The Deep South

Hey y’all. I’m back in Iowa after a 10-day, five-state tour of the Deep South. Highlighting my travels were: three plates of fried green tomatoes, four college campuses, 18 of Savannah’s 21 historic squares, one civil rights gathering in Birmingham, pine forests in Alabama, the loveliest cemetery in the world, and bountiful spring color everywhere we went.

This trip was part of my 50-state alumni magazine project, tacked on to a magazine editors’ conference in Atlanta. So that’s where we started: Atlanta.

The capital of Georgia, Atlanta is home to 420,000 people – and a metropolitan area of more than 5.2 million inhabitants. Atlanta is not a particular Southern-feeling city. It’s sprawly and traffic-y. I stayed downtown in the Atlanta Sheraton, close enough to walk to some of Atlanta’s top attractions. I didn’t have much time to explore, but I did spend some time in Centennial Olympic Park, a 21-acre park built for the 1996 Olympic Games (above). Nearby are the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and CNN. I visited the aquarium several years ago, and I think it is the best aquarium in the country.

I ate some very good food in Atlanta. Twice I went out with alumni who live in the area; they took me to excellent restaurants that I would have never discovered on my own (Spoon, a Thai restaurant; and Rathbun’s, serving modern American cuisine). I also went out with a group of editors to Pittypat’s Porch, a Southern dining experience for tourists just down the street from our hotel. There I ate the first of the aforementioned plates of fried green tomatoes. They were melt-in-your-mouth delicious, with just the right amount of spice.

The hands-down highlight in Atlanta was a meal at Pura Vida Tapas in the oh-so-wonderful-and-funky Virginia Highland area northeast of downtown. The last time I was in Atlanta I stayed at a small, independent hotel in this area and discovered Pura Vida on the first night. The food was divine. We ended up eating there three nights in a row. It’s there I discovered the truly well-made mojito. I also developed a bit of a crush on Raul, the bartender. Alas, I had to leave Atlanta after three nights.

While I simply could not pass up the opportunity to revisit Pura Vida (translation: “life is great”), I worried that it would have changed and that my memories of those three nights would be somehow tarnished. But I could not have been more wrong. The Cuban-inspired restaurant looked and felt exactly the same. I found my place at the bar just as before. Raul was gone, but a young bartender perfectly fit the role of Raul 2.0.

My dining companion, photographer Jim Heemstra, and I started with the malanga root chips with cremini mushroom dip and truffle oil (that’s Jim’s photo of the dish above). I don’t exactly know what malanga chips are, but I believe I ordered this dish all three nights on my previous visit. They were just as delicious and memorable this time around – presented beautifully lined up on a skinny white plate. We then ordered a tofu dish (and other mysterious but delicious ingredients) recommended by the bartender, a cheese plate, and some spiced almonds. Every bite sent me reeling. This is the best restaurant on the planet. Oh, and they still make a mean mojito.

Leaving Atlanta, we headed to Savannah, Ga. This was a bit of a gift, really, as we had scheduled a photo and interview with an alumna at CNN who cancelled just before I left Ames. Savannah is one of my favorite cities, so it was a real treat to have a few hours there before we had to get back to work.

I had visited Savannah only once before, a few years ago with my family. Dave and I had walked to all 21 historic-district squares, each one a little oasis and each one a little bit different from the others. I wanted to do that again this time, but I didn’t know if we’d have time. It turns out that we made it to 18 squares plus Forsyth Park – Savannah’s first recreational park built in the 1840s. We also visited my other favorite spot in Savannah, the astonishingly lush and beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery (below). Between the squares and the cemetery, I enjoyed a full afternoon of live oaks and azaleas, extraordinary landscape design, historic statuary, fountains, and gazeboes. If I ever go back to Bonaventure in the spring, I will remember to bring mosquito repellant.

This trip featured, for no particular reason, quite a number of alumni associated with college campuses. We started with South Carolina State in Orangeburg. From there, we traveled to Auburn, Alabama. On the recommendation of the Auburn alumni magazine editor, we stayed at the Auburn University Hotel – really a lovely place. It’s across from the campus and just down the street from enough bars and restaurants to satisfy any traveler for a week or longer.

We stayed just two nights but enjoyed The Mellow Mushroom and Amsterdam Café (where I had my third plate of fried green tomatoes – pictured at left. I failed to mention plate No. 2, served in a Savannah brewpub, because they were virtually inedible.)

Besides the hotel and restaurants, highlights of our Auburn stay were a trip to a pine forest owned by an Iowa State alumnus (above) and a visit to Tuskegee University. Tuskegee is famous for its founder, Booker T. Washington, for the scientific discoveries of George Washington Carver (also an ISU alum), and for the Tuskegee Airmen. The entire campus of Tuskegee University was designated a national historic landmark in 1965. We stopped by the George Washington Carver Museum (below), and I had a great interview with an Iowa State Ph.D. graduate who is currently on the Tuskegee faculty.

After leaving Auburn (sadly…I could have stayed much longer), we headed north to Birmingham. After our work there was finished, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and surrounding district, which includes Kelly Ingram Park and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (below), both significant sites in the civil rights movement. We arrived in the park just as a civil rights meeting was ending. The meeting featured Bishop Calvin Woods, president of the Birmingham Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who actually worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum itself puts into context the turbulent 1960s civil rights struggle by African Americans in the South through a short film, photos, a timeline, video clips, artwork, and more. It is a sobering experience.

I could have spent much more time in Birmingham. It’s a lively city with a vibrant arts community. But we had to keep moving, so off we went toward Oxford, Miss. En route we stopped at Elvis Presley’s birthplace just for grins and to get out of the damn car to stretch our legs.

We didn’t pay the 12 bucks they wanted for an entrance fee (to what???) Basically all there is to the place is the tiny two-room home in which Elvis was born in 1935 and the church he attended as a boy (moved to the site). Yawn!

Oxford is a cool town and home to the University of Mississippi. The historic Oxford Square (below) had even more bars and restaurants than Auburn, plus a lot of (pricey) shops and THREE bookstores.

We ate at a restaurant called 208 South Lamar (left), which was nice but a little overpriced – and I think I was still hungry when I left. And I killed a bug crawling down the wall next to me, which always creeps me out at a restaurant. The next day, we walked the campus of Ole Miss (below). It’s just as pretty as you think it will be, with dogwood and azaleas blooming everywhere and lovely Southern architecture and landscaping. We went to lunch with our alumnus, who is on the faculty there, at a fun restaurant called City Grocery. I had a very good grilled vegetable sandwich so big that it made up for the smallish food served the previous night.

It was beginning to turn into the restaurant tour of the South. Between all the good food and all the sitting in the passenger seat, I think I may have put on a few pounds on this trip. After a great time in Oxford (if you don’t count the miserable night spent in the Comfort Inn, where we shared the motel with a very loud construction crew) we headed to Memphis, a quick hour-and-a-half drive north.

Memphis is an interesting city. The alumna we met with works in the criminal justice system, and she described Memphis in no uncertain terms as a high-crime city – with an active drug scene and a serious gang problem. We stayed near the river and not far from Beale Street, the Memphis equivalent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Beale at night is a mix of tourists and locals, which has the potential to create a rather scary human stew. We didn’t stay long – just long enough to photograph her and fend off curious onlookers (and snap a picture of me, too, above). I will say one thing about Memphis: It has a really pretty Mississippi River Bridge.

We drove home the next morning. There’s nothing like a nice little 11-hour drive to cap off a tour of the South.

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