January 25, 2019
Atlanta’s Civil Rights legacy and reputation as a booming foodie destination are major draws for visitors. We got to experience them simultaneously during our latest trip, on a Downtown food walk rich in both history and flavour.
In a city well known for its mega corporations like CNN, UPS and Coca-Cola – not to mention our own partner airline Delta Air Lines – it’s easy to think of Atlanta as an urban sprawl geared more towards business travellers than vacationers. And while there’s something to be said for that view, the truth is Atlanta’s tourist appeal has been on the rise for several years, with major regeneration projects like the BeltLine and Ponce City Market prompting renewed interest in this leafy Deep South metropolis.
One of the best ways to get a sense of the city’s turbulent past and cosmopolitan present is on Atlanta Food Walks‘ Downtown Southern Food Walk. The three and a half hour tour combines 15 delicious samplings at locally owned restaurants with an insightful commentary on the historic neighbourhoods that played a pivotal role in the battle for Civil Rights.
While the major themes are covered at the sites of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, on the food walk you’ll hear the quirkier details that bring the Civil Rights struggle to life, and see how the movement’s legacy is kept alive through cuisine, culture, street art and entrepreneurialism.
We meet our guide Jennifer outside first stop Paschal’s, a soul food institution in Atlanta. Over generously sized plates of fried chicken, cheese grits and candied yams we learn how the restaurant in its former incarnation became the de facto home of the Civil Rights Movement, from where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. planned the March on Selma with his fellow leaders, as well as the 1968 anti-poverty Poor People’s Campaign and numerous voter registration drives.
From here it’s a short walk to the Castleberry Hill historic district, south west of Downtown. It’s now a creative area full of art galleries, converted warehouses and trendy restaurants, but back in the nineteenth century it was better known as Snake Nation – a lawless bastion of prostitution and crime far removed from its modern day role as a backdrop for multiple movie productions.
Our stop here is contemporary barbecue joint Smoke Ring, the brainchild of Atlanta native Jordan Wakefield, who sources all his produce from within a radius of 299 miles and creates his own barbecue sauces from scratch. We’re offered glugs of blueberry moonshine alongside collard greens, mac’n’cheese and a bowl of Brunswick Stew – a southern country classic filled with beans, pulled pork and vegetables in a thick savoury broth.
Onwards, and Jennifer leads us across the Gulch – a massive undeveloped area best known today as a location for zombie series The Waking Dead – and into the Five Points neighbourhood. The stories come thick and fast as we walk past some of Downtown Atlanta’s twentieth century icons. Oversize footwear institution Friedman’s Shoes, which has one of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 boots in the window. The former Rich’s Department Store where MLK staged a lunch counter sit-in in 1960, for which he was sentenced to six months hard labour (and from where his wife Coretta Scott King would later buy a coat for her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony). And the one-block district known as Hotel Row, which once catered to passengers arriving at the sadly-no-longer Terminal Station but now boasts extraordinary street art in the form of Belgian artist ROA’s monumental alligator mural.
By the time we’ve walked through commercial district Fairlie–Poplar, we’ve built up a thirst. Fortunately a cold-pressed pineapple, apple and ginger juice is waiting for us at bottled juice company Arden’s Garden, before we head into the heart of the Sweet Auburn Historic District for the remainder of our tastings at Sweet Auburn Curb Market.
Opened in 1924 and officially known as the Municipal Market of Atlanta, the market’s more popular moniker reflects the era of complete segregation, when white patrons had the run of the entire building but black vendors and customers could only trade at the curbside stalls outside.
Today the market is a foodie destination for all, with fresh produce in the middle and a line-up of local merchants serving artisan dishes at dine-in tables around the perimeter. We eat double crust slow-braised steak and stout pie at South African pie shop Panbury’s, followed by West African-style beans, corn bread cake and banana pudding at Metro Deli Soul Food. By now we are barely able to waddle to the final two tastings, but they are mercifully light in the form of Georgia peaches tea at Just Add Honey boutique tea company and a handful of Miss D’s ‘triple’ caramel, cheese and butter popcorn, which sounds very wrong but is – trust us – extremely right.
The market is the final destination, so there’s plenty of time to browse or buy a souvenir to take home. And if this excellent tour has inspired you to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the great men and women who led it, it’s just a 10-minute walk to the house where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born (open for tours) and other important sites in the King Historic District.
The Downtown Southern Food Walk is run by Atlanta Food Walks and costs US$75 per adult and US$55 for under-12s. It follows an easy, flat, two-mile route through the city with frequent stops, and food restrictions and allergies can be accommodated with prior notice. We recommend booking tickets in advance.
Visit Atlanta.net for more info on things to see and do in the city.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Atlanta from London Heathrow.