Monday, May 20

In the South, gas stations are temples of commerce and community

New York City has its own bodegas. The South has its petrol stations.

When you stop for motor oil in Mississippi, you can also get some fried chicken on a stick. In North Carolina, you can purchase a steaming bowl of pozole along with batteries and a five-pound bag of white lily flour.

There might be shawarma next to shotgun shells, or circle-shaped slices of sweet cheese and packets of pretzels for sale at the counter along with lottery tickets and pecan pie baked by the owner’s sister.

Documenting these independent temples of Southern commerce and community has become a singular focus for photojournalist Kate Medley, who, like most children growing up in Mississippi, grew up eating at rural gas stations.

Now living in Durham, N.C., Ms. Medley, 42, has spent more than a decade collecting images for her photography book, “Thank You Please Come Again,” which the digital magazine The Bitter Southerner published in December. The book began with a journalist’s curiosity, but ended up as a way for a daughter of the Deep South to make sense of the beautiful, brutal, and complicated place she came from.

“These places hold a great mystery,” he said. “You’re rolling down the road and they capture your visual attention. Then you wonder what’s behind that glass door when you hear that doorbell ring. Is it the MAGA South? The welcoming South? Who’s at the checkout? Who’s at the grill?”

A dozen years ago, Ms. Medley discovered a Citgo in Durham that had become a Nicaraguan place called Latin America Food Restaurant. She developed a theory.

“I thought I could map the emerging foodways of Southern immigrants through what was happening in the back of these gas stations,” he said.

Some independent gas stations are fading in the fluorescent light of chains like QuikTrip and RaceTrac, with their cheap gas, hot dog rollers and endless banks of soda fountains. Some station owners let gas pumps run dry or remove them altogether because the local economy is too depressed. Other service stations have become churches or nightclubs, or have been abandoned entirely.

The book opens with an essay by Southern writer Kiese Laymon, who grew up in a very different part of Jackson, Miss., than Ms. Medley. She didn’t know him when she contacted him, but he immediately understood her plan.

“I had never thought about the fact that my favorite restaurants, as a child, as a teenager, as an adult back in Mississippi, almost all served gas,” he writes. “And I never, ever thought of them as gas stations that served food.”

He tells the story of childhood trips to the Jr. Food Mart in Forest, Miss., on Friday nights. Her grandmother’s boyfriend, Ofa D, allegedly slipped in a Tina Turner cassette and drove them in her pickup. They would order a box of dark-meat chicken, a container of fried fish foam and a brown paper bag full of fried potato wedges that everyone in Mississippi calls potato logs.

Medley realized she could study a region through its food in 2005, when she landed at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, where she began a master’s degree in Southern studies.

Hurricane Katrina hit the day after it began. She spent the next few months traveling the state to cover the devastation for the New York Times, his trips fueled by rural gas stations.

They often run with a Southern “do it all” attitude. If customers want cakes, someone will start baking them. A North Carolina cashier realized she could earn a little extra money by buying Bojangles sausage biscuits on her way to work, marking them up and selling them to the breakfast crowd.

“It’s just this ingenuity and resourcefulness that you don’t find in other places,” Ms. Medley said.

This is especially true for some gas stations run by immigrants. Ms. Medley took pictures of Nina Patel and her samosas at Tasty Tikka, inside a Shell station in Irmo, S.C., and Gina Nguyen holding a garlic butter shrimp banh mi at Banh Mi Boys, which opened in a family-owned Texaco in Metairie , Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Medley took me to a place in the middle of the farmland of the Mississippi Delta, also born of an immigrant history.

Mark Fratesi’s father opened the Fratesi Grocery and Service Center in 1941 in Leland. It’s a wonderland of homemade pork rinds, pantry staples and bait, with a freezer full of frozen steaks and bags of shelled pecans. It works on the honor system. You tell the cashier what you had for lunch. If you’re local, you can put groceries or gas on an account.

The restaurant takes up about half of the building, and the immigrant family’s Italian roots are present throughout the menu. There’s grits and burgers, but also a plated lunch of rigatoni and a po’ boy (their invention) made with fried balls of chopped black olives, grated mozzarella and seasoned breadcrumbs bound together with a little mayonnaise and ranch dressing. Cured and salted pork loin logs wrapped in burlap called loin cure in beer cooler.

Mr. Fratesi, 68, doesn’t think the job will last long after he retires. A gas station chain down the street has already lowered its gas prices by a penny. And none of the next generation of the family is interested in taking over.

“You have to be married to it,” he said.

About 15 miles away, in Indianola, the future is brighter.

Betty Campbell, 69, and her husband opened Betty’s Place in a former gas station about 20 years ago. The restaurant is located about two blocks from the BB King Museum. As her mother, Campbell was a regular cook for the bluesman and his crew, churning out a playlist of reliable Southern standards like sweet potatoes, baked chicken and caramel pie.

The walls of the restaurant are covered with the signatures of tourists from all over the world who have come to learn about the blues. The family recently covered the old garages and is expanding the dining room to make room for the growing busloads of tourists.

Her younger brother, Otha, who is essentially the maître d’ at Betty’s, said they like to disavow travelers’ preconceived notions about racism in the South.

“Not only do black travelers see Betty’s as a safe place to stop for lunch,” she told Ms. Medley for her book, “white travelers see it as a safe place, too.”

Small Southern towns remain informally segregated, but not in gas stations that sell food – or in restaurants that sell gasoline.

“There’s something about accessibility and coming together in a space shared by the entire community almost out of necessity or at least out of convenience,” Ms. Medley said. “Everyone is welcome anytime, no matter what.”