New York City has its wineries. The South has its gas stations.
When you stop to buy motor oil in Mississippi, you can also eat fried chicken on a stick. In North Carolina, you can buy a steaming bowl of pozole along with batteries and a five-pound bag of white lily flour.
There may be shawarma next to the shotgun shells or pieces of soft cheese ring and packets of crackers for sale at the counter along with lottery tickets and pecan pie made by the owner’s sister.
Documenting these independent Southern temples of commerce and community has become a singular focus for the photojournalist. Kate Medleywho, like most kids raised in Mississippi, grew up eating at rural gas stations.
Medley, 42, who now lives in Durham, North Carolina, has spent more than a decade collecting images for his photography book. “Thank you, please come again,” that the digital magazine The Bitter Southerner published in December. The book began with a journalist’s curiosity, but ended up as a way for a daughter of the Deep South to make sense of the beautiful, brutal, complicated place she came from.
“These places contain a great mystery,” he said. “You’re rolling down the road and they grab your visual attention. So you wonder what’s behind that glass door when you hear that little bell ring. Is it the MAGA South? The welcoming South? Who is at the cash register? Who is on the grill?
A dozen years ago, Medley discovered a Citgo in Durham that had been converted into a Nicaraguan place called Latin America Food Restaurant. She developed a theory.
“I thought I could chart the food routes of emerging immigrants in the South through what was happening behind these gas stations,” he said.
Some independent gas stations are fading under the fluorescent light of chains like QuikTrip and RaceTrac, with their cheap gas, hot dog vending machines, and endless soda vending machines. Some station owners let their gas pumps run dry or remove them entirely because the local economy is too depressed. Other gas stations have been converted into churches or nightclubs, or abandoned entirely.
The book opens with an essay by the southern writer Kiese Laymon, who grew up in an area of Jackson, Mississippi, very different from Ms. Medley. She didn’t recognize him when she approached, but he understood her idea immediately.
“I had never thought about the fact that my favorite restaurants, as a child, teenager, and adult upon returning to Mississippi, almost all served gasoline,” he writes. “And I never, ever thought of them as gas stations that served food.”
Tells the story of childhood trips to Jr. Food Mart in Forest, Mississippi, on Friday nights. His grandmother’s boyfriend, Ofa D, would play a Tina Turner tape for them and take them in his truck. They ordered a box of dark meat chicken, a foam container of fried fish, and a brown paper bag full of fried potato wedges that everyone in Mississippi knows as potato logs.
Ms. Medley realized that you could study a region through its food in 2005, when she landed in the University of Mississippi at Oxford, where he began a master’s program in Southern studies.
Hurricane Katrina arrived the day after it began. He spent the next few months traveling the state to cover the devastation for The New York Times, and his trips were fueled by rural gas stations.
They often adopt a Southern “do it all” attitude. If customers want cakes, someone will start baking them. A cashier in North Carolina discovered that she could make a little extra money by buying some Bojangles sausage biscuits on her way to work, marking them up, and selling them to the people she ate for breakfast.
“It’s just this ingenuity and ingenuity that you don’t find elsewhere,” Ms. Medley said.
This is particularly true of some immigrant-run gas stations. Ms Medley took images of Nina Patel and her samosas in tasty tikka in Irmo, SC, and Gina Nguyen holding a shrimp banh mi with garlic butter in Banh Mi Boyswhich opened in a family-owned Texaco in Metairie, Louisiana.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Medley took me to a place in the middle of the farmlands of the Mississippi Delta that also grew out of an immigrant story.
Mark Fratesi’s father opened Fratesi grocery and service center in 1941 in Leland. It’s a wonderland of homemade pork rinds, pantry staples and bait, with a freezer full of frozen filets and bags of shelled pecans. It works on the honor system. You tell the cashier what you had for lunch. If you are local, you can pay for your groceries or gas in an account.
The restaurant occupies about half the building, and the family’s Italian immigration roots are all over the menu. There are grits and burgers, but also a plate of rigatoni and a po’boy (his invention) made with fried balls of chopped black olives, shredded mozzarella and seasoned breadcrumbs, held together with a little mayonnaise and ranch dressing. Canvas wrapped logs of seasoned and salted pork loin called lonza cure in the beer cooler.
Fratesi, 68, doesn’t think the place will last long after he retires. A nearby gas station chain has already lowered gas prices by a dime. And no one from the next generation of the family is interested in taking over.
“You have to be married to that,” he said.
About 15 miles away, in Indianola, the future is better.
Betty Campbell, 69, and her husband opened Betty’s place in an old gas station, about 20 years ago. The restaurant is about two blocks from the BB King Museum. Like her mother, Ms. Campbell was a regular cook for the blues musician and his crew, and she put together a playlist of reliable Southern standards like sweet potatoes, baked chicken and butterscotch pie.
The walls of the restaurant are covered with signatures from tourists from around the world who have come to learn about the blues. The family recently covered the old garage spaces and is expanding the dining room to make room for the growing busloads of tourists.
His younger brother, Otha, who is essentially the maître d’ at Betty’s, said they like to repudiate travelers’ preconceived notions about racism in the South.
“Black travelers not only see Betty’s as a safe place to have lunch,” he told Ms. Medley for her book, “white travelers see it as a safe place, too.”
Small towns in the South are still informally segregated, but not at gas stations that sell food or restaurants that sell gasoline.
“There is something about accessibility and coming together in a space that the entire community shares almost out of necessity or at least convenience,” Ms. Medley said. “Everyone is welcome at all times, no matter what.”