They were quick bites, easy to eat with one hand on the wheel, and not so good for your health. But the greatest meals I ever ate on the road were a far cry from fast food.
It was always dusk and, it seems, always summer. My aunts would steer their Chevelles and Monte Carlos onto the gravel at Pee Wee Johnson's joint. Change purses clutched in their fists, they would step into line with mill workers, pulp-wooders, and downy-faced soldiers destined for Vietnam. That takeout window in Jacksonville, Alabama, united us all with a common desire: the perfect footlong. These came skinny, dressed with yellow mustard, thin, hot chili, and Spanish onions, the whole mess weeping into waxed paper. Their aroma filled the car and the world beyond, and every turn of the tires tortured us until we finally found a picnic table or shade tree somewhere down Alabama 21. But often we just ate on the go, wiping chili off vinyl, listening to the Happy Goodman Family on the radio, and feeling, somehow, a little more free.
It was not fast food but traveling food, a paper-sack delicacy we grabbed before an all-night gospel singing in Sylacauga, or on the way to buy a truck in Cedartown. It can be found on gas station countertops and off forlorn interstate exits, advertised on badly wired marquee lights that blink FRIED CHICK N, or on plywood that screams BOU-DIN!!! It might be pickled eggs at a fish camp on Lake Okeechobee, Saran-wrapped fried pies at a truck stop outside Laurel, Mississippi, or good wings and crisp potato wedges at a Shell Station on Highway 78 near Winfield, Alabama. In a wasteland of tepid tomatoes and mummified chicken fingers, there still exist across the South some fine dishes, served on paper plates, prepared by people who have solved the great mystery of simple food.
Drake's Citgo on Highway 411 in Leesburg, Alabama, served a mouthwatering pork cutlet on hot biscuit, or about any other part of a pig that can be made to lie flat. Drake's is now Coosa Corner, but to my big brother, Sam, it will always be Drake's. "The ol'boy who owned it had a dog that, if you threw a rock in the river, would dive down and get that rock," Sam said. "That exact rock."
Stories like that season a place. Most food joints leave you with, at best, a commemorative cup. Louisiana may be the wonderland of traveling food. Years ago, after being dumped by a Cajun, I drove through that wet country to eat my way free of a broken heart. I stopped in Breaux Bridge, at butcher shops where cooks rendered fatback into perfect cracklins in giant pots. I bought brown paper bags-full, and ate till I felt my belly swell and my heartache ease. I ate rice dressing on Bayou Teche, and boudin at every other gas station. I ignored signs for alligator, because it tastes like an unholy union between a chicken and a gila monster, and my heart never has been broke that bad.
Some foods need to travel with you, taste better if they do. At Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish in St. Petersburg, you can eat a plate of mullet, potato salad, coleslaw, and sweet onion at the restaurant, or you can eat it a few miles away, propped against a hump of white sand, looking at the Gulf of Mexico. Mullet are like bad whiskey, cheap and strong, but not at sunset, not here.
It is the same with a Hicks' tamale, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It tastes fine indoors. But when you peel it at the edge of an endless field, on the hood of your car there is just the pudding-like texture and smooth, hot, garlicky taste, because there is nothing else out here, as far as you can see, but lonesome.
There used to be so many more such places, before the chains. But there are still good fries at T-Ray's in Fernandina Beach (they must fry them twice to get them that crisp and greasy) and drive-by barbecue at 1,001 places in North Carolina. In my hometown, there are still perfect, dripping hamburgers, at the Rocket and Cecil's, and at Tweeners, owned by Pee Wee Johnson's girls.
I guess that is why I don't like to fly. There is no good food, only the rush and wait, the airplane seats fit for gymnasts. But in the Memphis airport, I found an antidote: Interstate Barbecue's thick-cut, smoked bologna sandwich, topped with coleslaw. I ate it at 30,000 feet. I expected to see Pee Wee's angel, flying alongside.