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Southern Comfort

Dixie chic is giving regional titles like Southern Living a lift

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Across the South, the start of fall can only mean one thing: college football, and along with it the time-honored tradition of tailgating. Riding the enormous popularity of the weekend ritual, Southern Living recently kicked off its own tailgating season.

In the kind of cross-media touchdown that has boosted newsstand sales 6.6 percent to 137,962 in the first half of this year alone, Southern Living published the Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook, which became a national best-seller thanks to recipes like Woo Pig Sooie Ham-Stuffed Biscuit. On television, an hour-long special on the Great American Country channel featured tailgate parties ranging from the University of Alabama’s 1,000-tent encampment on the campus quad to a University of Texas meet and greet with team mascot Bevo, the longhorn steer. Tapping into football frenzy, the 2.8 million-circulation magazine chalked up an astonishing half-million votes in its South’s Best Tailgate contest, pulling in some 80,000 ballots by smartphone alone. (Using their devices, fans could scan images of a team’s helmet from the pages of the magazine or Digimarc-enabled posters.)

This being Southern Living, it isn’t just readers who get riled up. Across the bucolic Birmingham, Ala., campus of the magazine’s parent, Time Inc.’s Southern Progress unit, staffers decorate their offices with the same watermarked posters, imploring passersby to vote for their favorites. Over by the magazine’s bustling test kitchen, one can find kitchen director Rebecca Gordon, the quintessential Southern belle—all smiles, pearls and perfectly coiffed blonde tresses. But the elegant look belies a rabid obsession with the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Food brings people together,” says Gordon, who posts recipes for concoctions such as the Alabama Yella Hammer cocktail on the blog TideFanfare. “At Southern Living, we’ve always celebrated the fact that Southern food is so closely connected to family and traditions.”

One floor above the kitchen in the editorial offices, more tailgating posters are displayed alongside layouts for upcoming articles, including one on a home-style Christmas dinner and another on a Lilly Pulitzer-themed party in Palm Beach.

Southern Methodist University pride rules for executive editor Jessica Thuston, an Oklahoma native whose new baby and recently renovated kitchen are featured in the magazine’s “Big Ideas for Small Spaces” issue, one of 12 yearly newsstand-only specials. Nearby, managing editor Candace Higginbotham, a 22-year Southern Progress veteran, proudly displays an Auburn University poster.

Editor in chief Lindsay Bierman also got into the spirit, tacking up a University of Virginia sign—despite his Michigan roots. A design aficionado, he fell for the South while studying for his masters in architecture at UVA. He would go on to work for Southern Progress titles including the now-defunct Southern Accents and Cottage Living, along with Coastal Living. “The South has a deep culinary tradition, distinct style and way of life that is very hospitable and gracious,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to come back here.”

It’s no surprise that Southern Living editors are passionate (to put it mildly) about their home turf. But national audiences have also cottoned to Dixie, with its focus on family, friends, food and home. This year, The Help went from best-seller to box-office hit while Taylor Swift, the Zac Brown Band and the Avett Brothers dominated the Billboard charts, TNT revived Dallas, NBC debuted nighttime soap Nashville, and trendy new restaurants serving biscuits and barbecue popped up in Brooklyn.

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