Off the Eaten Path
Ever taken a road trip and stopped at an off-the-beaten path diner — the one that serves hidden local specialities like Caramelized Cajun Crawdad or Aged Armadillo Ambrosia? Those can be some of the most memorable moments on the open road. So, when Southern Living Off the Eaten Path: Favorite Southern Dives and 150 Recipes that Made Them Famous came across our desks at Car Talk Plaza, we knew we had to track down author Morgan Murphy for a visit. From Pecan Panna Cotta to Bacon Bourbon, here's what he had to say.
Car Talk: We heard you logged 15,000 miles in a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado doing "research." We're both hungry and impressed. But — how many times did you break down?
Morgan: I think I broke down in every state!
Car Talk: On behalf of mechanics everywhere, thank you.
Morgan: You're welcome, though I tried to do a lot of the repairs myself. People ask, "How did you learn to work on cars?" On a road trip like that you figure out how to become very creative. Duct tape is probably the greatest invention known to man.
Car Talk: We understand you went with a few friends, too. Are you guys all still on speaking terms?
Morgan: We all had a great time. I had some interns from England, Hope and Phoebe, along for the trip. They had never been to the U.S. before and they were very excited to sit in the back of a giant Cadillac, see the whole country and try all that fried food.
Car Talk: We hope you showed them a good time.
Morgan: They arrived on the Fourth of July and we went straight to a giant BBQ in Clayton, Alabama. It was perfect. It started with a reading of the Declaration of Independence, which is basically hate-mail to King George and the British. The girls spent the rest of the party trying to convince people that the British aren't all bad. Then there was a lengthy Baptist prayer, and a huge spread of food, including congealed salads that they had never seen before: aspics, jellos, potato salads. And our host showed us his gun collection. This was also where Hope and Phoebe tried iced tea for the first time.
Car Talk: We hear they make it sweet down there.
Morgan: Sweet enough to give diabetes to a moose. They hated it at first, but by the end of the trip they were completely addicted to sweet iced tea and Southern-style biscuits. They also loved the produce in our grocery stores. We went to a Piggly Wiggly and they were impressed with "all the shiny veggies."
Car Talk: Tell us about some of the food that you tried along the way. Any marinated armadillo kebabs or deep-fried cactus?
Morgan: No armadillos. I did try crickets in Juarez, Mexico, when we hopped across the border. I ordered them by accident. I know some menu Spanish so I ordered a dish that came with guacamole and black beans. The waitress looked surprised, but we couldn't really communicate so I went ahead with it. Then, when the entree arrived, it was a pile of dried, fried crickets — Jiminy and all his friends. But, by that time, the entire kitchen staff had come out to see what I would do. So of course I couldn't back down, and I had to eat them down to the last... antennae. I guess they're considered a delicacy. But we eat some pretty unappetizing looking things in the South, too.
Car Talk: Do tell!
Morgan: Oysters for one. I love oysters but it must have been a brave person who ate the first one, considering what they look like. And you can still get pickled pigs' feet at gas stations, though I've never been motivated to try one. Maybe some day.
Car Talk: Your book talks about the food and also the places that serve it. What's so special about the restaurants you decided to feature?
Morgan: There is a lot of quality out there and people are moving back towards serving local foods. Even very simple restaurants, as simple as hamburger stands, are making that shift. Fresh, quality ingredients can make the simplest food amazing. It makes all the difference to eat a fresh tomato with your burger. And that's what I found and what I wanted to show.
Car Talk: Who takes care of your car when you're not out scouring the countryside for the next, great hidden local diner?
Morgan: My mechanic is Dennis Lyons, and his shop is Impatient Creations. He's very gracious and lets me work on the car with him.
Car Talk: We're sure he appreciates your help with his monthly boat payment.
Morgan: As a matter of fact he does have a boat! They say they don't build them like they used to but thank God! You have to do something major to an old car every 2,000 miles. Newer cars you can just drive them until the wheels fall off without much work beyond regular maintenance.
Car Talk: You're a glutton for punishment, Morgan.
Morgan: As a longtime Car Talk listener, I know about punishment! I have an Eldorado that's bright electric blue. It seats six, has six drinking tumblers, four cigar lighters, with 365 horsepower and no seat belts. But the price for beauty is unreliability.
Car Talk: You're a food and travel writer, but also much more. Between working on your book, keeping your classic cars running, and serving a tour of duty as media outreach director for the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, you keep a schedule that makes us feel like the biggest slackers ever to inhabit a Barcalounger. How do you do it?
Morgan: Life is too short to be bored. I think the secret is not watching TV.
Car Talk: But you do waste time with lousy radio shows, right?
Morgan: I do! I listened to Car Talk a lot on that trip. I thought about calling in a couple times towards the end when the car was acting up. I thought it was possessed. I barely made it into New Orleans, so I took it to a voodoo expert. She burned sage around the car.
Car Talk: I'm sure she was more effective than Tom and Ray would have been.
Morgan: I figured it wouldn't hurt, and it was only $20. Find me a mechanic who charges that!