Monday, April 8, 2019

BBQ and Lickin' Good Donuts

I walked out of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute still immersed in the Birmingham of 1963.  It was a nice late February Alabama day.  I got in my 2006 Buick, turned left aimlessly at the corner, and drove into the Birmingham of 2019.  Downtown is still developing, but it has a ways to go.  Lots of empty buildings.

I went down the hill, still thinking about Fred Shuttlesworth, and found myself in a neighborhood with lots of foot traffic.  Nice sunny day.  I stopped at a light and a crowd young people, black and white, walked in front of the Buick with backpacks and shoulder bags.  I realized they were students, and I was on the campus of UAB, University of Alabama Birmingham. 

UAB is a big deal.  It has 22,000 students pursuing studies in 140 programs and 12 academic divisions.  UAB Health System is one of the largest academic medical centers in the United States.  Its hospital houses the only Level 1 trauma center in Alabama. Combine the health center with the university and you have the state’s largest employer.  Ten percent of the jobs in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area are related to UAB.  Every city has lots going on, but it would be a mistake to think about Birmingham today without thinking of UAB.

I on the other hand was thinking about barbeque.  I turned left once the students cleared out in front of me and found myself near a nice fountain in a crowded old section of Birmingham.  I was in the 5 Points neighborhood.  I parked and got out on the street myself.  I began to whistle.  My trip was going well.  A man on the street spoke to me as I walked by him. He turned and walked beside me.

“Hey there, you got a good whistle.”


“You take requests?”

“I’ve been known to, yes.”

“You know that thing they do at the start of the Andy Griffith Show?  That’s the best whistling tune there is.”

Without responding I began to whistle “The Fishin’ Hole,” a song written by Earle Hagen and whistled by Fred Lowrey, a blind whistler from Jacksonville, Texas.  Most people don’t know it has lyrics.  Here they are.  If you think of the tune as you read the words you can get the rhythm and match up to the beat after a while.

                Well now take….down…..your fishin’ pole, and meet me at the fishing hole

                We might not….get….a bite all day, but don’t you rush away

                What a rest your bones,and mighty fine for skippin stones

                You’ll feel fresh….as….a lemonade, a-settin in the shade

                Whether it’s hot (bump bump bump bump)
                Whether it’s cool (bump bump bump bump)

                Oh what a spot (bump) For whistlin’ like a fool 
It goes on, but you get the idea.  That song, like the show, played off the lazy small town old South; the South of catfish, Aunt Bee’s homemade pies, southern drawls, and the good ole days.  I don’t want to burst your bubble here, but could be that South is gone.  Not that it was ever real.  Was it really possible there were no black people in Mayberry?

I whistled the whole song, plus the repeat at the ending.  My new friend laughed and laughed.  A few people around us smiled.

“That’s good man, you remembered it all.”


“Say.  You think you could lend me a few bucks?  So I can get me something to eat?”

“You want money from me?  You got to be kiddin’.  Here I was just about to ask you for money cause I whistled your song.  That’s just wrong man.”

He laughed again.  I had to admit he had a great laugh.

“Hey man, you obviously the one with the money.  Look at me.  I got nothin’.  You just parked that nice car down there.  Walking down the street, whistlin’, all happy like.  Just sayin’.  Thanks for the song mister, but you could help me out here.  If you don’t that’s OK too.”

I gave him two ones.  He shook my hand while laughing more, thanked me, and walked back towards the fountain.  A good laugh goes a long ways.

I turned into Jim N Nicks BBQ there on 11th avenue. I was looking for a southern joint. A hole in wall.  I didn’t get it, and I knew immediately. 

Jim N’ Nicks had merchandise displayed on a nice rack as soon as I walked in.  Black baseball caps with white letters in a fancy font for $20.  Hip tee shirts.  Bags of cheese biscuit mix in unbleached muslin bags for $6.  Summer Grillin’ Packs of bottled sauces for $40.  Joints don’t have slick stuff like that.  Corporations do.  I almost turned around, but then I saw the handles of what looked like a good selection of draft craft beer at the bar. 
While Jim N’ Nicks did start in an old pizza parlor on Clairmont Avenue in Birmingham in 1985, it now has 34 restaurants in 7 states.  Its website says it has become a Southern Institution.  I’m not sure I agree.  Websites say all kinds of stuff.  The food does the serious talking.

I had the southern deviled eggs, smoked riblets (something like rib tips without the gristle) cole slaw and baked beans with a local unremarkable ale.  I can’t say it was bad.  The deviled eggs were sweet but bland.  I was expecting more of a mustard zip.  The cole slaw didn’t stand out in any way and the beans could have been smokier.

But while sides matter, a lot I think, the real measure of a BBQ joint is the pork. The batch of pork I ate had the good smoke taste that only comes with a dry rub made with a lot of spice flavors, but it was strangely not well cooked.  It was done mind you, but it lacked that fall apart soft texture I thought was coming.  Maybe the slab of ribs would have been different. I tried their sauces, which were good, but overall I was underwhelmed.  I’d go back if I didn’t have the time to look for something better, but I don’t think I will anytime soon.  The nearest Jim N’ Nicks is in Nashville anyway.

I’d brought the atlas with me.  As I finished my ale I looked for a two lane highway to Montgomery.  It looked like Route 31, which turned into Route 3, was my best bet but danged if it didn’t keep crossing 65.  Seemed like I couldn’t get away from that big southern highway no matter what.

While crisscrossing the Interstate, Route 3 took me through Calero, Jemison, Clanton, Cooner, and Pine Level.  I’d wished I had gotten to Clanton of a morning, because they had what looked to be a good little independent donut place called “Lickin’ Good Donuts.”  I’d yet to find locals to talk to in any extended way, and I was anxious to see what they were thinking about politics and the direction America was headed.

When I got to Montgomery it wasn’t easy finding a place for the night.  There must have been something going on in town, or the legislature was in session.  Montgomery is Alabama’s capitol after all.   Everything seemed over priced or full, but I finally found one of those “suites” place with little kitchenettes.  Odd that the room was so cheap, plus it offered a dinner buffet in the price.

The crowd in the breakfast/dinner area was seriously preoccupied.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was looking at their phone.  Phone booths may be a thing of the past, but we have created walls around ourselves when using our smart phones, without talking now, that separate us just as much as those little enclosures ever did.

If you watch people on their phones, which I do, you can see the emotion of their silent conversations.  Some smile while texting away, others laugh, and just as many frown, hunch over, and frantically respond to god knows what kind of news is coming their way on the tiny screen with the little letters.  We’re living in our heads now more than ever I’d say, not that I’m much different.

I had a couple of tacos and a lemonade and called it a night.  I’d seen a lot that day, all by myself, and I had a lot to think about.  Before I plugged in my laptop and began researching Fred Shuttlesworth, I looked up Lickin’ Good Donuts for the sheer hell of it.  Turns out they are a Limited Liability Corporation operating in at least three states with I don’t know how many locations.  I swear I’m losing my eye for small business.


  1. When I was in elementary school (we called it grade school) we had an assembly that consisted of Fred Lowery whistling. This would have been at the height of Mayberry's popularity. He whistled a number of tunes in addition to The Fishin' Hole, as well as giving some whistling tips. I don't remember much specifically, but I imagine he had a big finish with something like God Bless America, or America the Beautiful. It was over 50 years ago, and I don't remember what I had for breakfast.