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Coden, Alabama ~ Excursion on the Bayou
by Alita DeBerry




There are many ways to look at a place. Take Mobile, Alabama, for example. For a score of years that was home; we reared our girls there; made life-long friends there. But it has seen changes since we left, as places usually do.

We used to love eating at Tony's, across from Hartwell Field. Now Tony's is no more, and Hartwell Field, only a memory.

So it's always comforting to run across little pockets of places that have pretty much remained as you remembered them. Down along the bayous, so much that we loved is still there. The ancient live oaks with their beards of hanging moss, white gulls, pelicans and other sea birds, the fine seafood restaurants.

Down here, you always live with the knowledge that the sea is nearby; you taste it in the tang of salt on every breeze; you see it in the gathering of gulls drawn inland where they wheel and drift and hang-glide over shopping center parking lots, free as the wind.

Not far out of the city, you get an indefinable feeling you're nearing the water, which always draws me onward. Onward until the gentle ups and downs of Highway 90, give way to delta land; where azaleas in lavish splendor are then relinquished to straggly pines, scrub brush and broom sedge.

Finally, that too, gives way to swampy marshland.

Far down below Mobile, Bellingrath Road flattens out and runs straight as a fishing pole toward the gulf, and eventually dead-ends into Highway 188, in Coden.

Look to the left, a bridge has risen up from nowhere, cutting off further view; a bridge over some black bayou (down here, 'bayou' rhymes with Ohio.)

To the right you see massive clusters of venerable live oaks sheltering a nondescript, weathered building, with additions tacked on like afterthoughts. MARY'S PLACE, so says the sign. This is where the locals come to eat; trucks parked outside advertise construction, or painting or utilitiy companies, as well as those who make their living from the sea.

That's as good an advertisement as you need for the best eating -- if the residents eat there, you can count on good food.

MARY'S PLACE may not be written up in haute cuisine reviews, as it's strickly downhome, but true to your hunger and your hope, it serves up about the finest seafood my taste buds ever met. A great oyster Po-boy with all the trimmings, the shrimp almost any way you like it, and iced tea comes in a fruit jar mug.

Next time I'll try the boiled shrimp, or baked or stuffed flounder, or red snapper.

These bayous have been famous for their seafood for decades, even centuries. The early settlers built log houses chinked with mud to keep the wind and rain at bay, and built cypress boats, defying decay, to haul in load upon load of fish, shrimp and oysters.

The area's first oyster factory was a floating plant here in Bayou Coden. After the coming of the shrimp trawl in 1918, permanent factories and packing sheds were put up, and early in the morning of a new day, as sunrise warmed the eastern sky, factory whistles called their laborers to work.

And back then ice was scarce, so much of the daily haul was lost to the heat, and ended up dumped overboard, from whence it came.

Fishermen were limited on the amount they could bring in and sell, and any excess became flotsam and jetsam. Back then they smoked and salted down much of their catch for keeping, and that was a big commodity. But of course, refrigeration has wrought changes in the industry, for now the sea's harvest can be kept, even transported far inland.

They say that Coden (pronounced with equal emphasis on each syllable) was begun in 1882, when Joseph Antoine Rabby bought out the McGarth claim, which, in turn, had been purchased from the Government back in 1817.

The name Coden is a contraction of the French "Cog d' Inde,' meaning Indian turkey, as great droves of the wild bird were found there.

And there was, in the old days, rivalry between this village and its neighbor, Bayou la Batre. "I live in Coden," goes an old saying, "but I hang my wash out in Bayou la Batre." And they, of course, had their jokes about Coden.

Times were when Coden was a big summer getaway for the Mobile elite and tourists from other places, for it boasted fine hotels and boardwalks. But those days are now only memory, faded and washed out like a watercolor in the rain.

It was the destructive forces and fear of hurricanes that did in the resort business here.

Still, MARY'S PLACE has its own history.

Opened in 1935 by Mary Hunter, the restaurant catered to locals, but soon found itself so popular that reservations had to be booked in advance in order to place your feet under one of her blue-checked, cloth-covered tables.

"Mary was a black lady," said the present owner, Betty Gunnels, "and I used to work for her as a waitress years ago. Later, after she died, the place opened up under new management and a new name, but it didn't last."

Some few years back, Betty and her husband, Shirley, were down here looking for a business in which to invest. "We passed here," she said, "and it was empty and deserted, and we got out of the car to look around.

"My sister spied a 'For Sale' sign which had blown over into a ditch, and said to me, 'You ought to buy this place and open it up.' "

And buy it they did, sinking their life savings into it; they did repairs as they could afford them. "We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew or chance losing someone else's money."

Betty, knowing about old legends and loyalties, knew it could work only by being anchored to past traditions, and so she contacted Mary's daughter for permission to use its old name.

Thus, the Gunnels have succeeded in restoring a bit of the past down here along the bayous, in the old recipes and seafood dishes with a Creole touch.

Good food you don't forget.

Not as long as oysters, by the ton, are harvested each season, and crabs still teem in these old backwaters and bayous, and shrimp boats still put out to sea.

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Write Alita
Alita DeBerry has been writing professionally for twenty years, starting as a correspondent and feature writer for the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL. For most of this time, Alita was also writing a column for several weeklies in the South. Her column has been published in the Atlanta JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and her travel articles have appeared in several magazines.

Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.

The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.

CLICK HERE to read another of Alita's stories at USADS: "Old Fishing Village."
And here's another: A funeral to remember: Getting there is half the fun!

Write Alita at Scribbler211.


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