"You're not on that diet today," says guide Jennifer Hubbard. Just as well because I dread to think how many calories are in this fried chicken.
Paschal's is one of Atlanta's most famous restaurants – both because of its delicious, diet-derailing deep-fried chicken but also thanks to its role in the US civil rights movement. In the early 1960s, the restaurant was the group's unofficial headquarters – the place where Martin Luther King Jr and fellow activists would meet to plan marches and sit-ins.
The restaurant's owners, brothers James and Robert Paschal, did their part, too. Despite being black and having a "colored only" business licence, they welcomed everyone (including homosexuals) and sat them together, thereby flouting the era's segregation laws.
It's impossible to explore the food scene in Atlanta without touching on the region's civil rights history. So this innovative walking tour by Atlanta Food Tours does both – it tells the city's story through its cuisine. Over the next three hours we'll sample 15 tastings from seven restaurants while learning about the efforts of King and others to end the South's brutal and bewildering policies of racial discrimination.
From Paschal's we wander into Castleberry Hill, a former red-light district that's been gentrified and now sits in the shadow of the city's new futuristic-looking Mercedes-Benz Stadium. En route Hubbard describes how King met his wife Coretta Scott. "At first she remarked he was a little short for her taste," she explains. "But the more he talked, the taller he got."
Our next stop is Smoke Ring, a contemporary Southern barbecue restaurant that uses 21-day dry-aged pork from neighbouring Alabama. We sample it in several forms – as pulled pork, pork belly and in a rich Brunswick stew – and all are sigh-inducingly delicious.
Pausing outside Rich's Department Store in downtown, Hubbard explains that this is where King was arrested in October 1960 after taking part in a lunch counter sit-in. He was initially sentenced to four months hard labour but presidential candidate John F. Kennedy intervened and got him released on bail. Kennedy went on to win the election and many claim it was the black vote that got him over the line.
After a stomach-settling shot of spinach, kale and lemon juice at Arden's Garden, a juice bar in the former headquarters of the city's first black-owned newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World, we stroll to our final destination – The Municipal Market. During the '60s only white stallholders were allowed to trade inside this vast indoor food market; black vendors had to sell outside on the kerb.
Hubbard leads us on a whistlestop taste tour of Southern classics, from hearty braised beef meat pies to sweet Georgia peach tea to rich and creamy banana pudding. To conclude, we sample Miss D's award-winning Triple Popcorn – a ludicrously decadent treat where each kernel is individually coated with a retirement-threatening combination of butter, caramel and cheddar.
While I suspect most people go on this tour because of the food, I'd imagine what stays with them is the history. These events were almost unfathomably recent and as Hubbard, who is black, points out, "Fifty years ago we couldn't have done this tour because we wouldn't have been allowed to eat together." Thank God King's dream became a reality.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Virgin Australia and Brand USA.
Virgin Australia flies to Atlanta via Los Angeles. See virginaustralia.com
Well-located in downtown, The American Hotel has spacious rooms with mid-century furnishings and pop art. Rates from $US149. See doubletree3.hilton.com
Tours last around 3.5 hours and include 15 food and drink tastings at seven restaurants. Adults $US75, children $US55. See atlantafoodwalks.com