Pass the chitlins, gulp a McDonalds joe and praise the Lord, hon

The first sign that I was entering new territory far from my Bay Area home was when the waitress at Waffle House made me cry.

I was somewhere outside of Tupelo, Miss., en route to Alabama, where I’d be working as a reporter for the summer. With the Bay Area 2,000 miles behind me, I was heading into the unknown.

The woman slinging coffee behind the counter seemed to know everyone in the truck stop. She served up $1.99 breakfasts with the kind of smile that made you believe she loved her job, and she called me “Hon” like we’d be friends forever. Her kindness brought tears to my eyes.

“Why can’t everyone be as nice as her?” I cried — and laughed — to my boyfriend later.

The next day I rolled into Anniston, Ala., my home for the next few months. I’d wanted to live somewhere different and peer at the world through a new lens.

I envisioned a place where I might be the only Jew. Imagine my surprise when I happened upon Temple Beth El, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in all of Alabama. The building was unpretentious yet beautiful. The congregants were sparse, but cohesive and familiar. When two women said they had a nice Jewish boy for me, I loved the reminder that some things about our community never change.

But there were differences in Anniston that jumped out at me. There was the 2,254-ton stockpile of chemical weapons. The rockets and containers of nerve and blister agent are stored at the Anniston Army Depot, remnants from the Cold War era. After years of wrangling, the army would fire up its $1 billion incinerator to destroy the weapons. It was a seven-year job set to start before I could leave.

When I lived in Israel, my parents couldn’t wait to get me back to “safety.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, as I stood in line to pick up my equipment — portable air filter, protective hood, plastic sheeting and duct tape — doled out to save me, in case an accident caused a nerve-gas plume to wash over this small city.

I sat down with Phillip Harris of Centech Group, the company distributing the equipment. I wanted to hear how this unassuming community was responding to the potential threat. He said most of the 23,000 people Centech served were “extremely sweet and appropriately concerned.”

“The others are salt on the meat, a little seasoning to make it more interesting,” he said.

With that, my ears perked up, my pen came out and I demanded examples.

Caller: “How long are these hoods good for?”

Harris: “Why do you ask, ma’am?” (The answer, by the way: four hours of one-time use only.)

Caller: “Well, I made my children sleep in them last night, and now they’re lookin’ kind of pink.”

Somehow I just can’t picture Israelis making the same mistake.

But you know you’ve arrived in small-town Alabama when …

• You go to McDonald’s for a cup of coffee and Wendy’s has the best salad in town.

• You can’t understand an interviewee because he’s chewing tobacco.

• You place a call and the phone is answered, “Praise the Lord.”

• The freezer at the grocery store is overrun with frozen buckets of chitlins, or the proper name, as you now know: chitterlings.

• You stop noticing the Confederate flag, even the one hanging in a county commissioner’s office.

• You have a favorite Christian rock song.

• Your rent is $300 a month, and you’re told you’re getting ripped off.

• Religious invocations are held at every meeting and gathering you attend. School board, county government, toddler Olympics, new car dealership — you name it, Jesus is there.

• Banana pudding counts as a vegetable on a restaurant menu. Mac and cheese, too.

• You can easily incorporate the phrase, “I’m mad as a wet hen” in your everyday talk.

Indeed, there was a lot to laugh at in a place like Alabama, but there was also much to love.

The people were sweet, the barbecue perfect and my skin — with the Southern humidity — had never been smoother.

And while I’m thrilled to be back in the Bay Area, there’s a certain waitress and spirit I wish I could’ve taken home to share with y’all.

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected]