Sunday, January 31, 2010

Troy, Storytelling and Red's

On Saturday morning I drove down to Troy, AL for the Pike Piddlers Storytelling Festival.

Troy, AL

Troy is 45 miles southwest of Montgomery on a state highway -- it's a drive through rural Alabama and even a little swamp land.

Troy has a population of about 15k and a university with the same name. I walked around the downtown area for a bit, which is really just a town square with shops on all sides.

There's also a confederate war memorial in the center of the square (that's how we roll in the South).

Being the cynical person I am, the shopkeepers must have receieved instruction from the chamber of commerce about being friendly. Every store I went into I got a big hello and an equally warm goodbye. Even a random person who held a door for me at a shop gave me a long "have a good day -- thanks for visiting." (Not surprising, people can quickly spot that I'm not from these parts.)


The Storytelling Festival was very entertaining and funny. It featured: Donald Davis, Kevin Kling, and Elizabeth Ellis. The name makes it sound more quaint than it really is. What these people do, telling stories, is exactly what David Sedaris does, though they were not quite as R-rated as Sedaris. Each storyteller told stories for about 45 minutes.

Donald Davis was the clear audience favorite and probably the best. He took a bunch of random stories about his grandmother who lived in Appalachia and weaved them together into a cohesive narrative. One of his early stories involved visiting his grandmother when he was 9. During the visit a neighbor asked his grandmother to "layout" his dead wife. 30 minutes later, he ended his storytelling talking about his grandmother's funeral (a few decades later), saying that when he saw all the makeup the undertaker had put on her, as well as the clothes and the way her hair was done, he finally appreciated the service his grandmother had provided many years earlier. The undertaker didn't know his grandmother, and thus, dressed her in a way that made her unrecognizable to the people who knew her. It wasn't all sad stories though -- most were amusing and told with wit.


After the storytelling I drove to Red's Little School House Restaurant for lunch.

Red's is 30 miles south of Montgomery, off a back road, very much in the middle of no where. It's considered one of the quintessential Alabaman restaurants -- it seems like everyone who has lived in the state for a while has gone there at some point. To give you an idea of its popularity, when Jessica Lange was in Montgomery filming "Big Fish," she would eat at Red's. No one, though, is quite sure how she knew about it (clearly someone must have told her about it).

Like all the restaurants here, it's traditional Southern, but served buffet (there's also a menu). Part of its mystique is its location, as well as its ambience -- the restaurant is a converted school house. It's the kind you would see in movies set in the 1920s and 30s -- large single room, hardwood floors, long wood tables, etc. They still have pictures of all the Presidents in the dining room, including Obama. Here's a picture of the inside form an Alabama tourist guide:

I thought the food was excellent and they had these amazing fried cornbread biscuits. I totally forgot to try out their pies, so I guess I'll do that next time.

Pioneer Village

On the drive back to Montgomery I passed by something called "Pioneer Village." From the road it looked like a bunch of log cabin homes. I of course had to check it out.

It was closed and really ammounted to nothing more than antique shops and hotdog stands. You cannot see it from the pictures, but there were Coca-Cola signs on everything -- just like in pioneer times.

The antiques must have no value because they were left outside:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bingo Halls and Political Corruption

The local news cycle down her is dominated by bingo halls, so I guess I should talk about that.

Way back when, the State Legislature legalized small stakes bingo so that it could be used by churches and non-profits as a means to fundraise. A lot of states do this; nothing original here.

At some point a very clever person said, "hey, instead of having people play bingo using paper cards, why not have electronic bingo cards." Yaddi, yaddi, yadda, today the state is covered with bingo halls, that contain electronic bingo machines, which are essentially slot machines, and there is no regulation -- there is no law that governors the operation of electronic bingo machines and bingo halls. Pretty much anyone can go and build a bingo hall. And when I say that they state is covered with them, every weekend at least one of the bingo halls in the area is flying a blimp over town.

While electronic bingo machines and bingo halls clearly go beyond the legislative intent of legalized bingo, the law is so vaguely written that they're not necessarily illegal. Over the years state legislators have talked about doing something -- officially legalizing bingo and then regulating it, or shutting the whole operation down -- but little action was ever taken. Bingo has been around for so long that it has become integrated into the economy (billions are wagered on electronic bingo each year) and many Alabamans enjoy playing it. So this brings us up to the last few years...

The current Governor, Bob Riley (R), has a major hard-on for gambling. He's decided that electronic bingo is illegal, that he's going to shut the bingo halls down one-by-one, and he has formed an anti-gambling task-force to accomplish this.

Whenever Riley tried to shut a bingo hall down it lead to a lawsuit -- the bingo hall claimed that it was operating within the law. Last year the question of the legality of electronic bingo finally went to the State Supreme Court. At the end of the year the Court ruled that electronic bingo machines were illegal, unless they met certain criteria, such as: players have to mark the electronic board -- the machine cannot do it for them; players have to call bingo -- the machine cannot do it for them; players have to be playing against other humans -- they cannot be playing against a computer.

Riley declared that the Court agreed with him, that electronic bingo was illegal, and continued trying to close down bingo halls. But the bingo hall operators have moved fast to reprogram their machines so that they meet the Court's guidelines. Ahab Riley keeps pressing to close them down, but he's getting no where because the bingo halls are complying with the Court. Alabamans seem to agree that Riley's obsession with closing them down has become ridiculous because: (1) gambling is so wide spread, (2) if it were just legalized, regulated and taxed, it would bring in a lot of tax revenue, and (3) the law simply is not on his side.

Last week, the head of the Governor's anti-gambline task-force had to resign his position because he got caught gambling (and winning) at a Mississippi casino. And this, as they say, is where the plot thickens. I'll leave it to you to read this article, but it turns out that the anti-gambling Governor took money from some interesting sources with an infamous lobbyists. It's a must read.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Recycling and Cars


An automotive trend that seems to be unique to the Montgomery area is taking a late 1990s large American sedan, giving it a hideous paint job, oversized wheels, and flashy hubcaps. Pictured below is one of the tamer paint jobs (I've seen purple and green):

I'll see one or two a day, and I know I'm not seeing the same car over and over again because the paint jobs are unique.


Because there is no curbside recycling, I've been hoarding cardboard in my spare bedroom since I came down here in October.

I finally hit a critical mass last week when the mountain of cardboard had reached fire hazard height. The city does have 24/7 recycling drop-off sites, so on Saturday I loaded up my car and finally went to one.

Notice that they do not accept plastic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The weather has finally returned to normal here -- mid 60s -- so I've begun biking to work. One of the benefits of a small town is that there is no traffic, especially after 5:30pm. Not only are the roads wide open, but the major streets are three lanes, so I can pretty much turn a lane into a bike lane -- when there is traffic, the cars stick to the other two lanes. Given this, the city really should just create dedicated bike lanes. But that will never happen. Montgomery is even more behind the times than Philly -- while every other American city is expanding recycling, in Montgomery they eliminated curbside recycling collection to save money (yet, there is still twice a week trash collection). Oh well. It will all be part of my mayoral platform.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day and BBQ in Birmingham

MLK Day Alabama Style

This afternoon I was flipping through the Montgomery Advertiser while waiting for my order at Cafe Louisa and I came across this:
I think it speaks for itself.

BBQ in Birmingham

I was win Birmingham on Saturday to see the Met Opera's live HD Broadcast of "Carmen," and afterwards, I checked out Bob Sykes Barbeque in Bessemer (about 20 minutes south of Birmingham). No one had recommended it to me, but had given it a good review.

From the outside it looks like a McDonald's, but once you get inside, you can see that it's a serious BBQ place. Take a look at the indoor barbecue grill:

You also know that they mean business when there's a roll of paper towels on every table.

I went with their classic dish: barbecue pork sandwich.

I thought it was pretty good. Most of the barbecue pork sandwiches I've had down here so far, such as the ones at Dreamland, have had way too much bbq sauce, which smothers the flavor of the pork, makes the bread soggy, and the sandwich a total mess to eat. This probably reflects that Bob Sykes puts a lot more effort into the preparation of their meat than other restaurants, and they want to make sure you can taste it.

Next time I go I need to bring a lot of people with me so we can order a lot and do it family style.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Local Dining

I've been making more of an effort lately to try out authentic southern style restaurants.

Davis Cafe
It's a bit off the beaten path -- there is Section 8 housing down the street (at least that's what I think it is). From the outside the Davis Cafe looks like a home; there is only a small sign indicating that it's a restaurant. When I saw that the menu was hand written and photocopied, I knew it was going to be fantastic.
I ordered the fried chicken with blackeye peas and lima beans as sides. I thought everything was very flavorful. The chicken was just spicy enough to have some kick, and was juicy. My table was also given a ton of corn bread. The decor of the restaurant certainly added to the experience. They do a breakfast which I'm going to have to check out.

Derk's is like a Zabar's or Di Bruno Brothers of the South. It's half cafeteria style restaurant, half market selling meat, produce, wine, beer and other foods. I haven't shopped at the market yet (despite it being very close to my house), but I've had lunch there. It's always packed -- it's clearly a local favorite. Their food breaks with southern tradition a bit. One of their sides, for instance, is wild rice. Southern sides are mainly made from greens, beans, peas, and okra. They also don't fry their fish and chicken as deeply as other restaurants. I think it's decent, but I have yet to be won over. I do need to try shopping there.

Martin's Restaurant
Just about everyone says that if you want an authentic southern meal, Martin's is the place to go. Try to imagine vinyl tablecloths, wood paneling, and a lot of old people. I went the other night and got the Famous Fried Chicken Dinner, which includes: two pieces of fried chicken, three sides and tea, all for $10. I was really disappointed. The chicken was dry and completely tasteless, like someone forgot to add even pepper and salt. For sides I got pinto beans, mashed potatoes and green beans. They were all so rich and sweet in flavor that I couldn't eat them. The only good thing about the restaurant was that instead of serving bread, each table was given baskets of corn muffins and biscuits.

One interesting side worth mentioning was pineapple with American cheese. One of my friends ordered it, but I could not bring myself to try it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Becoming an AL resident

I had a watershed moment today: I finally applied for and obtained an Alabama license plate.

I've waited so long to do this mostly because I'm lazy, but partly because I felt a little pride in driving around the Deep South with my Pennsylvania license plate. Now when I drive to another state, people will look down on me as an Alabamian (though the Cornell decal should help distinguish me -- or maybe make things even worse). On the flip side, having a local plate should make me less of target for law enforcement. I still have to change my driver's license. Once I do that, I guess the transition is complete.

I have to recognize the State of Alabama for how easy the vehicle registration was. The whole process literally took less than 5 minutes. At the state office (where there was no line) I presented them with a copy of my title, proof of insurance, my driver's license, and told them my Alabama address. They then pulled out two license plates and told me to pick one of them (the one I did not go with said "God Bless America" along the bottom). They then swiped my credit card, printed out the registration, gave me the plate, and that was that. There was no paperwork to fill out or anything. I didn't even have to produce proof of residency. I was genuinely shocked with how fast it went. I asked them twice if there was anything else I had to do regarding my vehicle. Alabama doesn't require me to transfer the title and there are no emission inspections.

Better view of the license plate art:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hank Williams Follow-up

Someone saw the Hank Williams videos on YouTube who was also at the grave on New Year's and they sent me this email:


Hey [redacted], a bunch of us came down from Cleveland on a band tourbus and picked me and my husband and a couple of other folks up in Nashville and we all went to Montgomery.

We had played at Noble's for New Year's eve as part of a Hank Williams New Year's celebration and then everyone went to the grave site. We all played at the Hank Williams museum the next day and then went home, it was a blast! I am a big Hank fan, he was an amazing songwriter and wrote so many incredible songs all before the age of 29 before he died. Incredible.

Anyway, it was a blast...I loved the comments about the Hank impersonator, kind of a weird thing, they weren't very friendly to us unfortunately, but we sure had fun!

Thanks again and all the best



That's devotion which I can relate to -- I've planned three trips to Europe around John Eliot Gardiner concerts.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cold Weather

Most of the nation is dealing with unusually cold weather this week, but you already knew that.

Down here in Alabama, the temperature is about 20 degrees below the norm. I can deal with cold weather, but the problem is that none of the buildings, including my home, are cut out for temperatures below 35 degrees -- it's getting into the teens at night. Because winter last about two months here, someone did the math way-back-when and it's more cost effective to have a few very expensive heating bills than put insulation into a building. Do folks want to take bets on what my gas bill will be this month? My heater is running non-stop just to keep the temperature at 67.

At least I'm not alone with this problem -- all of my co-workers are complaining about it too.

And tomorrow snow is in the prediction. It's probably not going to stick, but if a weatherman were to announce that accumulation will be one inch, apparently all of the businesses and schools will preemptively close.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Hank Williams New Year

A Montgomery New Year's Eve tradition is going to the grave of Hank Williams around midnight (pictured below -- Hank is on the right; Audrey, his first wife, is on the left).
Hank is to Montgomery as Ben Franklin is to Philadelphia. There's a the Hank Williams Museum, and there are some statues of him around town.

Anyway, people gather at his grave on New Year's Eve because he died around midnight New Year's Eve. Once it's the new year, semi-pro musicians (putting it nicely) perform Hank's music and music by other country musicians. About 60 people turned out for this event. And they come from surrounding states, such as Tennessee and Florida. One of the musicians was wearing a 1950s version of a cowboy suit -- think Back to the Future III, but all black leather with white tassels. It was quite a sight. Another guy had on a massive ten gallon hat and overcoat. They sang for about 30 minutes and then abruptly left.

The event is not organized by anyone -- it just happens on its own. The musicians just show up because of their love for Hank.

About half the people there were like me -- they just came to see the spectacle. The graveyard is next to a residential neighborhood, so a number of people wander over for the show.

I shot some video of the singing. There was no lighting so you cannot see that much.