In the years since, we have published a few other pieces to clarify the purpose of our publication. A year after our launch, for our first membership drive, we specified our vision and mission statements. After the 2016 presidential election, we promised to go deeper in our coverage, to call out those who would deny the rights of — or commit violence against — anyone they see as “the other.” We pledged to raise hell on the folks who deserve it, and at the same time to try our best to understand our region better, even if that means confronting the distasteful. But the essence of The Bitter Southerner remains exactly as we put it that August night in 2013:
If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you. The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.
This whole thing got started because I got pissed off. Bitter, as it were.
Here's how it happened. My then-fiancée and I spent a week in New Orleans. We spent time with amazing barkeeps like Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s French 75, Kirk Estopinal at Cure and one of the granddaddies of the American cocktail revival, Chris McMillian at Bar Uncommon.
We drank very well. We heard great stories. We learned.
Shortly after we returned, Drinks International released its list of the top 50 bars in the world. Not a single bar in New Orleans — or anywhere in the South — was on the list. I felt a familiar twinge of bitterness. I remembered the first time I moved away from the South, to New York City, and learned that my accent could trigger certain negative assumptions. To my new NYC acquaintances, my twang equaled "dumb" or "backward" or worse. Of course, when people discovered that I was reasonably intelligent and could speak in complete sentences, their assumptions quickly melted away. I learned a lesson: Sometimes, you just gotta show people.
I decided somebody needed to show the world our region’s drinking secrets. So I rounded up a gang of co-conspirators — designers, photographers, videographers, whiskey geeks — with a plan to hunt down the South's finest barkeeps and ask them to tell their stories. We would give them their due.
Then we started thinking: There’s a larger point here, a bigger story to be told.
You see, the South is a curiosity to people who aren’t from here. Always has been. Open up your copy of Faulkner’s 1936 masterpiece, “Absalom, Absalom!” Find the spot where Quentin Compson’s puzzled Canadian roommate at Harvard says to him, “Tell about the South. What it’s like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
It always comes down to that last bit: With all our baggage, how do we live at all? A lot of people in the world believe that most folks in the South are just dumb. Or backward. Just not worth their attention.
And you know what? If you live down here, sometimes you look around and think, “Those folks are right.” We do have people here who will argue, in all sincerity, that the Confederacy entered the Civil War only to defend the concept of states’ rights and that secession had nothing to do with the desire to keep slavery alive. We still become a national laughing stock because some small town somewhere has not figured out how to hold a high school prom that includes kids of all races.
If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you.
The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.
According to Tracy Thompson’s brilliant “The New Mind of the South,” it’s been only two decades since Southern kids (including the entire Bitter Southerner crew) stopped learning history from censored textbooks, which uniformly glossed over our region’s terrible racial history. Even today, kids are studying texts that Thompson rightfully labels “milquetoast” in their treatment of Southern history.
And recent election results suggest that the Southern mind hasn’t evolved much, that we’re not much different from what we were in 1936, when Faulkner was struggling yet again with the moral weirdness of the South. Almost 80 years later, it’s still too damned easy for folks to draw the conclusion that we Southerners are hopelessly bound to tradition, too resistant to change.
But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It's also full of people who face our region's contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.
The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.
We’re talking here about people whose work embodies what my old buddy Patterson Hood once called, in a song, “the duality of the Southern thing.” The purpose of The Bitter Southerner is to explore, from every angle we can, the duality of the Southern thing.
Last time I saw Patterson, we sat in his van outside Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga. We were talking about how his view had changed in the dozen or so years since he’d written that song.
To him, the 2012 election results brought clear evidence that we are moving into a more progressive era, and that our southern home might actually be following, however slowly. “We may actually wind up living in a more enlightened country,” he said, and laughed a little.
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.
“We may actually wind up living in a more enlightened country”
We’re here to tell their stories. Over time, you’ll see many pieces about bartenders, because a) that’s where we started and b) we very much enjoy a great cocktail. After all, one Southern tradition worthy of honor is the act of drinking well. But we’ll also cover the musicians, cooks, designers, farmers, scientists, innovators, writers, thinkers and craftsmen. We’ll show you the spots that make the South a far better place than most folks think it is. You’ll also see essays, short stories and poems — pieces that Bitter Southerners like ourselves create as we wrestle with our region. And every now and then, we’ll give you a peek at the oddities that seem to happen only down here.
We hope you’ll enjoy The Bitter Southerner and spread the word about it. Help us round up other Bitter Southerners, no matter where they live.
We hope you’ll want to contribute to The Bitter Southerner. In fact, we need you to. Right now, we have no budget and a staff of volunteers, so we're starting in our hometown of Atlanta. But we know there are others out there like us, people with the skills to capture a good story, or create one. Tell us your ideas. Let us know who you are.
The stories are out there, all over the South. They deserve to be told.
Until we tell them all, we will remain as bitter as Antoine Amedie Peychaud.
Welcome to The Bitter Southerner.
— Chuck Reece, Editor
The Bitter Southerner team Tim Turner, Eric NeSmith, Kyle Tibbs Jones, Dave Whitling, Chuck Reece and Butler Raines.
(Photo by Brinson + Banks)
A Thank You & A Request
We hope you like this thing. We’ve worked hard — and for a long time — to bring it to life.
The four founders of The Bitter Southerner owe great gratitude to a group of people who helped bring our publication to life.
We thank our friend (and remarkable writer) Peter Short, who lives in Dallas, Tex. Every genuinely good writer will tell you that nothing of value happens without a great editor. Peter edited every word of Chuck's writing in the earliest days of The Bitter Southerner, and he did it with love, grace, and a gut-level understanding of exactly what we were trying to achieve.
And we would be less than decent if we failed to thank a few other folks who put their talent, love, and labor into The Bitter Southerner when it was still an idea, when we could offer them no promise of recompense, at least of the financial nature. We thank every one of them in alphabetical order: Matt Arnett, Brent Dey, Audrey Gatliff, Ray Glier, Jon Dee Graham, Patterson Hood, Steve Hsu, Gregory Todd Jones, Nick Kaye, Russell Kaye, Charles McNair, Whitney Ott, Breck Prewitt, Greg Scott, Stacy Shuker Reece, John-Robert Ward, and even more who let Dave, Kyle or me bend their ear about this thing.
It's funny, but we seem to have formed a little tribe of folks who share a common feeling: Too many people don’t know the South that we know. Our goal is to tell stories that build up a community of folks who feel that same thing. We invite you to join us. We know there are other Bitter Southerners out there. Hell, if you weren’t, we wouldn’t have a friend in the world. But we do.
Please join our little community. Help us find the people whose stories need telling. Help us find people who know how to tell other people’s stories. Tell us your own. The only way we can help people understand the South — the one that we know — is to tell them our stories.