My Worst Kept Secret

There is no secret worse kept than my love of fried chicken. I spent years perfecting my own recipe after my girlfriend told me that her mom makes the best fried chicken. Challenge accepted, I thought. Now, years later, I’m pretty happy with my own recipe though my girlfriend’s mom’s fried chicken is still out of this world.

When I began planning this trip one of the things that got me most excited was being able to go on the road to find good fried chicken in the South. I’ve been very fortunate that locals have pointed me towards a number of great restaurants. However, I’m going to mention two restaurants in particular both because of the quality of their fried chicken, but also because of the difference in environment.

The first is Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia. I was first told about Mary Mac’s by the barmaid at Grant Central Pizza who said I simply had to go. I knew it would be busy. I was expecting a queue but when I first got to the restaurant, I knew I’d found the right place because there was a line of people going around the block.

“You need to leave your name at the front, then they call you in when they’ve got space for your party,” a woman told me as I joined the line.

I headed to the front and into the packed restaurant.

“How long is the wait?” I asked, though I didn’t really care. I’m always willing to wait if there’s the promise of fried chicken at the end of it.

“It’s an hour. How many in your party?”

“Just one, just me,” I said.

“Oh, well you can just head straight to the bar then – you can eat there.”

It made sense. Plus I didn’t like the idea of taking up an entire table to myself while others are waiting for me to finish. I also wasn’t going to argue about getting to skip the line.

I ordered 4 pieces of fried chicken and chose fried green tomatoes and mac ‘n’ cheese as my two sides. Not the healthiest options, I know, but I’d heard mouth-watering things about them.

The chicken was beautifully crisp. It was seasoned perfectly with salt and as far as I could tell, the coating was simply plain flour. The chicken itself was moist inside. It was some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Sitting in Mary Mac’s is like sitting in someone’s living room but mixed with a high-end restaurant. It’s cosy and furnished to a high standard. The bartenders​ are dressed in smart white shirts with red bow ties and black trousers. Their manners and service cannot be faulted.

It felt like the restaurant could have been used for fine dining if the owner so wished. It felt like the meal should have cost more than it did – and I’m sure a lot of places would have tagged on a higher price based on their reputation – but thankfully there was acknowledgement of what the food was: soul food, cheap to make but rich in the kind of glee that increases your waistline.

The second restaurant I’m going to talk about is called Green Acres Cafe in Birmingham, Alabama.

“If you like fried chicken, go to Green Acres,” Grady, my Uber driver, said as he merged onto the interstate. “It’s a hole in the wall place. Just counter service but it’s good. I try not to go there too much because it ain’t good for you but it’s hard, man, because it tastes so good. If you go, I guarantee you’ll be the only white face in there. Some of the best wings in the city, you’ve got to go.”

When I walked into Green Acres, I was the only face in there other than the two women behind the counter. I ordered 4 pieces of chicken which came with fries and a slice of white bread. I was asked if I wanted salt and pepper on the chicken – which I did – and whether I wanted hot sauce or ketchup. Of course I asked for hot sauce. I was given a numbered ticket then waited to the side for my number to come up.

Green Acres Cafe consists of a large counter at which food is ordered and a small counter at which I decided to eat. There’s also a vending machine and a wall-mounted TV. But that’s about it. There are framed pictures of staff, articles that mention Green Acres as well as acknowledgements, awards, and celebrity photographs. Most striking is a framed newspaper front page from the day in 2009 that it was announced Barack Obama was to become president of the United States.

My food arrived in a cardboard tray inside a brown bag which was quickly becoming stained with grease spots.

The wings were huge! They were outstandingly crispy but with masses of meat. The addition of salt and pepper after frying really lifted the flavour, giving you an extra kick in your sinuses from the pepper. Hot sauce was spackled artistically across everything. The sauce was possibly the popular Louisiana hot sauce I’d seen a lot of, and from what I could tell was a vinegar based sauce.

The next day I went back for more wings. This time I chose 6 wings and was given additional bread. 

Just as I began to tuck into my meal, the sky went so dark that the street lights came on. It was 3pm. The trees in the park began to sway violently, leaves and debris cascaded down the street. There were three flashes then an almighty bang as the sky cracked and the rain quickly pooled in the gutter till it was level with the curb.

I watched as people dashed about in the street, ducking into doorways, or diving into their cars. For some people, no amount of rain was going to get in the way of their goal. These people walked through the door of Green Acres.

If you’re going to get stuck anywhere during a storm, make sure that place has got award winning fried chicken.

Decisions, Decisions

I’d just turned out the light when I saw the light on my phone was blinking. It was a message from Jess:

“What are you doing? Want to play pool with me, Liz, and Julio?”

I was warm and comfortable in bed. It was almost midnight. I checked the time the message was sent and saw it was sent only two minutes ago. Should I go? Or should I sleep off my lunch and the handful of stouts and porters I’d already drank?

I got dressed and messaged Jess.

They were in a club called The Basement which was underneath another club called The Graveyard. I’d made a point of bringing my passport with me as proof of age as I’d previously been denied a beer when trying to use my driver’s license. The bouncer, a man wider than the doorframe and with an unapproachable demeanour, squinted hard at my passport before letting me in. I bought a beer then went over to the pool table where Jess was lining up a shot.

She scuffed the cue ball sending it off to the side. Julio smiled then took the cue and ended the game.

We played doubles; Jess and Liz Vs Julio and me. It was a close game that we won by default. Julio disappeared and Liz got talking to Jess’s sister. I played against Jess. After a couple of beers I was in that “sweet spot” where my judgement was unclouded. I could make bank shots, carom shots, and sometimes even jump shots. I won but thought at one point I’d been hustled when Jess began making a comeback.

We drove home after first stopping off at Cinnaholic. A custom cinnamon roll restaurant where customers are able to pick any combination of icing and toppings.

I chose peanut butter icing with cookie dough on top. 

Fresh and warm out of the oven, the icing melted into the cinnamon roll, the cookie dough becoming gooey and amalgamated. As a late night snack, it was perfect and was a sugar-filled hug that helped me to crash into bed immediately.

Eating With The Fishes

I’d heard that Georgia Aquarium was supposed to be a great attraction and that I should definitely visit. When I was planning the trip I hadn’t really given it much thought though I do like aquariums; they’re peaceful, calming, and are almost like windows into an alien world.

I arrived not long after opening, going to beat the crowds. The aquarium is divided into ecosystems such oceans, rivers, reefs, etc.

The river enclosure featured a lot of local fish but also a while host of reptiles and amphibians – including a pair of albino alligators. 

It took me a while to realise that there were fish above me. A lot of care had been taken to make sure visitors get a fully immersive experience.

There were a few environments featuring animals of never seen before. Georgia Aquarium is famous for its whale sharks but I hadn’t realised before going that they also cared for beluga whales, manta rays, and bottle nose dolphins.

I stood listening to a presentation about the 4 whale sharks at the aquarium, the amount of water used to fill their enclosure, and the thickness of the “glass” (2ft thick!). Then it was getting time… For the whales, I mean. 

Rope lines are pulled across the surface of the water. 4 boats enter the water with a keeper inside each one, they then drag themselves along the lines dropping krill into the tank for each individual whale shark. This is how they’re able to monitor the amount that each shark eats. For an animal so large – the largest fish in the world – the whale shark has a throat as big as a quarter. This surprised me but I imagine the other fish in the tank welcomed it; if they were accidentally gulped up by the whale shark during feeding, they simply had to swim or if its gills to escape!

Then it was my feeding time. I found a bar and ordered a beer and a pulled pork sandwich. There was a selection of success on the bar to go with it so I chose to go with their spiciest. There were also milder versions, mustard based sauces, and vinegar based sauces. BBQ sauce seemed like a dialect in the South. Everywhere had their own version, some thick, some thin. I think I prefer the thicker, stickier sauces but I also like them with a bit of a kick.

The side of mac n’cheese was well seasoned and obviously had more than one kind of cheese in there – not a bad thing at all. It was stringy and sharp (like an extra mature cheddar), keeping me filled until much, much later in the evening.

Atlanta

The flight from Savannah to Atlanta lasted maybe an hour though I feel like it was a little under. I’m definitely not complaining, the drive would’ve been 3-4 hours of concrete boredom with renting a car costing around the same price.

I was sad to say goodbye to Savannah but was also looking forward to seeing how a big city in the same state would differ.

It took me almost half an hour to get out of Atlanta’s huge airport. With almost 4 hours to kill until I could check in to my accommodation, I decided to take a taxi to the zoo. Zoo Atlanta is located in Grant Park which wasn’t too far from where I was staying. 

It was another hot and humid day in Georgia and carrying around a backpack filled with clothes was making life a lot harder but the zoo provided a welcome distraction.

Zoo Atlanta works hard to help conserve a great number of endangered species (including pandas), and aims to educate people about conservation and the dire situation into which a lot of these animals have been forced through human involvement; whether it be through trafficking, the pet trade, poaching…etc.

After walking around the zoo for around 3 hours, and having skipped breakfast, I was starving. I found a pizza restaurant and bar called Grant Central Pizza where I demolished a 12″ pizza in so little time it actually warranted the admiration of the bar staff. (I ate it so fast, I didn’t even take a photo).

“Where else are you going on your trip?” Jess, the bartender asked. 

I mentioned that I was going to Nashville.

“I have family up that way! I have a great great great grandfather who was a famous bear hunter. Now that part of my family lives up in the mountains… They’re what we call rednecks. In fact, once we had a family reunion and my cousins from up there tried hitting on my siblings.”

“Your family tree: the stump,” a waiter, Ryan, said, “A few twigs on there but even they’re growing into each other.” He picked up a glass of water, the bar phone, then ordered Chinese food.

Somebody ‘arted’

It was a Saturday of obnoxious humidity. I decided I wanted to see some art and knew Savannah was home to SCAD: the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Opened in the late 1970s, SCAD has become a huge part of Savannah’s ​identity – even going beyond the normal boundaries of a simple art college, SCAD provides security patrols around some neighbourhoods and attracts thousands of tourists every year.

The heat was oppressive and my GPS was having a bit of a crisis connecting to a satellite. It felt like time was frozen in amber or else just restricted by a very thick, sticky jam. Added to this, the streets were incredibly busy as it also happened to be the day that students were graduating from the college in question.

I gave up on GPS and decided to follow the crowds in hope that the graduation venue would be close to the museum.

I got lucky! Across Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard stood the museum. I opened the door and the relief was immediate. Cool air cascaded from above me, drying all perspiration, and giving me a chill. I paid entry fee to the lady behind the counter.

“There are docents in each room, if you have any questions or would like more information, be sure to ask.”

The first gallery was empty of people. Three docents stood talking to each other. I moved from picture to installation to sculpture to picture. There were very few traditional artworks – everything was very provocative and demanded that you try to find meaning.

As I passed from room to room, I realised that my appreciation of art was limited to the literal: show me a dramatic seascape, epic battle scene, or a detailed portrait, and I can understand with little prompting what’s going on.

Show me a dead flamingo on a bar stool with a ball and chain attached, and I’m as lost as a man whose GPS is on the blink. I can appreciate the work that goes into making something like that, but because further meaning is implied by the randomness of the piece itself, my mind gets lazy and switches off.

The meaning might be astounding but because I had to ask, it takes away from the impact. To put it bluntly: to me, sometimes art can seem like a bad joke, if you have to explain it, it loses all its power and the only reaction it can garner after being explained is “oh”.

But that’s genuinely my own ignorance when it comes to what constitutes art. I’m simple and just enjoy a pretty picture.

Later, I took a walk down to River Street where I browsed the smaller galleries. There I found the work of an artist called Chuck Hamilton, who seems to share my love of the film The Big Lebowski. A lot of his work depicts scenes or characters from the movie.

Now that’s art that I can abide.

A Beautiful City with a Dark Past

Savannah has got to be one of the most picturesque cities I’ve ever been to. There’s ​an abundance of greenery and every house or apartment building looks very homely or absurdly opulent.

The city was one of the first in the United States to be arranged on a grid system making it very easy to navigate around. There are 24 squares in Savannah, each lush and green, and lined with benches welcoming anyone to take a break and admire the beauty. Most of the squares also feature a statue dedicated to a historic figure. However, one square features no such statue and there are significantly less benches.

Calhoun Square, as pointed out by my tour guide, Jeff – a young man dressed like a cross between Indiana Jones and Keith Richards – is a lot ‘lumpier’ than most other squares and there is no central focal point dominated by a statue. That’s because the square, and 60ft in all directions of it, is the site of a mass grave for slaves. 

The roots of the enormous trees are comparable to the size of the branches. As these roots develop they stir up the earth and push to the surface whatever is beneath. Sometimes this includes bones. In fact, while installing street lights around the square in 2004, a human skull was found prompting an investigation into whether the skull was historic or whether it was more recent and warranted further investigation by the police. The skull turned out to be historic, providing a reminder of Savannah’s dark past.

Alligator No-Shows

Ben had given up a good job as a civil engineer to pursue his dream of working for himself. He’d decided that the business for him was to run a shuttle been Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

“You’ve got the bus to yourself today, I hope that’s not a problem?” Ben said as he passed me a bottle of water.  “Saturday is my quiet day. Usually most people are where they want to be by Saturday. Friday and Monday are busy with people going away or coming back.”

The 2 hour journey to Savannah seemed an easy one with barely any traffic. We’d be passed every now and then by a speeding car. 

“We’ll be seeing him again,” Ben said. Not long after, a traffic cop flew past, sirens screaming. Sure enough, we passed the speeding driver as he waited by the roadside, the traffic cop leaning into the passenger-side window.

I asked Ben how long he’d been running the service and how many trips he did in a day. 

“I’ve been doing this for just over a year and I’m still doing the one round trip. It’s about 6 hours of driving a day; it’s all I can manage without losing too​ much concentration. I like driving but I would like to hire someone else eventually. I feel like I’ve got more to offer; there’s more I could take on to help the business side of things. Right now I don’t really do any marketing so it’s all word of mouth – hey, see this area right here, I saw a couple of alligators here a couple of days ago…,”

To our right was a vast swamp that ran from the horizon right up to the side of the road. Ben slowed to the minium speed limit of 45mph. I stared into the dark brown water and amongst the flora but couldn’t see any alligators.

“… None today,” he said and began to speed up again “But I’m getting more customers this year than the same time last year so we’re slowly becoming popular.”

Our journey ended on Hutchinson Island, from there I would need to get a free ferry service across the Savannah River.

“So you know where you’re going once you get across?” Ben asked.

“Near enough,” I said, “I’ve got GPS on my phone so I’ll find it.”

“My kind of traveller. A lot of folks need a little help.  Savannah can be confusing.  After a few days you’ll know the streets pretty well, it was the first city in the US to be built in a grid system so you’ll get to know the main streets and squares. From there you can find anything. Be glad you’re not driving, there are a lot of one-way systems, especially around the squares.”