Friday, September 23, 2011

Oysters and Race Relations in Dothan, Alabama

I’ve eaten a good number of oysters in my lifetime.  Some of my earliest memories are sitting on a stool next to my dad at an oyster bar here in Dothan.  That one, like all of the good oyster bars around here, was a little rough around the edges, with an emphasis on the bar as much as the oyster.  Being too clean or too well lit would definitely have been viewed as suspect.  Maybe a good oyster bar, like a good oyster, is meant to be hiding something.

So it was a surprise when I first had oysters in Hamburg—in Germany oysters have almost the opposite social associations.  Think black tie and champagne rather than work jeans and Miller ponies.  And in Paris, the prices of the Gran Cru oysters made even those of New York's storied Grand Central Station Oyster Bar look cheap.

But the very best oysters I have ever had are the Apalachicola oysters I get here in Dothan.  Consistently.  Following in my dad’s footsteps, I always go to Hunt’s.  The ambiance is about as far away from Hanseatic northern Germany as you can get; some would say it is dirty and smelly, but I think it is homey.  And I am always “baby” to the waitresses there.

A dozen raw will set you back $4.99 at Hunt’s, up $1 from last year.  Their oysters are fresh—it is a two hour drive to the bay where they come out, and they make it daily.  And these little gems than come from the Apalachicola Bay are succulent: just the right size, not grossly big or anemic, briny with a subtle mineral edge, served cold with a sleeve of saltines.

There is a paper plant just up the river from the bay, and I assume that is what gives these beauties their special flavor—or maybe that is just my suspicious nature, thinking that something this good must have a dark underside.  

It is sort of traditional at Hunt’s to eat some oysters and finish it off with a chili dog.  I normally forgo the dog, but I am back in town visiting my dad and feeling a bit nostalgic, and so yesterday I stopped by for a dozen raw and a chili dog.

I’m sitting there, disinterestedly watching the game on t.v. and waiting for my order when four twenty-something African-American guys came in.  I tensed up a bit, wondering if anybody at this good ol’ boy hangout would make any comments.  But it was a non-event, mutterings or awkward silences—the waitress was super friendly, the other customers at the bar accommodating.  This wouldn't have always been the case.  I’m glad some things have changed here since I grew up.  And, slurping these oysters, I’m also glad some things remain the same.
When I was growing up, Savannah White was our maid and my de facto nanny; my "other mother" we called her.  I have fuzzy, Kodachrome memories of trailing her skirt tails around the house as she made lunch or ironed shirts.  About 15 years ago, at home with my new wife Mareike for Christmas, we took a few sacks on pecans to Savannah as a gift.  When she saw them, her first remark was, "does your mother want me to shell them?"  Things were complicated, nuanced in ways that are hard to explain without softening the underlying harshness.  It feels like they are simpler now, for which I am glad.


  1. drool. oysters & chili dogs - dothan sounds like my kind of town. and i am happy everyone is welcome at hunt's.

  2. Ted, are you still operating SAP, Students Against Physics?