Driving along Alabama's Route 411, the options for eating are limited. The road winds for miles through lonely rural areas dotted with farms and tired shacks, with much of their contents strewn across the lawns. Eventually, it comes to Centre - dominated by the Piggly Wiggly, a pawnshop, and several churches. There's a body shop, with a car painted like an American flag, and a billboard that declares: "Prepare to meet thy God, for Jesus Christ is coming soon."
And then it appears. Starr's Real Pit Bar-b-que, a modest restaurant with an incongruous sign: "Hot food bar daily. Pray for peace."
There's something peculiarly American about barbecue, the South's most ubiquitous cuisine. Hearty and homey, its slow cooking reflecting the unhurried rhythms of the region, a plate of ribs offers as good an excuse as any to eat with your fingers and chew over the issues of the day.
And just as barbecue varies from shop to shop - pulled pork or chunks, vinegar or ketchup-based - so do the views of patrons and proprietors when it comes to the question of war with Iraq.
Starr's is owned by Lanny Starr, who at the moment is both handyman - the door's come off its hinges - and cook. He's had the place for 13 years, ever since he retired from the local Goodyear plant. Warm and inviting, with rows of spotless wooden tables, it's been transplanted from its old spot a little farther up the road, where Hazel's - "a dining experience from the past" - now stands.
Despite the restaurant's demands and distractions, Mr. Starr has been worrying about the looming conflict with Iraq.
A self-described "hard-sell Democrat," he does not believe President Bush has adequately made the case for war - though he acknowledges that in these parts, his views put him in the minority. "It'd probably be hard to get up a war protest here in Centre," he says good-naturedly.
He watched the recent Dan Rather interview with Saddam Hussein, and found it troubling. But he wonders just how big a threat the Iraqi leader is. "The thing that's got me puzzled," he says, is this: If Mr. Hussein really has the capabilities Mr. Bush claims, "he could wreak havoc anywhere - it wouldn't necessarily be against the US." And if that's the case, he asks, "Why can't we get anybody to go with us?"
Despite the economic downturn, most of Alabama's barbecue pits are thriving. In these parts, a heaping plate of tangy meat, beans, and slaw is as much a part of life as Wednesday Bible Study. It's also affordable, with dinner for two typically under $10.
And in these high-traffic restaurants, where a booming lunch business often outdoes the dinner shift, those behind the counter quickly get a feel for the mood of the town.
At the Unique BarBQ in Goodwater, Terresa Hayes says her customers are mostly in favor of the war - as is she.
"We can't live in fear because we don't know what he's going to blow up next," Ms. Hayes explains. Briskly making French fries in the kitchen, she says that giving the inspections process more time, to her mind, is not only a waste of time, but risky - "it's just more time for [Hussein] to build more bombs."
And she's not taking any chances: Although the town may be miles from any major city, she went out and bought duct tape and plastic wrap during the recent heightened alert. "I'm ready for 'em," she says. A Goodwater native, Ms. Hayes has been working at the barbecue pit for the past nine years - "since the day it opened." Her customers have been talking about the war lately, in part because a local reserve unit shipped out. But that hasn't affected business, she says - and most people are staunchly supportive. "We're hillbillies," she jokes. "We'll fight anybody."
Yet often, people's war views are shaped by personal experience as much as anything else. Just one town over, at the Little Smokehouse Bar-B-Que in Ashland, Jerrie Lindsey admits she's "real messed up about the war." Her brother was in Vietnam, she explains, and "he was never the same."
Waiting tables in the tiny restaurant, which has just a handful of booths and a string of American flag-shaped lights dangling outside, she worries that the men and women going over might be exposed to chemical attacks. And while she's not against standing up to Saddam Hussein, "I just think there might be some peaceful way to go about it," she says.
Not surprisingly, younger folks - whose memories of war center on Desert Storm rather than Vietnam - tend to be less wary. Working the cash register at the Golden Ranch BBQ in Selma, Nick Stevens says he doesn't worry about getting bogged down in Iraq. "I think the people need to be liberated," he says. "It's a dictatorship. [Hussein] gasses his own people."
Juggling orders on a recent Saturday - the yellow and orange booths full of locals devouring homemade chili, fried okra, and giant barbecue-baked potatoes, with several families bowing their heads in grace before the meal - Mr. Stevens explains that the key moment for him was Colin Powell's presentation to the UN. "I took what he said as pretty serious," he explains.
In line to pick up some chicken for his mother, Noopie Cosby is more blunt: "Where's my weapon?" the former Alabama legislator quips. "It's either do it now or pay the price later."