Mr. Bill’s Southern Diner, Northport, Alabama

I’ve written about the Southern institution of the Meat and Three before here, and it’s always a treat to go to one again. This time, on my lightning road trip to Tuscaloosa and back, I went back to Mr. Bill’s, across the river from Tuscaloosa in Northport.

I’d managed a good night’s sleep after eating more meat than the law allows at Rusty’s — more than I should eat, but how do you stop when it’s that good? I woke up refreshed, had a nice visit with David and Debby, and had a chance to see young Dave, now married and a realtor in Birmingham. Then it was down to Tuscaloosa and a visit with Bob and Babs McCurley before time for me to teach a session on redistricting for one of Bob’s courses in the Honors College at Alabama.

You first met Bob and Babs at the original Dreamland, see here, when Nancy and I went down to find a place to live while I was on loan from the Justice Department to the Alabama Law Institute. The Law Institute was one of the most remarkable organizations I’ve seen. The Institute conducted training for state and local officials, and also supervised the drafting of comprehensive code revisions for things like criminal law, landlord tenant law, and election law — all highly controversial topics. Bob organized volunteer(!) teams of interested and highly respective legal practitioners on all sides of the issues, and led them to hammer out code revisions in a long and thoughtful process. I was on the House floor once when a legislator introduced an 800-page Landlord Tenant bill, saying only, that “This is one of Bob McCurley’s bills.” Bob had built so much trust, both personally and in the Institute’s process, and such an expansive expertise in virtually all areas of law, that the mention of his name was enough to ensure prompt passage. What a remarkable accomplishment!

We had time for lunch, and, in one of those weird, unaccountable coincidences, both Bob and Babs suggested barbecue. Go figure! After my North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail trip followed by Rusty’s, I was ready for a change, and suggested a meat and three. That took us to Mr. Bill’s.

We found a table and soon were in thrall to a delightful server whose name, like most names, I immediately forgot. She kept giving me a hard time in that genial way that friends do about things like football, or that family members or long-time good friends do about some standing joke that’s a part of your shared pasts. That’s a long-winded way of saying she treated me like family.

I ordered a vegetable plate, with greens, green beans, black eyed peas, and large butter beans.

Isn’t it lovely? The vegetables weren’t strictly vegan or even vegetarian, but I doubt that all told they included more than a quarter pound of pork. But that quarter pound did its work. The butter beans were the least excellent, being a touch mushy, but the greens, the green beans, and the peas were outstanding. And the pot likker from the greens and beans was heavenly when soaked up by Mr. Bill’s excellent cornbread — the best in Tuscaloosa, which is saying something.

Now, I like barely-cooked vegetables, green beans that have been lightly blanched and quickly sautéed with some garlic, al dente asparagus, and the like. And I sympathize with people whose childhoods were warped by overcooked, sidemeat-free vegetables in school cafeterias and in homes where culinary sophistication extended east and west but not south. But I dearly love Southern vegetables, and I rejoice in vegetable plates. Mr. Bill’s isn’t a place for decor or culinary flourishes. It’s a place you go and feel like you’re back among family. Actually, eating with Bob and Babs, I guess I was among family.

Tuscaloosa is the heart of ribs country, thanks to Archibald’s, Dreamland, and a host of other places, and definitely get some ribs at Archibald’s, but you need your vegetables, too. Save a meal for Mr. Bill’s.


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