A 3-Day Trip Through Historic Alabama
In Alabama, there's no shortage of respect for the past—from Civil Rights memorials to a timeless recipe for pulled pork.
The last time my friend Andy and I went on a road trip together was 17 years ago, right before our fifth year of college. Along with another friend, we took a semester off to work and save money and then spent eight weeks driving across the country. On our way through the South, we were really anxious to get to New Orleans, so we sped through Alabama in a day, not seeing much of anything. Now, we're both excited to return for a long weekend in the state to explore its rich and complex history.
We're also both huge barbecue fans, but because we live in New York, getting the real deal—Southern barbecue—is next to impossible. As soon as our flight lands in Birmingham, we drive north to Cullman to eat some meat at Johnny's Bar-B-Q. Andy orders a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw—"the classic," as he calls it. My meal sets a high bar for the trip: a baked potato topped with barbecued pork, cheese, sour cream, and bacon bits. Much to Andy's amazement, I still have room for a slice of lemon pie at the end.
After lunch, we head over to the Ave Maria Grotto, a park where a monk named Brother Joseph Zoettl spent 46 years building 125 miniature replicas of churches and well-known structures from around the world, such as St. Peter's Basilica and the Colosseum. The actual grotto is decorated with bits of colored glass and hand-carved marble; in the center is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. We'd been prepared for a high kitsch factor before we came, but I find it moving. Zoettl's commitment to his faith was so deep that he devoted his life to creating this unique place of worship.
The next order of business is tracking down a place to stay. On our way into Decatur, I notice a motel with a cool 1960s-era sign, but when I mention it to a woman we stop on the street to ask for advice, she sounds less than enthusiastic. "It's often in the papers, if you know what I mean," she says.
Andy and I decide to stay at the Country Inn & Suites in Decatur's historic district instead. As for where to eat dinner, there's no discussion at all—we haven't yet satisfied our barbecue craving. We make our way to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, which has cooked its tender pulled pork the same way for more than 75 years, smoking the meat at low heat for 18 hours. What makes the dishes special, though, is Big Bob's famous white sauce, made from mayo, vinegar, horseradish, and cayenne and black pepper. Andy loves the tangy sauce so much, he buys a bottle online when we get back home.
Before turning in, we have a beer and play a game of cribbage at Simp McGhee's, a bar named after an infamous 1900s Tennessee River boat captain who, according to legend, had an extremely colorful vocabulary, liked to play pranks on fishermen, and drank with his pet pig at the pub. Andy and I wonder if the stories about him are true: Simp looks more like a dapper banker type in his portrait hanging behind the bar.
Country Inn & Suites
807 Bank St. NE, Decatur, 888/201-1746, countryinns.com/decatural, from $72
1401 Fourth St. SW, Cullman, 866/468-6527, johnnysbarbq.com, barbecue pork potato $6.25
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 Sixth Ave. SE, Decatur, 256/350-6969, bigbobgibson.com, pulled pork sandwich $3.25
Ave Maria Grotto
1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE, Cullman, 256/734-4110, avemariagrotto.com, $7
725 Bank St. NW, Decatur, 256/353-6284, simpmcghees.com
Deep in the countryside of northern Alabama, the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum is not easy to find—we miss the turnoff from the highway and have to stop to ask for directions. When we finally make it there, Andy and I are amazed by the reproduction of the 20-by-40-foot sharecropper's shack where the four-time Olympic track-and-field gold medalist lived with his parents and nine siblings in the early 1900s. After seeing how cramped the space is, I'll never complain about my 700-square-foot New York apartment again.
It starts to rain as we leave, so Andy and I ditch our plans for a hike and drive south to Newbern to see some of the homes built by students of the Rural Studio. Part of Auburn University, the studio was founded to teach students how to create affordable houses for the poor that don't sacrifice on quality or high design. Those who sign up for the program live for a semester in western Alabama—one of the poorest regions in the country—and build homes on budgets as low as $20,000. The houses are then sold to residents at a below-market rate through a subsidized program. To save money, the students find innovative ways to use unconventional building materials, such as carpet samples, tires, and bottles. The homes are the highlight of the trip for Andy and me—the idea of creating such cool-looking spaces for the social good is truly inspiring. My favorite structure is a chapel in the town of Mason's Bend that has a wall made out of car windows—layered on top of one another, they look like fish scales.