Notes from a Bus Ride to Birmingham

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Gadsden, Alabama Greyhound Bus Station

Because I had time, but no personal car, during my trip home, I rode Greyhound to visit my cousin and his wife in Birmingham, Alabama one weekend. Below are notes and questions about this area of the South new to me, typed looking out a big bus window. These are drive-by notes, immediate and not reflective. 

On the Greyhound bus to Birmingham this Friday afternoon. We left Chattanooga around 4 p.m. and have since passed through Trenton, Georgia and Fort Payne, Alabama.

The bus is empty. Just me, a driver inside a plexiglass booth, a woman behind the door, and two other men, one in front of me leaning into the aisle and the other in the farthest seat in the back.

Because the promised WIFI does not exist, I am enjoying looking into cars and trucks as they drive beneath me. A large, round woman passenger holding a small blond dog. A passenger seat filled with rumpled towels. A man in a Bama-red convertible mustang. Lots of single, elderly drivers in shiny, clean American-made cars.

I guess 59 is a small highway through Alabama, just two lanes in each direction cutting between low hills, the tops of pines and maples like green cauliflower.

I just realized that this part of Alabama, and Birmingham, is one hour behind Chattanooga, so the three and a half hour drive is actually four and half hours.

Right now we are mid-way to Birmingham.

We are now driving through Gadsen Alabama, seeing lots of single-story houses, brick buildings, a low jail stretching wide behind a barb wire fence.

There is a Mi Pueblo supermarket, a huge Latino grocery store, now empty in a strip mall next to the also vacant Big Lots store.

The Gadsden Greyhound office is in a small brick building with its metal sign, above the door, turned upside down, as if a gust of wind had come down the highway and flipped the square sign around.  The Greyhound silver dog is on its back in rigor mortis.

We are crossing Coosa River, two men are standing in an unmoving motor boat flipping their fishing poles behind them and casting their lures.

Driving by Shoney’s Restaurant and the Coosa Town Center, this must be the new area of town. Yes, it is. There’s a Panera Bread next to a Dental Office.

Red Bank (Tennessee) use to have a Shoney’s with a huge salad buffet and a prize-like hot fudge sundae made of two dark brownies sandwiching a square of vanilla ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry on top. ¬†It eventually closed down.

If a city can support a Shoney’s for four decades, what does that mean?

We are driving past the Goodyear Plant that looks like a penitentiary.

Driving by the Center of Hope Thrift Store adjacent to Dollar General. Church-related resale shops are everywhere. Do churches open thrift stores instead of publishing cookbooks now?

Driving by a factory.

We entered Glencoe, and passing its elementary school, library, First Baptist Church, Senior Center, all in the span of a few blocks.

Now on the highway.

Passing estates with large fields, many fenced in, one named the South Wind Plantation, seems odd, out of place since they are the kind of houses you would expect more isolated, not with their driveways leading to a four-lane highway.

We apparently entered Alexandria by the signage on all of the buildings.

Buttermilk Pie: Desperate, and Delicious

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Buttermilk Pie

During my stay in Chattanooga, my mother and I made a traditional Southern dessert, buttermilk pie. Though I could not remember ever tasting this pie, there was a plastic jug of buttermilk in the fridge and there was no dessert for dinner, so buttermilk pie sounded like a good idea.

Along with pecan pie, red velvet cake and banana pudding, buttermilk pie is one of the classic Southern desserts, yet does not receive enough attention.

Have you seen it in your local hipster bakery yet?

In a bon app√©tit 2015 article, Why Desperation Pies Are Making a Comeback, buttermilk pie, along with vinegar, green tomato and mock apple pies, is considered a desperation pie, a kind of dessert created by resourcefully combining whatever ingredients are available due to the season and/or economy. It’s thought, as described by The History Bandits in this terrific overview, Desperation Pies: A Slice of Seasonal History, that desperation pies first were made by German immigrants in the 1700s and more recently and more widely, by families during the Great Depression.

Since my mother also did not remember ever baking a buttermilk pie, the experience was new to both of us, and we were both curious about how sweet the fermented milk could turn out. I tried to keep up as my mom read and acted on the recipe’s instructions; see recipe below. Eventually, she told me to just measure and make sure the pie doesn’t burn.

Made only with buttermilk, eggs, sugar, butter, a little flour,  maybe a spoon full of lemon zest, the buttermilk pie satisfies with its simplicity and sweet taste. The pie needs a full hour to slowly change its white filling into a pale custard, browned on top, and is creamier one day after being made.

Buttermilk Pie

1/2 cup butter (melted)

2 eggs

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup of sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 cup of buttermilk

Break eggs in dish with melted butter (Butter needs to be cooled, otherwise the eggs could heat up. Melt on top of stove in stewer)

Sift flour and sugar together

Add to egg mixture

Beat well

Add vanilla and buttermilk, mix that up together good

Bake in a nine-inch pie crust (let it thaw or, for a frozen crust, punch holes in the bottom)

Set oven to 350 for 50 – 60 minutes

Be careful not burn but have a lovely brown

— Karen Clay, Neighborhood Services, A Taste of Traditions, Recipes from City of Chattanooga Employees, 2009

The Main Ingredient in 19 Southern Foods

Southern food

Cornbread

Saying you know the South through its food is a clich√©, but if the speaker grew up in Dixie, moved away and returns occasionally for a visit home, there’s a pinch of truth in the phrase.

While I continued writing during my recent five-week stay in Chattanooga, Tennessee, many hours unexpectedly were filled with my mother talking about food, comparing recipes, going to markets, washing dishes while the oven heated up and asking if we should do something different next time as we finally sat down to eat.

I watched, and sometimes helped, my mother cook and serve many foods associated with the South.

Southern food

Green tomatoes

I counted at least 19:

  1. Tennessee Pride sausage patties
  2. cathead and pan buttermilk biscuits (also made by my sister)
  3. biscuits and gravy with eggs and bacon
  4. sausage biscuits with sliced tomato and mustard
  5. pancakes
  6. BBQ ribs with sides of baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad
  7. sliced red tomatoes
  8. fried green tomatoes
  9. end-of-summer peaches
  10. fried okra
  11. turnip greens
  12. white beans
  13. spoon bread pudding
  14. cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet
  15. banana pudding made with Nilla wafers
  16. buttermilk pie
  17. chocolate pie
  18. coconut cake
  19. chocolate cake
Southern food

Coleslaw, BBQ pork, baked beans & potato salad (clockwise)

I grew up with these foods, but they were not appreciated in the 1970s and 1980s as regional cuisines. Instead, working parents, like my mom and dad, shopped for the fastest foods to feed my sister and me.

Only on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions and funerals (a type of family reunion) was the Southern table crowded with pats of butter, green onions, fried catfish and 3-layer cakes.¬†To a kid who thought Shoney’s chilled salad bar was the best place to get the nicest meals, the aluminum-foil-covered bowls of fried okra and potato salad passed around were unappealing.

And until recently, I was fine appreciating through memory Southern foods: Fried. Sugar. Buttery. Over-cooked. Sugar. Not healthy. I renewed my Southern cooking card every Thanksgiving by baking Reba Sharpe’s Pecan Pie. And living in the Pacific Northwest for the almost twenty years had conditioned me to scoff at any local attempts to add fancy cheese to grits.

Southern food

Cathead biscuits

Now, I am compelled to learn bread sliced okra and bake pan biscuits.

That is partly due to living in the Pacific Northwest for almost twenty years and still, the pull of the South is strong; years, miles, borders and a ring cannot break the thread between me and Chattanooga.

But mostly, this interest, urgent and respectful, in appreciating¬† Southern food – how to cook them, which great aunt made the best applesauce cake, what are their histories, and when is the best month for watermelon –¬† comes from acknowledging that the main ingredient in all of the dishes is my mom.

Southern Food

Banana pudding

I can find 100s of recipes for biscuits, read about the influence of the Great Depression on buttermilk pie, and simmer collard greens and black-eyed peas every New Years Day, but all will miss a particular flavor and comforting texture.

I still have time to watch my mom’s kitchen choreography and pick up some tricks, especially since she responds, when asked about measurements or oven temperatures, “I don’t use a recipe, I just do it.”

An Alternative Route

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Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux

Author Paul Theroux identified ten items in his list, The Essential Tao of Travel, beginning with 1. Leave home and ending with 10. Make a friend.

I am following number eight because this trip needs an alternative route, a string to a balloon or a cloud or a seagull that lifts me, even if only my feet drag.
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Where the Rain is Born

Theroux suggested to “8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in,” and so, as I start a month-long visit to Chattanooga, I start reading¬†Where the Rain is Born, a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and images about Kerala, a region in southern India.
I bought the book in Kerala while staying a few nights in Varkala, a town above the Arabian Sea, and seven years later, I am reading it during my first visit to my hometown in three years.
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Varkala, cliff walk above Arabian Sea

A narrow mud path cliffside links the images of Varkala, Kerala that I remember: Waves crashing below the horizon, the sound one of many languages. Shiny vines over roads. Tasting the coarsely-ground spices in fish curry. Mosques, temples and shrines.  Large families standing and sitting along the shore at sunset. Sleeping in a small room in a white building between the jungle and sea. Women in turquoise saris slicing through feisty and crowded bushes, kids at a pep rally. Brown. Blue. Green.
I am reading to learn more about a place I want to revisit.
I am reading to be inspired by good travel writing.
I am also reading to be reminded of memories other than the ones everywhere now.
Driving to the grocery inevitably involves a resurrection of a high school night or a cousin or a conversation that had been tightly folded and packed away.
I am reading to bring back and ward off spirits of a place.

Travel Memory: Palolem Beach 2010

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Palolem, South Goa, India

When I learned yesterday was Independence Day in India, I thought it’s time to go back.

Near the end of Joseph’s and my trip to India in 2010, we stayed two days at Palolem Beach in South Goa, and we often saw this cow walking through crowds, lying on the beach, standing at a corner.

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Palolem, South Goa, India

Coming from the beach, you entered this street through designated gaps between seafood and curry restaurants where the sand and jungle blended, giving everyone at every place on ocean view.

On this street, there were scooter and cycle repair shops, yoga huts, woven stalls selling paperback books and rainbow fabrics and boxed groceries, barber shops and a juice bar (I think we checked our email there.)

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Palolem, South Goa, India

We stayed at a guesthouse whose owner gave us a downloaded bootleg copy of the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor film, I Love You Phillips Morris, when he learned that we were a couple. In the mornings, we ate omelets with other Western tourists at a long table on a balcony, and one morning, a truck with its bed packed with soda bottle crates parked underneath us.

 

Trip to the Mailbox

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After leaving our apartment on Oak Street at 8:00 a.m. and now,¬† ten minutes before noon, when I am sitting in cafe crowded with bikes and laptops in the West End, after driving from Vancouver across the Canadian-United States border to our rented mailbox in Blaine to collect a check from a writing client in Boulder, while my husband is in his office on Slack with teams in Delhi and San Francisco, I am both craving Indian for lunch following a recent conversation with our building’s property manager, a woman from Afghanistan, in which she asked my Mexican-native/Canadian citizen husband for help in finding a flight to Delhi where her nephew from Turkey will visit the Brazilian Embassy to apply for a tourist visa to travel to Brazil, and thinking about the political correctness of a feature on “tribal tourism” in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald I found minutes ago stacked near the cafe counter by people, like me, waiting for their names to be called and their espressos to be pulled.

I have been awake for less than six hours and my mind has landed on four continents, my husband’s car searched, my photo ID compared to my present face. I am now next to a woman who speaks English to me and in French on her iphone.¬†I am part of the wave of shoppers lining up Saturday mornings at border crossings, gig workers in Dallas accounting for Hindi holidays and travelers who take terrible coffee over good WiFi any day.

It’s no longer good enough to have a valid passport from at least two countries. You need Nexus. You need to know the conversion rate. You need TSA pre-clearance. You need a bank account with U.S. dollars. Three mailing addresses are not excessive. Next Saturday, let’s cross the border, but be back in time for dinner with Monica and Steph.

I live in an amazing time when travel, around the block or across the globe, inspires, educates and humbles. On the wall behind my home desk, I have pinned a world map, letting me look at Mozambique while Gmail loads. The red lines create countries, the blue lines show rivers, the black text gives names, and it looks easy to push Africa between North and South America and then flip Australia under India.

It’s also easy to become geographically disoriented by picking up your mail. I am not confident in my ability to handle and appreciate, on a daily basis, bucket-list itineraries and globe-trotting conversations and ambiguous social norms without becoming lost, confused about when I am a citizen and when I am a permanent resident and when I am a visitor and when I am home. That I am not confident in, but I am certain that my IDs are ready and visible at the right moment.

 

Hazy Shade of Summer

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Wind is spreading smoke from B.C’s interior across Vancouver, filling the bowl of Burrard Inlet with a reminder of the record-breaking wildfires and evacuations. It has been like this since Tuesday, five days now, and is predicted to stay like this for another week, until the wind patterns change.

It is still hot like summer, it is still light like summer, but different. You can look directly at the sun without squinting, smoke in the sky turning the sun bronze. People are wearing shorts and jackets, and both a scoop of ice cream and a bowl of soup make sense. Today a cashier described the city as claustrophobic.

On the ground, closer to home, Joseph nurses an injured knee. We miss Luddo. Tomorrow is Pride. We are out of bananas.

It’s technically summer, just a shade too dark.