Some people dream of buying a little house in the 'burbs; I dream about tearing my way across the South in a pickup truck, hellbent on resurrecting the long-dead spirits of favorite Southern films, imbibing barrelfuls of beer and bourbon, and getting my fingers sticky with ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. Oh, and there will be music, too — mostly blues and jazz.
You see, it's a carefully nursed dream of mine. I've been scheming for over a year, hoarding gems of information in a Google Docs dossier like a crazy coupon lady.
Why I'm Planning a Road Trip Through the South
Growing up in rural central Illinois and deprived of most mainstream American things by a strict Korean family, it was the South that was the smoky muse to my childhood dreams — Kentucky's bluegrass and bourbon were mere hours away, after all. But with the near South off-limits, I chose instead to borrow the Deep South on VHS from the library.
The films Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Forrest Gump, Big Fish, Down in the Delta, and Mississippi Masala, all regularly scanned onto my Champaign Public Library card, brought the food and mythology of the South — the one with the slow-and-low barbecue, shockingly sweet tea, slow-as-molasses pace, and grandstanding oratory elocution — into my Midwestern family den.
Of course, I know the South is not just the South of these films. Nonetheless, this is this South that has fueled my road-trip dreams — and how I came to plan a journey to experience the wealth of its diverse and delicious highlights.
How I'm Planning a Road Trip Through the South
My travel partner and I like quirky, obscure sights and talking to random townfolk, so I planned our trip to revolve around smaller towns where possible so we could enjoy a slower pace and more unique experiences: Savannah instead of Atlanta; Natchitoches instead of New Orleans.
I crowdsourced some recommendations from food and travel writer friends, and some from social networks such as Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook, sometimes poring over legions of comments. Anytime I heard about a museum, record shop, bar, or bookstore on a podcast that sounded interesting, I added it to my Southern Road Trip Google Doc or Evernote files.
My research was car-specific. I researched via road trip ephemera websites like Roadside America and looked at Google Earth a lot to see which roads would hopefully be more interesting to drive along.
I left extra days for flexibility, since this is a long trip and we could get lost or our GPS could go out while we were driving in the country, leading to rerouting and misdirection.
I planned for extra hydration supplies, handheld fans, sunblock, and a windshield sun visor because: summer in the South. I'm also packing a couple large coolers and extra cold bags for food souvenirs galore.
A Four-State Southern Road Trip with Barbecue, Beer & Banana Pudding
1. Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
"Place is fantastic — it's like Gone with the Wind on mescaline," writer John Kelso says of Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. "They walk imaginary pets here, and they're all heavily armed and drugged. New York is boring."
To prove Kelso correct, my companion and I have planned a lovely stroll through Bonaventure Cemetery, where the iconic cover for the book of the same name was shot. Although the Bird Girl statue on the book's cover is no longer at the cemetery, the long moss hanging from the live oaks should provide just the right atmospheric curtains to peer into Savannah's mysteries, eavesdropping on spirits whispering from beyond the grave. We'll go while the morning glories are still open and the morning dew hasn't faded.
Continuing our taphophile tendencies, we'll walk through the gates at Colonial Park Cemetery, observing the graves desecrated by General Sherman's army.
For lunch, we'll pop into the silver streamliner of Sandfly BBQ for the Hog Wild sampler of savory smoked sausage, fall-off-the-bone ribs, fatty beef brisket, tender pulled pork, rotisserie chicken, and thick Texas toast, and on to the Mansion on Forsyth Park to see a Century of Hats exhibit that would make Midnight's Lady Chablis proud.
In the afternoon, we'll visit Graveface Records & Curiosities to browse their taxidermy and music.
After a brief refresh at our home for now, the Hamilton-Turner Inn, which in the 1980s was owned by Joe Odom and Nancy Hilli (who were featured in Midnight), it'll be time to pop over to a Gullah cooking class with renowned local chef Sallie Ann Robinson. Making (and eating) her flavorful Ol' Fuskie Fried Crab Rice, Low Country Boil, and Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling dishes makes one thirsty for beer, so we'll head over to Crystal Beer Parlor to try some new sours.
There's music to be had at Midnight Minerva's witching hour of midnight, so it's on to Jazzd for late-night sax, trumpet, and brush drums.
In the morning, we'll stop by Smith Brothers Butcher Shop for some victuals for the road, including crème brûlée and lemon meringue doughnuts from A Squad, roast beef and horseradish cream sandwiches, burnt honey and grilled pear soup, smoked salmon with sumac and orange, and fresh peel-and-eat Georgia steamed shrimp. We'll grab some beers to have during our roadside picnic from Moon River Brewing Company. Georgia, you've got food on my mind.
Soundtrack: To say farewell to this beautiful state, we'll listen to a host of Georgia blues, r&b, funk, and soul musicians, including, of course, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, Ma Rainey, and Blind Willie McTell.
2. Alabama: Big Fish
There's something frozen in time about Alabama, and that's probably why Big Fish chose to film on location. Our first stop? Dothan, Alabama, aka the Peanut Capital of the World.
At the Peanut Monument Information & Visitor Center, where a hunka' hunka' burning love — an Elvis peanut sculpture — waits to welcomes us. Cruising around town, we'll get all our nerdy foodie snaps in front of various peanut statues all over town, from a fire hydrant peanut being snuggled by a Dalmation to a breast cancer peanut. On our way out of town, we'll stop by Shute Pecan's Gift Store for some irresistibly themed snacks, including orange blossom pecans and chocolate coffee peanuts.
It's a buck-and-change from Dothan up to a real slice of Americana: Seale's Drive-Thru Museum and Museum of Wonder. Featuring shipping containers with cut-outs you can peer into as you drive through, we'll take in some folk ephemera from our car.
Afterwards, we'll share a barbecue snack and do some shopping for hidden treasures at Possum Trot, the adjoining barbecue joint and junk auction. If there's time that day or the next, we'll visit John Emerald Distillery for some Alabama-made whiskey and a tour of how it's made.
From there, snacking on our peanuts, we'll skip over to Montgomery for succulent ribs and okra at fan-favorite K&J Rib Shack. In nearby little Millbrook, we'll pay $3 to see the film ruins of the small town of Spectre in Big Fish. We'll cap the night with some soulful blues at Montgomery's 1048 Club.
If we have time the next day, we'll cruise up to Birmingham (Saw's) and Tuscaloosa (Archibald & Woodrow's) for more barbecue. If not, we'll continue straight west from Montgomery to ribs and banana pudding in Mobile (The Brick Pit) and on to Mississippi.
Soundtrack: From Savannah, it's a five-hour, twenty-minute drive, so we'll put three Alabama natives on the decks: Hank Williams, Big Mama Thornton, and Dinah Washington. With Dinah's classic crooner "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" and plenty of Savannah snacks, we'll ride the breezes of coastal Georgia and cruise on to the railroad tracks, clapboard houses, and small towns of eastern Alabama.
3. Mississippi: Mississippi Masala
Mobile is a mere 45 minutes from Ocean Springs, where several scenes from Mira Nair's groundbreaking interracial romance Mississippi Masala were filmed. The beach and the waterfront air are so present in those scenes where they're really falling in love and considering the future of their relationship. But we're in Ocean Springs for the seafood, especially the crabmeat po' boy and crawfish bisque at BB's Poboys.
I'll take some barbecue too while I'm at it: Brisket, baby back ribs, and a chunky potato salad are enough to lure me to any corner of the universe, but add spicy mac and cheese, brown sugar sweet potatoes, collards and pig wings, and I might set up a hammock in the corner and nap at a joint between meals. The Shed's pig wings are deep-fried pork lollipops, essentially. I hope we're there when there's a crawfish boil and the funk pop of Flow Tribe gracing the stage.
Just a few minutes away in Biloxi, we'll sidle up to the bar at Biloxi Brewing Company for a jambalaya cookoff, followed by a tour of the brewery and a flight of beers for only $10. I'm looking forward to the Black Gold Breakfast Blend and the Salty Dog Gose. If we've got time, we'll stop for some oysters and redfish with a view at Half Shell Oyster House.
We'll come back to Mississippi's Delta for more Mississippi goodness when we loop back around on our way back north.
Soundtrack: With BB King, Robert Johnson, and Sonny Boy Williamson on the stereo, my road warrior pal and I will definitely be ready for Mississippi.
4. Louisiana: Steel Magnolias
On our next stop, we'll visit the Avery Island Tabasco Factory. Here, we'll see the fascinating steps that lead to an American hot sauce favorite, from seedling plants being grown to pepper mash being aged.
Two hours north of the Tabasco factory, we'll visit beloved Eddie's Smokehouse in Alexandria for a $6 summer special bag of smoked sandwich goodness with a side of the classic Southern Louisiana dish, corn maque choux (a fusion of French and Native American cultures). We won't be able to neglect an order of smokehouse nachos with, why not, both spicy and sweet sauce, and banana pudding and pecan pie for dessert.
Next up is an hour-long drive to Natchitoches, which promises to bring the spice and the fat in equal doses. Steel Magnolias was filmed in Natchitoches, so nothing less than a two-fer breakfast crawl of its specialty, the meat pie, is in order for our trip. Traditionally made with beef, pork, and spices, the Natchitoches meat pie has been a specialty of the town since the late 1700s, sold hot on the street by hawkers.
For our eight-hour nap, we'll settle for nothing less than Shelby's room from Steel Magnolias, which is now part of the Steel Magnolias House B&B. Upon awakening the next day, we'll do a few light pre-decadence calisthenics (read: 10 minutes of podcast yoga). Then, it'll be off to share a meat pie platter with Cajun dirty rice and two crawfish pies on the side at the fabled Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen and Restaurant, which has been open for over 40 years. Finally, it's time for these tireless food warriors to fight the good fight at Natchitoches Meat Pies, splitting one spicy meat pie with extra cayenne; one chorizo, egg, and jalapeno pie; and one sausage, egg, and cheese pie.
Is there any other way to end your Steel Magnolias-themed trip than by having a red velvet armadillo cake delivered to the Steel Magnolias House just in time for an evening snack? You can do that now, through The Cake Barn, which makes a beautiful replica of the terrifyingly hilarious cake. Close your eyes and it's just a red velvet cocoa cake that you're cutting, not an armadillo leg.
The next morning, on our way to the Mississippi Delta to see where blues musicians broke the mold, we'll stop in Gibsland, Louisiana, and honor some other outlaws — this time, Bonnie and Clyde. The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum is in Gibsland, the area of the outlaw couple's demise at the hands of sheriffs, and houses several of their important artifacts, including one of Clyde's Remington shotguns.
Hedonists Bonnie and Clyde would want us to stop for the Heroic Hops IPA at Flying Tiger Brewery and the Cajun zydeco concert, blackberry wine merlot, and peach muscadine wine jelly at Landry Vineyards, of course — I mean, since both are conveniently on our way to Mississippi.
Soundtrack: Mahalia Jackson will be our blues muse.
5. Mississippi Revisited: Down in the Delta
All right, so Maya Angelou's Mississippi ode Down in the Delta was filmed in Toronto because it's cheaper. But the rural Southern missive still evokes rural Northern Mississippi — and we'll evoke Down in the Delta's chicken joint by stopping at Two Sisters in Jackson for crispy fried chicken, pickled beets, sweet potatoes, biscuits, grits, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, banana pudding, peach cobbler, and sweet, sweet tea.
In the Mississippi Delta, we'll visit the Highway 61 Blues Museum and Dockery Farms, where a host of blues musicians lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, making vital blues contributions. We'll BYOB and have like-butter lunch steaks, hot tamales topped with hearty chili, and garlic bread at 76-year-old Doe's Eat Place in Greenville.
Eventually, we'll end up where everyone ends up: Clarksdale. There, we'll visit the Delta Blues Museum, see a jam session at the Hopson Commissary, and mosey to the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale for a final night of music.
We'll bed down on our last night in the Deep South at the beautiful, historic Clark House. On our way out the next morning at 11 a.m., we'll grab an early lunch of rib tips, pulled pork sandwiches, and hot tamales at Larry's Hot Tamales, a local institution for good reason.
I'll miss these four states, all of which I've been to, but none of which I've experienced so deeply before … and I'm not even there yet! I'll report to you all from the road. Here's to travel trips inspired by the arts of music, film, and food.