A recent trip to the Grand Canyon some 35 years after my first expedition there as a kid has me reminiscing about family car trips. To be frank, they weren’t always the most pleasant experiences. When Dad wasn’t reading (and swerving) while driving—65mph down the highway juggling a gear shift and a New Yorker—he was insisting we couldn’t pause for bathroom breaks for fear of “ruining his good time.” But every other year on our cross-Confederate state journey from Dallas to Mobile, I knew there was one guaranteed pit stop: Vicksburg, Mississippi. To me, this town had a triple crown of delights: history— Civil War battlefields marking the site of a turning-point in the conflict; drama—since 1936, the local theater has produced a 19th century melodrama called Gold in the Hills where we sang songs, booed the villain and cheered the hero; and, of course, food—our beaten down hotel near the mighty river had a diner where the waitresses wore Aunt Jemima headscarves without a trace of irony. When they weren’t serving up attitude, they were slinging down the creamiest grits that I doused with butter and sugar, fortifying myself for the road ahead.
It’s this magical Southern sense of place that Morgan Murphy has ably captured in his cookbook-travelogue Southern Living Off the Eaten Path. The former travel editor of Southern Living magazine, Murphy knows a thing or two about quirky finds below the Mason Dixon, and in this book he tells the origins of 75 special establishments sharing 150 recipes from their menus. As a fellow Southerner, I was impressed with his picks. He didn’t shy away from Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi—a painted pink brick building shaped like a woman’s skirt that I couldn’t get over as a kid. He snagged the banana bread recipe from Key West’s Blue Heaven, a spot I loved as much for it’s bordello and Hemingway past as for the chickens running amongst the tables.
But perhaps my favorite find in the book is Dallas’ Highland Park Pharmacy, a throwback to another time when such stores meant soda-fountains and lunch counters. My Dad once took me there for limeaids after a trip to the nearby barber shop, and over a pimiento cheese sandwich, first explained to me the civil rights movement, and how many lunch counters were once reserved for whites only.
Whether you’re looking for a trip headed South down memory lane, or a guide to some of America’s best comfort food, Southern Living Off the Eaten Path is worth a detour. Which reminds me, those long car rides with my Dad without bathroom breaks? They were painful, but lead me to create one of my most famous personal beliefs: There’s always time to pee. If you’ve every traveled with me, you know, those are words to live by.