Roadtrip: Arkansas

Barbecue plate, Dixie Pig, Blytheville, AR

Barbecue plate, Dixie Pig, Blytheville, AR

Barbecue.  Beautiful chopped pig meat, rich with smoke, juicy, with a side of beans (because God, why would you want a salad if you’re going to a barbecue joint) that looks pretty nondescript but that was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever eaten.  Just beans in sauce with what I think was bits of pig belly/bacon, every mouthful round with porky goodness and yum.  That was Dixie Pig in Blytheville, my lunch stop on the way to the Arkansas side of Memphis.

As for the rest of my time in Arkansas – the rain was torrential.  Pretty much wiped out everything else.

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Roadtrip: McComb, MS

There aren’t a lot of good stopping points in between Jackson, MS and New Orleans.  It’s just one of those stretches of America where they don’t even bother to put out mile markers (there’s another stretch after you hit the Louisiana border on US 55, where the land is so swampy the entire highway is jacked up on stilts, looks like it’s held together with metal staples, and again, nobody lives there).

McComb ended up being my lunch break by the virtue of being large enough to show up on Google Maps without requiring any zooming.  It’s only after I picked it that I found out it’s on the Mississippi Blues Trail for being the nearest convenient landmark to Bo Diddley’s birthplace:

Bo Diddley birthplace, McComb

This is also probably why it rates a tiny little railroad museum, the town being otherwise fairly unremarkable):

Rail museum, McComb

Rail museum, McComb

And the Southern Foodways’ Tamale Trail Map, for the psychedelic Sevie D’z House of Freeze stop:

Sevie D'z House of Freeze

Sevie D’z House of Freeze

This place has dill pickle pops.  Dill pickle pops are frozen pickle juice.  Yes, I know, but they are ridiculously delicious.  Freezing it makes it into a refreshing savory treat, the way that lemonade’s bite gets better the icier it is.  The pops (they come in pairs) were perfect for accompanying very respectable beef tamales (juicy, not too salty, cornmeal fully cooked through).  I finished up with a slightly too sweet pink lemon sour snowball, and got all of it for under $10.  Definitely the moment of the roadtrip.

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Roadtrip: Jackson, MS

Admittedly, I arrived on a Sunday afternoon.  Admittedly, this is a fairly conservative area as well as being economically depressed.  Admittedly, I was asking for it.

But this is a state capitol.  I assumed that no matter how bad things were, the state government at least would need somewhere to eat on a Sunday.  I showed up not that late, around 5 pm or so, and nothing was open unless I wanted to resort to fast food.  I finally ended up at a decent sushi place (Wasabi, which had crayfish in its rolls and a homemade hot sauce that was a bit more meaty than the usual, kind of like chili oil mixed with Chinese barbecue sauce, which gets its pungency from pounded shrimp), which was literally the only restaurant open for about four blocks around.  And still, it had maybe ten people in a space that could seat fifty.

Lion roll, Wasabi

Lion roll, Wasabi

The roll was a bit better than decent.  It had crispy tempura bits that weren’t greasy, just crispy, and the crawfish had slightly more personality than the normal fake crab meat.  Still, wasn’t what I’d been expecting to get.

Walking around the downtown area on Monday morning didn’t really improve the picture.  I attempted the walking tour on the official tourism website, and while Jackson isn’t any more walk-friendly a city than Birmingham was, the Birmingham tour took me a little over an hour without lingering.  Jackson was about fifteen minutes.

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Also, Birmingham calls out its Civil Rights Movement sites all over with markers everywhere; Jackson doesn’t seem to see the value in such.  Or in musical history–I went to Farish Street, the old center of Jackson’s music industry, and supposedly under redevelopment, only to find a line of abandoned, gutted buildings, with a lonely Mississippi Blues Trail marker in the middle.

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Just not a good roadtrip stop, Jackson.

Roadtrip: Tuscaloosa, AL

The name is cool.

My next stop was really Jackson, MS, but I needed to stop for lunch somewhere and Tuscaloosa was conveniently located.  And also, I just like how the name rolls off your tongue.

Tuscaloosa is fairly small, with a clearly defined main street a couple blocks long, centered around the Amtrak station.

Between it and the highway, you pass some sizable, well-preserved antebellum mansions, such as the Jemison-Van de Graaf house:

Jemison-Van de Graaf mansion, Tuscaloosa

Jemison-Van de Graaf mansion, Tuscaloosa

I didn’t have time to do more than drive by very slowly, but I did chow down on chicken and waffles at Five Bar, which apparently has jazz lunch with a live band on Sundays.   I was very pleased to find the place open, since in this region of the country, nearly everything shuts down for Sunday, but more on the problems that caused me when we get to Jackson).  That said, I had mixed feelings about the fried chicken, which had a wonderfully crispy skin, but in several places the fat under the skin hadn’t fully rendered out, so I bit into a couple unpleasantly greasy pockets (really great fried chicken manages to be heart attack full of fat without being greasy).  The waffles were light and fluffy, but the best part was the candied bacon, which didn’t actually come with my meal.  It’s a garnish for the place’s Bloody Mary special and they just have a big bowl of it on the bar.  I got a couple sans drinks from the friendly bartender because I was waiting at the bar for my food for a good half-hour (the place was crammed full, clearly the local pick for after-church-service hangouts).  It’s bacon cooked to chewy with a crunchy coating of paprika-spiked sugar.  The sugar is caramelized, which helps keep it from being a sweet bomb, but it’s really the paprika that elevated it, burning off the sweetness and accenting the smokiness of the bacon.  Yum.

Roadtrip: Birmingham, AL – Downtown

The basic shapes of a Southern city appear to be boulevards and low boxes.  I first noticed this when entropyenator and I visited Memphis, and Birmingham bears me out.  Streets start out broad and get even broader as you head towards the center, while the non-residential buildings crouch low to the ground.  Even the skyscrapers tend to be heavy and flattish, like cairns, as opposed to Chicago’s looming towers or the East Coast’s sleek needles, or the Midwest’s tall rectangles.  And there is a lot of old-fashioned, very ornate, but kind of childishly fanciful detailing on the buildings, less about imposing classical sculpture and more about picking out curlicues in paint.  It’s fun to look out, but modernist furniture me would probably hate to have to live with it.  But the roads, I could definitely love the roads.  Not being in danger of clipping your neighbor’s side-view mirror if you drift an inch over?  Yes.  And also, for an economically depressed area the roads are in much better shape than my current area of the East Coast.

That said, the breadth of the roads really brings to life how meaningful the bus strikes during the Civil Rights Movement were, and how much people were sacrificing.  These blocks are no joke, and I speak as a former Manhattanite who regularly walked that endless stretch between 8th and 9th Ave. up in the Theater District for awesome ramen at Totto Ramen.  Birmingham is not a very walkable city, despite the best efforts of the local tourism board (although the walking guide was handy in structuring my time).  I was also short on time–due to a delayed flight, I only really had a morning to explore Birmingham.  Fortunately, Cobb Lane B&B is located in the Five Points District, which had an eclectic cluster of buildings:

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You can also see the Vulcan statue (largest cast-iron statue in the world and a city symbol) from several places in Five Points.

Statue of Vulcan

Statue of Vulcan

I then drove to the other side of downtown Birmingham, where I checked out more funky buildings, and paid my respects to several Civil Rights Movement landmarks, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a KKK bomb killed four African-American girls in 1963.  It’s still an active church.

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Other interesting spots include a stretch along Morris Street, which has cobblestones and old-timely metal lamp-posts, and the Redmont Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in town.

Road Trip: Birmingham, AL – Food and Lodging

 

So I flew into Atlanta and rented a car to drive down to New Orleans.  You could technically do the drive in a day, but this was a vacation, not an endurance test*, and anyway, Alabama and Mississippi were two states I needed to knock off of my visit-all-50 bucket list.  I looked at the highway routes and booked myself into Cobb Lane, an extravagantly Victorian b&b in the middle of the University of Alabama campus.  And by extravagantly, I mean the wonderful architect hostess, Sheila, has restored the place to within an inch of its life:

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Comfortable size, surprisingly comfortable bed, but it really does feel like sleeping in a museum display.

As for food, Birmingham apparently falls into the white-sauce region of Alabama BBQ, so I figured I’d kick off my Deep South gluttony there.  I headed down to Miss Myra’s Pit B-B-Q for some pork and chicken (dark meat, of course), with sides of deviled eggs and green beans.  The beans were mushy but had a slight vinegary, meaty tang, with the meat courtesy of some bacon cooked in them, while the deviled eggs were competent.  The pork was blah and a little dry, even with the addition of sauce, but the chicken was fantastic.  Deeply smoked, with tender, juicy flesh and skin rendered paper-thin, with a wonderful chewy-crispy texture.  And of course, the BBQ sauce.  It was mildly tangy and rather watery, reminding me a lot of very runny ranch sauce.  I am a huge proponent of ranch sauce on chicken, so I loved it.

Pork and chicken combo, Miss Myra's Pit BBQ

Pork and chicken combo, Miss Myra’s Pit BBQ

*Just as well, since I was on the plane when I realized I’d forgotten to pack the damned GPS navigator.  Google Maps app to the rescue, except not really since I had no way to set my phone up on the dash to use the real-time function.  Thankfully, the highways around here are broad, surprisingly well-maintained (except for the bridges, which look terrifyingly decrepit), and endlessly straight.  Still hasn’t been fun trying to one-hand advance the directions while watching the road.