Thirty years ago today, in a truck stop along Interstate 20 near Cuba, Alabama, I had my first encounter with black-eyed peas and corn bread. Happily it wasn’t the last time I tried them.
Black-eyed Peas and Corn Bread for Lunch
Sumter County, Alabama
Spend the first 25 winters of your life in northern Wisconsin and you quickly acquire a fantasy-filled lust for anywhere south of the frost line. Add that six more winters in North Dakota and soon despite being an atheist you begin to believe that if there is a heaven its somewhere along the Gulf Coast of the United States. Sitting in a bare-walled one bedroom post-divorce apartment in Jamestown North Dakota one December night I watched the latest in a seemingly endless parade of blizzards blow through town on what local meteorologists called an “Alberta Clipper.” A clipper is just that – a fast moving system of fast moving wind and fast moving snow and quickly plummeting frigid temperatures that were probably in Alberta just an hour earlier. As the night dragged on and the snow blew sideways I watched a news story about the United States invading the tiny island of Grenada in the southern Caribbean. All the video showed was palm trees and tropical beaches and tropical heat and most especially not one scintilla of a smidgen of snow. I looked out my living room window and saw barren aspen trees and Arctic wind and snow drifts and I knew that something had to change and it had to change before another Alberta Clipper glued me to my apartment for another excruciating storm.
That change came several months later when I was selected for a position in Athens Georgia on the campus of the venerable University of Georgia. I had several misgivings about living in Georgia and many of them centered on the fact that people there are still upset that former U.S. Army General William Tecumseh Sherman turned Atlanta into a bonfire as he rode through town on his way to Savannah. Still, despite its shortcomings, Georgia was much warmer than Jamestown, North Dakota and I hurriedly and excitedly accepted the position.
The research I was expected to conduct would begin in Michigan in June and I arrived in Athens in early May and for a month I had little to do but open my pores and let in the warmth. My supervisor, a man named Don who grew up in North Louisiana, and who said that squirrel brain was his most favorite meal as a child, was conducting research at Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi and he asked me to join him for a trip to the Delta. Having never seen Alabama (through which we would have to travel) or Mississippi I quickly accepted Don’s offer.
Don had received his PhD from the University of Arkansas and was as fervent a fan of the Razorbacks as I am of the Wisconsin Badgers. I first noticed this as we drove into Greenville, Mississippi on the banks of the Mississippi River and Don saw a sign for the bridge to Arkansas. When he saw the word “Arkansas” he broke into a perfect University of Arkansas “Woooooo-Pig-Sooooooie” chant. Personally I prefer the more civilized “Fuck ‘em Bucky” chant of the University of Wisconsin but that is just me. Don and I spent two days at Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge collecting bird eggs for pesticide analysis, and then began the long trek back to Athens.
On our return we traversed the center of Mississippi and intersected Interstate 20 near Jackson. We then followed it east and crossed the border into Alabama at about noon just in time for lunch at Billy Bob’s Bar-b-Que and Bait Shop near Cuba, Alabama. That is not the name of the place but it should be. Don was attracted to Billy Bob’s because a freeway billboard announced a “down-home southern buffet lunch” every day but Sunday. Don, in his perfect southernese accent pronounced “buffet” as “buff-aaay.” It was imperative that we stop for lunch because as the billboard said in a small reminder at its bottom it was closed on Sunday, the day that “the Lord wants us to rest and he wants y’all to rest too.”
Billy Bob’s had a huge spread of food laid out and being a truck stop the restaurant lacked any semblance of ambiance. Its walls were bare of any art work except pictures of Peterbilt trucks (one sign said “Old truckers never die. They just get a new Peterbilt”), the stench of diesel fumes was everywhere and Willie Nelson crooned loudly and hoarsely through speakers placed at intervals along every wall. This certainly was not the restaurant in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In fact it wasn’t even the Country Kitchen in Grand Island, Nebraska. It was Billy Bob’s and there was no denying that fact.
Before this trip my total experience with eating southern food had been restricted to two incidents each of which was indelibly etched in my brain. The first was my only-ever meal of biscuits and gravy consumed in a truck stop restaurant near Paducah, Kentucky. I had to try it because the name on the menu sounded inviting and almost everyone anywhere south of Indianapolis eats biscuits like they are popcorn. What the waitress placed in front of me when my meal arrived reminded me more of what my dog had thrown up than it did any culinary delight of southern travel. Reluctantly but bravely I ate the biscuits and gravy and just like after your first time having sex when the meal was over I wondered what all the excitement was about. The meal stuck with me literally and figuratively and now nearly 40 years later I can still taste it. My other southern culinary delight was grits (or “greeutz” in perfectly spoken southernese) that crossed my palate in a restaurant at Oden’s Dock on the Outer Banks of North Carolina a year after my first and only bout of dog biscuits and gravy. At least with enough butter and pepper, grits were bearable and they didn’t look like dog vomit.
The lunch buffet at Billy Bob’s contained no biscuits and gravy because, mercifully, we were there after breakfast but there was a huge crock pot full of grits. Along with them was every southern food imaginable. One container held boiled okra and another held collard greens. Next to it was turnip greens and there was a huge vat of green beans complete with the little hunks of ham that make it southern. There was also cauliflower and mustard greens and poke (not polk!) salad. There was country ham (someday I want someone to explain the difference between country ham and city ham because it all looks the same) and hush puppies and succotash and boiled potatoes (“balled ‘taters” in perfect southernese) and sweet taters and pimento cheese and a strange kind of bean with a black spot on it. Over on the meat table was more ham and more chicken and pulled pork and beef steak and shrimp and oysters and something that was passed off as jambalaya and almost everything was fried. None of it was simply fried. It was all southern fried.
Don returned to the table and his plate was filled with a sampling of almost everything that Billy Bob offered. His plate also contained those curious beans with the black thing on them that I had never seen before so I asked Don, “What are those funny looking beans you’re eating?”
“These,” Don began, “are black-eyed peas. Haven’t you ever eaten black-eyed peas before?”
When I admitted that I had never seen let alone eaten black-eyed peas Don motioned for the waitress to approach our table. When he did each of the 50 other patrons seated at the buff-aaaay lunch at Billy Bob’s turned to listen. “Ma’am,” Don began in his finest southernese, “This god-damned Yankee sitting here has never had black-eyed peas. Can you believe that, ma’am?”
The waitress Bonnie, complete with a bouffant hair do, had a shocked look on her face as she turned to me and drawled “is that right?” (Only in Bonnie-speak it sounded like she said a long drawn-out “riot”). Admitting my transgression, Bonnie looked at me with the same level of shock and disgust as the 50 other people in Billy Bob’s, each of whom now knew that a black-eyed pea virgin Yankee was in their midst.
Don turned to the still-shocked Bonnie and drawled, “Ma’am would y’all fix him a mess of those mighty fine black-eyed peas, please?”
Bonnie turned to me and asked “Do y’all want corn bread with your black-eyed peas?”
Not knowing the proper etiquette of black-eyed pea consumption, I replied, sheepishly, “Are you supposed to eat corn bread with black-eyed peas?”
Bonnie, now on the verge of cardiac arrest, bellowed “of COURSE you eat corn bread with black-eyed peas!” I could tell she wanted to add “you ignorant god-damned Yankee,” however her proper southern upbringing would not allow it.
I timidly dug into the black-eyed peas and washed them down with fresh corn bread as Bonnie stood over me, right hand on her right hip shaking her head in disbelief that anyone more than one year old had never had black-eyed peas. The other patrons kept shoveling in fried everything as I found myself wanting nothing but black-eyed peas and corn bread. In fact the meal was so good I had seconds, and black-eyed peas and corn bread was all I had for lunch.