Gas station sushi, anyone? A new book from a NC author dives into convenience store cuisine in the South.

The Gizzards & Livers Store in Wilson, NC—one of many destinations for gas station cuisine featured in a new book, "Thank You Please Come Again." (Photo by Kate Medley

By Billy Ball

February 21, 2024

Gas stations aren’t just gas stations in many rural, Southern communities. They’re also restaurants and community gathering places. A new book takes you on a tour of the best ones out there. 

Did you know you can verify someone’s zip code by asking if they’ve eaten from a gas station? If that’s news to you, well, you’re probably from the city.

In many rural places in the South, the closest source of fresh food is the convenience store.  There’s literally nothing else for miles. 

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Which is why a new book from NC photojournalist Kate Medley caught my attention. “Thank You Please Come Again” is a visual journey through the Southern gas stations and convenience stores that serve up hot food to their local communities. You can buy it via The Bitter Southerner. 

Medley, a journalist featured in numerous state and national publications, hails from Mississippi but lives in Durham, NC. She shot the photos for her book while on assignment.

Durham photojournalist Kate Medley has published a new visual journey of gas station food across the South.

We talked to Medley about her riveting new book, including her stops at a gas station sushi stop in Apex. Check it out below.

[Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.]

C&P: This sounds like a passion project and also a really cool one. So what took you down this road?

Medley: Yeah, passion project is an understatement.

I started working on this about 10 years ago. I mean, in some respects I grew up in Mississippi and so in some respects this project has, the culture of this project has been on my radar since I was a kid. 

I wouldn’t say that my family ate gas station food for dinner a lot or anything, but as we traveled around the state, we stopped at these places as I’m sure you and your family did growing up in eastern North Carolina. 

So it just becomes part of the culture. And, as an adult, I started studying the South more critically, both in grad school and then also as a journalist. And I became particularly interested in what are the things that sets the South apart culturally. And of course there are a lot of things that set the South apart culturally, but this thing that I’ve decided to focus on, the culture of gas station spaces is something that I feel like we can all celebrate about our region. 

It’s a space where we all come together regardless of our political differences or socioeconomic backgrounds or race or ethnicity or religion or who your parents are or what church you go to. And that’s pretty unique.

I mean both in the South, but I think anywhere these days. We are in an era where I feel like things are very polarized and we sort of self-segregate. And so I just became interested in these spaces as common spaces that we all share, little “d” democratic spaces. 

So about 10 years ago I started photographing gas stations around the South. I work as a photojournalist and so I travel around the South a lot for work. And this just sort of became a side project amidst my travels. 

If I was in a small town and it was lunchtime and my options were the local Burger King or the local gas station, I would always check out the gas station and see not only what’s for lunch that day:  Is it burgers and chicken tenders? Or is it Indian food because the proprietor is of Indian descent? Or is it a taqueria? Who’s eating there? What are they talking about? What language are they speaking in? What’s on the community bulletin board? All of these became sort of clues to where am I as an outsider in this community. Where am I, what are the priorities? Who lives here? What do they do for work? What do they value? 

So I started documenting them about 10 years ago and became mildly obsessed and finally made a book of it. 

C&P: When you initially started, were you like, “Oh, this is a big project down the road I’m going to make a book about? Or were you like, “Oh, this is just something I’m doing for fun and I’ll probably never do anything with it? 

Medley: Definitely the latter. 

My colleague Emily Wallace, another journalist here in the Triangle, she and I published a story in Indy Week back in 2012 about the best gas station food in the triangle. And it got a fair amount of response, both like: “Yeah, you nailed it, knocked it out of the park.” And then also like: “Man, you couldn’t have screwed that up more, because really the best fried chicken’s over here or the best gizzards are here or whatever.” 

But in journalism, any sort of engagement on a deep level is great. And so this project, we did that story in 2012 and I went to the Mississippi Delta in 2013 and continued that work and published an article with The Bitter Southerner, which had just launched. And similarly with that story, there was a lot of engagement, a lot of arguing, a lot of incentive for me to sort of dive deeper on the topic. So I expanded it geographically to include a wider swath of the South, both rural and urban south.

Yeah, I mean, honestly, the whole time I was working on it in conversation with people, I could sort of feel the excitement, but then with a certain set of people, they’re like: “Gas station food? You actually eat at a gas station?” 

And so the whole time I was working on it, I was like, I don’t know if this whole thing’s going to totally fall flat.

I never could have dreamed that it would become a book, especially a book as beautiful as The Bitter Southerner designed. This book, I’m totally floored by the interest that has come from it.

Russell Cooper’s family has owned Cooper’s Country Store in Salters, South Carolina, since it first opened in 1937 (originally called Burrow’s Country Store). Cooper’s sells dry goods, sliced meat, barbecue, house-cured country hams, and pileau. Cooper keeps seven smokers out back to cook whole hogs, chicken, and turkeys. They cook four hogs each week, shipping cured hams all over the country. (Photo by Kate Medley)

C&P: Some of the best things are, I think a little bit, what’s the word I’m looking for? They might be frowned upon in higher circles. I certainly know who you’re talking about. I’ve got grandparents and aunts and uncles who I can vividly recall talking about like: “Oh, I stopped at a gas station for a hot dog. What’s your favorite place?” And they’ll be like, “I’ve literally never eaten food from a gas station. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Medley: My mother kept saying: “Well, this is such a unique topic.” And I was like, oh God, the 15-year-old in me. I know what you mean by “unique.”

C&P: This is not a compliment.

Medley: We all know what it means when something’s “unique.” 

C&P: But, and obviously I assume you got into this, but there are places with amazingly unique food you’re not going to get anywhere else. 

Medley: It’s totally true. 

And to that end, one of the things that I was most interested in exploring from the outset was: Can we sort of chart the way that immigrant foodways are evolving and growing in the South by way of what’s happening in these gas stations? 

There’s a Circle K in Greensboro that on the side of it where there used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s now a Senegalese restaurant. The Senegalese family, they moved to Greensboro to finish their secondary education and opened this restaurant. 

It’s just amazing spicy okra stew that you couldn’t imagine getting in the Circle K. 

Or this incredible sushi restaurant out in Apex in the back of a Han-dee Hugo’s and it’s easily, hands down, some of the best sushi in the state. I’m thinking about a taqueria in Raleigh in the back of a BP where no one speaks English, but it’s like this old lunch counter style infrastructure. 

And I mean, the line snakes out the door at lunch and we’re talking about just the workers, the laborers, the people who are needing a fast, inexpensive, delicious lunch. 

So I feel like you can really take the pulse of a community and who lives there by way of some of these thoughts.

Fred Eaton, born March 1935, owns Fred Eaton’s Service Station in Prichard, Alabama. He is one of the only full service gas stations left in the state, also offering oil changes and tire repair. “We get a bunch of retired folks come and sit around out in front of the shop. The preacher, he’s retired, he’ll come and sit and we’ll talk about church stuff. It’s not church, but it’s kinda like going to church. Right here at my service station. Fred’s brother is wearing plaid and a ball cap. His name is Warren Eaton. “When people retire, they come and sit around out front.” (Photo by Kate Medley)

C&P: And these are places who, in most cases, I would assume sustain themselves or built themselves entirely on word of mouth, which is something that’s difficult to quantify.

Medley: Totally, yeah, absolutely. The exception is the sushi out in Apex, they really embraced this concept of gas station sushi, and so they have really branded themselves as:  “We sell gas station sushi.” 

And I mean, we’re talking about an $18 sushi roll. This is really fine, high-grade sushi, but they’ve really gone hard on social media with gas station sushi to a fair amount of success, I think.

C&P: I love it. That’s such a great idea. So of your travels, and it sounds like you’ve traveled many, many miles, put many miles on your car, what are the places that stick out for you?

Medley: Having grown up in Mississippi, to me, a lot of this project is born out of that place, that region, the Mississippi Delta, the gas station of that place is much more sort of utilitarian. 

We’re talking about a place where there might be, the gas station might be the only commercial space for 25 miles, and so it has to serve food that is inexpensive, hot, fast, and kind of universally liked. 

So while the menu is not necessarily the most interesting—I mean, it’s like chicken tenders, burgers, barbecue type stuff—the role that these spaces serve in those communities I think is really a fascinating part of the culture there.

Calvanders gas station and grill is near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Kate Medley)

In more urban areas down in New Orleans, there’s a lot more from global influence. One of the best meals I had was at a place right outside of New Orleans in Metairie that’s run by a Vietnamese family. The guy who owns it, he grew up outside of New Orleans binge-watching The Food Network after high school and just taught himself how to cook. 

So he opened this place called Bahn Mi Boys in the side of the Texaco where you can get a Cajun fried shrimp bahn mi with the flavors of a shrimp boil and then the accoutrement of a traditional bahn mi. And man, the food that he’s slinging is just, it’s so good. 

Also in New Orleans, there’s a place that’s run by an Iraqi refugee. It’s right on Magazine Street. He’s serving really awesome Middle Eastern food, like the tall cylinders of meat that he’s shaving to make the wraps and sandwiches. 

And then when you get outside of New Orleans in sort of the more rural areas there, Cajun country if you will, there’s a lot of boudin and Cajun meat butchers in the sides of gas stations. 

So growing up in Mississippi, a lot of our foodways, it was sort of adopted across the border in Louisiana, and I kind of lumped that region together as a really robust gas station food area. If you’re looking for a road trip…

C&P: Yeah, I mean, I’d like a road trip there. It strikes me that it’s also this melding of cultures. Regardless of where you’re from, you’ve got to eat.  Regardless of what your tastes are or what you like, what your political beliefs are, where you’re from, you’ve got to eat. 

And if you’re in these rural places that might have a Burger King or something 9 miles down the road or, I don’t know, a Walmart that is within 10 miles, that’s the closest fresh food that you might be able to find. It strikes me that these places don’t just become a place to eat, they become meeting places.

Medley: Absolutely. And I mean, as you’ve experienced, when you go into that Burger King or that subway or that Walmart, you know exactly what you’ll have for lunch before you step foot in the door. You know what it’ll smell like in that Subway. You know what that sandwich will taste like. You probably know how much it’ll cost. 

And when you go into a gas station, you open the little glass door and the bell rings, there’s this element of surprise. How will I be received? What will it smell like? What will there be for lunch? Who will be in there? And that intrigue as a traveler for me, I mean, that’s where it’s at.

C&P: Would you have considered yourself a “foodie” before this project?

Medley: I’m not super into the term myself. I do not consider myself a “foodie.” And to me that term symbolizes a fanciness for fancy sake, an interest in the food that is sort of highfalutin.’ 

And I’m interested in food less for how things taste and more for the people who are involved. And so that term doesn’t really do much for me, but I love diving into a conversation by way of the food to then learn about the people and the culture and the place.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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