There are miles left to go, meals left to eat, junque left to buy, stories left to collect.
Folklore historian Emily Wallace writes that “roadside hyperbole is a thing I tend to heed”: she can’t see a sign proclaiming the best, or occasionally the worst, of something and not go and find out for herself. If you share this passion, you’ll love this book: a wide-traveled, “exhausting but not exhaustive” tour through the diners, roadside attractions and cuisine of the South, with a side of cultural history.
Road Sides follows an A-Z format, assigning a topic to each letter and telling folkloric stories steeped in cultural history of the American South for each, accompanied by campy, cheerful original illustrations by the author. She covers architecture (restaurants and stands shaped like sno-cones and such), billboards, fixins (hot sauce, naturally, plus a look at yock-a-mein in Tidewater Virginia), gas stations, tchotchkes, and the roads themselves all the way to zealots (“Some strange things go on associated with hot chicken.”)
Stops include the Waffle House Museum in Decatur, Georgia; the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids of Florida; the world’s largest peanut; multiple barbecue joints, bars, and mom-and-pop restaurants as well as franchises with deep roots. Each chapter profiles a different eatery as part of its topic, and these were really highlights. Wallace lets the proprietors tell their stories, and has a knack for extracting quippy insights.
In addition to these portraits of the places and people, she incorporates stories that may be lesser known even to those familiar with the region. Like that a dispute over a gas station sign led to a shootout involving Colonel Sanders, or the many edible uses for kudzu. And there’s a warm, if sometimes comical, element of American identity, even pride: Wallace quotes sociologist John Shelton Reed that “Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the US to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.”
The illustrations varied: ones illustrating items or meals were more simplistic and garishly colored, but the kitschy ones of logos and signs are phenomenal.
A fascinating aspect was the attention to civil rights issues. This is, after all, a university press-published book, so although it’s quite lighthearted and fun, there’s an academic aspect as well, although it’s so well written and incorporated that it doesn’t feel dry or out of place. In addition to fun and funny looks at roadside cuisine, Wallace carefully addresses the history of racism and segregation in motels and restaurants, particularly fast food joints, and the dangers that travel has historically posed to African-American drivers. This includes that McDonald’s fought against segregation in some locations, leading to resistance like a sit-in in Greensboro.
This element of the ugliness of both road travel and the politics of food and dining was sensitive and smartly done, and underscores that food always encompasses so much more than it seems on the surface. She also highlights the often surprising significance of some locations that perhaps we didn’t realize was there.
Like Waffle House, said to be an informal gauge for the Federal Emergency Management Agency of a storm’s severity, “which basically breaks down to: it’s not a good sign when the restaurant closes. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Waffle House sent in what it calls “jump teams” — management from other states — to fill in and cook a limited menu, keeping open thirty of Houston’s thirty-two locations. ‘To be honest, we just cook bacon and eggs,’ Warner told NPR. ‘But sometimes you need bacon and eggs.’ Rephrased: in an hour of need, Waffle House is open.”
This is a personal tour, so there’s a personal thread from the author that appears and disappears and doesn’t always work. It’s too sparse to work as a memoir, and too much to really fit in a book that functions as a fascinating cultural history otherwise. She’s far from an unpleasant narrator, but it made the text feel split between cultural exploration and personal one, with cultural coming out stronger. Still, she’s funny and has a good eye for amusing details.
I read it straight through, because it’s fun to read and the bright illustrations make it seem light and quick, but because stories are brief I didn’t retain as much as I’d have liked. It’s one to dip in and out of.
Funny, eye-opening, surprisingly educational, will make you a little wanderlusty and a lot hungry.
An Illustrated Companion to Dining and Driving in the American South
by Emily Wallace
published October 1, 2019 by University of Texas Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.