By Jay Reed
Eats One Ate
It wasn’t too many years ago that I was, by default, a regular world traveler. Living across the big pond for the better part of a decade helped to facilitate that title, for while we lived on that side of the world, we took the opportunity to see as much of it as we could. Along those flight paths we got a chance to meet some very interesting people and experience the foods of their culture.
Fast forward to the end of 2009. Starkville became our home once again, and I settled into a job that also required some travel, but this travel was different. Passports, visas and airport security became less important, while gas prices and — let’s be honest – clean restrooms began to take priority in trip planning. And of course, whenever I stop for one of the above reasons, I am also going to check out the food. Service stations have offered hot food for a long time, and part of my resume includes delivering fried chicken and chili cheese dogs from one superette to another. But things have changed in that world. Fried chicken is still to be found, but today it may be the meat to your “meat and three” lunch plate, and not just a part of a combo with a tater log. There’s nothing wrong with tater logs and corn nuggets, to be sure, but service stations have certainly taken hot food to a new level.
In this new role as commuter I have worked — and therefore eaten — in quite a few of the small towns and villages between Starkville and Oxford since that fall of 2009. There is more than one way to get from here to there, and lots of places to find good grub along the way — so many, in fact, that I have decided to limit this short series to places that are at least connected to a service station along my usual route.
If you get hungry before you get fully out of town, our go-to place for chicken tenders is the Fast Break on 182, near the Highway 25 junction. Even before we moved back to town, we were introduced to “gas station chicken” by The Parents (aka Doc and Gran). The pickiest of eaters among my children and their friends would light up when they overheard Gran ask Doc if he would go pick up some gas station chicken for lunch. I always get a Cock-of-the-Walk style catfish filet as well, just to serve as an appetizer to this chicken with a little kick.
My next stop on the way to Ox-Vegas is Jerry’s Bar-B-Q in Mathiston. Jerry Jones, a Webster County judge, opened up his place in a former service station (thus allowing it to fit my criteria) just this side of the Natchez Trace overpass. When it first opened, I spotted someone tending the smoker parked right out front. That means a lot to me (as a friend of barbecue) to know that what I’m eating is locally made. I also like the fact that Judge Jones served my pork plate with the sauce on the side, not already soaked into the meat. That’s a sign that he believes the flavor of the meat stands on its own. I like his sauce, but I get to choose how much I use. Not long ago I ordered a simple barbecue sandwich, and once the sandwich was long gone (I might have made it out of Mathiston, but barely) I could still smell the smoke on my fingers. I like that. And his chocolate cobbler was pretty doggone good, too.
For a while I had a regular gig in Eupora, and I still get over there from time to time. I’ve had several good meals there at a variety of places, but when it comes to service station dining, Pepper’s Race Two seems to be the place for home-style cooking. My co-workers told me to go early, or there wouldn’t be anything left, so I took their advice and beat the crowd. Sure enough, as I sat in the back part of the store enjoying my meat and veggies, I watched everything from families to crews of construction workers file through that line.
Not far up the road as we move north on Highway 9 is the Walthall Quick Stop. Normally I pass through Walthall at dawn and dusk, on a tight morning schedule or just ready to get back home at night, so for the longest I was left wondering what all those cars in the parking lot were doing there. But eventually I was able to time my evening drive to arrive during the dinner hour and I called in my order for the Real Deal sandwich, which a co-worker who knew the place had suggested. I had planned to get it to go and eat it on the road, but when I saw this mammoth sandwich I knew I was certain to make a huge mess in the car (and by default, my lap), so I took my to-go box to a table. The Real Deal is pretty simple: strips of sirloin steak on a sourdough bun, dressed however you like it. Sometimes I’m a little wary of steak sandwiches — they can be tricky. The meat might be thick and tough, or so thin you can hardly call it steak. But this sandwich lived up to its name. The steak was indeed thick, but was incredibly tender, well-seasoned, and piled high on the bun — it would have absolutely been all over my lap in the car. Now I can’t believe I waited so long to try it — this is one of the tastiest sandwiches I have ever had anywhere. And it’s in Walthall, Mississippi. Who’d a thunk?
Are we there yet? Nope — it’s not the end of the journey. Stay in the car with me — there’s more road food to come.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .