Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mustang Oil . . . . and why a girl like me loves West Alabama

There is no place on earth like Mustang Oil. In Greensboro, Alabama, Hale County - the heart of the Black Belt on the corner of Main Street and Highway 14 is a filling station diner that stole my heart. I first ate there in June 2001 with Samuel Mockbee, D.K. Ruth, Dick Hudgens, Andrew Freear, Steve Hoffman and Ann Langford. If I had known at the time the significance of the event - I would have taken a picture - or at least journaled about it. I guess like most folks who live in and during significant events - I had no idea I was living history. We were the first six faculty and Staff members of the Rural Studio - now an icon in American Architecture.

Samuel Mockbee would die on Dec. 30, 2001, would receive the AIA Gold Medal after his death two years later - it would be the one and only time I would eat with him at Mustang Oil. D.K. Ruth would retire from the Rural Studio shortly after Sambo's death - I've yet to eat there again with him - but doing so is one of the things I want to do soon. Steve and Ann have moved on to bigger and better things - and Andrew Freear, Dick Hudgens and I are the only folks from that day that are still around.

Dick is still teaching the best Southern American Architecture History Course in the world - he is the most amazing restoration architect from Selma Alabama - Dick is responsible for a lot of restoration projects throughout the Southern US including Pebble Hill in Auburn and St. James Hotel in Selma. He is also famous for teaching his students the delicacy of red wines - (You haven't lived until you've drank red wine from 32 oz. plastic cups with Dick Hudgens - I love you Dick).

Andrew is now the director of the Rural Studio and up for an amazing global award himself. He keeps pushing the Rural Studio to amazing new heights that "Proceed and Be Bold" can't even describe. I'm running the fund-raising efforts and we have a staff of twelve. Things are a lot different.

Andrew and I took a "high profile" donor on a tour of Rural Studio just two weeks ago. They were "high profile" enough that we had to make it "Sub-Rosa." - I term I will describe later. We toured all the amazing projects ( and took these stiff shirt executives to eat at. . . . .you guessed it - Mustang Oil. It is so disarming, casual, honest, bold, full of heart and authentically Southern - that it creates a story to take home - all on its own.

A international student at Rural Studio for one year describes Mustang Oil like this:

"I know none of you will ever find yourselves in Greensboro, Hale County, Alabama. Or if you do, you will be very lost, trying to get from Birmingham to New Orleans, or something. But in case you do, and just because I can, I'm going to write a hymn of praise to the legendary Mustang Oil.It's all about the ribs. Yes, they do barbecue pork and chicken, hamburgers, catfish and more, but the reason why Mustang Oil exists is because of its rib plates. Beautiful, melting, tender-yet-firm, sweet, smoky yet sharp ribs, cut up with big shears and weighed on the scales before being plonked on a plastic plate. Then joined with the slaw and their Cajun fries, both of which are pinnacles of their genre. Get there just before midday so you can catch the fries when they are really fresh and crispy.It's almost impossible to say how good these ribs are. But I'll just tell you that my mother liked them. My mother is Japanese, very skinny, scared of rednecks and with a horror of fatty food. But she liked Mustang's ribs...Atmosphere-wise, it's a classic gas station diner. Formica, rough wood boarded walls, taxidermied stag heads and photos of hunting on the walls, alongside neon signs advertising Budweiser and Miller Lite. The cops eat here, so does the judge, so do the catfish plant workers, and the guys from John Deere down the road. In hunting season it opens at 3 or 4 in the morning to serve breakfast to the early morning hunters."

I write about Mustang Oil in my diet blog because while on this weight loss journey, two weeks ago I learned that Mustang Oil serves grilled skinless, boneless chicken breast with nothing but salt and pepper on them! Amazing, I thought. I ate a skinless, boneless grilled chicken breast with a slice of fresh tomato and iceberg lettuce.

As I ate my chicken breast (which was delicious) I remembered the day that Sambo ate ribs AND a chopped pork sandwich. I remember his big belly laugh and the sauce all over his beard. The laughs of that day echoed in my mind and mingled with the laughs of Oct. 30, 2007.

My thoughts were: Yep, things change - because they have to. While still honest to our heritage, our roots, and our family - I, the Rural Studio and Mustang Oil must change. I'm six years older, several pounds heavier - I must eat better. Rural Studio is the elder statesman in Design/Build Architecture - it must continue to move forward and boldly and is forced to grow up. And Mustang Oil must serve grilled chicken breast without skin, without fries, without being breaded and deep fat fried. None of these things need change our character or who we are.

By the way, that stiff shirted donor hasn't stopped talking about Mustang Oil or the Rural Studio and wrote us a check.