New York City has its bodegas. 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 with batteries and a five-pound bag of White Lily Flour.
There may be shawarma next to shotgun shells, or quarters of hoop cheese and packages of saltines for sale over the counter as well as lottery tickets and a pecan pie made by the owner’s sister.
Documenting these temples independent of commerce and community in the South became a particular priority for the photojournalist. Kate Medleywho, like most kids raised in Mississippi, grew up eating at rural gas stations.
Now living in Durham, North Carolina, Ms. Medley, 42, spent more than a decade collecting images for her photography book, “Thank you, please come back” that the digital magazine The bitter southerner published in December. The book began as a journalist’s curiosity, but ended as a way for a girl from the Deep South to make sense of the beautiful, brutal, complicated place she comes from.
“These places hold a great mystery,” she said. “You’re driving down the road and they grab your visual attention. Then you wonder what’s behind that glass door when you hear that little bell ring. Is this the MAGA South? The welcoming South? Who is at the checkout? Who’s on the grill?
About a dozen years ago, Ms. Medley discovered a Citgo in Durham that became a Nicaraguan place called Latin America Food Restaurant. She developed a theory.
“I thought I could trace the new eating habits of Southern immigrants through what was happening behind these gas stations,” she said.
Some independent gas stations pale under the fluorescent light of chains like QuikTrip and RaceTrac, with their cheap gas, hot dog rolls and endless rows of soda machines. Some station owners let gas pumps dry out or remove them altogether because the local economy is too depressed. Other gas stations became churches or nightclubs, or were abandoned altogether.
The book opens with an essay by the southern writer Kiese Laymon, who grew up in a very different neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, than Ms. Medley. She didn’t know him when she contacted him, but he immediately understood her project.
“I never thought about the fact that my favorite restaurants, when I was a child, a teenager, an adult returning to Mississippi, almost all served gasoline,” he wrote. “And I never, ever thought of them as gas stations that served food.”
He recounts his childhood trips to Jr.Food Mart in Forest, Mississippi, on Friday evening. Her grandmother’s boyfriend, Ofa D, would slip in a Tina Turner tape and drive them around in his pickup. They ordered a box of dark meat chicken, a foam container of fried fish, and a brown paper bag filled with fried potato wedges that everyone in Mississippi calls potato logs.
Medley realized you could study a region through its food in 2005, when she landed at the University University of Mississippi at Oxford, where she began a master’s program in Southern Studies.
Hurricane Katrina struck the day after it began. She spent the next few months traveling the state covering the ravages of The New York Times, her travels fueled by rural gas stations.
They often adopt a Southern “just do it” attitude. If customers want cakes, someone will start making them. A cashier in North Carolina realized she could make a little extra money by buying Bojangles sausage biscuits on the way to work, marking them up and selling them to breakfast customers.
“It’s just this ingenuity and ingenuity that you don’t find elsewhere,” Ms. Medley said.
This is particularly true for some gas stations run by immigrants. Ms Medley took images of Nina Patel and her samosas at Tasty tikka in Irmo, South Carolina, and Gina Nguyen holding a butter-garlic shrimp banh mi at Banh Mi Boyswhich opened at 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 has an immigrant history.
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 stocked with frozen steaks and bags of unshelled pecans. It operates on the honor system. You tell the cashier what you had for lunch. If you’re local, you can put your groceries or gas on a tab.
The restaurant takes up about half the building, and the family’s Italian immigration roots are everywhere in the menu. There are grits and burgers, but also a plate of rigatoni and a po’ boy (their own invention) made with fried balls of chopped black olives, shredded mozzarella and seasoned breadcrumbs tied together with a little mayonnaise and ranch dressing. Seasoned and cured pork loin logs wrapped in canvas called lonza cure in the beer cooler.
Mr. Fratesi, 68, doesn’t think the place will last long after he retires. Already, a chain of gas stations down the street has significantly reduced its gas prices. And no one in the next generation of the family is interested in taking over.
“You have to be married there,” he said.
About 15 miles away, in Indianola, the future is brighter.
Betty Campbell, 69, and her husband opened At Betty’s in an old gas station, around twenty years ago. The restaurant is about two blocks from the BB King Museum. Like her mother, Ms. Campbell was a regular cook for the bluesman and his crew, producing a playlist of reliable Southern standards like Sweet Potatoes, Baked Chicken and Caramel Cake.
The walls of the restaurant are covered with signatures of tourists from all over the world who have come to learn the blues. The family recently covered the old garage bays and enlarged the dining room to make room for the ever-increasing number of tourist buses.
Her younger brother, Otha, who is essentially the maître d’ at Betty’s, said they like to disavow travelers’ preconceptions about racism in the South.
“Not only do black travelers see Betty’s as a safe place to stop for lunch,” he told Ms. Medley for her book, “white travelers also see it as a safe place.”
Small towns in the South remain unofficially segregated, but not at gas stations that sell food — nor at restaurants that sell gasoline.
“There’s something about accessibility and coming together in a space that the whole community shares almost out of necessity or at least convenience,” Ms. Medley said. “All are welcome every time, no matter what.”