On the Road
For Emily Wallace, the road is about possibility. It presents the chance to discover something new around every bend, be it a country store stocked with Little Debbies and BC Powder or the “Guaranteed Worst in Town” peanuts. A born and bred North Carolinian and the art director and deputy editor for quarterly journal Southern Cultures, she canonizes the foods of the Southern road, in all their kitschy, diverse, delicious glory, in her first book, Road Sides. Organized alphabetically from A to Z and filled with Wallace’s trademark cheeky illustrations, it’s got a little something for everyone—an iconic New Orleans po’ boy, the ties between NASCAR and moonshine, the real story of Harland (better known as Colonel) Sanders. It’s not intended as a state-by-state guidebook—she figures plenty of those exist already—but rather an all-you-can-eat sampling of the myriad stories hiding in the everyday. Still, it serves as a handy resource for anyone eager to get a taste of the gems that dot Southern roads. Here, she shares a few of them.
Road Sides is a fun, novel way of talking about traveling in the South. Where did your inspiration come from?
In some ways it all started with Hills of Snow, a snow cone stand in my hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina. I’ve been obsessed with that snow cone stand since I was a kid. I was trying to figure out why, and I realized it’s because I grew up in a town where there are no art galleries, no art museums. But there is this giant snowball stand. To me, that said everything about what is creatively possible.
The book is fits perfectly into a glove box. Did you intend for readers to take it on the road?
I think of it as part encyclopedia, part travelogue. There’s a concept that’s paired with a place. I didn’t think of it as a guide, but I certainly hope that people will check out some of the places in there!
Did any of the letters give you trouble?
“K.” At first, I didn’t think of it as a difficult letter. Eventually, I chose kudzu. You can’t drive through the South without encountering it! And there’s the history of kudzu and road construction—it was used to secure the loose topsoil on shoulders as the highway system expanded.
These days, there’s so much emphasis on easier and faster—especially when it comes to travel. Do you worry the Great American Road Trip is a thing of the past?
I don’t think so. I think there’s a renewed interest in going off the beaten path, in trying to find something off the interstate or farther down an exit. I think you particularly see it with hotels. The section on V is “Vacancy,” and I write about when folks like Kemmons Wilson of Holiday Inn were touting that they offer consistency along the highway. Now you see a swing in the other direction: boutique hotels and motels marketing themselves as retro and unique.
What was a highlight of your research?
I was blown away by the Florida welcome centers. I knew they gave out a free cup of 100-percent Florida orange or grapefruit juice. But I wasn’t expecting the range of stories those places hold. They have these women who have worked there for thirty to forty years, and they have so many stories about helping travelers. Whether it’s giving directions or helping a man who was bit by a snake or delivering a baby in the parking lot.
What’s your best road trip tip?
Always travel with a pack of Nabs.
Southern foods worth the drive
Chicago and New York aren’t the only locales with distinctive hot dog traditions. In West Virginia, slaw dogs have a long and rich history—and as many loyal fans. A so-called Slaw Line separates the majority of the state (staunch slaw territory) from its northwestern reaches. West Virginia’s state folklorist, Emily Hilliard, dubs the line a “Mason-Dixon of condiments.”
EDUARDO’S TACO STAND
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Eduardo Chávez’ seafood tacos filled with grilled bluefish, citrus-spiked shrimp, and the like were well worth the three-hour drive and three-hour ferry ride to remote Ocracoke Island, Wallace says. It had been a hit since Chávez opened it in 2011—that is, until the arrival of the devastating Hurricane Dorian last fall. Knocked off its foundation, the stand was a total loss. Fundraising efforts to help him rebuild have included the sale of “One Island Under Tacos” tees by fellow North Carolina chef Vivian Howard.
THE BEST SHOP
Boudin and cracklins (rice-studded sausage and fried pork skins, respectively) are Cajun Country hallmarks. Often eaten on the go from brown paper sacks, they make for filling road snacks. Even after indulging back to back, Wallace and her boyfriend knew they had to sample the duo at local favorite the Best Stop. “We ate a lot of cracklins and boudin, but that was a real standout,” she says. “It lives up to its name.”
WAFFLE HOUSE MUSEUM
Avondale Estates, Georgia
WaHo’s hot coffee and All Star Special have nourished many a weary soul over the years. Their operational status in communities after natural disasters has even inspired a FEMA storm-severity guide (see: Waffle House Index). In Road Sides, Wallace gets back to the twenty-four-hour diners’ Georgia roots with a visit to the Waffle House Museum, where all new managers spend time training while enrolled in Waffle House University.
SHARK ATTACK COCKTAIL
A grenadine-filled plastic shark is dunked into a cup filled with vodka, lemon juice, and soda—typically to the piercing cry of whistles and shouts of Shark attack! Get out of the water!—in this drink that’s equal parts camp and drama. You’ll find it at the famed Bourbon Street bar Tropical Isle for just 10 bucks (and that’s including the sticky shark souvenir).
In Road Sides, “Z” is for Zealots. And since 2009, Franklin Barbecue has been a beacon for them. Its juicy, peppered brisket inspires an infamously long line (that even has its own spinoff Twitter account) and helped earn its proprietor, Aaron Franklin, the first James Beard award given to a pitmaster.
CRAWFISH SEAFOOD SHACK
While roads can act as dividers, separating communities from one another, they can also be powerful connectors, Wallace writes. Such is the case with Buford Highway, a thirty-mile stretch of road dotted with restaurants representing some two-dozen countries from around the globe. Among them is this Viet-Cajun spot, where owner Hieu Pham weaves Vietnamese flavors into po’ boys and seafood boils.
BULLY’S SOUL FOOD RESTAURANT
Wallace has one word for this meat and three institution: “fantastic.” From rutabaga to okra-tomato stew, the super-fresh veggies make the meal—a cook posted up in the dining room stripping collards for the following day’s service marked Wallace’s visit.
ROBERT’S WESTERN WORLD RECESSION SPECIAL
A fried bologna sandwich, chips, and a PBR for just six bucks. What’s not to love? It’s the brainchild of owner JesseLee Jones, a São Paulo native who first got his foot in the Music City door scrubbing decks on the General Jackson Showboat and playing gigs where he could land them. He caught the eye of Robert’s Western World’s founder Robert Wayne Moore and became the front man for its house band, dubbed Brazilian Hillbilly (Brazilbilly for short). Jones took the reins when Moore retired, and shortly thereafter introduced the world to the iconic combo meal.
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