I am not Southern. I don’t, despite my frequent use of it online, say ya’ll. I
don’t have any pearls, I don’t eat swine, and I’ve only ever been in a church to vote. When people ask if I’m from Birmingham, I say I went to high school in Birmingham and came back for college. I’m a proud Jersey Girl who talks funny and that has absolutely left me bitter.
But, I’ve discovered that Birmingham grows on you and makes you crave things you never knew existed.
I’ve developed a guilty pleasure. Sweet tea. Sickly sweet. The first time I ordered a sweet tea I felt the strange magnetism of the South. The first time I was traveling and had a longing for something Southern, I wasn’t even north of the Mason-Dixon line. My freshman year of college, I was in Washington DC for a policy conference and something about the rush of being in one of the world’s many centers, standing there ruining my suede boots in the snow, it hit me. I really, really wanted a biscuit. A food I had never before craved, yet I wanted it to rain down like manna in this bike and sushi desert in which I had found myself. A food I had no distinctive memory of eating, but I had memory of the myth and the lore of my friends’ grandmothers’ biscuits. They were not just quick breads. They were floury clouds composed of slow drawls and SEC tumblers. I never did find my biscuit. There are some things that once you leave Virginia, you just can’t get. And then there are some things that once you hit Shelby County, you certainly can’t get, either.
For me, Birmingham is made of some essential experiences in places that changed along with the city in recent years, but like someone-else’s-grandma’s biscuits, their legend and spirit make this city what it is.
1. Al’s Deli
I have spent enough time on the uneven patio of this UAB campus staple to have a master’s degree in keeping away pigeons handed to me by Al himself. Despite this fact, I have never eaten the food here. They don’t seem to mind. I can sit with a notebook and over the course of 3 hours, every comedian and writer I’ve ever worked with will sit down with a plate of hummos and let me steal their ideas. If you’ve got too much swirling around your head, not concerned about what the surrounding diners think about you, and reasonably weird in Birmingham, you’ve done something similar. There are very few places in Birmingham where time passes so well.
2. New China
When it’s too cold for Al’s, New China is there for you like the mother you need in that moment with a hot bowl of soup and, probably unlike your mother, balls of deep fried tofu smothered in sweet n’ sour sauce. It is an unchanging cavern of unapologetic food, a staff that learns your name and even when they forget it (because it’s been a minute since you went in), they ask how you’re doing in your biology class, and they have the type of booths that you can just melt into after your 2nd bowl of egg drop.
3. Reed Books
Sometimes what you really need is a room of Star Trek novels and a little mold inhalation (the good, old book kind that I read somewhere cures loneliness). It’s where I found my Gilded Age copy of The Gilded Age. The pages are gilded!
4. What’s on 2nd?
What Reed Books is to literature, What’s on 2nd is to all the tchotchkes you never thought you needed. The multilevel shop is like a dig through your grandparents’ attic if your grandparents collected disco-era gowns, vintage Motown records, political memorabilia, sci-fi action figures, and swords. I think you can even get your adverbs here.
5. Ed’s Pet World
This is the zoo for broke artists & students who are allergic to outdoor exposure and want zookeepers who will just chill out with you as you spend an entire afternoon watching a hedgehog take a nap. Ed’s Pet World is another one of the Birmingham wormholes that changes the pace of time. Are you watching that iguana or is that iguana watching you?
6. Overton Park
I was a park kid. I still love a good park. I get excited over playgrounds. I worked as a nanny for a year and my favorite part of taking care of kids was going to Overton Park. It’s not as large as Homewood Park which makes the statement okay, be free, have fun less terrifying for the newly-in-charge-of-5-year-olds. It’s got lots of shade and benches. It’s quiet. There’s a fire truck to play in. This is just a good park. I just love parks.
7. Oak Hill Cemetery
I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. If you drive by Oak Hill Cemetery and see a group of brightly clothed children wandering between the headstones, it’s ASFA kids getting some fresh air. Our most frequent outing was to Oak Hill which is the final resting home of some of Birmingham’s most notable and notorious figures from brothel managers to Civil rights leaders to mayors and state governors. The mausoleum is also a nice place for a quiet lunch with a great view of downtown, if you’re into that sort of thing.
8. Tip Top Grill
Located in Hoover’s Bluff Park area, Tip Top was a gas station that became a relic of days of yore before they converted the tiny convenient store building into a greasy spoon that caters to the locals looking for breakfast sandwiches and hot dogs. But it’s really the scenery they come for. Tip Top is at the tippy-top of the Shades Crest bluff at a historic marker for Lover’s Leap, which has a path you can wander down if you want to read the 19th century teenage poetry carved into the rocks. The Tip Top tables are situated next to a very safe iron gate that overlooks what seems to be all of Alabama. Come here during the fall at sunset. It’s a transformative experience, but with tubed meats wearing top hats to remind you not to take things too seriously.
9. Waffle House
Any Waffle House will do. They are all entirely unique, yet so comforting and familiar to the weary traveler at any time. Birmingham was even kind enough (and smart enough) to put one in Five Points under the Bacchus night club. Waffle House is not about the food, but the yellow lights reminding you that your friends’ pores at 2 in the morning are just as oily as yours but it’s nothing a cup of coffee and flicking some jam packets at each other can’t fix. And while Waffle House is not a Birmingham institution, wherever Waffle House exists, it absorbs the local custom and culture, offering its patrons the tough love and skillet-generated warmth they expect with the lingo they grew up on.
10. Malfunction Junction
No day in the life of a Birminghamian would be complete without a near coming apart while trying to merge across three lanes of trucks as the smell of Sunbeam’s proofing yeast wafts through your windows. It’s the daily nightmare of being too polite to honk and forgetting to move a lane that reminds you exactly where you are. You’re in Birmingham. Sit back and enjoy the ride.