Kudzu, OA vs. G&G, and the Southern Kaleidoscope
by Kati-Jane Hammet
I woke up Monday morning in a crap mood, not because I’m pregnant, but because I have for the past three days been suffering from a migraine hangover of sorts. To be clear, I’ve had migraines before. I’ve also been hungover a few times. I’ve never been hungover from a migraine. Thanks, dear unborn Donovan, for hijacking my recuperative powers.
Cheers to my fiancé for sitting up with me, but much like with the aftereffects of blackout drinking, people don’t seem to have much sympathy for a migraine hangover. So, I had resigned myself to reading in the room in my mother’s house on Calhoun Street in Bluffton that Ryan and I moved into over the weekend.
At any rate, my day brightened considerably after I read Oxford American Editor Marc Smirnoff’s riproaring logorrhea about the classist and deliberately polished patina of moonlight and magnolias that Garden & Gun magazine has been slathering on for the past couple years. Some of you may be confused at this point. Why would anyone want to criticize the gorgeous Garden & Gun?
I have often championed G&G. Loudly. Sometimes liquidly. In fact, I presented a paper at last year’s Popular Cultural Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) National Conference in San Antonio on G&G as being representative of much that I love about the new Southern Studies. Here’s the thing, though: I should probably have written about kudzu.
The night directly preceding my “Dark Night of the Migraine,” Ryan and I had an interesting conversation. He had seen my Facebook endorsement of a kudzu-print skirt from anthropologie. He knows I’m preoccupied with the South and volunteered as how he assumed I’d dislike kudzu. So I explained why he was wrong. For a good forty-five minutes. Bless his heart.
Kudzu, to me, is the ultimate icon for the South. The boundaries within which the plant thrives in the U.S. are surprisingly close to the regional boundaries of the South, and the plant serves as an amazing metaphor for just about every issue you can imagine within Southern Studies. As just one example, call to mind any time you remember people haggling over when exactly their ancestors moved to the South, as a means of addressing their authentic Southerness. Now think about kudzu, which was promoted in the South as a means of controlling erosion (as I hear tell, though my environmental volume of the damned Encyclopedia of the South is in storage with most of my other books), introduced to the US around a decade after the War.
Kudzu, like many non-indigenous human Southern populations, thrives here now that it is here. Are these newly popular, cultivated breeds of heirloom camellias and other antebellum flora privileged over kudzu by horticulturalists because of their value? Because of their rarity? Because they are simply part of the Southern version of the myth of the Golden Age? Why privilege any one plant over another? How useful it is? How attractive? Nobody seems to like kudzu much, but you have to admire its hardiness and the strange splendor of the landscape where kudzu has gained dominance. Kudzu is also used as a Chinese herbal remedy for excessive drinking. No, I did not make that up. I don’t say that I advocate letting kudzu go so far that it kills off all other plant life, which it is wont to do, but what a beautiful metaphor.
Now, when it comes to the OA vs. G&G deathmatch, I must admit I’ve loved G&G since I first ran across it in a dentist’s office in Sheridan Park back in 2008. However, this may be because it was the first time I’d ever read Rick Bragg, Clyde Edgerton, John T. Edge, heard about Albert Murray or the Southern Foodways Alliance, or Sean Brock and Mike Lata for that matter (despite the fact that I attended the College of Charleston for four and a half years). I have noticed that the publication in question seems to get more and more materialistic as time goes by, and that has saddened me. Yet, the photographs are phenomenal, and the writers are the best.
When my friend, we’ll call her Jane Doe, who works in the publishing arena in Charleston, dropped me a note about Smirnoff’s rant, I agreed with everything she had to say on the subject. “There are some points I certainly agree with,” she said, such as “the fact that G&G is a dreamy vision of a nostalgic/nouveau riche South, which is certainly made clear in the photography,” but then she went on to say that she thought “the OA editor goes too far to think that readers want anything different from what the magazine currently offers.”
I think this is the main problem with Smirnoff’s argument, and I am paying the man a compliment when I say this: G&G is not in the same league with OA and never has been. Intellectually. I mean, let’s be honest. If you are not satisfied with the representation of the South in G&G, thank heavens you have OA. That’s the way I see it, at any rate.
Like imbibing Waffle House French fries and sweet tea, I found that reading Smirnoff’s rant cured my hangover. It’s not every day that you see people getting this excited about how the South defines itself. I hope G&G responds with some kind of acknowledgment of its particular money-colored lens. As I believe the gentleman from OA pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a South to depict, just so long as you recognize that it’s not THE South. Lots of people, from cavaliers to carpetbaggers to snowbirds, have been seeing the South through a money-colored lens for generations. Thank God it’s not the only lens in town, though. I’ll take Smirnoff’s kaleidoscope, two kudzu capsules, and call y’all tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: I read Marc Smirnoff’s G&G rant in the OA‘s e-mail newsletter about the same time as Kati-Jane and was at first outraged but, by the end, had to admit that he makes some valid points. Garden & Gun does present a rather polished view of the South, but sometimes people just want to look at pretty pictures and one of the main functions of a magazine can be to let the reader escape into another world for a while. On the other end of the spectrum, the Oxford American stays true to its mission of presenting good writing, sometimes so good that’s it even over my head. I’m personally glad the South has two print magazines (in addition to others like Southern Living and this little one here) championing our culture and way of life. They may be vastly different, but competition is always a good thing when it comes to the media, and Smirnoff should know it’s bad manners to bash your competition. – Erin Z. Bass
Based in Hilton Head, South Carolina, intern Kati-Jane Hammet has served as a writing consultant at the University of South Alabama and writing fellow at University of South Carolina Beaufort. Click here to find out more about her in our “Contributors” section.