Tide. Jesus. Soul food. The three pillars upon which the residents of Tuscaloosa, AL live their lives. And yes, they are distinctly in that order.
A brief preamble:
Most of the rest of the United States has a preconceived notion about the state of Alabama. Maybe the stereotype is that Alabamans are racist. Maybe it’s that they’re inbred, uneducated, and backwards-thinking. Perhaps all stereotypes are grounded in some degree of truth, but these were not the Alabamans I encountered during my all-too-brief visit to the ‘Heart of Dixie.’ Sport can be a powerful unifier, equalizer, and icebreaker for people of a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. This is more true in Tuscaloosa, AL than anywhere else I have ever been. For those who are unfamiliar with the Alabama Crimson Tide football program, they can boast 17 National Championship titles since 1925, including six with legendary head coach Bear Bryant and five with current coach Nick Saban, most recently hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy this past season. The Tide have traditionally been a defensive juggernaut, with freakishly talented and well-coached athletes spread across the field (particularly on the line of scrimmage) and more NFL draft picks than you can count. Situated three-to-four hours from Atlanta, Nashville, and New Orleans, the three closest NFL cities, T-Town, as it is colloquially known, has embraced college football as a bona fide religion. Most Christians attend religious services on Sundays, but in T-Town, you worship on Saturday afternoons with 101,820 of your closest friends. More on that later…
JR Cole, my longtime friend and traveling companion for the week, and I arrived in Tuscaloosa after spending a rather unnerving and mosquito-filled evening camping in Daniel Boone National Forest in Central Alabama. We had tickets for the game that afternoon, and on the way into town that morning, I made the executive decision that we, as two Yankees unfamiliar with the culture and environment we were about to wander into, should at least *look* the part. Enter the Tuscaloosa Walmart: Your one-stop shop for Crimson Tide gear and… other things if you want them… Knowing full well that the Tide were facing off against SEC rival Arkansas for their Homecoming game that afternoon, simply wearing red would not have sufficed to prove our loyalty to the home team. JR and I proceeded to purchase an Alabama polo and t-shirt, respectively, and drove into town with a bit more self-confidence.
Desiring to experience some authentic local cuisine and not wanting to pay stadium prices for subpar grub, we did a quick Google search for the best BBQ spots in Tuscaloosa. Serendipitously, we landed on Dreamland BBQ, and our lives, palates, and cholesterol would be forever changed. Dreamland has multiple locations across the region, but the Jug Factory Road location we visited is the original and I assume the best.
When you sit down, your server takes your drink order (trust me – get the sweet tea), and proceeds to bring a paper plate with slices of Sunbeam white bread and a styrofoam bowl of hot Dreamland BBQ sauce for dipping.
Allow me to pause and take you on a deep-dive into this mystical concoction. Dreamland BBQ sauce is not quite the vinegar-based sauce you’ll find in Eastern North Carolina, nor is it quite the mustard-based sauce native to South Carolina. It has elements of a tomato-based sauce, giving it its reddish hue, but manages to stay a bit thin and runny in exactly the right ways. It has a distinct vinegar-pepper kick, but not so much as to mask the flavor of your meat. The sauce is perfect on ribs, sausage, and chicken, or as a base for baked beans, and of course, as a dip for bread. Dreamland hawks 32-ounce containers of the liquid happiness for $5.95/each, but I’m convinced that IV bags would be more popular and effective delivery system…
The sauce is just the proverbial icing on the cake for the true meal. And oh, what a meal… Dreamland’s menu is ingeniously simple, only offering ribs, sausage, baked beans, potato salad, cole slaw, banana pudding, beer, soda, and sweet tea. I can personally recommend every item on the menu, but you do not, under any circumstances, want to miss the ribs, baked beans, and banana pudding. Fear not, messy eaters: A full roll of paper towels stands affixed to each table like an obelisk of grease-alleviation to mop away your gluttonous shame. Their home-brewed sweet tea will give you just enough of a sugar high to counterbalance the linebacker-sized food baby you’ll be carrying out the door. Their motto, “Ain’t Nothing Like ‘Em Nowhere,” both accurately captures the singular quality of their ribs and encapsulates the vibe of the restaurant, and Tuscaloosa itself. Upon completing our mouthwatering feast, JR and I both exclaimed that it was one of the best meals we’d ever had, which says a lot coming from two dudes who genuinely love to eat.
After being extricated from the restaurant in wheelbarrows and unceremoniously dumped beside my car by the wait staff, JR and I headed onto the University of Alabama’s campus just in time for the Homecoming parade. Unless you’ve gone to an SEC school or spent any time at one during the Fall semester, it’s impossible to explain in words the football fever that overwhelms these campuses on Saturdays. Students, alumni, local businesses, families, young, old, black, white, men, women – it seemed everyone in Tuscaloosa was on campus for this event. As we watched the Homecoming floats go by, the sororities began to appear on University Boulevard. Each sorority (of which there appeared to be close to 20) had their own themed float, with each float featuring 50-100 girls dressed in various costumes. JR mentioned aloud that those were rather large sororities, and a mildly inebriated student casually replied that the girls in the parade were merely the Freshman pledges of each organization. Our jaws dropped to the floor as we did the mental math on the number of Greek-affiliated students Alabama must contain.
Following the parade, it was time to enter the stadium (I wanted to arrive early and watch the pregame festivities). I’ve had the privilege of attending a great many sporting events in my young life, many of which have been NFL games. Most NFL stadiums boast roughly 70,000 seats, with some falling on either side of that number. Bryant-Denny Stadium holds 101,821 screaming, intoxicated, and emotional Crimson Tide fans, and this game was a sellout.
As we watched the tens of thousands of adequately lubed-up fans stumble into ‘church,’ the sun began to set, and by kickoff, the lights were just about to illuminate the field. Arkansas kicked off for a touchback, and the crowd was just settling in for the first play from scrimmage. Tide running back Damien Harris suddenly ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run to start the game just as the anticipation in the stadium had reached a fever pitch. I had never in my life prior to that moment been in one building with so many people, all unified in their visceral, alcohol-induced emotional response to the spectacle before them.
It should also be noted that the University of Alabama student section was on their feet for virtually the entire game, and proceeded to lose their minds when ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers was played in the third quarter, much to my and JR’s curiosity and delight.
‘Bama proceeded to mop the floor with the Razorbacks to the tune of 41-9, and admittedly turned off the gas on offense after posting a score of 24-0 at halftime. I had no strong affiliation to any single Power-5 Conference football program prior to this experience, but I am now a humble convert to the Crimson Tide religion. For anyone who has never attended a game at a college football powerhouse such as Alabama, Penn State, Oklahoma, Ohio State, etc., I cannot recommend it highly enough. Even if you aren’t a football fan, it’s a cultural experience everyone should soak in once in their life.
Outside of football, the key takeaway for me during out one-day visit to Tuscaloosa was how welcomed I felt by the people of Alabama. As previously mentioned, Alabama has a somewhat poor reputation, and its residents are often marginalized by what I like to call ‘Coastal Elites.’ My travels across the country, particularly in the South and in ‘flyover country’ across the Midwest and Great Plains, have taught me a valuable lesson in understanding the heart and soul of America. You see TV shows set in New York and LA, political spin emanating from DC, hip millennial cities like San Francisco and Seattle getting lots of press, and Miami, San Diego, and Las Vegas offering hot vacation destinations. Like a coat of paint on a house, that’s the America you see from the outside. The America you don’t see is the foundation under that glossy paint. The strong, sturdy, reliable, likely unattractive part of your house that holds up the gloss and the glamour of those aforementioned locales. Alabama is part of that foundation, and you’ll see it in her people. Black and white folks sharing a table at a BBQ joint; 80-year-old women dressed to the nines coming out to cheer on their team; low-income families stocking up on tailgate supplies at Walmart; a toothless veteran regaling his diner waitress with decades-old war stories. These kinds of people aren’t from Manhattan or Hollywood or South Beach; they’re from places like Tuscaloosa, and I love them all the more for it. Small town America has always been kind to me across the 46 states I have visited, and I for one will take a yokel over a yuppie any day of the week.
Roll Tide, Roll.