Well before dawn, my family piles into our car and zooms south, unsure of what to expect when we finally slow down. Every Christmas Day, we pack the menorah for a road trip to a southern state of my father’s choosing, beginning with pre-Katrina Louisiana, and most recently Austin, Texas. During the next few days, we alternate sleep with battles over music, food stops, and brief bouts of carsickness. We peruse old bookstores and consignment shops, explore historical sites, and eat the best ribs, beans, and cakes that the south has to offer. Our journey to Alabama two years ago, however, broke the mold.
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With 35% of its approximately 3,000 citizens living below the poverty line, Greensboro, Alabama displayed no signs of Christmas. We had come in search of “Rural Studio,” the houses designed and built by Auburn University students for poor inhabitants throughout Hale County. (http://www.facebook.com/rural.studio) The 80 homes, playgrounds and public buildings, with their bright colors and high-concept designs, stood out among dilapidated antebellum houses and empty storefronts.
Few natives were startled by the New York license plated SUV pulling over to take pictures of their homes. Others feigned normalcy, coming outside with their children to play ball as we approached. One or two aggressive looking men came out on their porches to stare us down, my father promptly putting the car into gear as the rest of us melted in fear. As architecture and social service enthusiasts, we debated on the ride back into town over whether or not our visit had been intrusive.
When an article about “Pie Lab” had popped up in the New York Times shortly before our trip, it seemed that it was meant to be. (http://pielab.org/) The shop’s founders hoped to foster solutions for local issues by gathering members of the community around their homey pastries. To this end, they employed and held enrichment classes for young people in the community. We had read that some Greensboro natives were not pleased with these outsiders’ attempts to fight a battle that was not theirs, and it seemed that the people of Pie Lab were treated the same way we were looked at as we got out of our car on desolate Main Street.
Once in the store however, this was not the case. A few tired looking, but friendly men were gathered at the table in the center of the store with coffee and pecan pie. They were eager to hear about who we were once my father ordered a few slices of pie. There my family discussed where to head next, as I eavesdropped on the owner and her two assistants, local teenagers a few years older than myself, as they measured flour and sugar for the next batch of pies. I quickly realized that the since we’d entered the store, they had been discussing fractions. They didn’t know what they were. As the woman patiently explained the relationship between a quarter cup and a half cup, I stared rudely and slurped my milk.
I thought of the large brownstone in which I live, of the bright yellow kitchen which has made possible my reputation among friends as a skilled baker. I have the means by which to buy sugar, chocolate, and butter, and the knowledge by which to make birthday cakes and Christmas cookies galore. As I licked my fork and savored the last pecan on my plate, I made up my mind to return to Greensboro, or someplace like it. But when I did, it would not be to just take pictures or eat pie.
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