May 03, 2009

Oysters, Check. Baseball, Check. Summer, Check.

SO IT OCCURRED to your humble correspondent, as he was pondering what to do after being given an incredible surplus of free time, that he ought embark on a Massive Road Trip. This will not surprise Loyal Rant Readers, who know I go on road trips pretty frequently and on the flimsiest of pretexts. But this road trip was special for a few reasons.

For one, I spent much of the trip (which ran from Sunday, April 19 to Tuesday, April 28) traveling with Simon From Jersey, who as it happened also had a bit of free time. For another, much of it was spent in the Deep South, which is known for its surplus of fresh seafood and barbecue. For a third, it was the longest road trip I've ever done. As in 4,100 miles long. In ten days. No, I'm not kidding. Not only did I hit every state on the Eastern Seaboard, I hit every state in the Deep South east of the Mississippi.

Now, I will not deny this destination raised some eyebrows among my friends back here in New Hampshire. One conversation I had, with a friend of mine originally from New York, summed up many of these talks.

FRIEND: So you're going to Alabama. On vacation. Who does that?
ME: I do! Besides, it's warm and cheap.

There is a lot to be said for the South. This was my second visit to that part of the country and I have to say it is a pretty nice place, all things considered. But we'll get to that in a bit. First, though, I must share certain observations made on the drive down to Dixie and back up to the Granite State:

1. When listening to terrestrial radio stations, it is theoretically possible to drive from one end of the Eastern Seaboard to the other listening only to the song "Blame It" by Jamie Foxx (feat. T-Pain).

2. In Virginia, many small communities located along I-81 are listed as "certified business locations." I didn't know whether this meant the business owners are actually certifiable because they're trying to do business in the ass-end of Virginia, or whether some ISO standard organization came along with a checklist and did a few site visits and determined that yes, Marion, Va. is a fine place to engage in commerce. Then, after looking on Google, I found the state of Virginia no longer certifies towns as Certified Business Locations, apparently because everyone went and got certified. Yeah, you ain't kidding about that.

3. The first day's drive was a grueling 15 hour journey from Hopewell, N.J., to Birmingham, Ala., started at 5 a.m. on a Monday. By 9 a.m. we had left greater Philadelphia far behind and had actually made it to Winchester, Va., which is perhaps 30 miles from the Pennsylvania border. When we went in to grab some breakfast at a local burger establishment, the manager of said eatery used the phrase "y'all" frequently. I submit this as proof the South takes the Mason-Dixon line rather seriously.

4. The South has a chain of hamburger eateries known as "Krystal," which is a knock-off of the White Castle chain of hamburger eateries. That's not to take away from the places, though. Their burgers are pretty damned good. Also they have these miniature hot dog things. Plus, they have the benefit of not being based in Columbus, Ohio.

5. The route back, which went from Auburn, Ala., to Richmond, Va., to Hopewell, N.J., innocently passed within a few hundred yards of the only Del Taco outlet within 1,000 miles. It's fair to say this was my main meal for the day. Amusingly, several of the customers in the store were from or spent time in the Southwest. Attention Southerners: you deserve Del Taco, and you can get it if you travel near Spartanburg, S.C.

6. I have learned that M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore does not care if you stare at it from the freeway and mutter curses in its direction. I hate M&T Bank Stadium because it is the evil home of the evil Baltimore Ravens and the Ravens' fans, who by extension are evil.

7. I have realized the idea of me saying "y'all" in an unironic context is so ridiculous I struggle to even fathom it. This is not because I have anything against the phrase, but rather because I sound ridiculous saying it. I tried once and found my mouth grinding around the word like I was chewing nails. I mean, I'm from Kalamazoo, Mich., for Christ's sake. It comes out "you all" no matter what I do. About the only way I can see myself saying y'all is if I was using the rare all y'all form of the phrase, as in: "All y'all can go to hell for supporting the Tennessee Titans."

But anyway. The South!

As I said, I rather like the place. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic and the weather is great, except in summer, but this is why God invented air conditioning. Also, I can assure my fellow Northerners that the stereotypes we all secretly hold about the South are not true.

Not all Southerners are like this. Northerners, on the other hand -- well, how you doin'?

What's that? Yes, you do think that way. Come on, Northerners, admit it. You associate the South with a lot of things, most of them bad -- things like waving the Confederate battle flag and Bull Connor and racial oppression. Also, you associate it with bad country music, stock-car racing and the consumption of hideous domestic beer. All these associations are patently unfair in this day and age.

Now, this is not to say the South did not have a troubled history for a very long time. It's also not to say that backward racial attitudes don't still exist here and there in the South. Nor do I deny Nashville produces bad country music, or that auto racing isn't popular in the South.

But the thing is, as Rod Serling once put it, people are alike all over. God knows the North has its backward racialists, even if they largely exist in secret, and people in the North enjoy bad country music and auto racing as much as people do in the South. And a lot of what the North thinks about the South is rooted in a past that no longer exists.

Besides, if the South was truly an intolerant place, would U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Toyota City) so openly and brazenly attack the domestic auto industry, and would foreign automakers flock to set up shop in Alabama? I think not!

Oh, wait, I said that out loud. Oops.

Anyway, my point is this: if you haven't been, give the place a chance. Force yourself to open your horizons, and limit your irrational beliefs to things where it's OK to be irrational -- such as hating the South's college football teams. Especially Florida. And Alabama. And Tennessee. And Arkansas. And Florida State and Miami and -- oh, you get the point.

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That's because there's a lot of cool stuff in the South. Especially in Birmingham, Ala., where my trip began.

Let me first say Birmingham surprised the hell out of me. After all, who the hell knows anything about Birmingham except what we see in old newsreels? Trust me when I say the city is surprisingly cosmopolitan and yet maintains a lot of Southern charm.

Now, Birmingham may seem like an odd place to stay on vacation, but as it happens my friend Simon From Jersey is actually a native of the Magic City. We stayed in The Hotel Highland, a really nice boutique hotel in the fashionable Five Points district. The hotel is well-appointed and good for both business and leisure travelers; weekday rates were about $130 a night for a standard room. Tip: don't use the valet to park one's car; simply park it yourself in the garage behind the hotel. There, I just saved you $14 a night. I rule.

Anyway, as I said, the hotel was really quite nice, and I have to credit Simon for doing a great job at booking our hotels along the stay. (In comparison, my efforts were only adequate). The hotel is in the middle of a nightlife district and there are great restaurants and bars within walking distance.

As for things to do, there's plenty for one day, and arguably two days, in Birmingham, depending on what you want to do. One thing Simon and I did was to travel around the city's nicer neighborhoods -- and yes, the city has plenty of actual, real, old-style neighborhoods that feel like, well, neighborhoods and not soulless suburban tract developments. Interestingly enough, the city has plenty of hills and an actual mountain -- it is apparently at the base of the Appalachians, so there are some great views to be had, particularly at Vulcan Park.

This is me at Vulcan Park, relaxing, with the city in the background.

Vulcan Park is notable for a giant statue of Vulcan, the ancient Roman god of fire and metallurgy or something like that. The statue is something like 50 feet tall and impressively enough was somehow hoisted long ago on top of a giant base, which must be a good six stories high. It symbolizes good things like progress and industry, as we can see in this picture.

This is me standing optimistically in front of the statue, hoping for more progress and industry.

Also, the Vulcan statue is a bit ... well, it's kind of risque.

You know how there's that statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang? And all the Western tourists are taken to it to, I don't know, prostrate themselves in front of it and listen about the Dead Eternal President's Towering Achievements? Well, word has it that you can only take pictures of that statue from the front. The authorities at Vulcan Park might want to consider politely asking tourists to do the same. Yes, yes, I know, this is America, and we did pay $6 each to go up to the top of the view tower, and we have rights and all that. But ...

... Vulcan's asscheeks are in full view of the God-fearing public. See what I mean about the South being a tolerant place? Giant, well-formed, iron asscheeks! I can bet that required some explaining back in the day.

SOCIETY MATRON: The Ladies Club of Birmingham wishes to welcome the Ladies Club of Montgomery to our wonderful Vulcan Park, with its views over the Magic City, and --
VISITING LADY (looking up) Well, this is certainly quite some -- EEEEEEEEEEEEK! (*keel* *thud*)
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Help! Fire! Murder! Mrs Haversham has taken ill! And -- DEAR GOD! LOOK AT IT!
SOCIETY MATRON: Oh, get out the epsom salts.

One can only imagine the newspaper headlines. ("City Reels as Giant, Unbeclothed Posterior Unveiled at Mountain Top.") ("Citizens Complain Over 'Asscheeks Each the Size of an Oldsmobile.' ")

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But then it was time to deal with far more serious matters.

Our next stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the city's past racial troubles are presented in shocking detail. Seeing the Institute's exhibits really made the injustices faced by the South's black population hit home. One certainly can't describe the visit as fun; it was very sobering. But it definitely brought home the very real injustices that Jim Crow brought upon millions upon millions of people -- and the sheer, outright wrongness of it all. Near the Institute -- actually, on the same corner -- are Kelly Ingram Park, where decades ago demonstrations for civil rights were brutally repressed, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing which killed four young girls, hurt 22 more people and badly damaged the church.

All these things are worth seeing, even if they are not easy things to see. So take an afternoon to do so.

Still, after seeing what I did, I felt a bit of hope. The things I saw presented a stark picture of how things were, but they are not how things are now. The old ways were so alien to modern life that I'm hopeful we'll be able to eradicate these attitudes and prejudices once and for all. We may still have a way to go, but I think it's a challenge we can meet.

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If there are two types of food in which I would suggest visitors to Birmingham indulge, they are barbecue and seafood. The barbecue aspect of it may not be a surprise; it is the South, after all, and so barbecue is a pretty standard thing. We had it twice in the city: first for dinner, after our long drive, at Jim 'n' Nick's, a chain with a location in Five Points; and the next day for lunch at Carlile's.

Barbecue, I realize, is one of those intensely personal and subjective things, in which everyone believes what he likes is the best of the art form. For instance, I myself am partial to Carolina barbecue, particularly that known as Lexington-style barbecue, where the sauce is based both on tomato and vinegar. Other people, of course, like Texas barbecue or Memphis barbecue or what have you. According to my friend Simon, who would know, Alabama barbecue is a Memphis-style variant.

And quite good, I might add. When the meat is prepared correctly and you have a good sauce, it's hard to go wrong, and in both cases the meals I had were fantastic. One thing Alabama barbecue has going for it is that, generally speaking, the meat is only one part of the presentation. That's not to say it's not the focus, because it is. But with Alabama barbecue you're almost certain to get a lot of other good food along with it, usually including expertly-prepared vegetables. The greens and other side dishes were almost as good as the barbecue -- and again, that's not to take away from the barbecue!

But Birmingham also has good seafood. Simon had one restaurant in mind that he highly recommended, although I was so much enjoying having drinks outdoors in Five Points that I convinced him we ought stay in that vicinity for the evening. I had a fish sandwich at the Five Points Grill that was downright spectacular, and one that beat any fish sandwich I've had in New England. It was that good. Take a piece of fish, grill it, then serve it on fresh French bread with onions, top-quality leaf lettuce and remoulade; you have something close to perfection.

This brings me to another fine point about the South -- it is difficult to eat badly even when -- especially when -- one pays little for a meal. A good breakfast can be easily found for less than $10, as I found when we visited one of Simon's old haunts in Birmingham, Bogue's Restaurant. At Carlile's, for instance, lunch was perhaps $12, and it served as the main meal of the day. My light dinner, that fish sandwich,was $8. This is not bad for vacation, particularly when one considers it is difficult to get fast food for $8. On Wednesday morning, when we had breakfast in Five Points prior to our departure, the value was even more ridiculous.

This was at the Original Pancake House, and although a chain, the values there were ... well, dig this. I ordered buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. The waitress, upon returning with my meal, presented me with a giant helping of pancakes -- four massive buckwheat pancakes. Then she apologized; she had screwed up my ticket, she said, and was thus delivering just a half-order.

I'm sorry, what? Well, how many are in a full order, I asked? Six, she said. Oh. My God. Whatever would I do with just four pancakes? As if I didn't have enough trouble finishing those -- and for $4.50, no less!

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From Birmingham we went south to Mobile and Biloxi, Miss., on Wednesday. This was primarily because we wanted seafood, and boy did we get it:

Mr. Kepple gives the universal Seal of Approval following his, uh, American-sized seafood meal.

If there is one regret I have about this trip, it is that I only ate two dozen raw oysters on it. Raw oysters are fantastic and I love them. In Mobile, we ate at the Original Oyster House overlooking Mobile Bay, and it was fantastic. Along with our oysters -- for all of $8 a dozen -- both Simon and me got a giant platter of fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried crab claws (which worked, surprisingly) and fried fish. Said platter booked in at $14.95 and it was FANTASTIC.

I do wonder, though, if I would not have been advised to follow the lead of the two older gentlemen at the next table, who were also on a road trip. I am guessing they ordered three dozen raw oysters each, and were chowing down like the oysters were manna from heaven.

But there was more seafood to come. In Biloxi -- actually, in Gulfport, Miss., -- we ate at the Blow Fly Inn and each had a downright decadent crawfish etoufee. Each was all of $12. Add in fried green tomatoes (which are a way for me to eat actual tomatoes, which I oddly don't much like, even though I love tomato sauce) and the total bill including tax and tip was like $23 each. Almost as amazing as the food was the view outside -- it overlooked a bayou, and you could see flying fish pop out of the water and bounce along the surface.

Now, Loyal Rant Readers may have noticed that my friend Simon and I often ordered the same thing. I found this quite amusing, as we would independently come to our determinations, and I submit it as proof that when you know someone for a very long time, you get to know what the other person is thinking. This point was driven home on the trip, during one point when Simon was driving.

(silence in car)

SIMON: Let me drive, Ben.
ME: What? I didn't say anything!
SIMON: Yes, but you were thinking it. I had plenty of time to get over there. I was just keeping an eye on that truck behind us and seeing what he was doing, which is important when you're driving someone else's car.
ME: I didn't say anything!

(silence)

ME: But you're right. I was thinking it.

(laughter)

One cool part about the Mobile-Biloxi swing was seeing the USS Alabama, a World War II-era battleship now on display in Mobile Bay. The battleship is open for tours and so we went hither and yon upon its decks, staring in awe at the massive guns and, really, the fortifications built on this massive ship.

I did realize, however, that I may not be cut out for a career in the Navy, should it ever come to that. The trouble with scampering up ladders in an old battleship is that you eventually have to climb down them, and having been on a modern ship I know it hasn't gotten much easier. Eventually it got to the point where it was like, "Oh! Another goddamn ladder!" and I would grit my teeth and try to manuever down it without cracking my head. It got so bad I started thinking the Air Force would be a better career decision!

The last day in the Deep South was really quite relaxing. We drove from Biloxi to Auburn, Ala., by way of the Gulf Coast. This allowed us to tour Dauphin Island, off Alabama's coast, take the car ferry across from the island to the other side of Mobile Bay, and then drive to the extremely enjoyable Flora-Bama Lounge and Package, a roadhouse on the beach in Pensacola, Fla.

Now, this place was fun. You can have raw oysters here for $9 a dozen and get a giant box full of boiled crawfish. You can drink beer. You can do so just steps away from the beach. Also, there are girls in bikinis everywhere. You really can't go wrong with this place, and you could do a lot worse than if you decided to just spend an entire day here relaxing, drinking beer, and eating seafood.

And in Auburn, before the trip home, we had one last dinner of barbecue before heading home. It too was pretty damned fine.

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But the trip wasn't over, not by a long shot. After I dropped Simon back at home in New Jersey on Saturday, I headed back south to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, where I joined several of my old college buddies for an annual lunch we have. As with all said lunches, we had Mexican food -- although we switched up the venue this time. Instead of going to Lauriol Plaza in Washington, we went to Los Tios' in Alexandria, Va.

After having an excellent frozen margarita there, I am convinced Los Tios alone accounts for roughly half Mexico's sales of tequila. I mean, the size of this margarita -- which was $14 -- is difficult to describe in words alone. I daresay it involved a quart of liquid and God knows just how much actual tequila, but it was downright fantastic. Also fantastic was the food, particularly the steak. The company was great too -- it was fantastic to see my friends again. Of our Grupo del Cuatro, tres de nosotros are, to use the Spanish phrase, "unemployed," but in all other respects everyone seemed to be doing pretty well.

On Monday, I headed up to Wilmington, Del., and saw my old friend Scott Rubush, who works at a think-tank there. On tap that night: the baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals. Yes, that one with not one but TWO grand slams in it!

True, the pitching on both sides was downright horrendous -- but to see TWO grand slams in one game? Including a game-winning grand slam? Boy. You can't ask for more than that at a baseball game!

The seats we had were fantastic. They were nosebleed seats in the fourth deck, but with a great view just a bit of the left behind home plate, and one could see all the action taking place on the field below. Also, the seats were quite reasonably priced -- $22 each.

Citizens Bank Park is a nice ballfield and I have to give Philadelphia credit for arranging its sports complex the way it did. Across the way from the ballpark is Lincoln Financial Field, home of the (evil) Philadelphia Eagles, and all of it is admittedly very nice. It was also nice to see all the tailgaters out before the Phillies game, and a group of Scott's friends and me took part in this tailgating, cooking burgers and drinking beer. Of course, this is what baseball is all about -- it's not really about the game, although it's fun, but about the socializing and relaxing and enjoying oneself.

This was especially fun because I got to meet some new friends and, well, had a great time on a nice, summer-like day. It's hard to go wrong with that. It was also fun to see the reaction of one of those new friends' fathers, who had come to the United States on vacation from Scotland, to the whole thing. He was really impressed with how much fun everyone had at the game and particularly before it, although I don't think the baseball particularly impressed him. Had the sporting event been held in Scotland, he related, the pre-game events would likely have devolved into partisan fighting and public drunkenness.

It was a shame to hear that. Come on, Scotland, man up.

Fortunately, you don't see much of that any more at American sporting events, if only because the authorities have taken steps to crack down on licentiousness and boorish behavior at games. Plus, the culture is different: you don't have the organized hooliganism that exists across the pond. Besides, why argue with another team's fans when your teams will settle their differences on the field, and your team will undoubtedly prove superior?

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And then, on Tuesday, I drove home.

It was good to get back, but I have to say it was good to get a bit of summer early. Although it is already starting to arrive here. The trees are green and the weather is starting to get nice, and before we know it, summer will be here. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 3, 2009 12:57 PM | TrackBack
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