No, you can’t go home again, but you can eat a Varsity chili dog in the Fox Theatre on the radio.
See, I am from Decatur, Georgia. I moved away from there in l968, in search of someplace more sophisticated, more in keeping with my own cutting-edge potential. Since then, Decatur has grown hipper than I have. According to Wikitravel, Decatur “has become a hot destination for college students and young professionals who want hip bars, great restaurants, and walkable neighborhoods,” with “a substantial African-American population, a lesbian community and recent Ethiopian immigrants.” In my childhood there, a bar would have had a hard time being hip since it couldn’t have served alcoholic beverages, and there weren’t any restaurants either. There was some diversity: Methodists believed a tasteful sprinkle was quite sufficient, and God only knew how the white Baptists baptized, let alone the black ones.
Wikitravel goes on to note that “Decatur is one of the few parts of the sprawling Atlanta area that blends a small-town feel with an open-minded, freewheeling, artsy sensibility.” That’s me all over, I like to think—but only by the standards of yesterday’s Decatur. Today’s Decatur is so freewheeling, it has produced a rap duo, Da Back Wudz, which before disbanding was on MTV with, like, Young Jeezy, Lil Scrappy, and Slim Thug. The lyrics of Da Back Wudz include shout-outs to Decatur. Rhyming with, for instance, “inhaler.” They never mention me.
Okay, no, I don’t know the work of Young Jeezy, Lil Scrappy, or Slim Thug. But I checked out Da Back Wudz on YouTube, and here and there I could relate—for instance in “Mama Always Told Me” when Mama lays down some blessed assurance on the phone. Then in “The World Could Be Yours”: “Carryin’ on, this love jones heatin’ my soul/Like a pot of auntie collard greens on top of the stove.”
But anyway, “the sprawling Atlanta area.” Decatur used to be right next to Atlanta, whose downtown was about fifteen minutes west on twisty, dogwood-lined Ponce de Leon Avenue. Decatur is still right next to Atlanta, but now that’s like being right next to a burst dam. Today, Atlanta is right next to Decatur on all sides. And just about everything in Atlanta that I could feel nostalgic about is gone.
Except that you can still take that same Ponce de Leon route to the Fox Theatre, with its onion domes and trompe l’oeil nighttime-sky ceiling (lit-up stars, moving clouds). And right around the corner is the Varsity drive-in, whose chili dogs and onion rings are just as fabulous.
I go way back with both these institutions. Once, watching a movie at the Fox with my parents, I dropped my gum on the floor and before my mother could stop me I picked it up and recommenced chewing it. She was appalled, but then she said, “Oh well, it is the Fox.”
The chili, alone, on Varsity chili dogs is better than any other chili-dog chili, and you know how sloppy most chili dogs are? These are neat chili dogs, even when you add the chopped onions, which are handed to you wrapped up in waxed paper so you can add them to your taste.
So, when I learned we’d be doing Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, the National Public Radio show on which I am a panelist, at the Fox, you can see why I resolved to bring a Varsity chili dog. I wasn’t sure it was even legal to eat a Varsity chili dog in the Fox, but how could it not be auld lang syne? And the experience was good. Near sellout crowd, and though the chili dog was cold, and I’d already had two for lunch, it went down well. But then our host, Peter Sagal, asked our distinguished guest, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whether since moving to Atlanta (Decatur, actually) he had developed a taste for Southern food. He confessed to a fondness for pie.
So, hey, hospitality. I still had a fried peach pie from the Varsity. So I tossed it to Dr. Frieden. Set him up perfectly. And he caught it. And then when his segment was over, he walked off without it, and I thought, What’s wrong, cooties on it? Well, he would know. But I also thought, Whew. Then he came back, and to roaring applause from 4,500-and-some-odd people there in the fabulous Fox, he got that pie and left.
I don’t care where you eat it, a Varsity chili dog really isn’t complete without a fried-pie chaser.