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.