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.

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.”