Chocolate lovers love bargains! Wandering the dazzling, decadent aisles of Whole Foods yesterday, I discovered that the baking aisle contains a hunky 9.7 oz. slab of Scharffen Berger Semisweet for $7.99. Whereas, in the candy bar aisle on the other side of the store, 1 oz. bars of Scharffen Berger are almost $2, and 3 oz. bars go for $3-something. Do the math.

It's kind of overwhelming being back here in the Land of Organic Plenty after 24 days in the South. The Whole Foods in New Orleans was mini & cute; its scale reminded me (ironically) of Manhattan stores, with narrow aisles, vertical space carefully exploited, & many items only available in the smallest sizes. In Birmingham, we wrote up a full grocery list for our trip to Golden Temple, only to find that it was about the size of a corner store, with a produce section to match: maybe a dozen kinds of organic veggies, only a few specimens of each, pre-bagged & stored inside glass-doored refrigerators, along with a few baskets of apples, pears & bananas. To their credit, most of it looked in pretty good shape, & some of it was not too expensive. We bought a head of lettuce, some bananas & apples, & sheepishly asked for directions to the nearest supermarket. Gotta hand it to those folks for keeping the faith. In Tupelo, while checking out we asked the motel clerk for a brunch recommendation. She said, Shoney's across the street. (Shoney's is ubiquitous in the South, as is Waffle House, Applebee's, McDonald's, Burger King, &c. &c.) I clarified my request: is there anything local? She shook her head & said, all the mom & pop places are gone. We got in the car & fled, nibbling rye crackers & dried apricots from our snack stash.

Why I Love Artists: at Swimming Gal's birthday party, I was introduced to someone named Laetitia, who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually it came to me: "Oh, you're the one who does that hand thing, aren't you?", I asked, as I wiggled a hand in the air. She smiled, "Yes, except it's the other hand", putting her left hand up & wiggling it the way I was wiggling my right (wrong) hand. Oh!


Foodporn fans, I do believe these are the best cupcake shots I've ever seen.


These beautiful red flowers were everywhere in the South, but I never found out what they were until now. Lycoris radiata, hurricane lilies. Turns out they're native to China & Japan. Which reminds me that I was going to comment on the striking similarities between the Mississippi Delta & the Pearl River Delta, where a lot of the older Mississippi Chinese families originally came from. The weather is basically the same. Both places are in the southeast part of their respective countries & continents. I think there are some cultural similarities too, but that part is more of a gut feeling, not so easy to pin down or explain. Basically it seems to make sense that someone from a Guangdong farming village could feel comfortable in Mississippi. In Greenville we heard about someone's grandmother who used to farm an enormous garden full of Chinese vegetables & hand them out to all the Chinese families in the area. I bet those veggies grew there just fine.


It's quite validating to see that I'm not the only person who's been wondering how the whole Red States / Blue States designation became so (seemingly) entrenched. People have been asking me if Mississippi & Alabama are red or blue states. The answer is red, meaning Republican. I hadn't actually been sure until I checked, because I kept thinking about all the African American voters, who usually tend to be Democrats. However, my gut feeling was that we were in very red territory, especially one night at dinner when the old Chinese dude I was talking to said, somewhat accusatorily, "You're from Berkeley? You're probably a Democrat!"

Also one pollen-filled evening in Birmingham, Donna bought some Sudafed, which is like, a controlled substance down there because people are using it as an ingredient in their speed recipes or something. So Donna had to get it from the pharmacist, who joked, "I can't sell it to you if you're a registered Democrat." Verrry funny.

Do I need to remind y'all to get out & vote? Blue! Blue! Blue! So there!

You know, it's nice to be home. I turned on the radio & instead of "Redneck Woman" there was all this beautifully melodramatic fado, a slew of smokin salsa, & good bluegrass, & also some really old (I mean 1980!) Cindy Kallet, which I hadn't heard in ages & was the perfect Music To Roast Vegetables By.


Fear not, the blogging won't stop just cause I'm not on the road anymore. Although it might pause for a few days while I recover from this massive exhaustion. I don't even know why I'm awake right now, except to say it's a shame that Frank Wong's fierce gumbo isn't on the official menu at his restaurant, Trey Yuen. Frank & his 4 brothers all run this restaurant together & apparently have a fine old time in the process. They each get a whole week off every 5 weeks. How's that for a vacation schedule?! Talk about some serious contrast to all the struggling restaurant owners we met who slave away 24/7. Dinner with these cheerful guys (plus their pal the famous Sheriff Harry Lee, who'd caught 45 fish that day & shared one with us) was a nice upbeat way to end the trip. More later when I'm not so tired.





Some more pictures for y'all.

My body woke up at 7 am thinking that it was still 9 am somewhere in the South. Time to get up, eat breakfast, reconstitute the whirlwind of objects all over the motel room back into the dense blocks of luggage, figure out how to proceed with the day from town to town, restaurant to restaurant. But no! I'm home & the only thing I really have to do today is meet Sarah for gelato before her play opens at the Berkeley Rep tonight. (I decided I better wait to see it until all my brain particles have arrived home properly.)

The weather is drastically different. The last couple days in New Orleans were in the upper 80s & sticky muggy humid tropical. I have several new mosquito bites that all itch at once. Here at home it poured torentially all day yesterday & the temperature is in the low 60s. It's all a bit of a shock to the system. That was a long, long trip. On the plane coming home I finished reading Anthony Walton's Mississippi: An American Journey. While I was reading a section about Robert Johnson, Donna was in the seat next to me reading Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began. Clearly we had not really left. Even now I can hear that lonesome train whistle coming up from the tracks in Emeryville, & the feeling it evokes is subtly changed now. I've been listening to those train whistles for most of my adult life, ever since moving to the East Bay in 1986. I think for a lot of people that sound is somehow inherently tied to the blues, & for me it's been no different, but now that I've been to the home of the blues, seen the cotton fields, driven the highways, I hear the train & it summons up so much more. I remember having to pause for several minutes in the middle of interviewing Van Tran at his gas station/Chinese takeout place, while the long, long train rumbled & roared by, drowning out all other sound. I remember hanging out with Lansing in his old-time corner grocery store when a customer came in & asked for chips; Lansing said there weren't any chips, sold the customer some cookies or something else instead, & then came back & told us how the chip delivery man was so unreliable. For the chip man, Lansing's little store was a trivial & superfluous nuisance compared with his stops at Walmart & the big supermarkets in town. Lansing refused to be interviewed, saying that everybody wants to do a documentary about the Delta Chinese, "but it never does any good, it never changes anything".

What he didn't say (& we didn't bring it up either) was that those documentary makers must have practically peed in their pants over him -- mixed Chinese & African American, almost old enough to be called an old man, full of mildly eccentric wit, opinions & stories -- soundbites! -- repairing computers in the back of this grocery store that looked like it hadn't changed in a hundred years. Even the few groceries themselves looked vintage, sparsely populating worn wooden shelves. I've been in that position before, being the photo subject of choice because of some perceived exoticism, because I could be used to represent something on someone's agenda. So we left all the equipment in our bags & just hung out. He pulled a cardboard box off one of the shelves & opened it to show us his childhood Chinese readers that he had never studied. I smiled to myself, thinking, he probably thinks he's torturing us because we wish we could get this on tape, but he doesn't realize it's not the same kind of project. It's not about having everything, capturing everything. It's about the experience, about the people & their stories, how they get inside me somewhere to mix around with all the other chop suey ingredients. He ranted about food stamps & obesity, how we were in the most obese county in the whole country & it was because people could eat anything they wanted with food stamps. "You don't need food to work on! You just need food to sleep on! One meal a day, that's all you need!" I asked, what did people eat before they got food stamps? He said grits & juice in the morning, beans & rice & greens in the night. Now they eat chips & cookies all day long. So it was just as well that he wasn't carrying chips anymore: "bad for you anyway!" He gave us cold bottles of water while we were there & then more for the road & wouldn't let us pay for them.


Sometime in the past couple days I decided it was time to eat at one of those big buffets. Here's what I learned:

There are two kinds of chicken: fried chicken & sweet chicken.

If it's not fried, it's sweet. If it's not sweet, it's fried. In some cases (such as sweet & sour chicken) it's both. I don't care if you call it sesame chicken, teriyaki chicken (wait! that's not Chinese! but it's on the buffet!), honey chicken, or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious chicken. They are all sweet. Sweet, sweet, sweet. I shudder to think how much sugar these cooks are going through. No, I don't think it's just that one buffet I ate at. There is something going on with the fried stuff & the sugar stuff around here. A conspiracy? Donna said we could be doing the Chinese American version of Supersize Me. (We're not though. We're sensible like that.)

Oh, also: CHICKEN IS A CRUTCH! Get the chicken away from me! I don't want to eat any more chicken for months after I come home. Do you hear me? Months!


This serendipitous thing keeps happening when Donna either makes a wrong turn or needs to take us on some side errand that would seem to have nothing to do with Chinese restaurants: we run into some unexpected find, like this gas station annex in Laurel, Mississippi today. (At least I think it was Laurel. Waynesboro? Oh dear.) Anyway it's like our own little project angel is guiding Donna toward all the hidden Chinese restaurants. It doesn't seem to happen in quite the same way when I'm the one driving.


Some very, very tall signs I saw on a gray day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The weather has improved quite a lot since then. Today was bright & crisp, autumnal in a southern kind of way, which is to say not that cold, but still you can feel that it's October.


Of course no Southern roadtrip blog could be complete without a kudzu photo. If you've never seen kudzu in action before, it's really a thing to behold. This invasive vine will take over anything in its path if you let it. Kind of like crab rangoons.


We've been hearing this song "Redneck Woman" everywhere. Apparently it's been at the top of the charts all summer. We've also seen T-shirts that say "Redneck Woman" on them. Catchy tune, eh?



Took some sharp eyes to tell this was a Chinese restaurant. Spotted just north of Birmingham.


Here's a painting I saw in How Joy, back in Greenville MS. Portrait of the restaurant as a young institution. I think it's signed by someone named Terry Williams. If I were a thorough journalist type, I'd be able to tell you who that is, but as it is I have no idea. It's probably not Terry "Big T" Williams, but actually, you know, it could be. Why not? He's in the neighborhood. Blues musician & painter of Chinese restaurants? Sure.


This is a cascade of takeout cartons I found quite beautiful. Except for the fact that it's all gonna end up in the landfill. Bring your own containers, takeout customers! (As if I were so good myself, sigh. Something to aspire to....)


This is the Lorraine, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. It's been turned into a civil rights museum, but they have preserved the front of the motel, as well as his room, exactly as it was when he was shot, & also acquired the boarding house building across the street where the shots came from. We decided to see this kind of last minute before leaving Memphis; as soon as we rounded a corner & laid eyes upon it, we both unexpectedly burst into tears. I was really not prepared for the emotional impact of being there. You can stand inside & look right out on the exact spot where he fell on the balcony. It's really intense. Having stayed in motel after motel on this trip, I looked at the motel room with a certain perspective, thinking how motel rooms all kind of look the same, & feeling lucky for my relative anonymity, that I get to check out of each motel & keep going on to the next one.



How many off-white patterns & surfaces can exist in one tiny bathroom?

We're starting to get a tad worn out from all the cheap motels. You can tell because I actually started to muse out loud about what differentiates a Days Inn from a Comfort Inn. Comfort Inn is usually anywhere from $10 to $20 more than Days Inn, but the reason for that difference is not always apparent. A wallpaper border is not worth $10 a night to me. A refrigerator, maybe. Wifi? The Days Inn in Greenville had wifi & the Comfort Inn didn't.

See? I told you it's getting to me. Amidst all of this, the Shack Up Inn was a breath of fresh air. If you ever go to Clarksdale, you definitely need to stay there. We stayed in one of their spanking new (the bathroom mural was dated July 2004!) "bins" in what used to be a cotton gin building.

But I digress. We're in Birmingham now. The rain that fell on us the whole time in Memphis has paused, at least for the time being. On our way out of Memphis we encountered what may well be the most depressing Chinese restaurant I have ever seen (which is saying a lot at this point). It was so run down & poorly kept, & so terribly tacky to begin with, that I almost wondered if it was somehow wrong to be taking photos of it. That it was below the belt or something, like I would be participating in further humiliation for this establishment, which humiliates itself daily. In fact I wrote a long description of it that I decided not to post here, because anyone who had ever seen the restaurant would recognize it from the details. I felt that there was a sad story behind this place, that the owners might be awfully depressed or awfully mean, or maybe both. The soggy weather only contributed to my overall dismay. I photographed it anyway, wondering the whole time about artistic ethics & whether I'd end up wanting to use the photos. I don't know. I have to think about it when I get home & look at how they come out.

Today between Tupelo & Birmingham we saw a completely different restaurant, the only Chinese restaurant in the small town of Jasper, Alabama. It was closed for the mid-afternoon between lunch & dinner, but I peeked in & saw a man sitting there. I knocked lightly on the window, he looked up, smiled & came to the door. He had an open, honest, kind face, just like his restaurant. He said he'd been there for about 13 years, but the building looked like it could have been just a couple years old. The pink-flowered shrubs in the parking lot were all healthy, nicely pruned & mulched. I didn't talk to him very long, just explained the project & got permission to photograph, but I came away from there feeling much more cheerful than I had been ever since I saw that other awful place in Memphis.


We're about to leave Memphis. Yesterday I got totally overloaded on Elvis at Graceland. We toured his mansion, saw a whole bunch of his white jumpsuits, lusted after his cars, & walked through his airplane. Too much! Anyway, at the little restaurant there I finally wrapped my brain around a fundamental American concept:

Anything that's not meat is a vegetable.

Repeat after me: If it's not meat, then it's a vegetable.

I ordered the vegetable plate. What I got was: mashed potatoes from a box, overly salty limp green beans from a can, a sort of mixed rice medley (mostly white rice w/ a few grains of wild rice & some tiny bits of tomato or red pepper for color), supersweet candied yams, & mac&cheese (for which I didn't bother taking any lactose pills because I knew it wasn't real cheese).

Here it is. (Yonder is Donna's meatloaf.)


Later on I got to have a brief conversation with the famous Wally Joe who grew up in his parents' Chinese restaurant in Cleveland, Mississippi, then later turned that restaurant into a famous foodie destination & also has another fancy restaurant here in Memphis. I asked him what the similarities & differences were between what he's doing now & what it was like to run a small-town Chinese restaurant. He said, lots of differences, no similarities. I said, none? No transferrable skills? He said, No. I asked, So, it sounds like you're happy about that? He said, Yeah, I guess I am happy about that.


We're half way through our trip now. A light drizzle is falling here in Memphis & I'm actually cold for the first time this trip. Before this the weather has been everything it's cracked up to be in the South: hot & humid & conducive to constant drinking of iced tea & lemonade. The past few days I've had to reconceptualize how we do this trip. Of course a marathon is different from, say, 3 short races glued together end to end. We've had to slow way, way down. Much to my disappointment, I had to cut Arkansas out of the trip, despite the fact that I had a very nice handful of promising contacts there. (Helena is just on the other side of the river, so it really doesn't count as going into Arkansas.)

Then there is the enthusiasm factor: you can't just keep throwing Chinese restaurants at yourself, faster than you can catch them, & expect to keep liking it. Fortunately I've had lots of practice adapting to the twists & turns of my art practice, so instead of panicking about my apathy when it cropped up, or forcing myself to trudge through the motions, I decided to try revisiting the earliest inspiration for the project: that feeling of stumbling upon a Chinese restaurant when you least expect it, when you feel far away from anybody or anything Asian. For the last couple days we abandoned the database & the mapquesting (just as well since we were so hard put to get internet access), basically nixing the Find the Chinese Restaurant game in favor of just doing what seemed interesting in any given place, & if we came across a Chinese restaurant, then we'd do something about it. This strategy had some interesting results. First of all, even though I knew there were Chinese restaurants in both Clarksdale & Helena, we never even saw them, & I had to struggle against nagging feelings of guilt. But I was rewarded later with that China Garden in Tunica; we stopped the car in a parking lot across the highway & sat looking at the restaurant in the dark. Contemplation in this case was preferable to shooting or interviewing, although I did snap that one digital image you saw. I think the experience of seeing that restaurant will come back to me as I continue working on this project; the emotional recordings you take internally are always more vital than any photograph or sound you may capture with machines. There is something elusive, a certain feeling I'm trying to pin down with this work, & every once in a while a restaurant will turn up that syncs up with that mysterious thing & propels me further on the search. Also I realize there is something artificial & skewed about going from town to town, crossing Chinese restaurants off the list. The restaurants exist within a context that changes subtly (or not so subtly) from town to town, & you can't really understand anything without having a good look at all of it.

So here's another interesting thing that happened. The hardest sacrifice Donna had to make in order to go on this trip is that she hasn't been able to practice drums, which she'd been doing avidly for hours at a time when she was at home. Consequently whenever we're anywhere near a drum set you can practically see her whole body & soul yearning toward it. In New Orleans I actually witnessed her gently scooting a small child off a drum set in a music store so she could play. (We're talking about a woman who loves children & has always gone way out of her way to help them learn & experience new things.) Then yesterday we were at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta Blues. They have a great exhibit about the migration of African Americans from the Delta to Chicago, & how the blues migrated & changed along with them. I was awed to be listening to interviews & music clips of the musicians here in the very place they had come from. After that we were browsing in the gift shop when I decided to step into the restroom. Just before I went in, we heard some music coming from the back of the building. While I was in the bathroom I could hear Donna's voice, muffled through the wall, obviously talking to the musicians, & I thought, I wonder if she's trying to get them to let her play! Sure enough, following the music around a couple of corners a few minutes later, I came into a practice room where, lo & behold, Donna was sitting behind the drum set, playing with what appeared to be a complete band of blues musicians. The only thing was, there was no other drummer in sight! When a pause came between songs, I leaned over & asked the bass player, who was nearest to me, "What'd she do, whack your drummer over the head?" He said, "Yeah, she clocked him & drug him off behind the building somewhere." They played several more songs & they were definitely good. I wondered, who are these guys? They might be somebody famous! Later on a young guy came in who was supposed to be the drummer. Good thing for Donna he was so late! It turned out to be a workshop led by Terry "Big T" Williams & yeah, he is famous. Dang! Go Donna! I don't think there's any chance now she'll regret coming on this trip, do you?


This was a Hopper-esque scene we encountered last night: China Garden in Tunica, Mississippi. There was just one customer in there when we passed by late in the evening.

Now we're in Memphis, taking today to avail ourselves of all the big-city comforts we've been missing: a swim at the Y, wifi & veggie burgers in a cafe, then later we'll stock up on healthy groceries, organic fruit & such. People in the Mississippi Delta don't get to have that stuff. I phoned all over the place only to hear "the pool's down" or "the pool is closed for the season". Consequently I haven't been swimming since Natchez (over a week ago), so it felt really, really good to get in the water today!

Last night we dropped by the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. I think in the whole crowd I only saw about 3 other Asians besides us. Among the food booths was a stand giving away little promotional samples of rice, & they had a woman walking around in front offering them to passers-by. When we came along she said to us, "I know you like rice!"


I am so tired right now I can barely talk, much less blog coherently, so just some backlogged (backblogged?) pictures tonight.

Here are the biscuits in the fryer:


Here they are looking cute on the buffet:


And here's me next to a cotton bale!



Hm. Having some problems uploading the nice photos I took of fried biscuits. I guess I'll just have to describe it. We have spent the past two days in the extremely hospitable embrace of the family who runs the oldest Chinese restaurant in Mississippi. Among other things, they let us in to the kitchen this morning to take pictures, record sound, & videotape.

You know those biscuits you get in a refrigerated tube & you twist it open & take out the biscuit dough in pre-divided, biscuit-sized lumps? Well, they were plopping these guys into the fryer! I said, I've never seen deepfried biscuits like that! The cook said, people *love* em!

I bet they do. They are very cute sitting on the buffet.

Anyway, internet access is a little touch & go around here, so if you don't hear from me for a couple days, that's why. I'll try my best.


What a lovely productive day we had! Just goes to show what taking a day off will do for your general outlook & ability to get stuff done the next day. Driving north from Jackson, we stumbled upon a little Chinese take-out place that is part of a gas station. The sign outside tells you to place your order inside the gas station. We talked to the owner, Van, who is Chinese-Vietnamese & has lived in Jackson for something like 20 years. He has an accent like nothing else I've ever heard before, an amazing blend of about 30% Vietnamese & 70% Mississippi. He had lots of interesting things to say, about the restaurant business, about the racism he encountered when he first came to Jackson (intense, on a daily basis) & how it's improved in the last 20 years. He works 7 days a week, from 5 am to 9 pm. Sometimes he sleeps there instead of going home to Jackson. We also interviewed his adorable little 7-year-old girl, who began all her answers to our questions with "Yes Ma'am" & "No Ma'am". I swear people around here are so polite I feel like the rudest most uncultured clod ever. Any stranger who walks within 10 yards of you feels obliged to give a friendly greeting.

We really are in cotton country now. We're lucky to be here during the cotton harvest. Many of the fields are all fluffy white, ready to be harvested, while others are freshly harvested, with giant cotton bales sitting along the edges. I have a little fetish for cotton bales; they're just these massive truck-sized blocks of solid cotton all mushed together. They have this feeling of severe density that kinda rocks my imagination. I'll try to post some photos of them in the next couple days.


Well. The itinerary said we'd get a day off tomorrow, but today firmly announced itself as the day off instead, starting with the fact that I slept like the dead until 11 am. Then while we were trying to map out the day's schedule, I had a fit of total overwhelm & exhaustion. I didn't even want to hear about any Chinese restaurants, let alone drive all over Jackson looking for them. Forget it!

We went on a driving tour of some of Jackson's civil rights sites. This took us through what was once the heart of a thriving African American community; now it's one of the most depressed neighborhoods I've ever seen. Many of the houses were so totally wrecked I couldn't believe anyone actually lived in them, except that there'd be people sitting on the porch. Ouch.

Then tonight we got to check out an entirely different segment of the city's Black community when we went to see the world's only African American circus, Universoul. The big top was set up in the parking lot of a huge mall, so we bought our tickets & then went into the mall to find some dinner. There were hardly any white people at all in that place; it was about 99% African American with just a sprinkling of other people of color. The circus crowd was about the same. The circus was great! It's not like anything else I've ever seen. There seemed to be a zillion acts, most of which specifically referenced African or African American culture. They were also working the multicultural angle, with a group of Chinese acrobats doing bungee stunts & twirling tricks, & a trio of Latino performers who did a very amazing balancing act. If you're in a town where it's coming, go see it! Why it's not coming to Oakland, we couldn't figure out.



We left Natchez on the Natchez Trace, a beautiful drive paralleling an old, old path that was originally used by the Natchez Indians, then later by everybody in the area, including slave traders who took slaves on forced marches along the Trace to the slave market in Natchez. You can see parts of the original Trace along the road. We also saw an old Indian mound, & then there was this church, which is the most famous building in the county. I think you can see why.


Here is Ann at Planet Thailand in Natchez, demonstrating how to make "baby chopsticks" for customers who don't know how to use chopsticks. She learned this trick from a Japanese restaurant. After we interviewed her for a while, she made us sing karaoke. I picked out "Puff the Magic Dragon", but instead of Puff frolicking in the autumn mist, the visuals were of a woman in a bikini frolicking on a beach. We laughed so hard we could barely finish the song.

What does this have to do with Chinese restaurants? Well, Ann's family had moved from Los Angeles to open a Thai restaurant in Louisiana before they came to Natchez. When they first opened, the phone constantly rang with requests for various Chinese dishes like orange chicken. Ann's dad, who was the cook, didn't know how to make any of these things, so they went to the nearest Chinese restaurant, ordered them, figured out how to make them, & added them to the menu. They ended up having to cook about 80% Chinese food & only 20% Thai, until an enthusiastic customer from Natchez persuaded them that Thai food would have a more appreciative audience in Natchez. They kept some Chinese items on the menu, though, & now they serve about 20% Chinese food. They also serve a fair amount of sushi.