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I didn't really want to go to Mobile, Ala.

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Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009 12:00 am

The young server at Dreamland BBQ looked down at my plate scrubbed clean by a piece of white bread.

"Well, glad you liked the chicken," he said. "But we're famous for our ribs. Since you came all the way from California, I think I can slip one to you."

30 seconds later, a hefty pork rib appeared in front of me.

Instant salivary explosion.

I really like good barbecue. And I really like Mobile, Ala., though I didn't expect to.

I'm a California kid. Never been to the Deep South. And never, frankly, had the urge.

But the National Newspaper Convention was set there. I was lucky enough to win a feature writing award that would be bestowed at the convention. Marty, our open-minded publisher, has visited the South, and subtly encouraged me to go. You'll learn something at the convention, he said. You'll enjoy the award ceremony. And you might find Mobile more interesting than you think.

So off to Mobile (pronounced moe-beel) I went, still expecting backwoodsy and boring. Muttering to myself: Why couldn't this convention be in Chicago or D.C. — or at least Vegas, for goshsakes.

I came into town on a night humid enough to melt a silver dollar.

The next day, I awoke to a warm rain. Sticky. Even stifling. Oh, well, I will be gone in two days, I thought.

But those two days in Mobile held many surprises.

I discovered a city tracing back to 1702. Everywhere I turned in downtown Mobile, there was a sign marking history. The French, British and Spanish all left an imprint on Mobile. Floods and fires have ravaged the city, and so has yellow fever. It was a slave trading center, a cotton commercial hub. It has a rich shipbuilding history.

Downtown Mobile has undergone extensive restoration. It's charming, with old brick buildings embroidered with fanciful ironwork. There's an urban forest of huge, lush trees, (Mobile has one of the highest annual rainfall totals in the U.S.) some dripping with moss.

There is something about Mobile that is endearingly retro, like a rerun of "The Andy Griffith Show."

Walking down Dauphin Street in Mobile, I smelled something earthy and rich: Peanuts.

This was the A&M Peanut Shop, I learned. Opened in 1947. The building dated from 1886. And all the store's nuts are roasted right there in a weird, heavy-duty roaster built in 1907.

The peanuts are grown just one county over, said the very pleasant clerk.

A peanut store, selling local peanuts. That I have never seen on the West Coast.

I bought a bag. They tasted as good as they smelled. (At another spot, I tried a little bowl of boiled peanuts. They were spicy and a little mushy. An acquired taste, I think.)

There was a great used bookstore, Bienville Books, where I bought a tome called, "Myths, Mysteries and Legends of Alabama," by Elaine Hobson. What a fascinating book. It told of, among other things, a giant pecan tree that made crying sounds and drew large crowds before returning to silence.

There was a wonderful evening at the mothballed USS Alabama, now part of a military park with aircraft and artillery on display. Our tour guides, young college students, all of them women, wore sailor suits. OK, old-fashioned. But festive and fitting, too.

Inside a hangar, surrounded by old warbirds, we were served a "Seafood Extravaganza" of fried catfish, fried oysters, fried shrimp and fried okra among other wonderful fried dishes.

"Down here," an editor from Alabama told me, "if it ain't fried, it ain't cooked."

As we ate fried seafood, the "Excelsior" a brass jazz band played. I noticed a banner stating the band dates to 1883.

There was a theater, The Crescent, where you could take a glass of beer or wine into the auditorium and relax in a big easy chair. The proprietor came out before the movie, a good film titled, "Adam," to talk to us all about the movie, and asked if everyone was comfortable. Then he left to become the projectionist. Easy chair, glass of wine, good movie, cinematic concierge.

How — I can't think of a better word — civilized.

There was a dog racing track, too. Alas, I didn't have a chance to visit.

The people were, well, gracious.

Unfailingly friendly.

"Oh, don't worry about the admission charge, sugar. You're with a newspaper convention? Why, you just go on in and take a look around," said the lady at the front counter of the Museum of Mobile. And it was an excellent regional museum. Honest and moving, one display showing how slaves were packed into ships like cordwood.

So I finished that complimentary rib at Dreamland BBQ, where they give you slices of Sunbeam white bread to mop up the savory liquids.

"Pecan pie for dessert. You gotta try it," the server said.

No, I just couldn't.

But I hope to try that pecan pie the next time I visit a sweet, sultry city called Mobile.

Maybe check out the dog racing, too.