Road tripping southern style- Southern Appalachian style, actually. Back in the 1970s, families traveled together- generally crammed into one huge car. In the days before minivans and SUVs, we kids even sat on each others’ laps at times. A seatbelt was an object that served no purpose other than to absorb summer heat and then burn your thigh as you slowly melted into those bumpy plastic seat covers. I remember a few times I rode in back of a station wagon, rolling side to side on hairpin curves as we made our way down some long-forgotten two-lane road to visit distant relatives or on some other glorious adventure that got us off the mountain for a while.
Fast food might as well have not existed back in those days. McDonald’s was a very rare treat. I still remember the few times I ate there with my mama, sitting outside at a round concrete table, shaded by a huge, round metal umbrella-thing that appeared to be the yellow and red cap of some psychedelic mushroom. We sat in the Georgia sun among the other mushroom tables, our paper-wrapped cheeseburgers a delicacy to be savored.These trips were rare. Not because of the money spent– we really weren’t hurting financially. It was because eating lunch at a fast food place was disdained among Appalachian culture as a pure waste. Decent people did not blow their money on a road stand hamburger. This was pure foolishness. Good people ate at home or, if necessity demanded, at one of the many roadside picnic areas that dotted the landscape at that time.
You remember those places. They sat back under the pines just around every curve on every highway and backroad across the American south. Round or rectangular concrete tables and benches heavy enough to withstand tornado winds. No kidding- watch any tornado footage you can find. You see trees, transfer trucks, houses all being tossed around like children’s toys in a trailer bedroom. But do you ever see any of those old-school picnic tables flying in that footage? Nope. I rest my case. Those tables sat there in the shade, surrounded by kudzu. If we were lucky, there would be a small creek to play in. Sometimes there was a look-off or maybe a small walking trail. We often met other families that had also stopped off for lunch on their way to or from small towns and communities scattered about the south.
Mama had this old, straw picnic basket. It was oval with a hinged lid, deep enough to carry enough food for a trip to the Smokies or that holy grail of southern road trips- Panama City Beach. It held an entire loaf of bread, paper plates, plastic cutlery, chips, peanut butter, homemade jelly (we didn’t know you could even buy that stuff in a store back then), homemade pickles, tiny cardboard containers of salt and pepper…and anything else she and MawMaw thought we might need. Cold items were kept in an old cooler waiting by the picnic basket in a trunk large enough to store three dead bodies (not that we did).
Sure enough, as we all pulled in and began unpacking, MawMaw would reach into her pocketbook and say, “I brought a tomato!” (That word is pronounced “Tuh- MAY-tuh”, by the way. There is no long o sound anywhere in the word. If you put an “o” in tomato, you automatically brand yourself as an outsider, unworthy of consideration. Folks will listen to you politely then cast sidelong glances at each other when you aren’t watching. Nothing you say will be taken seriously. Watch those long o’s.) Mawmaw grew her own tomatoes in the family garden. (Don’t get me started on that subject). The tomatoes she carried held no resemblance whatsoever to the mealy pinkish objects found on grocery store shelves today. These tomatoes were bright red, meaty and round- and I detested them on sight. The grown-ups slathered loads of JFG mayonnaise onto slices of light bread, added a slice or two of the aforementioned tomato, and topped it off with copious amounts of salt and pepper. This sandwich, by the way, is one of the signature delicacies of American South.
I pulled the crusts off my cheese sandwich and bargained for more chips while MawMaw shook her head at my pitiful lunch. A kid that didn’t eat tomatoes- it just wasn’t normal. In all likelihood, this was an early symptom of some abnormal defect that would one day lead to my drooling in public while I peddled crafts made from yarn and bottle caps. No telling where it might lead.
Looking back, these impromptu picnics were such a common part of my childhood that I gave them little consideration. They were simply a part of daily life. We carried these same picnic lunches on trips to Canyonland Park and Lake Winnie as well as on day-long shopping trips. Mama and MawMaw would no more have considered buying food at these places than they would have considered wearing pants to church.
When my Mama called to make a vacation reservation, the first thing she asked about the room as, “Does it have a kitchenette?”. We stayed at small, family-run motels and motor courts- another rapidly disappearing remnant of the southern way of life. The aforementioned picnic basket held court upon a table in some time roadside room, holding whatever food and snacks we might need. Local restaurants and snack bars were studiously ignored as the frivolous things they were. If we kids ever questioned it, I don’t remember. We were too busy jumping in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico or running about the family campsite in the Great Smokies having fun. We were surrounded by family- Mawmaw, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Life was good and we were loved. We didn’t know life could be any other way back then.
Today, a picnic is as much a novelty to my child as those McDonalds trips of long ago were to me. We buckle into our SUV and purchase our road trip meals from the window of some Taco Bell that we pass along the way. However, at least once on each trip into the Great Smokies National Park, we pull over into some picnic area. I unload that same picnic basket my Mama carried back in the day. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.) My daughter pulls the crust from her sandwich as I, more likely than not, pull out a tomato.