Daily Press (Sunday)

Explaining the South on Instagram, one custom at a time

- By Rick Rojas

LAUREL, Miss. — If you had a certain kind of upbringing in the South, you likely know the strict hierarchy that dictates who brings the potato salad and cornbread to a covered-dish supper and who is responsibl­e for the paper plates.

There is a good chance you know the difference between moseying and meandering, just as you understand that a prayer request can be a genuine call for divine assistance on someone’s behalf — and a loophole for relaying gossip without, technicall­y speaking, engaging in it.

But not everyone can have that sort of home training, bless their hearts. That’s where Landon Bryant comes in.

He has covered all of this and plenty more in his daily videos posted on social media on the customs and mannerisms he learned growing up in small-town Mississipp­i.

“The Lord laid it on my heart, and we all need to lift her up because — insert informatio­n here,” Bryant explained in the video detailing how one might go about gossiping by way of a prayer request.

“The prayer list,” he added, “is sort of a news feed.”

With his sweep of silky shoulder-length hair and soft drawl that cloaks a devilishly sly sense of humor, Bryant, 35, has become a fixture on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube with his explanatio­n and exploratio­n of what it means to be Southern.

A lot of it is food: Grits, fried green tomatoes, sweet potato pie, divinity, corn nuggets, hot tamales and crawfish are just some of the delicacies he has discussed. He has done soliloquie­s on social protocol (a phone call should never end with a quick goodbye), language (defining “might could” and “fixing to”) and Mississipp­i’s climate (the humidity can feel like wearing “a sweater full of Vaseline”).

Since last February, his “Landon Talks” posts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, many from around the world — a testament to the odd fascinatio­n that has always surrounded the quirks, characters and complicate­d history of the South.

But many of Bryant’s regular viewers are about as Southern as he is, confirming another enduring truth about the region: There are few things Southerner­s love more than reveling in their own Southernne­ss.

The comments on his posts can be as engaging as the videos themselves: bountiful and passionate, but never all that heated. Take, for example, the thread on the region’s superstiti­ons. A bird flying in the house is a sign a loved one is about to die; a cardinal in the yard is a dead relative checking in.

“In this time of turmoil and global

unrest, it’s kind of fun to think about deviled eggs,” said one regular commenter, Patricia Altschul, the socialite and grande dame on the Bravo reality show “Southern Charm.” “People do wrangle over a lot of these things that nobody else cares about besides Southerner­s.”

As lightheart­ed as it all may seem,

Bryant believes the conversati­on actually represents something more substantia­l: a sprawling family, rife with bitter disagreeme­nts and painful histories, unified by an abiding affection for home.

His audience includes a certified “Daughter of the Confederac­y” and one of the more liberal members of the Louisiana legislatur­e. There are people from a mix of racial and economic background­s, as well as people who are gay and gender-nonconform­ing. Their diversity might surprise some outsiders, but it reflects the geographic, racial, economic, ideologica­l and gastronomi­cal vastness of the South.

“By breaking down our phrases, expression­s and traditions, Landon reinforces that idea that there is a rich history and culture that exists in this area,” said Claire Thriffiley, an Instagram follower of his and the director of an art gallery in New Orleans.

Bryant acknowledg­ed that many of his videos are snapshots of a fading way of life. The matriarchs who set the standard for potato salad are aging or gone. “Might could” is heard less and less. The videos are also something of an informal historical record.

“It’s just turned into this love letter,” Bryant said in an interview in Laurel, Mississipp­i, his city of 17,000, where he lives on the same road where he grew up.

But over time, he realized the videos and the conversati­ons they spur were not just about rememberin­g an idealized version of the past. This was a chance to figure out which Southern traditions were worth preserving and which were best left behind.

“Our generation is going to have to decide,” he said.

Bryant — an elementary school art teacher until he became a fulltime influencer — makes no claim of being the definitive voice of the South, as if one could exist.

Still, regular viewers say that he is an ideal guide. “Landon is funny and has a soft, calming voice,” said Mandie Landry, a Democratic state lawmaker from New Orleans.

“Very Mister Rogers,” she added. “He could start a cult full of niceness and potato salad, and I would join it.”

He never needed a camera or

an Instagram account to launch into meandering monologues.

His wife, Katelyn, encouraged him to start recording and posting them online — if only to spare herself from being his only audience. Over the past year, his life has been transforme­d. He has a contract to write a book expanding on his videos. Lingua Franca, a New York-based purveyor of cashmere sweaters with handstitch­ed messages, recently sold out a line featuring phrases from his videos, including “Bless your heart” and “Might could.”

Strangers recognize him in public now, including on a recent family vacation to Disney World. The attention has been surreal, he said, and even a little uncomforta­ble.

Still, he noticed that entrylevel celebrity did not feel all that different from living under the watchful eye of a small town.

As he ran errands in Laurel on a recent afternoon, a man hollered at him from a passing pickup, “Can I have your autograph, Landon?” It turned out to be his wife’s cousin’s husband.

His wife, who was one of his best friends growing up, has been astonished at how his emergence as a social media influencer has drawn Bryant out of his shyness but not so surprised at the connection he has made with viewers. “It feels like he’s talking with you,” she said.

He has the observatio­nal skills often developed by those who feel like an outsider in the place that is supposed to be home. As a boy, he was small and a bit awkward — he needed to “grow into his ears,” as he put it — and he preferred eavesdropp­ing on the ladies at the beauty shop to hunting, sports or the other rugged pursuits of the men who surrounded him. For a while, he would even try to lower his voice to better fit that mold of masculinit­y.

Yet the whirlwind of the past year has taught him that perhaps he is not as much of an outsider as he once thought. “I didn’t realize how much of this place I am,” he said. “I am also a Southern man — whatever that means for me.”

He keeps a list of possible video topics on his phone, and he continuall­y finds new inspiratio­n, including recently when his grandmothe­r stopped by and he asked how she was feeling.

“She literally said to me, ‘I’d have to feel better to die,’” he said. He made a mental note to put that on the list.

He wants to make it a year before he revisits any topics.

But after that, he would like to correct the record on a few items — namely, deviled eggs. In his first video about them, he mentioned topping them with cracker crumbs. The backlash was swift.

He is eager to explain himself. But he also wants to remind his followers that he knows his place when it comes to a potluck. He’s the one bringing the paper plates.

 ?? BRYAN TARNOWSKI/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Landon Bryant, who talks about grits, prayer lists and humidity to a diverse audience bound by its fascinatio­n with a colorful, complicate­d place, in downtown Laurel, Miss. on Nov. 1.
BRYAN TARNOWSKI/THE NEW YORK TIMES Landon Bryant, who talks about grits, prayer lists and humidity to a diverse audience bound by its fascinatio­n with a colorful, complicate­d place, in downtown Laurel, Miss. on Nov. 1.

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