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'Thank You Please Come Again' is an ode to the food of Southern gas stations

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

I caught up with photojournalist Kate Medley on a recent winter morning.

How was your drive?

KATE MEDLEY: It was beautiful. I watched the sunrise as I was passing through Yazoo City and came on up into the snowy, icy Indianola.

ELLIOTT: I was at home in my studio in Alabama, and Kate Medley had just arrived back in her home state of Mississippi. She'd come to the small town of Indianola for a meal at a gas station.

MEDLEY: Growing up in Mississippi, I frequented these places, as everyone here does, both to fuel up the tank but also to get a bite to eat. People come to these places to buy live bait, to buy ammunition and, if you're lucky, to buy hot food.

ELLIOTT: Kate Medley has done a lot of driving lately, a road trip across 11 states in the South, documenting the food cultures you find at small gas station convenience stores in the region. The photographs are collected in her new book, "Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed And Fuel The American South." And what Medley found are establishments that are like little anchors in these often-rural areas. They're not just about food, she says, but also work, culture and survival.

MEDLEY: I'm thinking of a place in Elaine, Ark. It was called Old Town Grocery and Tackle. They long ago let the pumps run dry, and when they were going to close a few years ago, a local farmer showed interest in keeping the place alive, in large part because he's trying to feed his farm crew. They need, you know, a meat in three, a hot meal in the middle of the day to keep the planting season going. Many of these service stations are run by people in the community, and they are here to serve the community. And as the needs of these towns change, these businesses shape-shift to serve the people. And so this farmer took over the grocery store just to keep that restaurant open. Their motto is, we like our tea like we like our farmers, sweet and strong.

ELLIOTT: So let's talk a little bit about where you are right now.

MEDLEY: Oh, so I'm in this wonderful place on Main Street in Indianola. It's called Betty's Place, and I'm sitting here with Miss Betty and her brother Otha. They have been running Betty's Place since, I think, about 2008. They have ceased selling gas. Many places have shifted that model. I mean, gas is an expensive business to be in. And, you know, some have turned their attention solely to food, which is the case here in Indianola with Betty.

ELLIOTT: I know that Betty's brother, Otha Campbell, is there with you. Would you mind passing the phone to him so we could talk with him a little bit about the place?

MEDLEY: You got it. You might be able to hear Betty and her family in the background. They're in the kitchen working on today's fish, I believe.

OTHA CAMPBELL: Hello.

ELLIOTT: Hi, Otha. How are you?

CAMPBELL: OK. I'm wonderful. And yourself?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. Why don't you tell me what Betty is in the kitchen working on today? What's going to be the lunch special?

CAMPBELL: In fact, the menu, the kind of staple in the area - catfish because catfish is locally grown, farmed here. And we have about 11 or 12 sides, which includes baked beans, potato salad, slaw, spaghetti and rice and gravy. And most of our customers will get two sides. And some - of course, they like three and some four, but usually, the meal comes with two sides.

ELLIOTT: You know, Otha, I'm curious - what is it like for your family to now own a place where you were not free to shop when you were growing up because it was whites only?

CAMPBELL: You know, it's kind of amazing how the turn of events happened because we were not able to even come and get gas when this was a gas station. And now through his grace, if you will, now we own and take care of individuals across the world, not only here in the Mississippi Delta but the nation. And the world comes because of B.B. King.

ELLIOTT: Right. The B.B. King Museum is - and burial place is just right there by you.

CAMPBELL: We just - we are just grateful. And we deem ourselves blessed (laughter) - absolutely sure.

ELLIOTT: I hope to stop in Betty's place the next time I'm traveling through the Delta.

CAMPBELL: We will certainly look forward to you stopping in.

ELLIOTT: Well, let me - if you don't mind, hand the phone back to Kate.

CAMPBELL: Oh, absolutely. Sure.

MEDLEY: Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So that exemplifies a changing South. You found other ways the South is changing, and some of your images just really capture that. I'm thinking about the beautiful image of Nina Patel at the Tasty Tikka in South Carolina. This is more than just fried chicken in the back of a gas station, right?

MEDLEY: Absolutely. You know, in my research, I found that more than half of the gas stations in this country are owned by immigrants. And, you know, there's a long tradition of immigrant populations entering the U.S. workforce by way of food businesses. I mean, I'm thinking of halal food trucks in New York, the taco stands on the West Coast. Gas stations fit squarely within this food economy. I stopped at Punjabi Dhaba in Hammond, La., which, you know, fits in with this emerging trend of people of Indian descent opening dhabas along interstate exits to feed people of Indian descent in the trucking industry.

ELLIOTT: So this is probably not fair, but did you have a favorite? Did something just move you?

MEDLEY: (Laughter) Not fair at all. Oh, there were so many gems along the way. I had an incredible Vietnamese Cajun banh mi outside of New Orleans at Banh Mi Boys. In Greensboro, N.C., I had some spicy okra stew and jollof rice at a Senegalese restaurant in the back of a Circle K. I ate so many boiled peanuts, a lot of fried chicken. It has really been a journey (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Did you try a Kool-Aid pickle?

MEDLEY: I have tried a Kool-Aid pickle. I mean, that gets back to my home place of Mississippi and the Mississippi Delta, where we are today.

ELLIOTT: I've never really understood the Kool-Aid pickle.

MEDLEY: (Laughter) There's still time, Debbie. I think 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds might understand them better than you and I do, but it's a pretty straightforward Kool-Aid brine for a pickle right next to the cash register.

ELLIOTT: You know, you write that these places bring people together. What did you mean by that?

MEDLEY: Yeah, I mean, in the South and, really, all over the country, we segregate ourselves by race, by politics, by income level, by interest. And, you know, these service stations are one of the few remaining spaces where we all pass through on a regular basis. If we're lucky, you know, we pull up a seat while we're there and order something hot. We rub elbows with our neighbor. We find conversation and community. And I think that that is something that we can all celebrate.

ELLIOTT: Photojournalist Kate Medley, thanks so much for sharing your gas station food journey with us.

MEDLEY: Well, let's hit the road sometime, Debbie. It's been a real pleasure.

ELLIOTT: I'd love it. Medley's book is "Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed And Fuel The American South." An exhibition of her photographs opens this spring at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.