I just returned from a trip to Alabama combined with a stop in New Orleans, my home away from home, to work on some stories and also celebrate my 30th birthday. After conducting several interviews with food producers and hanging with my friends in New Orleans, I took the Amtrak to Birmingham, my Dad’s hometown.
It was my first trip to Alabama in fifteen years. My mom also flew in from Rhode Island, and we saw my father’s childhood house, as well as the house where my family had lived when I was an infant.
Birmingham is surprisingly vibrant right now! New restaurants are popping up everywhere, and residents are moving back to the city from the suburbs and fixing up old craftsman bungalows in formerly blighted neighborhoods.
What I was really looking forward to, though, was driving south towards the Alabama’s Black Belt. This isolated strip of emerald countryside, sandwiched between Montgomery and Mobile, stretches across the entire width of the state. It was Alabama’s economic powerhouse before the Civil War, but the region’s agrarian economy never truly evolved, so today it faces several challenges.
Boiled peanuts are sold all along the roads through the Black Belt
I planned to visit Union Springs– the rural town where my grandfather lived until he was 14. Everyone in the Bethune family had made their pilgrimage to Bullock County except me. Unfortunately, I never made it to the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. The old country road was completely flooded out following some torrential rains.
Impressive Antebellum homes, both restored and in states of disrepair, gesture towards the wealth of the region during the 19th century.
I was so lucky to speak with the wonderful Mr. Henry Thomas about his life growing up in Union Springs. His family has lived in Bullock County for several generations. Of course I was most interested in the food, his life growing up on a farm with his grandmother, and how he learned to cook whole hog barbecue.
Some of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Selma and neighboring Marion. I got a little emotional crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge because it still looks just like the footage from Bloody Sunday in 1965. That night, we had a view of the bridge from our balcony in the impressively restored historic St. James Hotel.
In Selma, we were quite taken with this eerily beautiful cemetery shaded by live oaks and Spanish moss.
Another highlight was visiting the Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston, a town of just 300 people. We chatted with the incredible ladies who run the impressive community center designed by Auburn architecture students from the Rural Studio program. I was shocked that they had a lunch of barbecue, homemade cakes, and sweet tea waiting for us. It was real Southern hospitality and the best meal of our trip!
We couldn’t leave the Black Belt without sampling the pies at Pie Lab in Greensboro.
The Black Belt is dotted with stately plantation homes, but today many small town store fronts are now abandoned.
A few days later, we celebrated our return from the countryside with a meal of barbecue at Bob Sykes in Bessemer, outside Birmingham.
Although I left Rhode Island twelve years ago, I’m still a suspicious New Englander at heart. But everyone I met in Alabama was incredibly open, generous, and willing to talk about their home and their experiences.
The flooded road to the cemetery was a sign that I need to return to this region. There’s so much more I want to see and do. So much more to eat, and so many people I want to meet.