We are driving through southeast Mississippi, heading toward Mobile.
Richton is a sleepy little town whose underground salt dome was to be the site of the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve.
That didn’t happen.
A fighter jet escorts us as it swoops and loops overhead when we enter Alabama at Wilmer.
Other than maybe an imagined whiff of jet fuel, the only petroleum odor is faint auto exhaust, both delectably overcome by barbecued-pork woodsmoke from a roadside converted oil drum wafting through the spread branches of live-oak trees.
A large official-looking sign greets us to “Sweet Home Alabama,” from the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Of the Southland, the band responds:
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well I heard ole Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.
The smart money is that this is still not politically correct territory.
A sign catches my eye: “Stuckey’s Express 50 miles,” where you can still get Pecan Log Rolls that used to be sold in the blue-roofed Stuckey’s across the South.
I have my eye peeled for a gamecock farm, in plain sight on the highway just like it was in 1975 on my first trip to Mobile:
Fierce roosters tethered to little A-frame houses spread out across a hillside so the cocks won’t kill each other before the illegal fights are held in backwoods arenas that draw a whiskey-drinking crowd to the bloodbaths on Saturday nights.
I look for a pickup winking at us as sunlight bounces off its windshield as we pass through this place, just as I wrote more than four decades ago when I sent a long unsolicited piece to The New Yorker.
I got a nice hand-written rejection letter in elegant cursive, an endangered species, from a genteel Southern lady, Mary Painter, who was longtime assistant to then-editor William Shawn.
The editors passed my piece around, she said, but, alas, it was too much like Calvin Trillin’s U.S. Journal series written in honor of the country’s bicentennial. Nice letdown.
I talked to her on the phone (in addition to the note I received, a double scoop of a treat that I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time) in that elegant Deep South accent that is fast disappearing. I learn from researching this article that she was a native of Columbus, Miss.
This time, I spy Satchel Paige Drive in the western edge of Mobile, named for the legendary black pitcher who made a name for himself in the Negro Leagues because he was denied the right to pitch in the Major Leagues because of his skin color until he was athletically ancient.
There is always art where you least expect it on southern back roads. Like the monstrous white chicken devouring an old El Camino pickup abandoned on the side of the road, its advertising days long gone.
We come into Mobile on Government Street, whose live oaks reach out and over passing cars while gleaming white mansions overlook the fray.
It’s termite time down in the moist and woody tropical South.
The flying insects can get anywhere where there’s an opening, or, of course, make their own entrances.
We stopped in a downtown bar and grill, whose doors were thrown wide open for all, for a mid-afternoon snack and were greeted by the critters, a few of which were attempting to make our tabletop a landing strip.
An alt-weekly, Lagniappe, had a legal ad for those who want to take action against termite companies.
When a front-desk clerk at the historic Malaga Inn, where we stayed the first night, asks if we like oysters, we nod vigorously.
He suggests Wintzell’s Oyster House, and I say, oh yeah, the place where the low ceiling is festooned with business cards attached to the ceiling with toothpicks.
Well, not quite these days. The place I visited is now several times bigger, the ceiling has been raised and the calling cards have been replaced by corn-pone sayings.
But there is still business to be done at Wintzell’s. You can own one if you like. They’re franchised. Isn’t that the threat to any successful restaurant?
The order of our business to order food. My wife was served a dozen on the half shell – the meat as big as large unshelled walnuts.
I went for 16 prepared four ways: Monterey, Bienville, Rockefeller and Chargrilled.
My wife took pity on me and traded a limited number of her wonderful au naturel specimens for my “value-added” choices.
David Wills, a shucker for three months, says what we are eating are “wild Texas oysters,” not from Mobile.
That’s because Mobile Bay’s oyster population has been decimated by overharvesting for a century and, more recently, maintenance dredging the shipping channel, according to Laginappe.
Oyster farms offer select oysters for a pretty penny.
Murder Point oysters sell at $1 for each 2.5-incher or $15 for a dozen 3.5-inchers.
Just as the oysters you eat in Mobile may not be local, the Murder Point product actually is harvested in Bayou La Batre on the Point of Pines, according to Jordon Zirlott, whose family bought the farm in 2014.
The name Murder Point derives from a colorful slaying in a dispute over a lease for the oyster beds back in the early 20th century. The Zirlotts, who bought the eponymic site and traded it later for a more-accessible location, decided to keep the intriguing name and add the slogan “Oysters Worth Killing For.”
(Bayou La Batre is also the site of fictional Bubba Gump Shrimp, from the movie “Forrest Gump.” But there is nothing fictional about Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which has franchises all over the world.)
Hanging baskets allow the mollusks to absorb nutrients and minimize grit and other undesirable things that sink to the bottom where oysters naturally grow.
Oysters are made for swallowing. They go down easy. So easy, a slender young woman dressed in a black business suit recently downed 223 in 48 minutes at Wintzell’s to set a world record.
Now, she did not keep all of them down (she came equipped with a bucket), but the idea is that if they’re swallowed it counts, says Wintzell’s assistant manager Philip Whatley.
It was all for a good cause. The feat raised $4,000 for the Distinguished Young Women.
Mobile has added skyscrapers with spires that make them look like the Chrysler Building in New York.
The RSA Battle House Plaza Hotel is 35 stories tall and 774 feet with spire, the tallest in Alabama and the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel is 28 stories, 374 feet with spire.
The spire of the Renaissance was added in 2008, 25 years after the building was constructed, to match the Battle House’s top, and, according to one possible urban legend, to reflect the fact that the RSA (The Retirement Systems of Alabama), has invested in the Chrysler Building.
A call to the RSA was not returned.
The spires are testament that the city – established in 1702, and slightly older than New Orleans, is naturally capitalizing on its history and charm — is modern.
The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce states that capital investment in the city of about 200,000 in the past decade was nearly $8.5 billion, and about 16,000 jobs were added to the economy, which, is based on its location on the Mobile Bay and the Mobile River, which lend themselves to shipping, the seafood industry and shipbuilding.
Yet there is a gracious and palpable appreciation from Mobile residents to those who come to the city to take in its charms, which are many.
Maybe it’s in part because it plays second fiddle to Birmingham and sometimes is referred to as “the Little Easy,” little sister to New Orleans.
But it also comes natural down in these parts.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Richton Salt Dome was the site of two nuclear weapons tests in 1964. Those tests were in the Tatum Salt Dome southwest of Hattiesburg. Also, Bayou La Batre is on the western shore of Mobile County, not on Dauphin Island. Sorry, it was fast trip.
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