If you were to ask a bunch of Yankees what the official food of the South is, they would no doubt say fried chicken. I would have to agree that despite regional preferences for dry or wet barbeque, country ham or chicken fried steak, on the whole, the meat mascot of Dixie is surely a succulent piece of poultry fried to a golden brown.
The same Yankee respondents in our poll could be asked about what our preferred cocktail is, and just as likely, the answer would be the Mint Julep. However, with this I must take issue.
First, let me present my credentials. I was born in Charlotte and raised in Birmingham, Richmond and Memphis. Except for a brief period overseas, I have lived in Atlanta for the last 30 years. Therefore, I consider myself a semi-pro expert on all things southern. Yet in all of those years, I have not tasted and have only once seen anyone order a Mint Julep.
In fact, most of my knowledge about the beverage comes from old TCM movies. In 1939’s “Jezebel,” a crinoline-clothed Bette Davis foists them on her guests at a party while simultaneously trying to seduce her recalcitrant beau Henry Fonda.
Then there’s that ridiculous scene from Mame (no matter the version). Set on an absurdly anachronistic plantation, the title song takes place with everyone dressed in fetching fox-hunting gear while a band of chorus boys chirp, “You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame, You give my old mint julep a kick, Mame.” Give me a break.
In other words, Hollywood and a bunch of Yankee writers somehow came up with the idea that not only did we wear jodhpurs sitting around the old plantation in the 1920s (which is when the Mame-action takes place), we were all downing Mint Juleps like there was no tomorrow.
I don’t know about you, but in the South of the 1920s even my more privileged relatives were drinking bathtub gin at a juke joint that looked like a shack from Tobacco Road. As for the rest, after a hard day in the fields they were lucky to get a few sips of local moonshine that could have had equal use as fuel for their broken-down pick-ups.
The only time I have ever been privy to a request for a Mint Julep was when an English friend asked for one on a visit. Obviously influenced by the countless images of Colonel Sanders-like gents sipping the so-called southern cocktail, our friend requested one at the old Windsor Hotel in Americus, Georgia.
Originally opened in 1892 as a resort to attract wintering northerners, this five-story Victorian hotel has wrap-around porches thick with rocking chairs and hanging bougainvillea. If ever he was likely to get a real Mint Julep, this would be the place.
As we sat rocking on the porch overlooking Main Street, listening to the two-ton Mac trucks zoom by (unfortunately Main Street is also now a two-lane highway) our English chum placed his order.
The waitress, who was visibly shaken by unrelenting demands for more PBR from a group of rowdy frat boys, just looked at him. “A wut?”she demurred. In his best attempt at a southern accent, our friend repeated the request and pointed out that it was featured on the drink menu as a specialty of the house.
When at last the poor girl understood him, she was more flummoxed than ever. “But no wun’s ever asked me for one of them,” she pitifully replied. “I’m not sure we do ’em.”
Nevertheless, if there’s one thing we have in common down here, it’s the urgent need to please, which is sometimes referred to as southern hospitality. The girl was determined to get this man with the strange, indecipherable accent (must be from Winder) the drink he requested.
The rest of us consumed several G&T’s, a few Harps and a couple of bourbons while our English friend looked on, waiting patiently in total sobriety. By this time our dinner reservation at the hotel was called and we moved to the stately old dining room. When we were halfway through our meal (of fried chicken, of course) the waitress came in carrying the Mint Julep on a brass tray with a flourish that suggested she was presenting a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite.
Her apron was askew and hair straggled from her jaunty little cap, but her eyes blazed with the triumph of a southerner who has satisfied her guest. “I hope u lyke-it,” she beamed.
We all stared at the beverage in its tall, frosted glass bedecked with a flaccid sprig of mint that probably had the entire staff scrounging through local backyards. Our friend took a sip. “Veddy nice,” he nodded, and then never touched another drop.