That wreck delivered me to a crossroads. Before that Tahoe hydroplaned across the centerline, I had not wholly embraced my hometown of Oxford or my place in it. Instead, I had traveled the South, the nation, the world, to write about food and drink. I told myself that I was trying to make sense of what unites and divides us. But my search was more personal than that. Plotted, the stories I told for this magazine and others revealed an unsuspected path.
I was backpedaling from a childhood pitched by violence, looking in restaurants and bars for places to belong. Over seven weeks of convalescence, in conversation with neighbors and friends who arrived nightly with coffee cake and whiskey and books, I recognized that my two-decade search to belong in restaurants and bars had really been a search for home.
That search had brought me home to Mississippi, and showed me new ways to belong in places like Oaxaca, Mexico. There, this past November, still hobbled but willing, I walked the streets for two days and nights before I became a regular at El Lechoncito de Oro, a late-night food cart fifty paces from our rental.
Seven waiters worked the street, wearing blue polos and blue mesh ball caps. Ballpoint pens tucked behind ears, order pads in back pockets, they wove between double-parked cars to deliver pork tacos and tortas and Cocas Mexicanas as a guitar-trumpet combo played a gutter bounce. At the center of the swarm, on a yellow curb at the corner of Calle de los Libres and Murgía, stood a stainless-steel trailer, strung with LED beads and framed by a banner portrait of a happy pink pig in a white chef toque, a red scarf tied around his neck. The text translated as the Golden Piglet. Taquitos were seventy-five cents, tortas a buck and a quarter.
A television mounted under the trailer’s back eave broadcast a game show. A cooler, stashed next to the trailer hitch, brimmed with ice and glass soda bottles. Plumes of steam billowed from the flattop. The cook tapped out a rhythm with his spatula, alternately steaming tortillas and crisping chopped pork. Against the wall of a maroon masonry building, opposite the sad and understocked store my wife, Blair, and our two friends came to call the gulag grocery, slurry-voiced couples linked arms and stared up toward the lights of the cart. Three young men pulled a bench from a nearby truck, makeshifted a table out of a water jug, and balanced a bottle of salsa verde on top.
I had passed the same spot again and again, cell phone in hand, Evernote app loaded with the places I was supposed to go. With touts from chefs and writers, I mapped coordinates and ate second dinners. And then each morning, I marveled at the grease stains that splotched the empty asphalt patch where that cart had parked the night before, recalling the scene that swirled there, and then plunged forward, fixed on checking another box. Three days into our trip, I stopped my search and, for the first time, saw and tasted the bounty just beyond my doorstep.
Calamity and travel arrest time. They beg focus and feed insights. Tourism has taken on some of the functions that religion once served. Here in America, we have ritualized restaurant going, embracing time at table as a cultural passkey, just as we previously codified sightseeing and museum going. Each effort shows respect for (and belief in) a society, a community, a place.
“Travel helps me arrange my furniture better.” That’s how my friend Joe Stinchcomb, a bartender in Oxford, put it. At about the same time I hit the road to film TrueSouth, he had traveled to Germany and Belgium and returned to Mississippi with a new way to see what’s before him and how the pieces of his life fit together. In conversation with Joe, I recognized that travel has given me license to appreciate and memorialize a moment.
Five years back, I recruited the author George Singleton to give a talk at a Southern Foodways Alliance event in the Mississippi Delta. One night, we drove out to Po’ Monkey’s, a tin-roofed juke in the middle of a picked-over cotton field, near the town of Merigold. Everyone got two tickets for drinks and one ticket for admission.
Before we left, I saw George out front, talking to owner Willie Seaberry, a wiry man chewing on a short cigar, said to run the last true juke in Bolivar County. The next morning, George showed me how he’d memorialized that moment. Po Monkey, Seaberry had scrawled in a tight black script on a tear-away ticket. To this day, George keeps that small ticket, inscribed with that tight black script, in his wallet. On my best days, that’s what I attempt with my writing.