What did I expect from a roadtrip around the Deep South? Elvis, fried green tomatoes, Blues, smoky smudgy BBQ, jazz, Southern Hospitality, Honkytonks, mint juleps, NASCAR, Spanish Moss, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels, juicy crawfish and a lotta lotta hog. Well, my boy Josh and I found all of that and more.
And yes we found some of the most finger-licking, lip-smacking, tummy-rumbling meaty goodness ever. Brace yourself. Your waistbands may expand just reading about it.
In Atlanta we drove to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack where we smelt the sweet, smokey BBQ before we wrapped our mouths around it. Fat Matt’s was everything a rib shack should be: a grizzled cool-ass band were playing blues inside the shack and we sat out front in the warm evening sun where for about $5 we got ourselves a chopped pork sandwich with a side of chips. The pork was soft, juicy and drenched in the finest BBQ sauce I’ve ever tasted. Simple, unfussy but uncommonly good, topped off with a chewy, sticky pecan pie, Fat Matt’s had us begging for more.
Another night in Atlanta we did a Drive-in double. Before heading to Starlight Six theater to watch a movie under the stars, we visited Varsity, the World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant. To cries of “What’ll ya have?” and “Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand” we didn’t even have to stretch our legs and get out of the car as the bell-hops came to our window to take the order. Deciding between “Walk-a-dogs” (hot dogs), “gussied-up-steaks” (hamburgers), and a “bag of rags” (fries) was pretty tough but I had greasy fries, pimento cheese burger and a frosted orange. Stretching out in our hire-car and listening to the yawn of the 7-lane interstate outside of the window we chowed down on our dinner smiling all the time before tucking into fried pies in apple and Georgia peach. Cheap, fast and wholly unique, I can see why two miles of hot dogs, 2500 pounds of potatoes are fried, 5000 pies and 300 gallons of chili are made from scratch daily!
From Atlanta we motored to Savannah, described as “a pretty girl with a dirty face” , the historic city drips with Spanish Moss, aches with mystery and sexiness and is studded with 22 beautiful, green squares. We wandered from the Thunderbird Motel from square to square and then straight to a bar where we drank craft beers and rum and got tipsy like a true Savannah-ite. Before sipping Key Lime Margaritas and Sparklebomb cocktails we had a sumptuous dinner at B. Matthew’s Eatery where Josh ordered a curried fish soup he quickly declared the best soup he’d ever eaten, and we noshed sweet potato fries and more pulled pork sandwiches (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself) and shared a British style bread pudding, yanked-up with a Bourbon glaze. The waiters there were incredible, the bar historic, the riverfront location amazing. They’re meant to do a mean brunch too.
Before reaching Nashville we drank sodas in the Smoky Mountains, sniffed sour mash at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg and ate she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes in Charleston (at the institution that is Hyman’s next to a table where Vanilla Ice once dined. Oh yes.) but the siren call of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash couldn’t evade us for long and soon we were tapping our toes to Bluegrass and dreaming of a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In Nashville we made like ‘Man Vs. Food’ and went to Prince’s Hot Chicken, a tiny faded shop-front home to cayenne-rubbed hot chucks fried to juicy perfection and served on a slice of white bread with a side of pickles. A local legend, the shack serves mild, medium, hot and (what must be blisteringly) extra hot chicken to lucky locals. We grabbed a giant soda and I ate until my ears rang. The skin of the chicken was fiery hot, but smoky and good. Inside the bird the white meat was soft and soothing. God only knows what would have happened if we’d ordered anything hotter than a medium. Tears certainly. As soon as he started eating his chicken Josh looked distinctly worried. He gulped hard and stared ahead. “I don’t know if I can eat this” he murmured plaintively before breathing hard and ploughing on. And we did it, we cleaned the plate. We may have been sweating and shaking slightly but we did it and it was incredible. An experience like no other. Wowzers.
On to Memphis where asides from an emotional trip to Lorraine Motel to learn more about civil rights, a night’s sleep in the Peabody hotel where we saw those famous lobby ducks and a trip to Graceland to see just how Elvis lived we ate the finest freaking ribs ever. Yes, ever. At Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, located in a downtown alley as it has done since 1948 and serving up 5 tonnes of their ridiculously fine dry rub ribs each week, this was heaven on a plate.
For $17.50 you get a full rack and for $14.50 a small order. Along with BBQ beans and creamy slaw, this was show-stopping eating. Smoky, sweet and with juicy tender pork falling from the bone, the ribs looked colossal on the plate but were soon seen off. And you don’t need to take it from me, oh no, Bill Clinton, Justin Timberlake and Al Green love these ribs. The Rolling Stones got sticky fingers here. Unbeatable. As is Memphis. From hollering at the microphone Elvis and Johnny Cash sang into at Sun Records to boozing your way down Beale Street and lunching at the Arcade Diner – this place has soul.
We checked out of the classy Peabody Hotel and jumped in our little Blue Nissan, put Memphis Slim and Howlin’ Wolf on the radio and raced past huge white cotton fields in Mississippi (until we were stopped for speeding by the Police) and then cruised more leisurely to Clarksdale, the home of Blues. Here we stayed in the most beautiful and atmospheric Shack-Up Inn, listened to sweet guitar and raw Delta Blues and resisted the urge to write on the walls at the Ground Zero Blues Club and I tried tamales for the first time ever.
At the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a famous Bluesman, there is a sign of a happy pig in a bowtie. This is Abe’s BBQ shack which has been open since 1924 and serves smoky pulled pork, vinegary slaw and slow burning tamales, they are cornmeal and hog wrapped in corn husks and boiled before you unwrap and discard the leaf wrapper and dig in. Weird at first but slow burning indeed. I can see why Robert Johnson wrote a song about them.
Before heading home we had a few crazy days in New Orleans, where we ate beignets and drank strong coffees for breakfast, wandered amongst the beads and balconies of French quarter, stroked snakes and made wishes at the voodoo temple and avoided the drunks and strip-bars on Bourbon Street. We ate gator and drank hurricanes. Wandered along the Mississippi and slept in a haunted house. On Frenchman Street we ate till we burst and drank killer rum punch. We toured the swamps and saw alligators and turtles and felt the sun beat down and the sultry wind in our hair.
It was an incredible, delicious trip. We met the friendliest people, listened to the most awesome music, drank delirium-inducing cocktails and filled our bellies with Lowcountry cooking. I cannot wait to do it all again.