A road trip to Alabama in late September and early October brings with it some visual splendor.
Especially on the return trip over a two-day period last week, we could chart the trees changing color – from light gold in the south to full color in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin.
The prettiest colors showed up about 50 miles south of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and up through the Madison area. My wife, Martha, went to Minocqua a day after we returned from Alabama, and said colors as she traveled north were beautiful.
Along the route we take to Alabama – through Illinois to Paducah, Ky., and then through Murray, Ky., and Paris, Tenn.,– farmers were harvesting corn, soybeans and hay. We even spotted a small trailer of tobacco in Kentucky – leafs hanging from a grid, ready to go into a barn to dry.
We had no complaints about the weather – it was in the mid 80s upon our arrival in North Alabama, but settled mostly into the 70s until the last few days when it was in the 60s. And we had a four-inch rainfall from Sunday afternoon through Monday. Even though the North Alabama soil is heavy clay, the plentiful rain came in just the right amount to soak in rather than run off – something we might wish for up here.
Regular readers of this column will wonder how it is that I could get this far into a newspaper column without mentioning food. Well, I just did, and yes, we again had our share of southern cooking.
Part of the reason for our trip south was to be part of the homecoming festivities at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Martha’s alma mater. We get together with five couples – most of whom were classmates at UNA in the 1960s – nearly every time we travel south. Of the 10 people in our group, seven are UNA grads.
Our big meal together took place at Ricatoni’s, a restaurant on the main street of Florence, just a few blocks from the campus. We’ve dined there often, and while the Italian fare isn’t exactly authentic, the food is usually good. I chose tasty veal Marsala, which was quite satisfactory. Martha enjoyed lasagna.
The server quickly supplied patrons with bags of small loaves of warm bread along with olive oil and herbs for dipping. It’s so good that often, customers request a second loaf. As tempting as it is, this is a bad idea since the diner then has real trouble finishing the entrée.
The previous night we had reservations at the Rattlesnake Saloon, several miles west of Tuscumbia. The place has been operating for about three years. The spacious dining area is under a long rock overhang in a rural part of Colbert County.
Visitors park vehicles in a lot, and a big pickup truck with two bench seats in the bed takes them down a dirt driveway to the saloon. About two dozen tables that accommodate eight guests each stand beneath the stone overhang. In the middle is a stage where live artists perform on some nights, and a DJ spins country hits on other evenings. On our visit, the DJ played country rock songs, but thankfully, not so loud as to preclude having a conversation.
The place got its name when the owners were constructing it and came across a snake den with a mother rattlesnake and 12 babies. They decided to name it the Rattlesnake Saloon, but we saw no evidence of snakes on our visit.
The saloon has a limited menu – basically appetizers and various iterations of hamburgers. For starters, our group chose a Tombstone Platter, a huge offering consisting of a dozen or so items – onion rings, along with breaded mushrooms, mozzarella sticks, deep-fried pickle slices, a few variations of breaded deep-fried peppers, deep-fried chicken fingers, breaded and fried green beans, chips with chili and cheese and more. The $30 platter was more than sufficient to serve our group, with a few pieces left over. Martha and I each ordered $8 Rustler burgers, half pound burgers on a Kaiser roll with lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles. We had trouble finishing it. Pitchers of beer helped put out the fire from some of the peppers.
We didn’t know beforehand that the Rattlesnake requires photo identification for admission, so Martha, who didn’t have her purse with her, had to settle for lemonade with her food. Her gray hair and companions who obviously were in their late 60s and early 70s weren’t enough to convince the ID checker she could sample alcohol legally.
The Rattlesnake Saloon is a place I’d visit just once, but I can’t think of any good reason to return. It’s one of those places about which you say, “Well, I’m glad I went, but probably won’t go back.”
On another day, we drove about 100 miles to Tuscaloosa to visit Martha’s brother and his family. He took us to the 15th Street Diner in a strip mall for lunch. The décor was “typical diner,” and the food was good. Martha had a veggie platter and I chose crunchy pancakes.
While our meals were far from gourmet, we didn’t have any bad ones. I was happy to return home, however, because I was weary of eating fried food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m just not used to it. The day after we returned we dined out with friends – and I was quite happy to enjoy broiled haddock.