Everyone should have milestone memories of childhood summer vacations. We had some great ones, but my earliest revolve around family trips to Dauphin Island, Alabama. I don’t remember the first time we went – I was but a wee lad, after all – and without studying hurricane history I can’t pinpoint the year we started going elsewhere (though I think it had something to do with the Holiday Inn blowing into the Gulf). But I do know that it was our standard vacation for several years running. Some of the details are fuzzy, but I remember little bits about playing on the beach, visiting Fort Gaines and the USS Alabama, and hearing on television that Elvis had died – Mama didn’t believe me.
Some of my more vivid memories, not surprisingly, have to do with what and how we ate on those early trips. We always took a cooler and an electric skillet, so Mama could cook in the room. Other regular passengers were Vienna sausages and saltines, since they travelled pretty well. A special treat was the deviled ham – it wasn’t something we ate at home very often. We did eat out at a restaurant in Bayou le Batre called Mary’s Place, where I learned to love fried crab claws. My folks remember chickens and other barnyard animals hanging around the parking lot. Farm to table, indeed.
All this reminiscing is not just random. The memories have been revived because we finally went back. It took us around thirty-five years to do it, but we made it, just in time for an early celebration of The Folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. Younger Brother and his family, The Folks, and my crew crammed ourselves into a condo which just happened to be on the same property where the Holiday Inn once stood. How cool is that? Pretty cool, if you ask me.
As you have come to expect, we took care to fill up the celebratory weekend with good eating. But we had to get there first. We weren’t able to check into the condo until mid-afternoon, so we decided to stop for lunch in Mobile. At this point on the trip there were eight of us in the caravan: The Folks, The Wife and I, Son and Daughter, and Younger Brother’s dual offspring-ettes, Thing 1 and Thing 2. That meant we had to find a place that would please a multitude of appetites. I found the Dew Drop Inn on my handy-dandy list of must-eat dishes in Alabama and asked Mama (since she wasn’t driving) to locate it. It turned out to be only a few blocks off the beaten path, and was known for hot dogs and hamburgers – convenient and simple, the perfect combination for our travel party.
The Dew Drop Inn has been around in some form or fashion since 1924, and bills itself as Mobile’s Oldest Restaurant. Even more interesting to a food enthusiast like me, it may well have been the restaurant that introduced the hot dog to south Alabama. And though the menu was extensive, I stuck with tradition. The World Famous Dew Drop Inn Hot Dog is a bright red frank (that concerned Thing 2 just a little, but she was able to get past it in the end) on a toasted bun, dressed with chili, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard and a pickle slice. They’ll fix it however you like, but when I order someone’s signature dish, I like to get it the suggested way. There were a lot of flavors popping in the mouth with this dog, as you can imagine just by reading the toppings – and I thought they all worked well together. Thing 1 got some onion rings (also highly rated) so I enjoyed a few of hers in addition to my fried dill pickle spears. The Wife got a Dew Drop cheeseburger, which supposedly is the one that inspired Jimmy Buffet’s love for burgers during his boyhood years in Mobile. History can be fun, especially when you get to eat it.
Younger Brother is a food enthusiast much like me. Whenever we get together, we end up swapping ideas and stories about places we have been and what we’ve eaten there. Together we have discovered some memorable places, but on this trip we chose to maximize the family time by preparing most of our meals in the condo. What did that mean? It meant that together we brought enough food to last the ten of us about a week. We stayed three nights. But we had lots of variety, and we didn’t go hungry. It worked for us.
Night one was Mexican night, primarily sponsored by Younger Brother and fam. He brought chicken and ground beef and all the fixings for tacos; I contributed some green onion sausage from Jerry Lee’s Cajun grocery in Baton Rouge – it was as close as I could come to chorizo on short notice. For dessert I had a grand idea: all three families would bring an ice cream freezer, we’d make three different kinds of homemade ice cream on the first night, and eat it all through the weekend. Alas, that didn’t happen, but we did whip up a freezer of strawberry to cool off our palates after the spicy dinner. It lasted, oh, about one night.
The next morning we had one of our two meals out. We had done our research, and found that the place with the best reviews on the island was breakfast at the Lighthouse Bakery. We kinda’ went crazy. The signature pastry was the cinnamon roll, so we got a few of those (plain and pecan). On the savory side, we snagged a drove of little pigs-in-blankets and some bacon-wrapped twisted rolls. (Breakfast equals pork, right?) A few cheese and raspberry-filled danishes, lathered in decadent icing, brought us back to the sweet side along with a couple of fruit turnovers. That gave us enough energy to pack our snacks for the beach and start thinking about lunch.