Food, Fuel and Story – Review of “Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed and Fuel the American South” by Kate Medley

Let me say this clearly and at the beginning. I love this book.

I am no Southerner. Although my family lived in Virginia for a while, and my wife and I lived some years in western South Carolina, I am Midwestern and Northern Plains from head to toe. This is important because region sets context. Every region has its own vocabulary of expectation and hope. It’s very easy to misunderstand.

“Thank You Please Come Again: How Gas Stations Feed and Fuel the American South” by Kate Medley
Published by Bitter Southerner Publishing, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

It’s mesmerizing and pleasing. And then somewhat remorse-filled when it’s broken. This can happen during a movie, during a concert, even during a long walk on a pleasant afternoon. You get absorbed in something else and that something else becomes the reality through which you move.

But I am also, with every atom and corpuscle I contain, a road trip person. I know gas stations around the world. I know the people. I know the culture. I know the food. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a blizzard, take shelter from a tornado, or simply want a cold soda. I know what it’s like to eat a hot dog that has been rotating on that little grill since the early days of the Holocene and treasure every bite. I know what it’s like to be welcomed, to walk in a stranger and depart a friend.

Gas stations, and the food they offer, are a great source and location of comfort and culture and storytelling. So, when I saw this book, I knew, or at least hoped, I would be holding a book that spoke to the loneliness of the traveler, the succor of food, and the kind of immediate respite and hope these places provide. When I held it in my hands, I was flabbergasted at how eloquently and brilliantly and brightly this book succeeds.

The book begins with two introductions. The first, by Kiese Laymon, is a personal narrative titled “It Started with Jr. Food Mart,” which begins:

It started on date night and in Jr. Food Mart, my obsession with Mississippi restaurants that served gas.

This was date night in 1984.

The essay goes on to describe a date between Laymon’s grandmother and a man named Ofa D, and how they would go to a gas station for food.

I loved that we could get batteries and gizzards I loved that we could get biscuits and Super Glue. I loved that we could get dishwashing soap, which was also a bubble bath, which was also the soap we use to wash Grandmama’s Impala, and the good hot sauce in the same aisle. I was 8 years old. I never knew, or cared, that my favorite restaurant served gas. My Grandmama and Ofa D were deep into their 50s. They seemed to never know or care that our favorite restaurants served gas, either.

It is a touching, personal opening that, if you’ve never eaten at a gas station, tells you these are places filled with a peculiar and wonderful kind of love. The essay sets a tone and offers an invitation to a certain type of culture.

Following this, Kate Medley, the photographer, has her own introduction titled “The Filling Stations of Our Time.”

Ten miles or so past the last stoplight in Hillsborough, North Carolina, a panoply of hand-painted signs dotted the roadside for the Farm and Garden Center: VEGETABLES, JELLY, LIVE PLANTS, LOCAL LAMB, BEER, BAIT. So I pulled off to gas up and was greeted by a shop dog named Parker, alongside the promised vegetables, bait and beer.

Holding this book, I was already smiling. I know this place, even though I’ve never been there. I’ve been in a hundred just like it.

Medley continues,

There is an egalitarian nature to the gas station, integral to the lives of people in every socioeconomic bracket if you live in the south, especially in rural areas. Working as a photojournalist, it became my way of studying this complex region, the people who live here, and how the populations and priorities are shifting.

New Yorkers have Bodega culture. In the south, we have gas stations.

Medley’s introduction is insightful. And if I tell you it’s academic, I do not mean it is mundane or pretentious or filled with jargon. It’s well-informed and smart, filled with not only personal experience but contextual research and information.

The personal experience is essential. What she finds in her photographs moved my heart on every page.

She writes,

Empty pump columns remain outside the Old Town Grocery and Tackle near Elaine, where the slogan reads proudly: “We like our tea like we like our farmers—sweet and strong.

Amanda Simonson was operating as the cook, cashier, and general manager when I stopped in. “The closest gas is 30 miles away,” said Simonson, “but I can I offer you smothered pork chops.

Later in the introduction, talking about the Fred Eaton service station in Prichard, Alabama. she writes,

In addition to the fuel, oil changes, and tire repair, Eaton’s has become a gathering place for folks in this tight-knit South Alabama community. “When people retire, they come sit around out front,” said Eaton. “Take the preacher for instance. He’s retired. He’ll sit around and we’ll talk church stuff. It’s not real church, but it’s a lot like real church. Right here at my own service station.

Thank You Please Come Again contains nearly 200 photographs, all in color, all with a caption that gives the location and occasionally names of who we’re looking at. Medley’s photographic eye is profound. Her images include signs, shelves with or without stock, fried chicken, worn chairs, posters, and smiling as well as pensive people.

These are not images that seek the easy emotion of poverty or some kind of anger about a problem in the food industry. These images are, instead, acts of love. These images are a celebration of a culture that is necessary and insistent, which has risen by virtue of need into the landscape. If it’s possible to photograph integrity and hope and decay all at once, Medley has found a way.

On a road trip, it’s always possible to stop at fast food. Everything from McDonald’s to Applebee’s seems to be omnipresent. But get far enough off the interstate, and suddenly, you find yourself in towns too small for a chain and where the food is honest and well-intentioned. These are places where you can walk in, buy some biscuits and gravy, and hear a story. This is a hard life. There’s not a lot of money. There’s not a lot of ease. But there is character.

Looking at this book, what I find myself thinking about much more than gas, and frankly much more than food or the lives of the people there, is how, in the brief time I’ve walked into places like this, I have entered their lives, and they have entered mine with a kind of immediacy, without pretension, that gives me hope.

If you’ve never been in the American South, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure there are other versions of this community all over the world. Here’s a celebration of one particular version, well-photographed and elegantly written.

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