LIKE A FRIENDLY SOUP NAZI

That's how a colleague described Niki's in Birmingham. You shuffle crablike down an aluminum chute that you suspect Temple Grandin may have had a hand in designing, listening to chants of "What can I get you? What can I get you? What can I get you?" and you had better know what they can get you, or they're on to the guy behind you. This wouldn't be much of a challenge if they had mere dozens of vegetables to choose among, for instance, but no. You know those seed banks that have endeavored to collect samples of every seed on earth? Well, Niki's is like that with vegetables. There were at least 5000 varieties of vegetable on display, all cooked nearly to mush, most with a blob of pork fat floating in the middle, and all delicious in a southern kind of way. And cheese grits--yes, cheese grits! The guiding principle of this restaurant and several others like it in B'ham is "meat and three", meaning a meat and three vegetables, a principle that has mutated under the influence of the chief of one of the South's most prestigious ad agencies to "three meats and nine", the consumption of which is marvelous to behold. And this, so far, sums up the insights I have gained on my foray into the real South, as opposed to the faux South of today's Virginia, although Mr McDonnell is single-handedly trying to bring back the Confederacy. But that's another story.