Author Shannon O’Neil defends her home state’s place in the Deep South.
Ask anyone north of the Mason Dixon Line or west of the Mississippi to name a state in the Deep South and see how long it takes for them to mention Florida.
Fair warning: You should probably get a snack or something, it’s going to be a while.
Florida is not often the first place people think of when they picture the Deep South, and, frankly, we’re starting to get a little offended.
For years, outsiders have been lied to by Florida’s tourism brochures and postcards. Images of sandy white beaches, colorful South Beach architecture and that big castle with all the kiddie rides have painted a very incomplete picture of The Sunshine State.
Every piece of culture that makes the Deep South what it is — historical roots, beautiful music, unique art, passionate faith, reverent literature, gorgeous landscapes and (of course) delectable food — can be found in Florida’s blood as well.
Our history began in 1565 with the founding of St. Augustine, our nation’s oldest city (and home to the fabled Fountain of Youth), which will soon celebrate its 450th birthday. In later years, Florida played a role in the losing side of the War Between The States, seceding with the union and hosting our own Civil War battle in 1864 at Olustee.
But unlike other portions of the Southern states, areas of Florida like Fort Mose and Lincolnville gave sanctuary to freed slaves in the days before and after the war ended. So, The Sunshine State shares both the dark and light of the Deep South’s jaded past.
Still, we are (like the rest of the South) proud of our history because it makes us who we are, and because it gave us the artistic cultural expressions we love. We are avid consumers of folk music, lovers of contemporary art and followers of great Southern literature.
Florida’s natural beauty and social charms made it a respite for literary legends like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Today it has spawned a new breed of colorful Southern writers like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey.
(Read “The Yearling” by Rawlings for a real taste of Florida’s Southern roots, then follow it up with any novel by Carl Hiaasen to see how the state’s landscape, but not its people, have changed.)
Authors have long waxed poetic over many of the South’s dazzling vistas, which can also be found in Florida, from the hills and oaks of the panhandle to the swamps and cypress knees of Central Florida. Garden life most often associated with Dixie grows strong in our sandy soil as well. Our azaleas bloom in the spring, magnolia trees in the summer and gardenias in the fall. Canopy roads, clay hills and acres of green farmland lie in wait for long Sunday drives less than an hour from the famed white beaches (and rival the sand’s beauty to boot).
But if the history, culture, nature and steeple count of Florida don’t tie us to the Deep South, it’s definitely the food.
We fry things with reckless abandon, just like our Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana brethren. In addition to the traditional fried chicken, we crank up our deep fryers for shrimp, crab, oysters, clams and conch (pronounced “conk” — say it any other way and you’ll be branded as a Yankee). We cook up a mean chowder, grow our own unique brand of peppers (like the Datil) and wash it all down with a tall, cold glass of sweet tea.
So don’t let the sandy postcards and theme park commercials fool you — Florida belongs in the world of the Deep South, and we’re proud to be there.
Shannon O’Neil is a native of St. Augustine and author of novels highlighting some of the colorful characters and cities tucked away in The Sunshine State. Enter to win a copy of her book, “I’ll be Home for Peacemas,” in our Giveaways section today, and read her account of St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights holiday attraction here.