Brantley, Alabama—it’s the Christmas season and Main Street is decorated. Red ribbons on posts, strings of pinery, wreaths.
A few days ago, it was almost seventy outside. Today it’s going to snow in Alabama.
Welcome to the South.
Muddy trucks ride through the center of town. Livestock trailers carry horses. A truck with seven thousand chicken crates on back.
I’m eating at Michael’s Southern Foods—the only eatery in town.
“Some weather,” says an old timer, sipping iced tea.
“Damn sure is,” says another.
“Yessir, saw all’em cattle was layin’ down.”
“Damn sure was.”
Things move slow in Brantley.
This restaurant is no bigger than a living room. Old floors. Old tables. Old people.
I can smell smoked pork chops and cornbread.
There is a round table filled with loud-talking, white-haired men. Fellas wearing boots, camouflage, and handlebar mustaches. They are men who pronounce the word “tire” as “tar.”
Old Timer points to the table. “We call that “The Liars Table.”
“Damn sure, do.”
This place is so charming it hurts. And it’s among the last of its kind.
A place that still serves butterbeans with more bacon than bean. Collards that sing. Hand-patted burgers. Onion rings big enough to use as halos in a nativity scene at the Baptist church.
Through the window, I see a woman crossing the street. She’s heading for the restaurant.
Old Timer beats her to the door. He holds it open, then tips his cap to her.
You don’t see hat-tipping anymore.
But then, this place is the old world. That’s because this cafe has been going since the early forties—serving almost the same menu.
“Don’t see a need to change,” says Michael, the owner. “Just want people to eat and be happy.”
And that’s what he does. It’s mostly locals who eat here. Some warm a chair every day of the week.
Even during the threat of Alabamian snow.
“All I’ve ever done is cook,” says Michael. “All I know how to do. I could do it in my sleep.”
And it shows. His fried chicken should be served with a King James Bible and a carnation. He works twelve-hour days in this kitchen, making food the same way your granny would have cooked it.
And he’ll probably be standing at the stove the day before his own funeral.
Feeding Crenshaw County is an exhausting life, but Sundays make life worth it.
“Sundays are crazy,” says Michael. “We get tons of folks after church, we do’em a real good lunch.”
“Damn sure do,” says Old Timer. “Line goes out the door sometimes.”
“Damn sure does.”
Michael gives them more than lunch. He gives customers America, the kind your granddaddies and great-granddaddies knew.
A time before Main-Street storefronts dried up—because Walmart moved to town. Back when families took care of businesses, and businesses took care of families.
We’re interrupted by Michael’s daughter, who works here. She hands him a baby granddaughter. Michael’s wife works the kitchen. She wipes the baby’s cheeks with a napkin.
Michael kisses the child.
“My family is important,” Michael goes on. “Long time ago, after I finished up at Auburn, I came home and I just knew… I knew I’d never leave this town. Why would I?
“There just ain’t no place better than Brantley, Alabama.”
There damn sure ain’t.
S I D - December 9, 2017 7:58 am
Lot like Attalla…Gadsden has moved up with a couple of shopping centers which have lost stores…..ride by the two for your comments, please… Grew up in Etowah Cty; moved to Bham to work and eat; 40 yrs later…..home again without much change. Love reading about a lot of towns in Alabama…Home for someone to enjoy still…xoxoxo.
Jim - December 9, 2017 1:54 pm
There are a lot of “Brantley Like” towns in south Alabama! Damn shore are!!
Leisa Taylor - December 9, 2017 2:09 pm
“Brantley, Alabama—it’s the Christmas season and Main Street is decorated. Red ribbons on posts, strings of pinery, wreaths.”
Boy does this bring back memories! I grew up in Andalusia and was a student at UA. I can remember driving home after fall finals and the feeling I’d get as I entered the city limits of Brantley. I loved the decorations and it was just a relief to know, at that point, that I’d be back home very soon! Thanks for once again capturing the unique charm that is South Alabama!
Jack Darnell - December 9, 2017 3:43 pm
Okay, now Brantley is on the list. Yep we keep a list The list of places to go. Places to eat, things to see. When we got to Orlando I took the list out. I remembered something like ‘Hot Dog Heaven’.
But that all aside, I sure do like the sound of Brantley! THANKS
Jakki - December 9, 2017 4:35 pm
I will go there.
Bob Hubbard - December 9, 2017 5:30 pm
Well…I can say the same thing about Anniston Alabama so I guess we may have a tie. Guess I’ll have to visit Brantley…….
Billy Bob (REALLY) from Alabama many years ago
Asher Carmichael - December 9, 2017 7:08 pm
My dad was born and reared 9 miles north of Brantley in a hamlet known as Glenwood and I guess that’s about as close to home for me as any town I’ve ever lived in. You see, dad became a Methodist minister so we moved all over northwest Florida and south Alabama when my sister and I were growing up. Holidays found us going to Glenwood to visit family so it was a constant in a life of pulling up stakes and moving every few years whenever dad changed churches. When he and mom retired they moved back to the farm so my young family had the opportunity of experiencing Glenwood as well. If you were to ask either of my daughters where we ate on Sundays when we were visiting the farm, Southern Foods in Brantley would certainly be on the list. Thanks for helping complete my Holiday with great memories of ‘home.’
Sandi in FL - December 9, 2017 7:19 pm
This is one of my favorite posts by you, Sean. But then, I can say that about almost all of them! I wasn’t even hungry until reading some of the menu items. True Southern cooking always includes cornbread, butter-beans and collards..
Rebecca Walters Cleghorn - December 10, 2017 4:43 am
Came through there just a few hours ago headed home to Andalusia. All the decorations were beautiful! Houses looking like the front of a Christmas card! Ate at Michaels several years ago when my husband was doing some work in Brantley. Well worth the drive from Andalusia!
Love your posts, Sean. You know how to touch our heart strings!
Gary D Driver - December 11, 2017 2:38 pm
I have to admit you pretty much nailed it on this one. However, any story about Brantley is incomplete without a few lines about one of its citizen. Patsy Morgan has dedicated her life to education. After retiring from public school she begin a second career at Crenshaw Christian Academy. All of her students remember her and want their kids to have a chance to be in her classes. At 78, she tells me this is her last year. We’ll see. Maybe a future trip through here you and stop in and meet Ms. Patsy.
Ann Marie Sasser - December 19, 2017 12:30 am
My husband Mike Sasser, from Brewton like Jamie but considerably older, coached in Brantley in the mid seventies. He went there from Mountain Brook in Birmingham where he was an assistant. The first year we were there, I took the Birmingham News by post. The second year, I fell in love with Brantley. Michael’s Southern Foods was Ray’s Southern Foods—owned and run by Ray Tompkins. The food was exactly as you described. They also had a divine hamburger steak. Ray’s youngest childd Charles is now a doctor in Luverne and was on Mike’s team. Mike once said of Charles: “Pound for pound (Charles was sparse) he’s the best player I’ve ever coached.” Mike got much instruction at the round table. Those gray haired men you encountered were young when we were there and their stories were already legend. They held forth and were chivalrous then, too. Often as we get older, we lose touch with things that we once treasured. Thanks for letting me know that something I treasured still exists.