By L. Kasimu Harris
My mouth watered for a Southern breakfast — scratch-made biscuits, creamy grits — but we walked into a small gas station in Selma, Alabama, where I picked up a Starbucks Doubleshot, water and snacks, and some blueberry Belvita Breakfast Biscuits. At the cash register, I spotted a Sea Salt Caramel Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, the light blue packaging with a bit of the cake peeking through triggered my impulses. I asked the clerk for his opinion on the treat.
“They’re popular,” the hoary man of few words said. He kibitzed with the cop who entered the store after my fellow travelers Tad Bartlett and Maurice Ruffin returned to the car. The younger cop’s glare was on the cusp of contempt, until I paid. While ringing me up, the clerk inspected my Ole Miss debit card and said, “Sixty days until football season.” As I exited, they hit me with a “Roll, Tide” — I belted. “Hotty Toddy.” Back in the car, Ruffin quipped that I was eating diabetes in a bag as he feasted on barbecue Vienna sausages from the can. Tad chugged grapefruit juice and ate a granola bar; the next day, he had pie for breakfast.
It was Tuesday morning and Independence Day, so restaurants weren’t serving. The day before, we had driven from New Orleans, where four Confederate monuments had recently been removed, the last one in May. Tad, Maurice, and I were in the crowd to witness the 16-foot, 7,000 pound statue of Robert E. Lee dangle above New Orleans, a city that housed this monument for about 133 years although it was only tepidly connected to Lee. Laws were passed in Alabama to prevent such measures. For the three of us, writing has been our bond. We’re all members of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. Tad and Maurice, both lawyers, were friends even before that. Selma, Bartlett's hometown, offered an opportunity to compare and contrast the sentiment behind the monuments in both cities. I gulped the last of my canned coffee as Tad pulled into Old Live Oak Cemetery.
It was mid-morning, but the light was golden and gave life to the dead. There were homes on the backside of the cemetery. I saw a family packing the car; they looked dressed for a barbecue. On the other side of the cemetery was a housing project and a nail shop. A multitude of miniature Confederate flags placed by the graves flew in the wind. A man using the burial grounds as a shortcut was seemingly unbothered by any of it. I meandered around the grounds, reading tombstones and commemorative bricks. There is a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, erected in 2011. The commemorative bricks surrounding it, bearing messages from sons and daughters of the Confederate States of America, made it clear that those folks don’t give a damn about the United States of America.
Uncle Seth fought the Yankees
James Ron Kennedy
For Our Freedom
They Fought for Empire
The South was right…
For our love and adulation of the Confederate cause
Charlie and Ruth Graham — Prattville, Alabama
Days before I began my travels, at home and racing toward some deadlines, “What the Health,” a 2017 documentary that explores the connection between diet and disease, was on TV. I passively listened sometimes. At other moments, the revelations demanded my attention. I questioned eating meat, but I knew I wasn't ready to stop totally. Moreover, within the month, my travels would bring me to Selma, Park City, Utah, and Los Angeles, and I wanted to eat without the dietary restrictions or food preferences that I already impose on myself. When away from home, well, even when I'm home, I avoid chain restaurants — unless it's one that's not in New Orleans. And I'm uninterested in eating New Orleans foods, save for something that's homemade. I seek foods that are offered only in that city or region, and I’m drawn to the unique.
The night before, we stopped at Ed’s Drive-in, a hamburger joint in Jackson, Alabama, about a 100 miles southwest of Selma. It had a walk-up counter and only outside seating. There was no ticket number, no names taken. You had listen for one of the employees, as they poked their head through the window, to call out your order. We sat at the long wooden picnic table, near a large family and a group of high school girls who were ferried by their parents. I walked back to window when the attendant yelled, “Cheeseburger, fries and a strawberry shake.” That combination could’ve started an intestinal war, but I heard the shakes were good. It was.
Although everyone else enjoyed their food, I wanted the patty to be juicier and better seasoned, the fries needed more seasoning, too. It reminded me food from a concession stand, when I played Little League Baseball. But I valued the experience and was glad we stopped there.
Once we arrived in Selma, Tad broke out the Bulleit rye and had a cooler full of beers from Nola Brewery. On the drive, we had already consumed the cherry hand pies that his wife made. We toasted on the balcony of the St. James Hotel, a few hundred yards from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The headlights coming into Selma shone through the spans in the bridges’ arch. The taillights of cars crossing the Alabama River to the west side, toward Montgomery, flashed between the steel beams like police lights, and my mind drifted to Bloody Sunday. The next morning, before going to the gas station and Live Oak Cemetery, we crossed that bridge.
For most of the morning, we interviewed people Tad knew. We discussed the differences between the current racial tensions and those dating back to a singular moment in 1991, when Tad was a high school senior and helped organize a protest against the firing of the county’s first black superintendent of schools. One of the subjects was Tad’s former teacher, who offered us a watermelon mint lemonade. Another was Rose Sanders, a Harvard Law graduate who helped win a $1.25 billion class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discriminating against black farmers. She also makes a habit of removing the miniature confederate flags from Live Oak Cemetery. Midway through the interview, she insisted we all join her in eating some ice cream. We all refused, then we all ate the ice cream.
We ate at Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot, an institution in Selma since 1942. The menu was large, but my selection was limited: I don’t eat pork, my stomach won’t allow me to eat beef two days in a row, and they were out of chicken. So, I had the catfish. The fish alone is worth taking a trip to Selma. And that would prove to be the last good meal I had there.
That night, we went to a pool party at one of Bartlett’s high school classmates. By this time, my earlier snack was starting to lose its effectiveness, but the cold beers would sustain me for a while longer. As the night progressed, we discussed the racial divide in Selma, along with the economic and educational disparities. Eventually, I started looking at my phone and Yelp. I quickly realized that beyond the fast-food offerings, there is a dearth of food options in Selma. A federal holiday certainly exacerbated the situation. As each new beer cracked open, I figured that would extend our stay 20 minutes. The beer cans never stopped opening. We left the pool area and made it inside, and I was hopeful. Then, the host said, “Y’all just eat here.” My heart sunk. We had already been there for four hours, the grill was off when we got there, and there were about 20 guests. Mathematically, they had to be out of food. The foil-covered trays were mirages. I managed to eke out a chicken wing cooked to the oh-shit. I left the meat on the grill crisp. I needed more food. In an act of desperation, Tad dropped Maurice and I off at McDonald’s.
A few local high schoolers started gathering; I assumed the town’s firework show was over. I ordered the grilled chicken, fries, and the “Southern sweet tea.” I waited and then waited more. Maurice downed some apple slices. The manager apologized for the delay, and I was pleasant. Then, in a final act of my personal culinary humiliation, as I ate, an unknown substance fell on my face. It looked like ice cream. I suspected it came from the ceiling: Just the physics of where it landed eliminated the teens as suspects. I wiped it off and thought, “I have a story in “Best Food Writing 2016, and now I have shit on my face in McDonald’s.”