Memorial Day weekend set the Reeds on the road again. Destination: Austin, Texas for a family wedding, a great excuse to explore culinary crannies across three states. We didn’t limit ourselves to service station fare this trip, but we did have some pretty good luck at truck stops.
It wasn’t far along the journey before our first find. You have to get up early to get to Texas, and we needed some nourishment for the many miles ahead. Sure, we could have eaten a bowl of Cheerios before we left, but where’s the adventure in that? Being the self-appointed “cruise director,” I navigated us towards Louisville (yes, hardly half an hour down the road, still in Mississippi.) For a while now I’ve been hearing about a biscuit shop down there, but I had yet to make it during the breakfast hour. This was my chance. We even got away in time to get to Mary Lou’s Biscuit Bar before closing time. Still, it was not early, and I feared we might get there only to share one last biscuit, dragged through the bacon drippings for flavor. But we were blessed. There were lots of options left, and for the most part we stuck with the namesake — I got biscuits with link sausage and pork tenderloin, Daddy got bacon and egg, Mama just got bacon. Daughter is a bacon gal herself; she got a side order and nibbled on one of my biscuits. The sausage had a little kick, the bacon was stacked high, and the tenderloin? Worth the drive. And the fried apple pie was just right to satisfy the sweet side of breakfast. I spent a little time talking to a fellow named Honk, one of the family members who keeps the Biscuit Bar running after Mary Lou herself passed it on a little over a decade ago. He told me they had expanded the menu a bit over time, but they used the same recipes and had generally kept things going the same way Mary Lou did. And we are most thankful.
I have mentioned before that I have more than one obsession that, on occasion, can dictate road trip routes. It’s not just the food — I also seek out places that feed my addiction to pressed pennies, those “instant souvenir” machines that take a penny (for a small fee of 50 cents), flatten it, and imprint a design. I knew there was such a machine at a truck stop in Tallulah, La., and it was easy access — directly on the beaten path. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the machine was broken. I thought it might be a wasted trip, then I happened to glance at the specials board in the truck stop restaurant. The special this day was “Gator Burger.” It was close to lunchtime anyway (as if that mattered) so I went in and had a chat with the waitress, asking if it was truly gator or just a clever name. Yes, she said, it was ground gator with a little pork mixed in — that was all I needed to know, and ordered one to go. It would take a few minutes to cook – you don’t want to be eating raw pork, she said. I’m not sure I want to be eating raw gator, I said. Yeah, that might bite you back, she said. So I waited. When it came I asked if it was local gator. First, she told me it had come from New Orleans (still within the state, so reasonably local.) Then she went into another story, a confession of sorts, about how they had scraped it right off the interstate earlier that morning. Wherever it came from, all of us in the car (Daughter excepted) agreed that it was good. It was served on a generously buttered and grilled bun, which didn’t hurt the flavor experience, either.
A little further down the road we had to stop at a mall to get something Daughter needed for cheerleader camp. (I do let other people make pit stop requests from time to time.) At the fancy cookie store I saw a red velvet brownie: a layer of regular brownie on the bottom, a thick layer of red velvet brownie, cream cheese frosting, and bits of brownie sprinkled on top. It pretty much tasted like a brownie with cream cheese frosting. Nothing special, but it looked cool in the case. And like the lady in the pharmacy told me (as she was buying cushions to ease the pain her fancy shoes were inflicting), sometimes looking good is all that matters.
Day One dinner had been planned for a while. As part of my usual pre-trip research, I consulted John T. Edge’s book, Southern Belly, and the only restaurant that was going to be on our route that day was Herby K’s in Shreveport, La. The book had warned that this historic restaurant was in a neighborhood that had seen better days, and as our Gastronomic Positioning System led us by abandoned buildings and boarded-up businesses, I wondered if it would still be open. But as we rounded the last corner, the little side street was filled with cars and we knew we were golden. The book had also given a heads up that there were only four booths and a small row of stools at the counter — that had not changed, either, but we didn’t have to wait long. Between us, we enjoyed gumbo, crawfish etouffee, catfish, onion rings, plain white rice (Daughter had to eat, too) and their legendary Shrimp Buster. The Shrimp Buster is toasted French bread topped with four butterflied and flattened fried shrimp. Pretty simple, but it did make Garden and Gun Magazine’s list of 100 Things You Should Eat Before You Die. Now I only have about 93 to go.
I am already loving this trip, and it’s just the first day. Good things happen when you stop to press the penny.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .