Memorial Day Weekend is the start of the grand summer road-trip season -- long, sweaty drives to see family, attend weddings, visit a new city, or just get away. Heat is no deterrent; in fact, part of our distinctly American pleasure is that feeling of freedom which comes on a long stretch of road, driving barefooted, A/C blasting at wind-tunnel-like speeds, tunes blaring.
And then, of course, there's the food. One must pack the cooler strategically and take a disciplined approach to gas station junk purchases. But the real joy of a Texan or Southern road trip is the stopping at random points along the way: produce stands, flea markets, BBQ joints, tamale and taco trucks, meat markets and diners. The best kind of drive is the one that leaves you time to putter, to take the two-lane farm road instead of the major interstate, to deviate a little bit off the path in search of something delicious.
You may have a favorite place which you know by heart -- maybe not the name or address, but the look of its roof from the road, which exit to take, what to order. Accidental discovery is especially satisfying; my partner and I quite unexpectedly came across Mama Max's Diner in Prescott, Arkansas while following signs for a Sonic. We saw the hand-painted "SOUL FOOD" sign and quickly discarded any interest in tater tots, enjoying instead freshly creamed corn fritters, sweet tea, spicy greens, cornbread and the company of a woman who knows a thing or two about cooking. It's become a tradition since then to go out of our way to visit Mama Max when we drive from Shreveport (her hometown) to mine (Memphis) every summer.
Road trip food doesn't have to be left to chance, though. Thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance's Interactive Map, you can actually plot your trip against the ever-growing database of folks who make, grow and serve some of the best food -- and food tradition -- in the South. While that list isn't exhaustive, it covers some classics, and the oral histories (which you can read on the website) are fascinating. In addition to the individual spots featured, there's a Southern Gumbo Trail, Southern Boudin Trail, a Tamale Trail, and a Southern Barbecue Trail.
More and more often, these small, family-run places are going out of business, as larger chains and franchises make it difficult to turn a profit and keep a steady customer base. So if you're driving this summer and you see a guy on the side of the road with a big, black, metal smoker, or a grandma selling jams and pies in her front yard, or you pass a ramshackle restaurant with a ton of cars in the parking lot -- do yourself a favor and stop for a bite. Chances are, the food and the stories will be good.
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