Traveling across the Deep South was not one of the goals of our trip, but if we wanted to skip winter weather as we went from Florida to New Orleans, Alabama and Mississippi were unavoidable. We realized that there’s not a lot of great architecture or notable cities to see (and the ones there are happen to be in the Piedmont far north of our route), the landscape is monotonous, and the prevailing culture is as far from our normal milieu as can be found in this country. (There had been an op-ed in the Times a few days earlier on how hard it was to be a liberal native Alabaman, returning to the state after 20 years in New York.) Greta pointed out that the only common element in our value system and theirs is appreciation of barbecue. So with minor trepidation we headed into Alabama.
If you’re taking the coastal route, you only hit the little tab of Alabama that surrounds Mobile Bay, and the drive across is under 100 miles. The coastal plain is indeed monotonous, but very pleasant – we were mostly in a landscape of pecan groves and small towns.
The biggest disappointment on our travels in the South has been the displacement of barbecue joints. Every little town or city you pass is full of chain fast food places, which seem to have squeezed the barbecue out – as Calvin Trillin noted last fall in the New Yorker, the future of barbecue seems to be heading into the cities, where it is appreciated by yuppie connoisseurs. So at lunchtime we turned to the excellent database compiled by the folks at Roadfood.com, which directed us to the Foley Coffee Shop, in the charming small city of Foley, Alabama. Greta isn’t blogging about this as it wasn’t necessarily a culinary awakening, but it was a cultural one.
As we stepped through the front door, we were transported back 50 years in time. A wall of conversation hit us, as the place was full of locals of all types – old folks, office and construction workers, families, etc. A short movie best conveys the ambience:
Our charming waitress, a friend of the owner’s daughter, confirmed that nothing had really changed since the 1960s. It seemed to us that the prices were within this category too – “entree, 2 vegetables, salad, bread, & tea or coffee” for $6.20 (with a choice of 9 vegetables). Take that, McDonalds.
The food was fresh and good, the people we talked to were gregarious and lovely, and the sense of community was palpable. This wasn’t just a place for the efficient satisfaction of nutritional needs, but one that helped maintain the culture of the city. At first we felt like visiting anthropologists, but we appreciated how we were welcomed in for our brief glimpse.
The other great cultural mainstay of Alabama is football, so guided by the map at RoadsideAmerica.com, we stopped at the US Sports Academy in Daphne, to see the sports sculptures made of junk metal by Bruce Larsen. (Unmediated football doesn’t interest us, but representations might.) They are remarkable, using rigid materials to convey a sense of movement, power and tension. Greta liked them because they were so Steampunk.
Heading to the building interior and its extended art collection, we came across this print which we had never seen before in Oregon. It is apparently one in a series celebrating the “College Football Game of the Year”, and in its depiction of the inaugural CFP Championship game almost exactly one year earlier, it showed Marcus Mariota getting sacked by a swarm of Ohio State players. We left in a huff.
A local man saw me taking photos and called out to me:
“Do you like those chickens?”
“I love the chickens. And my wife loves El Caminos, so I’m taking pictures for her. I read that this used to be a fried chicken stand, is that true?”
“I’m not sure, the chickens have been here as long as I can remember, and whatever store is here has always sold some chicken, though. Where you folks from?”
“I hear it’s beautiful there, but I’ve never been. Actually, I’ve never really been anywhere. Never got too far away from these chickens.”
We know that our five hours there didn’t give us a nuanced view of Alabama, but overall, it was more positive than we had been expecting.