5 Southern Travel Tips For Women

I spent two weeks this summer traveling across the Deep South for Gadling, on top of a two-week business trip/vacation there in May. When the mayor of Chattanooga told me, “You have the heart of a Southerner” I blushed, but I also felt like I must have figured out how to feel comfortable there. The South is a little different from the rest of the United States – especially if you’re a woman traveler. But I find it an especially intriguing and hospitable place for women who are willing to slow down and saunter. Here are my five Southern Travel Tips.

1) Enjoy the conversations. I found the South to be much like visiting France, in one sense: you say “good morning,” pour on the charm, and don’t expect to get away quickly even if all you’re buying is gum. You should expect – and enjoy – conversations everywhere and with everyone, from strangers to waiters and farmers market vendors. I was at a rest stop in Alabama when the man in the next car ran after me. Had I left my lights on? No, he’d seen my Michigan plates and had relatives in Detroit. Did I know them? No, but I now know he and his mother were driving his little sister to college and it was a big day for them. Likewise, if you need recipes for anything, just say, “I don’t know how to make this,” and you’ll be bombarded with advice. I can now make black-eyed peas, thanks to a farmer in Tupelo. Also, expect to be hugged by people you’ve just met. My daily hug count was usually three, and one day hit seven. Karen, my server at The Grand Hotel in Fairhope, Alabama, was among my hug givers.2) Let them hold the door. Those of us whose moms and grandmothers were part of the women’s movement up north have grown accustomed to fending for ourselves. Not in the South. If I arrived at a door at the same time as a man, 99.4% of the time, he’d hold it open for me. By the end of my trip, I just came to expect it, and would stand there and let a man or boy open it for me, although I was smiling inside. Also, get used to being called ma’am – it doesn’t mean you’re old. It’s a term of respect. And you use it, too. This is a Southern tradition, in the same way that you say “monsieur” and “madame” in France.

3) Savor the food. I know that by the end of a few days, you probably will have eaten more calories and carbs than you ingest in a month. It doesn’t matter. Southern food is amazing, from flaky biscuits and croissants to gas station fried catfish to some of the finest gourmet dishes you can taste in the United States. Take my advice: savor it, and enjoy it. To be sure, your body probably won’t be able to handle southern specialties for three meals a day. Pack some Grape-Nuts and get yogurt at breakfast, but dig into smoked turkey BBQ and ribs and peach cobbler. Just remember it will slow you down a little, so intersperse it with salad when you can. And stay hydrated; heat plus diving into air-conditioned rooms can dry you out.

4) Pack the pearls. The big hair and makeup we saw on Delta Burke and Dixie Carter isn’t a stereotype. Southern women like to do up and dress up. So do some men, for that matter: I actually saw more men in suits in New Orleans and Birmingham than I often do in Chicago. You can go casual for every day, and you probably will want to if you’re seeing sights and trying to stay cool. But when you go out to lunch or dinner, wear the dress you packed, tie on a scarf, put on some lipstick, and be glamorous. It’s a place that allows you to be fancy, and eccentric, too, so bring that hat you’ve wanted to wear. And on the big hair front, the secret to taming it seems to be a lot of hair spray. Or you can give in to humidity, which is pretty much what I did.

5) Plot your route. The South is picturesque and stately but it can also be a little beat up and even intimidating if you have no frame of reference. Pretty much every place you visit will have a bad part of town. I’m not saying you’d be in danger, but you might have your romantic visions shattered by a wrong turn, just as you would in any other part of the country. I was taken aback when I rolled into Greenwood, Mississippi, and saw blocks of shanties before I discovered all the gracious homes where “The Help” was filmed. A good GPS, Mapquest map or directions can keep you on track. But don’t be afraid to take an alternative route, especially if you know how to get back to the main road. There is nothing so breathtaking as a southern back road, even one that takes you past some buildings and streets that are falling apart.

Vagabond Tales: A Bojangles Virgin No More

In the eight months I’ve been penning “Vagabond Tales” I’ve written about experiences from all corners of the globe.

Some of them have been exotic such as swimming with elephants in Thailand, and others have been a bit more dangerous such as kayaking with Alaskan killer whales or nearly being kidnapped in a Borneo jungle. I have ventured onto floating islands in Lake Titicaca, roasted marshmallows over an active volcano in Guatemala, and snorkeled with irukandji – one of the deadliest animals on Earth – off the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

Over that same period of time I’ve dined on everything from wine and cheese in the south of France to live clams in an underwater cave in Vietnam.

This past week, however, I went and did something I’ve never done before:
I ate at a Bojangles restaurant in the American south.

Wait. Are you kidding me? Bojangles? You’re calling this a travel experience?

As I explored in my article “Why Do We Take Pictures Of Our Food?” regional cuisine is as much a part of the travel experience as are museums, monuments, or UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Eating ceviche in Peru is as integral to the country as Machu Picchu. Pairing a Guinness with a pot of beef stew is as important to an Irish visit as kissing the Blarney Stone or staying in a Connemara Castle.And, along this same reasoning, ordering chicken and biscuits in the American south is right on par with touring Civil War battlefields. There are even some who may argue that a visit to the South is like visiting an entire other country to begin with. Though I won’t jump into that debate, from the copious amount of Confederate flags still flying, there are some who still side with the soldiers who once tried to make it a reality.

In fact, if you look at a map of Bojangles locations across the country (for the record, Bojangles is currently in 10 U.S. states and has one location in … Honduras?), with the exception of Pennsylvania the map could almost be mistaken for a map of the former Confederacy.

Given this regional dominance I feel fairly confident in saying that eating at a Bojangles can be considered an authentically Southern experience. On a recent stop in Weaverville, North Carolina, as I discussed the quality of the grits with an employee I’m going to call “Flo,” I realized that the experience I was having was no different than any first-time situation I’ve encountered elsewhere across the globe.

As someone who grew up in Maui, Hawaii, I have never eaten grits. I also have never had chicken mixed with freshly baked biscuits. With the same curiosity with which I scour remote and far-flung corners of the globe, I flung open the door of Bojangles and set to work exploring new culinary experiences right here in the U.S. of A.

So, in the spirit of the recent, viral review of a North Dakota Olive Garden, I hereby offer my rave review of the Weaverville, North Carolina, Bojangles.

The first thing I noticed once inside the door was that there were only three colors on the menu. Actually, that’s not true. The very first thing I noticed was the cardboard sign informing customers that the outdoor ashtray was not a trash can.

Comparing the menu with the food choices on display, I arrived at a curious conclusion. It appeared that the only colors on the menu were red, yellow and brown. Ketchup is red, fried chicken is yellow and the Bo-tato fries are pretty close to brown. The menu, it seemed, mimicked the colors of the food.

What’s notable about this is that there is no green on the menu, a nod to the fact that none of the sandwiches appear to be served with any form of vegetables. No lettuce. No tomato. Just brown and yellow; chicken and biscuits.

The next thing I noticed after the fried menu was that Flo spoke into her microphone like a contestant on “The Price Is Right.” Repeating my order one item at a time into the skinny black microphone, although the words coming out of her mouth contained phrases such as “Cajun biscuit” and “side of grits,” she may as well have saying “I’m going to say $1, Bob.”

Fully immersed in the experience and excited about the prospect of dining on my Cajun Filet Biscuit, Flo informed me there was a possibility I might not get my side order of grits.

“Oooh they’re really good today,” she confided in me with a smile. “I’ll put the order in for ya, but we’ve been eating them all morning and I’m not sure if there will be any left!”

My gut told me that Flo was just being friendly, but until the cup of grits materialized on my plate two minutes later there was a part of me that somewhat believed her.

With my tray of food in hand, the third thing I noticed after sitting in a surprisingly comfortable seat was that there was a flat screen television inside of the sparsely-filled dining area. Although I have since been informed that this is becoming common practice, it was the first time I have ever seen a television in the dining area of a fast-food restaurant. On the TV was an ad for calorie-free Splenda, although as a man in overalls filled his large soda cup to the brim with Coca-Cola, I doubted there was anything about his pour that was anywhere close to being calorie-free.

Finally, all peripheral distractions aside, the moment had finally come to try the food. The Cajun Filet Biscuit was arranged just as promised: chicken, biscuit – that’s all. The grits sat like a scoop of fine white sand. I skipped out on the mega-sized soda and opted instead for a coffee.

And you know what?

I loved it. I loved every bite of it. For $4.99 I was full, the biscuit tasted fresh, the grits weren’t as bad as all Yankees seem to make them out to be, and despite the lack of anything green, I could see why there was a line that nearly stretched out the door.

Actually, to be fair, the coffee was terrible and I poured it in the grass outside.

Nevertheless, I can now say with confidence that not only does a Mendoza malbec go swimmingly with a cut of filet mignon, but chicken does in fact go well with homemade biscuits and a side of unflavored grits.

Will I stop at another Bojangles on my road trip through the South? Probably not. The price sure is right, but I like seeing a little green on my menu.

Walking out into the heat of the summer sun, I passed Flo as we crossed paths while headed towards the door.

“Good aint it?” she smiled.

“Yes ma’am,” I could honestly say. “Yes ma’am it was.”

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Vegan meets soul food at Souley Vegan in Oakland, California

souley vegan brings comfort food and vegan food togetherCraving the comfort of southern style cooking but don’t want the meat? Or maybe you just want a healthy option to soul food? Souley Vegan in downtown Oakland, California, can provide you with exactly what you’re looking for.

Owner Tamearra Dyson, a vegan since she was 16, grew up eating soul food. Her goal was to adapt the food that she loved into a healthy, vegan alternative that everyone could enjoy. According to Casey Capachi of OaklandNorth.net, some of the menu items include BBQ tofu, vegan macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cheese-less cheesecake, and yams baked with agave and organic raw sugar. They also have a Cayenne Lemonade, a tasty southern-themed cocktail.

Souley Vegan is located at 301 Broadway at the intersection of Broadway and 3rd in downtown Oakland, California.

Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

Hot tamales: the best place to get them

My first tamales, sad to say, where the canned version that Hormel puts out. When I was a child my grandfather owned the grocery store in a small town in Kentucky. We were allowed to pick food from the shelves for our meals when we visited. A can of tamales was my first choice. Pork rinds were my second. Also, sad, but true.

Once I moved to New Mexico, I learned that tamales actually have texture and come in wonderfully flavorful varieties like green chiles and chicken. Today, I heard about the best tamale place in the world, according to the folks on the NPR show “Splendid Table.”

Rhonda’s Famous Tamales, a cafe that also serves soul food, isn’t in New Mexico, but in Arkansas. Located in the Arkansas Delta region of the state in Lake Village, Rhonda’s is one of those places that is worth driving out of you way for. If Arkansas wasn’t so far from Columbus, and I didn’t have so much to do, I’d be there for dinner.

Rhonda cooks her tamales in a coffee can–12 per can. The suggested way of eating them is scooping them out with saltine crackers. If you get the Hormel version, you can smash them up on white bread. Don’t forget to sop up the juice.