Some Of The Best Food In The South Served In These Surprising Locations

Photojournalist Kate Medley takes us on a glorious tour of the service stations, quick stops and convenience stores around a region that’s rightly famous for its rich culinary traditions in her new book Thank You Please Come Again.

This passion project shines a light on those under-the-radar gems that will no doubt inspire many a road trip. It also deftly shows the evolution of this type of food with the influx of immigrants adding a whole lot of flavor to the mix. Let’s go.

Meet Kate Medley

Based in Durham, N.C., Medley has a long list of impressive photo credits in media such as The New York Times. She covers hard news as well as features, with food and the people who make it often playing starring role.

Capturing the evocative images and the stories of the places showcased in the book is something she’s been working on for more than 10 years.

What inspired her to go down this road?

“When I was a kid growing up in Mississippi, one of my first experiences with Indian food was by way of the BP station, which was owned by an Indian couple. The husband worked the cash register. The wife would cook her family recipes at home, package them up in Tupperware containers, and sell them to gas station customers from the refrigerator in the back of the store.

She kept a microwave nearby in case you wanted to warm it up right there. So right out of the gates, these spaces held a mystery for me. The gas was apparent. But what you might find inside was not. So I started stopping.

In my work as a photojournalist, I regularly travel through rural areas all over the South. When I’m hungry, if my choice is the Subway or the local gas station, I’ll choose the latter every single time. These places offer tremendous insight into the community: who is manning the grill, what are they cooking, are they welcoming, is the place packed, what is the aroma, what decorates the wall, etc. When you stop at a Subway, you already know the answers to these questions.”

An all-time favorite and the ever-evolving menu

Medley took a deep dive into the fascinating, complex part of the country while she was in the masters program at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi in Oxford.

One of the time-honored rituals among Ole Miss students was lining up for the now-famous chicken-on-a-stick. “Ray Rupani bought the #4 Corners Chevron back in 2011. He charges $6.99 for one fried chicken-on-a-stick. His busiest hours are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., when he caps the line inside at 50 people, with a doorman implementing a one-in-one-out policy, and the line curves outside around the pumps. When students leave town, he says it’s the slowest gas station in Oxford. But when students are back, he’s easily the busiest.”

One of the most intriguing changes she’s seen over time is the influx of immigrants into this niche market: “Of the approximately 150,000 gas stations in the country, some 60 percent of them are owned by immigrants. There’s a long history of immigrant populations entering the US workforce by way of food businesses. Halal trucks in NYC. Taco stands on the West Coast. Chinese corner stores in the Mississippi Delta. And, in the South, I’d argue that gas stations fit squarely within this food economy.”

She’s witnessed Indian dhabas — roadside restaurants — popping up at gas stations along interstate exits to feed the rise in long-haul truck drivers of East Indian descent.

The reasons behind these intensely flavorful efforts are sometimes bittersweet: “In some areas, we see immigrants opening restaurants in gas stations because there is a lower barrier to entry,” Medley said.

For instance, Bator Cisse of Saint Louis Saveurs in Greensboro, N.C., opened her Senegalese restaurant in the back of a Circle K, serving djolof rice and okra soup. Abbas Alsherees, an Iraqi refugee, opened Shawarma On-The-Go, serving Middle Eastern food in the back of a Jetgo on Magazine Street in New Orleans.

What’s next?

From these humble stages, there are rising stars ready for prime time.

“Peter Nguyen from Banh Mi Boys in Metairie, Louisiana, is well on his way. Also – not in the book, but – Billy Kramer of NFA Burger, located in the back of a Chevron in Atlanta is getting a lot of attention,” Medley said.

Listen to Kate Medley’s story of this project on the Southbound podcast with Tommy Tomlinson. She’s also making an appearance with renowned author Kiese Laymon at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 21. Laymon wrote the compelling introduction to the book.

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