That said, for as much experience as I had going into this, I still had no idea what sort of culinary adventure I'd be embarking on when heading to the South. Would everything be cooked in pork fat, leaving me rail thin after a vegetarian tour? Would all their coffee have hints of chicory, leaving me exhausted as I repeatedly turned down their gross coffee with that unnecessary flavor addition? Would there even be convenience stores that would cater to a yank like me, or would I be run out of town the moment I uttered my first undrawled word? I was heading into uncharted territory. A place no one had ever gone before. I was a modern Christopher Columbus. No, the Vikings. No! I was just like the Paleo-Indians! A real historical figure of great courage, I was!
After all those weeks of riding, I can now authoritatively say that, while I missed Wawa, Southern convenience stores are wonderful in their own right. There seemed to be more Mom N' Pop style stores along the way, especially down in Mississippi and Alabama, which meant I even found some homemade food, something you don't see too often in the Northeast. Also, the non-chain stops seemed to have less of a focus on cleanliness and more of a focus on self-service, an upgrade in expedience that I will take in a non-third world country. Hmm... those may not be selling points for a lot of you. If not, here are what I consider the three biggest:
- Hannah's Pickled Eggs - If any one thing can be used to gauge your depth within the South, I believe it's the availability of Hannah's Pickled Eggs (Hannah's Pickled anything, really, as there is no shortage of Pickled Sausages and Pickled Pigs Feet). While tough to find in the Carolinas, once you venture into the deeper South (AL, MS), any self-respecting convenience store will have an open 5-gallon jug of individual retail, pink, pickled eggs, with Hannah's being the most common option. And next to that jug will be either a box of cheap sandwich bags or a stack of hotdog trays in which to put your selected eggs. If you're lucky, there will also be a set of tongs for fishing them out. If you're not lucky, there will instead be a layer of hand-dirt floating along the meniscus. Regardless of the self-service pickled egg delivery system that you're presented with, be assured that if you can find a jug of Hannah's in your travels, it will be a good day.
- Pimento Cheese Sandwiches - I am certain that even the most atheistic vegan would agree that Pimento Cheese is a gift directly from God. For those not in the know, Pimento Cheese is a delicious salty, cheesy spread that can be delivered via any bleached carb, with white bread being my preference. The best part about Mom N' Pop shops is that there's a good chance that they'll make and package their own sandwiches, with each recipe just a little different along the way (and with none providing any real nutritional value). This means you can eat a Pimento Cheese sandwich every day on tour and never get the same one twice. This is why Pimento Cheese is commonly referred to as the Snowflake of the South.
- Long Boys and Uncle Al's Planks - These last two entries were impulse buys at a check-out, and they did not disappoint. Long Boys are just tootsie rolls made of toasted coconut rather than chocolate. Planks are just thin vanilla cookies with different flavored icing, strawberry and lemon being my two favorites. They are both delicious treats, and each is elegant in its simplicity. That's right, I called them elegant. I can do that because I'm a gourmet.
This would not be a fair and balanced review if I didn't tell you about the negatives. My only culinary disappointment was the complete lack of self-serve pickled okra. As an okra fan, I really wish there had been open jugs of pickled okra just sitting out. Other than that, Southern Convenience Store Food gets a great big high five of approval followed up by a complicated series of hand slaps and fist bumps.