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March 13, 2012

GESENHUES: Embracing Southern charms

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Mitt Romney can’t catch a break in the South. While at the Daytona International Speedway last month, he failed to connect with NASCAR fans when he admitted to not following the sport as closely as most, but having, “… some friends who are NASCAR team owners.” (Not really the same thing.)

This week, during an event with Jeff Foxworthy in Mobile, Ala., Romney came off awkward and his comments felt forced. When trying to make a joke, he told Foxworthy that he looked forward to hunting with him, but would need help finding, “ … which end of the rifle to point.”

He is trying too hard. Instead of doing his best to convince Southern voters he’s just like them, he would be better served appreciating Southern culture while not pretending to be part of it.

I was born in Louisville, but grew up five minutes north of the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. By the time I made it to 18 and was accepted into a university located toward the eastern side of the Deep South, my Southern-bred classmates pegged me a Yankee. Of all the things I got from my college career (not that I remember a whole lot of them), I learned you can’t fake being from the South.

You can embrace the charms of the South in the same way you embrace your grandmother — a bear-hug of a hold that’s never long enough to show how much you love her.  

You can eat up Southern culture figuratively — the books, the music, the art — like a plate of fresh oysters on the half-shell, waiting for their saltine cracker bed and blanket of Tabasco sauce. Or, you can eat it up literally; savoring every roadside diner between Athens and Opp. (My favorite takeaway from college was finding out early in life that shrimp are best served smothered in grits. And yes, I realize Mitt was criticized for trying to connect with Southern voters by saying he liked grits; but, he just said, “I like grits,” and failed to mention the shrimp thing.)

And then, there’s the football.

Growing up, my parents were season ticket holders for the men’s University of Louisville basketball team. I remember many cold nights, walking — for what felt like miles — across the Freedom Hall parking lot to watch Denny Crum’s team rally in the second half.

I loved U of L basketball and didn’t think anything could top yelling C-A-R-D-S at players like Pervis Ellison, Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner. (I was too young to remember cheering on Darryl Griffith, but am sure it happened.)

And then I walked out of the Lupton Dormitory on Auburn University’s campus for my first home-game weekend. It was August 1991 and I was awestruck.

My dorm stood in front of — or behind depending on which way you’re facing — Jordan-Hare Stadium. The number of Winnebagos that covered the campus was beyond anything I could have imagined before actually seeing it. If there was space between the Winnebagos, tents were pitched with navy blue and orange tops. Any spare room was filled with grills and coolers, most bigger than the twin-sized bed in my dorm room.

“What’s this?” I asked stepping into the back-slapping, happy-go-lucky chaos. My suitemate was from South Carolina; she had been going to Auburn football games before she could walk.    

“Tailgating,” she said.

That was more than 20 years ago; I’ve yet to experience anything like it.

Yes, there is the painful and complicated history of slavery and the South’s struggle with racism; but, from the most painful histories come the most compelling stories. And, to only braise the surface of these stories without digging into the underbelly of the culture is not giving the South its due respect.

I’m not an ardent fan of NASCAR either; I’m not a fan at all. But, I still have a Talladega story. After meeting friends who had traveled from Indiana to see a race, I got lost trying to get back to campus and ended up going in the opposite direction, almost making it to Mississippi. My forty-five minute drive back to campus turned into more than a six-hour round-trip across the state of Alabama and back. My friends, made it home before I did.

It was a long drive, but a fitting way to experience the Heart of Dixie, lost without minding being lost.

I wonder if Mitt Romney has had the pleasure of reading any issues of “Garden & Gun,” a magazine I can’t bring myself to toss in the recycling bin even after I have devoured every article. (I’m not exaggerating, if you don’t know about “Garden & Gun,” regardless of where you live, you should get to know it.) It’s the perfect resource for people like us — me and Mitt — who aren’t Southerners, but can’t get enough of the South.

Although, by now, it sounds like Mitt has had his fill.

— Amy Gesenhues is a freelance writer and syndicated columnist for CNHI. You can read her daily commentaries at www.AmyWroteIt.com or email her at amy@amywroteit.com.

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