Crossing the Do-Nut Belt

On January 27, I was driving from Dallas, Texas to St. Marys, Georgia on backroads. I collected all the funny bits for my sister, as a belated birthday present.

Junk-food Mardi Gras cape

All hail the Krewe of Junk Food

The Gulf coast visitor’s center had a display of sequined Mardi Gras finery. My favorite was the one featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, and popcorn containers.

In one small town: “Not Your Mother’s Tavern”
In another: “Mom’s Bar”
In a third: “Mother Clucker’s.”

Baton Rouge has a place called “Schlitz & Giggles: Silly Name. Serious Pizza.”

I usually get a kick out of church signs. When I did a Google search, I realized many of them are not original. The fact that they come from sayingsforchurchsigns.com, rather than from God himself, takes the fun out of it.

Donuts. Did you know the US has a Do-Nut Belt? Shipley’s Do-Nuts says it’s Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. As I drove, I noted dozens of hole-in-the-wall places with no pretentious hyphen in “donut”: Dee Dee Donuts, the Donut Palace, Donut King, and my personal favorite, the Texas Donut Ranch.

I didn’t succumb to either donuts or Do-Nuts.

But it was touch-and-go when I saw a roadside sign saying “Original Homemade Sausage Jalapeño Cheese Bread, one mile,” with an arrow pointing left. I will always regret not stopping.

I will never regret stopping at Ozzy’s. I got love in a takeout container.

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Dick took my picture at the Russell Stover Factory. I know you’ll roll your eyes at this. That’s why I didn’t buy you any.

There was a big green interstate sign for Baptist Pumpkin Center. Without punctuation, I have no idea what that means. Where is the Methodist Pumpkin Center? And the Buddhist Pumpkin Center?

Next Left: Dead Man Road. Followed by a smaller sign saying “Cemetery.” Dunno who else would want to live there.

On any given day, along Interstate 10, thousands of people see the memorials to Buddy, Amanda, Ben, Brian, Wesley, and the Dobbins family. Their descansoes, or roadside memorials, feature lettering large enough to read at 75 mph.

At a slightly slower speed, I drove for five minutes past acres and acres of stored FEMA trailers. In the past decade, they have been replaced by manufactured homes, and there are many businesses that thrive on such things: “House Moving, Lifting, and Leveling.” Fueled by donuts, no doubt.

Speaking of housing, did you know you can buy a whole acre of residential beachfront property in Pascagoula for only $159,000?

Wal-Mart with waterfront view

Looking north, looking south

Just down the road is the most incredible view I’ve ever seen from a Wal-Mart.

Another pretentious sign: “Mississippi Gulf Coast: A Certified Retirement Community.” Certified by whom? Evidently, I’m not the only one to ask that question. Even the Wall Street Journal has a sense of humor about such things as ticks, chiggers and snakes.

One last comment: Even if Cretin Homes is named after the company’s owner, I’d change it.

Brunswick MLK parade photos

Gallery

This gallery contains 61 photos.

These images were taken by Margaret Meps Schulte during the Brunswick, Georgia Martin Luther King Day parade on January 19, 2015. Looking at the proud faces in these photos, I became teary-eyed, wishing I could do more to help my … Continue reading

Why I Still March

View MLK parade photos

In July 1963, there were riots in Savannah, Georgia. A large headline in the Savannah Morning News read, “Rioting Negroes Stone Cars, Set Fires, Smash Windows.” Several stories were run under the headline about property damage during night marches that turned violent.

I wasn’t born yet, but I know that those front-page stories caused problems for my father, the executive editor of the newspaper. Decades later, he told me his publisher had called him on the carpet over it, saying, “Dammit, Schulte, why did you have to put that on the front page?”

Dad was defensive. “There were five thousand people marching in Savannah last night, and you don’t want me to publish the story? This is big news!”

The publisher continued fussing about the articles. “Next time, bury that in the back of the paper.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed a year later, and one would think that would solve the problems. But people are still marching, and the reason is still buried in the back of the paper. Why is that?

Broken window

Broken window in Brunswick

Where I’m living, in Brunswick, Georgia, the median income for a family is $28,564, and 25% of families are below the poverty line. The city’s racial makeup is 60% African-American and 36% white.

Contrast that with neighboring St. Simons island, where the racial makeup is 94% white. There, the median income for a family is $73,580. Only 2% of the families are below the poverty line.

When I first arrived in Brunswick, on my sailboat, Flutterby, the folks at the marina gave us a map of the town. They told us to walk a circuitous route from the marina to the Winn-Dixie grocery store, 2 miles away. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Oh, you know…MLK Boulevard runs through that section,” was the reply. It broke my heart to hear her tell cruising sailors, most of them white, not to even go into the black neighborhood.

Adams Market sign

Latino grocery in Brunswick

I disregarded her advice, discovering charming houses and intriguing Hispanic grocery stores in that neighborhood. I also discovered a lot of abandoned shacks and lots full of weeds. I had some uncomfortable encounters. This was definitely a neighborhood whose residents struggled to survive.

I returned to the neighborhood this past Monday, on Martin Luther King Day. For the first time, I was marching in the MLK parade with a group of folks from the Unitarian church. The day was beautiful and the mood was buoyant.

At the staging area, I photographed the folks who were in the parade. But as we began marching down Gloucester Street and then turning onto MLK Boulevard, it was the people watching the parade who drew me. I began handing out Happy Spot cards, getting hugs and handshakes, and taking photos of the parade-goers.

Why do I march? I have mixed reasons. I love to celebrate the successes of the African-American community, a group of people whose rich ancestry predates my own on this continent. But I also march as a protest. The law may say otherwise, but inequality persists.

Parade-goers in Brunswick

Family watching the parade on Albany Street in Brunswick

The photos I took that day are full of happy people, but they bring tears of sadness to my eyes. Many of the houses behind the parade-goers are unpainted and unkempt, with bare dirt yards. These are people who live below the poverty line, because they don’t have the wealth of opportunities that I do. The economic figures and demographics are painfully clear. Being black and living in poverty often go hand-in-hand.

During the rest of the year, you won’t see any other parades going down these streets. Until they do, and until we have real equality, I’ll keep marching.

Shelter

Most of my phone conversations begin with, “Where are you?” Today, a good friend specifically asked, “What state are you in?”

I know she meant “Georgia.” But my answer was, “Contented.”

Last winter, I struggled in a remote boatyard without a car. When I finally left in April, I was constantly on the move, and I lived out of my suitcase. I stayed in dozens of places in 12 different states, and I never ceased rummaging.

I was perpetually wrinkled, except when Libby insisted on helping me with ironing. I had too many unmatched items, so I took them to a thrift store, where I replaced everything with black. But all suitcases have black interiors! I would unroll every shirt and jacket looking for one pair of pants.

I was terrified to unpack for two reasons. One was the fear of leaving something important behind. The other was the fear of offending my hosts by placing something of mine in their space.

On January 1, I spent the night on the boat with Barry, but it was too cramped for the three of us: Me, Barry, and Barry’s projects. On Saturday morning, I drove out of the boatyard with the intention of finding a short-term rental. Vacation rentals were super-expensive. Craigslist had some ads that were downright scary: “Free rent for female. Send photo.”

I sat in my car, wondering if a women’s shelter could refer me to a safe place. I didn’t know where to find a women’s shelter, so I went to an old, sad motel in on US17. Every car door and flushing toilet woke me, all night long.

I needed a little help from my friends, and I knew where to find most of them on a Sunday morning: At church.

If you know me, you probably just spit out your coffee in shock. Meps? In church?

My favorite church in the world is a tiny Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brunswick, Georgia, where we moored Flutterby for a month in 2012. Walking into the vestibule is like walking into a Happy Spot. I get lots of hugs and exuberant greetings. Sally keeps my old nametag, so I don’t feel like a visitor.

I made an announcement that I was looking for a place to stay, and by early afternoon, I had secured a peaceful room in an elegant townhouse. My housemates were a purring cat named Nell and a brilliant, funny Philadelphia native named Joanne.

That’s when I finally unpacked, setting my suitcase on the top shelf of the closet. I stood back and looked at the sparsely-filled closet and the empty bag with tears in my eyes. Even if it was only for a month or two, this was going to be my home. I could hear Joanne’s music from the living room; we had the same taste in blues and show tunes.

Joanne’s a fabulous cook and has an incredible art collection. We can talk about anything. Soon after I arrived, she told me she’d received an email from a local minister about an emergency homeless shelter that needed volunteers. “It’s supposed to be below freezing on Wednesday night,” she explained. “Count me in,” I told her.

The weather seemed too mild to warrant an emergency shelter when we drove downtown at 10 pm. In a room provided by the Methodist church, all but one of the homeless guests were asleep. There was a mountain of donated food and a huge pot of coffee.

To our surprise, a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time arrived for the same middle-of-the-night shift. We sat in the kitchen, catching up on each others’ news. The hours flew by.

Our conversation was accompanied by gusts of wind that literally shook the tiny building and rattled the windows. When it was time to leave, I stepped out into winter. The temperature had plummeted, and the wind chill made my eyes water. I cranked up the heat in the car.

In a state of gratitude, I crawled into my warm bed with my teddy bears and the purring cat. I was not just grateful for my circumstances, I was grateful for the chance to serve those ten cold and hungry men, whose sparse belongings were piled beneath their cots. I understand their plight all too well.

Turkey with strangers

You can’t argue with this: Thanksgiving is not really about food. If it was, we’d be perfectly happy to eat turkey in a restaurant. There’s an entire episode of Mr. Ed about how horrible that would be.

In 2008, Barry and I planned to spend Thanksgiving with my brother, Stevie. He didn’t call, and he didn’t arrive, and by noon, I realized our plan had fallen apart. Barry and I were in a boatyard, hauled out, with no invitations to a big family meal. There wasn’t even anything appropriate to eat on the boat. I shed a few tears of frustration and loneliness over my sorry plight.

I’d heard a rumor that the God-fearing Baptists in town would be serving dinner for nomads and wandering sailors. I’m no Baptist: You could call me a Baptist-fearing Goddess! But I was willing to face my fears for some turkey and cranberries.

We drove the Squid Wagon into Beaufort at 1:30. “We’re not serving until 3 pm,” said the nice man in front of the Baptist church. “You should go over to the Methodists.”

We headed over there, about a block away. When we walked into the Methodist church, we found that we’d missed their dinner, but they were eager to load us up with leftovers. We staggered out to the Squid Wagon with to-go boxes of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and about a dozen desserts.

Then we climbed back into the front seat of the van and had a debate: Where should we eat our dinner? “I don’t want to eat Thanksgiving dinner on a park bench in town,” said Barry.

We decided to take a one-hour walk and then go back to the Baptist church, where they welcomed us with open arms. Their food was simpler than the Methodists, but we found the camaraderie we were looking for. We were treated as honored guests, not strangers.

Over dinner, we discovered that many of our new Baptist friends were in a hurry to eat and get going; they were going home to share a second Thanksgiving dinner with their families! That explained why the Methodists served so early, why there were so many leftovers.

At the end of our meal, we were urged to take even more leftovers! We were chuckling as we drove back to the boatyard with plenty to share with my brother, who arrived a day later. I pray the God of the Methodists and Baptists forgives us for double-dipping. We gave thanks for every bite, but it was not about the food.

Peaceful Thanksgiving powerboat in Beaufort

Peaceful Thanksgiving in Beaufort

You need more directions?

After my last post, Come Monday, Jayne asked “So where is St. Marys?? :-)” She was writing from Seattle. Then Steve, writing from Paradise Village, outside Puerto Vallarta, said, “We need more directions about St. Marys. Just wondering where you are.”

So I decided, instead of trying to answer in words, I’d draw a couple of maps. The first one shows where St. Marys, Georgia is. The second one shows what you will find if you make it all the way here.

These are not to scale. But of course, you knew that.

Map of the US and southern states showing St. Marys, Georgia

Map of the US and southern states showing St. Marys, Georgia

Diagram of boatyard

St. Marys Boat Services “Features”

A Tablespoon of Happiness

“It’s the fruitcake of stew,” said the young man in a chef’s hat, stirring a gigantic pot over a propane burner. His companions from the Altamaha Technical College Culinary Arts program laughed, but they all nodded their agreement.

That Saturday morning in November, I’d gone looking for the tiny Brunswick, Georgia farmers’ market, and instead stumbled onto a city-wide event, the Brunswick Rockin’ Stewbilee. The highlight of the event was the stew-tasting, 35 booths offering a sample of the stew that was named for this small city.

Or was it? One of the first people I spoke with was a woman who told me, “We do this every year, because Brunswick stew was named after Brunswick.” She laughed. “But it might have been named after Brunswick County, Virginia. They make a lot of stew up there, too.”

I asked the young man in the chef’s hat, “What’s in Brunswick stew?”

“Chicken, pork, beef, lima beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, spices…it’s a fridge-cleaning stew.”

At that point, I decided to talk to the chefs and find out whose fridge they were cleaning out. I walked up to a couple of guys and asked them, “I heard this is fridge-cleaning stew. If so, whose fridge are you cleaning out?”

“That would be mine, I guess,” said Tom, a retiree from the pulp mill who was on the stew crew of the hospital auxiliary. When he worked for the pulp mill, they used his recipe, but since they’d switched to someone else’s, the hospital was now using Tom’s recipe in the competition.

It was a lively competition. When you purchased a ticket, you were given two votes to cast for the People’s Choice award. There was also a Judge’s award, selected by local celebrities, and a Presentation Award. The teams represented not only restaurants, but local businesses, clubs, and a few dedicated families. From what I could tell, the entire town was there, plus tour buses full of tourists.

Brunswick, Georgia Rockin' Stewbilee

Brunswick, Georgia Rockin’ Stewbilee

One local business was giving away schwag with their samples. “Are you trying to bribe the voters?” I asked. “Oh, no, ma’am, I would not stoop that low!” said the volunteer. He turned to hand a stew sample and a frisbee to a woman, saying, “Here, go taste that and then come back and give me your vote.”

I made my way around the booths, looking for the trophies indicating previous award-winners. One group, from the Ole Times Country Buffet, had several 2nd- and 3rd-place trophies. They were attracting a lot of attention by making the most noise in the place, ringing ear-splitting cowbells every time someone tasted or voted for their stew.

“We tried that last year,” said a woman from the hospital auxiliary. “It backfired on us, and we didn’t get as many votes as the year before.” When I cast my vote for Tom’s recipe, she picked up a cowbell and rang it rather gingerly. “There’s a sleeping baby behind you,” she said, by way of explanation.

I wandered from one booth to the next, tasting and asking questions, trying to figure out what makes an award-winning Brunswick stew. More than one person told me, “It’s about balancing the flavors.” Among the samples I tried, the chicken, pork, and tomatoes were consistent, but the flavors ranged from sweet to salty to spicy to bland. The top award-winner, from a group called Renessenz, was the sweetest one I tasted, and I suspected their secret ingredient was sugar.

That was before I looked Renessenz up on the internet. According to their website, “Renessenz produces a wide range of integral ingredients for fragrance, flavor, coolant and industrial intermediate applications.” Their site lists 47 products, unpronouncable chemicals ranging from “dihydromyrcene” to “tetrahydromuguol.” Perhaps their competition is using ingredients like sugar, salt, and pepper, but is the key to Renessenz’s award winning stew was something a little more intriguing?

The truth is, the secret ingredient in Brunswick stew isn’t really a secret. Everyone was proud to tell me their “secret”: “Tender-loving care,” “You know how Grandmother used to cook? That’s my secret.” The county commissioners admitted that they didn’t cook the stew, their staff did. “Our secret is teamwork.”

The simplest, best secret ingredient was that of Gateway Behavioral Health Services, a group that had won many awards over the years, including the People’s Choice, the Judge’s Award, and the Presentation Award. These folks had given their stew a name: Happy Stew.

“Love is the secret ingredient in our stew,” said a volunteer named Jeff. When I pressed him for details, asking how they measured how much love to put in, he replied, “We measure it by the width of unicorn hairs, and the intensity of the dreams of pregnant mermaids.”

Another volunteer, Barbara, chimed in, “It’s a tablespoon of happiness…”

“No,” said Jeff, “it’s half a tablespoon. We were a little too happy last year, we had to cut it back. People started a drum circle, started playing Age of Aquarius, and we decided that was just a little too much for around here.”

By then, I’d already cast my two votes, one for the hospital auxiliary and one for the students at the culinary college. But my real vote goes to the folks with the Happy Stew. It doesn’t really matter what ingredients you put in there, as long as you cook your Brunswick stew with love.

~~~

Wanna clean out your fridge? Try the Quick and Easy Brunswick Stew recipe on my food blog, the Foodie Gazette. It’s nothing like the ones in Brunswick, Georgia, but I can remedy that the next time I make it. I’ll add a full tablespoon of happiness.