What makes a place Southern?
Some may waggle an indeterminate finger vaguely at a map—“here . . . ish”—others may cite the Mason-Dixon Line or states that seceded from the Union or those that assume when you say “tea” you mean sweet. Places with laaawng vowels, places with mamma’n’ems, with coon dogs and broad porches and at least one distant relative named Cooter or Doodlebug.
But around here we like to think that being Southern is less about latitude or the particular locutions of the local vernacular, and more about, well, just being Southern. It’s that unique Southern je ne sais quoi, that sweet stillness that hangs in the air at sunset, that pride that prickles somewhere between the shoulder blades. It’s that ineffable tie between food and family, between music and marrow, between life, love—and the land.
And yet, somehow, Baltimore seems to have been robbed of this identity. At a point utterly lost to history, it got glommed together with the rest of those petite little New England states and pinned with a Northern tag. Well, we’re here to restore its good name. Charm City is Southern, through and through, and here’s why:
- BiscuitsBaltimore isn’t afraid to take biscuits beyond the buttermilk; here, Blacksauce Kitchen pairs their biscuit with jerk steak and free-range eggs
There are few things as Southern as fresh, fluffy, buttermilk biscuits, and you’d better believe that the folks in Baltimore have got them in spades. Throw a rock anywhere in the city and odds are good that you’ll hit an establishment with biscuits that rival Sunday supper, though (don’t tell Mamma) you may find they’re served with a little more swagger. Here in Baltimore, you’ll find ’em piled high with sliders fixin’s, wallowing happily in a hot bath of bison gravy, or mixed with jalapeños and topped with Dijon slaw. Still not convinced? You can complete your meal with just about any other Southern staple your sweet little [bless your] heart desires, from chicken and waffles and cheesy grits to fried green tomatoes and sweet potato pie. Baltimorians know a little something about Southern Soul food, like this plate of chicken and waffles from DelMarVa’s Southern Café
- Yips, Yeehaws, and Good Old-Fashioned Honkey-TonkeryThe Horse You Came in On Saloon is one of the oldest bars in Baltimore, and is purportedly the last place Edgar Allan Poe was seen alive (photo courtesy of Mir Sasha)
Dip your toe in the music scene in Baltimore and you may come out thinking it’s all bowties and string concertos (the city’s home to Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory, one of the premier musical institutes in the country), but a cello ain’t far from a bass, and a violin’s just a fiddle waiting to happen. Go beyond the main music drag and dig into the meat of the city, and you’ll find a whole passel of country dance-halls and saloons, complete with mechanical bull rides, line dancing, cowboy hats, and oodles of boot-scootin. With well-weathered watering holes like The Horse You Came in On Saloon (one of the oldest bars in Baltimore and famous for being the last place Edgar Allan Poe was seen alive), laidback outdoor bluegrass performances like those found at Lurman Woodland Theater, and rough-and-tumble honkey-tonks like PBR Rock Club (that stands for Professional Bull Riders, in case you were wondering), there’s something to tickle the taste of even the most discriminating of country connoisseurs.Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute generates some of the nation’s most exceptional classical performers, but there’s just as much fun in the city’s backdoor honkey-tonks
- Southern Lit ”I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years. ‘It has changed in that time, as I have—but somehow it still remains the same. . . . It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I’d be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.” –H.L. Mencken
So perhaps that country twang can be taught, and maybe (maybe) the recipe for a fresh, fluffy biscuit can be gleaned from a cookbook, but there’s no faking the wit, wisdom, and dark gravity of literature grown in Southern soil. Famed Baltimorian Edgar Allan Poe was writing the Southern Gothic before Southern Gothic even existed, and you can visit his home, take a toast at his favorite bar, and pay your respects to his grave all in a single Baltimore afternoon. Other Southern writers to hang their hats in Baltimore include Zora Neale Hurston and even H.L. Menken, who, story has it, has the honor of giving the city its nickname: Charm City.Baltimore offers a veritable smorgasbord for the Poe enthusiast; it’s home to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, The Edgar Allan Poe Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library—complete with rare books, manuscripts, original letters (even a lock of his hair and a piece of his coffin, if you’re into that sort of thing)—bars where he drank, the hospital where he died, monuments, statues, and his, his wife’s, and his mother-in-law’s graves. Even the city’s football team—The Ravens— pays homage to the great, late Poe.
- The Huzzah! of HistoryThe bombing of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner
We Southerners love a good, tough piece of history to chew on, and Baltimore is certainly no exception. Experience the inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry, or stand in the room where that inspiration was pieced together by hand at the Star Spangled Banner Flag House. If you’re up for a hearty debate, visit any one of the city’s numerous Civil War museums and monuments and take a good grapple with just what side old Baltimore (a mix of Southern agrarianism and Northern mercantilism, a slave-holding city with a quarter of its population made up of free blacks, a city that never officially joined the Confederacy but came under Union martial law) fell on. Check out the USS Constellation, the Baltimore Civil War Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, and the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine to get a foothold, but if you find yourself still teetering on the edge of Maryland’s Southernism, take a good listen to the Maryland State Song, Maryland, My Maryland; the closing line should seal things up nicely: “Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!”Climb aboard the legendary USS Constellation, the first U.S. Navy vessel to put to sea and the first U.S. Navy vessel to engage and defeat an enemy vessel (photo courtesy of Mark Peters)
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