Alabama: The shellfish gene

Nowhere does oysters quite like the Yellowhammer State. Rob Crossan finds indulgence and small-town charm in Alabama

'Of course, I've had about 90 nudes since then, you know." The bar stool squeaks with a tone of whimpered and continual suffering as my dining companion leans back, pats his belly and lowers another fleshy, moist and giving "nude" into his crypt-sized mouth. "I never thought I could OD on these things. I had to take a month off before I could really do them justice again."

It's hard to get fat on oysters – and why would you want to? If an American should wish to unbuckle their belt a few notches, then the efficient way to go about it would be through a Herculean intake of corn dogs or doughnuts. However, the man sitting on the stool next to me at Wintzell's Oyster House in Mobile, Alabama, has earned his girth in one of the hardest ways possible – through an oyster habit that would put an army of starfish to shame.

We both gaze up at the "hall of fame" display above the bar from where, every 90 seconds or so, customers are being served batches of a dozen wild oysters, caught in Mobile Bay, served on a battered tin tray and costing a paltry $15 (£7.90) a time. Scrawled on the display is a roll call of past winners of the Oyster Eating Championship. Rules state that the entrants must not leave the bar during the one hour of competitive gorging. Wisely, the rules also state that "Wintzell says he will not be held responsible for any after-effect – that includes belly ache or hospital fees".

The first winner, in 1969, ate 188 in an hour. The present holder, Jimmy Langford, ate an ocean-emptying 402. My dining companion, Charlie, explains to me ruefully that he stalled on 81 in last year's contest.

For the last 69 years, Wintzell's has been serving up molluscs at prices which have not only encouraged ludicrous binge-eating contests, but have democratised what is, for many, the most decadent and indulgent of foods. Impressive in a part of the States that, when mentioned in polite circles, is still more likely to bring up remarks involving rednecks and underage marriages than anything more sophisticated.

There's some sense in the argument that smiles set places apart from each other. Are you set at your ease by the beaming smile of a Brazilian beach babe? Do you feel oppressed by genuflecting grins from a Greek-islander gift salesman? Smiles seen in public places rarely have much to do with happiness. Rather, they have everything to do with providing service for others.

The genuine smile is harder to find in the US than anywhere else on earth. On the East and West coasts, people smile because they're feeling smug. But in Alabama, people smile because they want you to be happy. It's evident in the 1920s canteen-style interior of Wintzell's, where the walls are covered with ancient, handwritten signs of folksy, homespun wisdom ("Unfortunately, there is a widespread view that the proper lubricant for a political machine is palm oil rather than elbow grease" is one example). It's evident on the sated faces of the stool-sagging customers at the bar counter, and most of all it's evident on the faces of the locals walking (a novelty in itself in this region of the States) down Dauphin Street.

Dauphin is an urban avenue in the heart of Mobile's downtown. It's so perfect that, if it didn't exist, we'd have to conclude that the paintings of Edward Hopper and the novels of Carson McCullers were simply having us all on with their depictions of the utopian small-town American dream. Here, you can see what they were getting at. And it makes tourists like me smile nearly as much as the locals seem to do.

This is a street that puts one in mind of a thousand pieces of American literature and art. The Gothic-looking clapboard houses on the southern end of the road exude that particularly Southern ambience of old secrets, slow footsteps and long shadows contained within. Is Boo Radley about to emerge when the sun sets? Has that house been photographed by William Eggleston already?

Further north, near Cathedral Square, lies a typical late-19th century neo-classical townhouse with a window display that consists of a display of mannequins in rabbit costumes. This is u o Space 301, a contemporary art gallery that made me stop and consider whether I hadn't, in fact, unwittingly walked on to the set of a David Lynch film.

The Saenger Theatre on South Joachim Street opened in 1927. The interior seems scarcely to have changed since then. It's home to the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and is resplendent with chandeliers. Outside, statues of Poseidon and Dionysus stand guard. It might put you in mind of yet another piece of American heritage clumsily rescued and packaged as "authentic" for day-trippers, but this really is the real thing.

Dauphin Street is still the hub of Mobile's commercial life and is the perfect antidote to anyone tired of weaving their way through the endless succession of low-level strip malls and retail outlets that pepper so much of the rest of the state.

To understand why the ambience of towns such as Mobile feels so different – somehow more honest and vulnerable – than elsewhere in the US, I was told by another oyster-eating veteran at Wintzell's to visit a clearing in some woods located a few miles away in Point Clear.

Here lies the Confederate Rest Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 300 Confederate soldiers who died at the hospital nearby (a sprawling hotel called the Grand now covers the site). They were victims of the Siege of Vicksburg, one of the final, most bloody chapters of the American Civil War. For almost two months in spring 1863, the Confederate army serving under John C Pemberton was subjected to a siege in the nearby town of Vicksburg, Mississippi by Union soldiers. Southern men were reduced to eating shoe leather before surrendering on 4 July.

A fire at the hotel in 1869 saw all records of the soldiers buried here destroyed. The graveyard today is free of brash bombast. Wandering amid the headstones is to get a feel for the ordinary lives of the people of Alabama today and why so much of this state has such a beguiling atmosphere of hushed stillness and respect for the past.

A small Confederate flag lies crumpled on the ground near the unmarked crosses of the unknown soldiers; simple, unadorned gravestones mark the resting places of soldiers killed in more recent wars. The only noise is the occasional thwack of a golf club from the hotel grounds nearby. Otherwise this small, almost forgotten graveyard lies mute, a testament to the many who fell in an area of the States where more blood was shed than most, before a society of theatre halls and oyster-eating contests could grow.

STATE LINES: ALABAMA

Population 4.5 million Area six times the size of Wales Capital Montgomery Date in Union 14 December 1819 Flower Camellia Motto "We dare defend our rights" Nickname Yellowhammer State

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