Remembering Saltwell Grocery

By Jason Pope


Auburn, Alabama

I am answering the call of Holy Ghost this morning. It’s 4:30am, and I cannot sleep. We lost someone this week. And got news we may lose someone else. So I woke with an urgency to get this down on paper. Like I said, I heard the Holy Ghost. And I’m not one to ignore that call nowadays. I’m compelled to tell you more about humble beginnings this morning. My own, and my family’s own, how it is we came to do this, and why we do what we do. The verse we are writing on the soil of this earth, so to speak. And the seeds we plant there. The ones that take up their own pen and write a story the planter may have never known was coming. That was certainly the case with my own new (or old?) dream and venture.

The seed to this dream of a food truck was sown a long time ago, planted in a little speck of a community in West Alabama called Saltwell, a mix of white and black farmers mostly, both classes as poor as the day was long. Much of that area has always been that way, and probably always will be.

My mam’maw was the first generation owner of an old country store, Saltwell Grocery, that sat on Old Highway 80, right outside of Demopolis, and only a few miles down the road from the Gulf States paper mill that sits on the Black Warrior River. Yes, that same highway that runs straight through the state of Alabama, through Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, through Montgomery, and clean into Georgia (so many ghosts along this road). Yes, the river. The ground was always fertile there, fecund ground to feed these cotton and corn fields, and the occasional dream.


And like Huck, it had always been a place one could go to escape the dirty, corrupt so-called civilized world. A place pure and untainted, a place where time didn’t exist, and if it did, it was a stream you went a fishin’ in. Dreams. Most of these dreams never came to fruition, mind you. But a man, or a child, could dream just the same. And this was the ground where my imagination was nurtured and I learned the rhythms of poor rural country life.

It’s also where I learned what good cooking, and how to eat that good cooking, was all about. Memories flood me now and whenever I sit down to write this story, it puts me in a reverie that derails me and makes me lose sight of what I want to impart to you. The smells of peas and cornbread and bacon and chocolate pie. However, I would like to tell part of it today. So, let me continue, reverie and all.

Saltwell Grocery was a four cornered room of sorts, made of cinderblocks and a concrete floor. I smell those wood shavings too, the ones we sifted onto that floor every evening before closing time and swept up into big piles to be thrown out with the day’s trash. In the back was where all the magic happened. There were walk-in coolers, deli coolers, meat slicing machines, butcher knives, a sink, and an old ice maker that made the best slivered ice you ever let melt in your mouth on a hot summer’s day. When I told my father of this crazy food truck idea, he immediately said: “I thought about doing that many times over the years at Saltwell. You remember? I always wanted to do something more with that kitchen.”

Yes daddy, I remember right well. The slabs of bacon we sliced for people at whatever preferred thickness they were hankering for that week. Loaves of souse meat- or hog head cheese- as the locals called it. Also, hoop cheese and rag bologna, a go-to snack or lunch that was a staple for many in those days. All you needed for that was saltine crackers. The store was at the point of a circular dirt road that ran behind and on each side of the store. Old dirt floor shack homes sat by that dirt road that encircled a big sharecropping field. That’s where we gathered many a corn husk and purple hull pea. Yes, the good ol’ black-eyed pea.

We sat for days in those summers — on five-gallon buckets — in a circle on the dirt and grass, or on front porches, shucking corn and shelling peas. You’d never seen a boy so proud to have a sore purple thumb. And if I ever came close to filling that bucket, well, you might have never washed the purple (or the pride) off that boy. My mam’maw had a trailer right beside the store. That is where some more magic happened: in her kitchen. She cooked lunch every day. And every day my dad would promptly go eat lunch around noon, and he wouldn’t often surface until a few hours later, after a hefty lunch of a meat and two or three (if he was lucky), and a nap reserved for kings. She had a sectional couch so when I was with him that right side was reserved for me; hardly a prince, closer to a tiny pauper.

I still miss her cooking to this day. And I know he does too. The pork chops, the country fried steak, the peas, the cornbread. Oh, and the desserts. Especially the chocolate pie. I would put it up against anybody’s. It was hands down the best thing I ever put in my mouth, and to this day none of us can emulate it, especially that meringue. But recently I have come close on the meringue. So maybe I’ll give the pie another try soon.

I always thought it fascinating, how food brought people together. While never really understanding what that meant back then, it lit something up in me even way back then. And I don’t just mean the side that simply appreciates the goodness of the food. I mean the side that said, “survive.” This is sustenance. We grow this food ourselves. We work hard in these fields. We harvest these crops. Therefore, the side that knows real appreciation of these things, the hard work, the time, the sacrifice that goes into it all.

And the love. The love that went into preparing these meals and serving them to their loved ones. Seeing that instilled something in me that can never be taken away. I’m so proud of that part of my history, of my youth, and of my growing up there. This is what “breaking bread” means to me. This is why I do what I do now. This is why I really started a food truck even though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that six months ago. Still, do I know what I’m doing? Absolutely not. Do I know if we’ll be able to sustain this long term, or even make it through the winter? No. But what I do know is taking a leap of faith like this was essential to my own life and to my family’s life, whether we succeed or fail. And doing it anyway, despite it all, is what really matters.

Because I will always cook. We all will. We must. We do it to survive. And we do it for love. Those days were temporary back in Saltwell so many years ago. Another lesson in impermanence. But the lessons — some realized then, some realized now — will last a lifetime, and just maybe for an eternity. So I’ll say a little prayer now and pray it works, that is does continue to grow. Because I want to keep sharing this with you. I want to keep breaking bread with you. I want to live in a community again that eats and works and plays hard together. I know you’re out there. I’ve already found some of you. Or you’ve found me. And I love you for that. May we all find our dreams and have the gumption to follow through.