Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

The first day of Summer 2017 ushered Tropical Storm Cindy up from the Gulf and energized the air farther inland in Birmingham, where I was helping to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It has been a few years since I experienced the typical effects of a tropical storm and – while I always hope there is no significant damage or injury – I always find the balmy air and windy bands of sporadic rain to be invigorating and energizing.

I reread The Great Gatsby as I have done for years on the Summer Solstice.

I was in my twenties when I began my annual reading of The Great Gatsby and the ritual has almost taken on a superstitious nature; if I missed a year, I would feel like something was awry. But I always manage to get in my June reading of the book and, after dozens of readings, I always find something new in Fitzgerald’s writing. And my heart always pounds in anticipation of the book’s inevitable ending.

On this most recent reading, I was struck near novel’s end by Nick Carraway’s account of a recurring West Egg nightmare – “a night scene by El Greco” in which a bejeweled drunken woman in a white evening dress is borne on a stretcher by “four solemn men in dress suits” to the wrong house. “But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.”  That particular paragraph had never stopped me in my tracks until this reading.

Perhaps that passage stood out this time because I read it while sitting in a car in the parking lot in Tuscaloosa in a steady tropical rainstorm, while Mother was in a beauty shop appointment. Those meteorological conditions just added to the gloom of Gatsby’s rain-soaked funeral in which he is laid to rest with only Nick, Gatsby’s father, a few servants, the local mailman, and the owl-eyed former party guest in attendance. I usually reread Gatsby outdoors in the sunlight so the weather definitely added a different perspective this year.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, the weather had cleared and the balmy weather turned blistering. Summer’s advent and Cindy dominated the days leading up to the most recent Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com). North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner and other Raleigh dining venues (www.ac-restaurants.com), was helming the meal. Once again, the event was a benefit for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org). I am proud to be a long-time member of the SFA, helping in a small way to support all of the good works the organization does.

Friends Anne, Michelle, Scott, and I traveled to the Shoals for the meal. Arriving at the Factory we were warmly greeted by Natalie Chanin, the creative force behind Alabama Chanin and the impetus for many community-building events, including an awesome schedule of Friends of the Café dinners.

The gathering was already going strong when we arrived. A delicious array of passed hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes topped with Alabama jumbo lump crab salad and Hook’s three-year cheddar pimento topping a cucumber slice. Along the serving table were shots of a sweet corn mousse with piquillo pepper.  The mousse literally melted in one’s mouth like a passing dream of sweet corn taste. A “Summer Cindy” libation was poured – Prosecco and Jack Rudy grenadine with a sprig of rosemary.

The seated meal began with a salad of local lettuces and vegetables dressed with buttermilk and roasted garlic. Next came a slice of heirloom tomato pie with spicy greens and sherry. My quest for the perfect tomato pie began years ago with the tomato pie competition that was an annual event at Decatur’s Willis-Gray Gallery (now Kathleen’s). The Decatur event hasn’t been held in several years but Ashley Christensen’s take on tomato pie is now the hands-down winner.

The third course was chargrilled Bear Creek ribeye steak cooked perfectly and served family style along with Poole’s macaroni au gratin and a room temperature marinated summer succotash which brought back vivid memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s take on hearty southern succotash.

The dessert course of a coffee panna cotta with Irish whisky caramel and North Carolina pecan granola crunch was served with a deep and earthy port.

I have never been disappointed in a meal at the Factory and Christensen’s recent menu continues to raise the bar.

Christensen seems to be as warm, down-to-earth, and authentic as the carefully selected ingredients she elevates. I think I have attended all but three of the Friends of the Café dinners and Ashley Christensen was the chef for my second in 2013.

When Natalie Chanin asked me recently which had been my favorite of the meals over the years, Ashley Christensen’s name was one of the first that came up. Now, Ashley Christensen is the first of the guest chefs in the series to come back for an encore. It seemed unlikely that she could top her first memorable performance at the space, but last Saturday night she did.

Copies of Christensen’s cookbook. Poole’s: recipes and stories from a modern diner (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016), were available for purchase and signing at the end of the event. It is a cookbook chock-full of exciting, well-explained recipes as well as a good introduction to the founding of Poole’s and to the James Beard Award-winning chef’s culinary aesthetic. It also provides the stories and impetus behind her restaurant empire of seven downtown Raleigh establishments. Chanin referred to her friend as “badass” and the book is full of Christensen’s warm and earthy takes on the food world (she refers often to an affinity for “beer flavored beer”).

For me, thanks to the friends who went with me, to Alabama Chanin, and, especially, to Ashley Christensen, that turbulent first week of summer 2017 ended on a high note indeed.

Serendipity under a Strawberry Moon

 Bird song and the comforting sounds of barnyard animals filled the late Spring air as the first fireflies of the evening began to twinkle in the woods of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge amid the backwaters of the Tennessee River.

 A group was gathered for dinner under the open pavilion at 1818 Farms (www.1818farms.com) in the northwest corner of the quaint and historic town of Mooresville, Alabama (pop. 54), in Limestone County between Huntsville and Decatur. In the wildlife refuge, a canoe glided by in the distance, adding a magical moment to the dinner; I hoped the canoe party looked to their right and saw our gathering beneath the Italian globe lights and flaming torches so that a glimpse of the farm through the trees might add to the magic of their journey at dusk.

It is the rare weekend when I am not traveling so when my friend Anne contacted me on Thursday to see if I might be interested in attending the 1818 Farms “Farm to Table” dinner on Friday, it was serendipitous that I had already made plans to stay at home.

1818 Farms covers three acres in tiny Mooresville. It is owned and lovingly tended by Natasha and Laurence McCrary and their family. A stroll through the property includes visits with chickens, cats and kittens, goats, pigs, sheep, and a Great Pyrenees dog to guard the assorted livestock. All of the animals seem incredibly content. Anne and I visited with three tiny kittens; one was designated to remain on the farm and the McCrarys were looking for good homes for the other two.

The farm is beautifully curated and a sense of calm begins at the front gate. Everywhere one looks there is a place to rest the eye. The animals are friendly and accessible, the raised garden beds are lush and filled with bloom and beauty, and the woods and wetlands of the wildlife refuge provide the western boundary beyond the border fence. A mellow instrumental duo provided music at the edge of the pavilion throughout the evening.

This was my first time to attend one of the 1818 Farms dinners. The meals started a few years ago in collaboration with Chef Jake Reed, the charismatic owner of the charming Albany Bistro, a great neighborhood restaurant in Decatur (www.albanybistro.net). Reed is winding down the Albany Bistro business (which now is open for catering and special events only) and has recently opened the new Table in the Garden eatery (www.tblrestaurant.com) at Huntsville Botanical Gardens.

“Chef Jakob” is a committed devotee to the “farm to table” philosophy and every meal I had at Albany Bistro is evidence that he practices what he preaches in creative and dynamic ways. His modern takes on local ingredients are fresh and innovative but he frequently acknowledges the enduring lessons he learned in the kitchens of his mother and grandmother.

Passed around hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes with a horseradish sauce, wonton cups with herbed chevre and summer vegetables (the cheese was from Humble Heart Farms www.humbleheartfarms.com in Elkmont, my favorite goat cheese purveyor), and possibly the best sausage balls I have ever tasted.

After the assembled guests were seated and the meal was introduced by Natasha and Chef Jakob, the first course of a summer vegetable tart in a puffed pastry crust was presented. It was followed by green bean and potato salad with lemon terragon vinaigrette.

The main course was grilled chicken with a balsamic peach glaze, grilled peach, and arugula. For dessert, Chef Jakob presented a bacon and bourbon cupcake. As shocking as a bacon and bourbon cupcake might sound, the result tasted like a fairly traditional cupcake but with interesting notes and hints throughout; I especially liked the crisp bacon crumbles on the top.

Chef Jakob created a lovely dinner that was reserved and memorable – unmistakably fresh, local, and seasonal. The presentation and ambience of the event were lovingly executed.

By the end of the meal, the twilight had turned to deep darkness and the animals were settling in for the night. Natasha was gathering up provisions for a couple who had decided to adopt one of the kittens and photographs were being taken to commemorate the adoption. As we stopped to check in on the roosting chickens in their spacious coop, Natasha passed. “They don’t realize how lucky they are,” she said of her menagerie.

Indeed, I felt lucky to be able to visit their home for a few hours. During the dinner, I had noticed a full moon beginning to peek through the canopy of trees. Native Americans refer to the first full moon of June as the “strawberry moon.” That strawberry moon shone brightly as I hit the highway for home and a restful sleep.

 

 

Food Memory: Bread Pudding

I have never met two bread puddings that are exactly alike and I rarely meet one that I don’t like. When I eat at a new place and bread pudding is listed on the menu, I almost always have to try it and see what version this particular kitchen has deemed acceptable.

Some version of bread pudding shows up on the menu of many southern dining establishments and dining rooms; some are dense and cake-like and others are more loose and cobbler-like. The Bright Star in Bessemer, near Birmingham, serves a tasty bread pudding with a rich bourbon sauce. The signature dessert at the Wash House in Point Clear on Mobile Bay is a Key Lime bread pudding that doesn’t sound promising but is actually quite good. It is also huge and filling and every time I’ve ordered it I have had to request a go box. Fat Girls, a tiny little barbecue joint on Highway 82 in Billingsley, Alabama, had a terrific bread pudding but it shut its doors a few years ago.

There seem to be as many versions of bread puddings in New Orleans as there are places to eat.

I don’t recall either of my grandmothers ever making a bread pudding so I have no family recipes to honor.

But recently I had some of Mrs. London’s bread from her family kitchen over in Madison sitting around and some Chilton County peaches that were getting pretty ripe and I decided that I needed to do something about it.  Scoot’s organic eggs from the farmer’s market were in the refrigerator and I decided to see what it was like to make my own bread pudding.

I do pretty well in the kitchen but whenever I make something I’ve never made before I need to do some research before I get started. I pulled down the cookbooks and culled the bread pudding recipes and then set to work.

I followed the basics based on what I read and then set about making my own version. I must say that this is such an easy dessert to make that I’m not sure why I never thought to make it sooner; I guess I was just satisfied to order it at restaurants.

The final result bears repeating, I think, and I’ll share it for whenever the urge might hit. I was frankly thrown a little off-guard with how basic and simple it was to make a pretty good bread pudding. I guess since I never thought to make it, I never thought about the process.

Here’s what I did; I messed with it a bit and, even though raisins are pretty traditional for bread puddings, I wanted to do peaches in mine. This is a very giving recipe and anybody cooking a bread pudding should tweak it with whatever their tastes suggest.

Peach Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

For the bread pudding:

1 cup milk

1 cup Half and Half

¼ cup unsalted butter

½ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon salt

2 eggs, beaten

6 cups dry bread cubes

1 cup sliced peaches

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk, Half and Half, and butter over medium heat until butter is melted and milk is hot.
  3. Whisk sugar, cinnamon, salt, and eggs together.
  4. Stir in bread and peaches.
  5. Stir in milk, ½ and ½, and butter mixture.
  6. Pour it all into a 2-quart baking dish.
  7. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes.

For the bourbon sauce:

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons Half and Half

4 tablespoons bourbon (non-alcoholic vanilla extract may be substituted for the bourbon)

  1. In heavy sauce pan, stir and heat all sauce ingredients to boiling over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Simmer, stirring frequently.
  2. When ready to serve, spoon sauce over the warm bread pudding.

The Rosenbaum House; Florence, Alabama

 I am not sure when I became a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) but I suspect it had something to do with seeing a picture of Fallingwater, his 1935 house for the Kaufmann family built over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. As I learned about his myriad other buildings – the houses in Oak Park, the two Taliesins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, etc. – I was hooked on the style and philosophy of Wright architecture, and on the life of the prickly and headstrong architect. I love the buildings and the art of the man but I’m not sure I would have liked him much personally.

By the time I actually visited Fallingwater, in 1993, I was pretty well-versed in Wright’s architecture and biography. Seeing Fallingwater for the first time was a spiritual pilgrimage and when I left the house and ventured onto the grounds to look back at the 20th century masterpiece – which has been called the most famous private house ever built – it was hard to drag me away. The combination of the sounds of the creek and the waterfall and the magnificence of the architecture is mesmerizing.

The Rosenbaum House, located in Florence, is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in Alabama. Like all Wright buildings, Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum’s house had its flaws and challenges – leaky roof; dysfunctional heating system; doors, ceiling, and openings built to the scale of the diminutive Mr. Wright; defective chimneys – but it is still a work of a genius architectural vision and the Rosenbaum family lived in it for almost sixty years until Mildred Rosenbaum finally gave it up in 1999.

The Rosenbaums commissioned the house as newlyweds in 1939. It is the second house executed in Wright’s “Usonian” style – a utopian ideal of building practical, organic, and low-cost houses for American families. Some architecture writers consider the Rosenbaum house to be the purest example of Wright’s “Usonian” architecture.

The Rosenbaums agreed to a budget of $7,500 for their house and with construction delays and cost overruns the final building came out closer to $14,000. Problems with leaks and the heating system presented themselves early on and the Rosenbaums had to butt heads with the “old man” on many occasions.

The Rosenbaum house is sited on a pleasant and traditional residential street. It presents a fortress-like demeanor facing Riverview Drive with a brick and cypress wall interrupted by minimal glass at the front door and high windows along the low horizontal façade. There is a cantilevered roof for a carport. Carports were a Wright invention.

Once one steps into the interior of the house, there is abundant light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows and doors looking onto the back yard gently sloping to the Tennessee River. When the house was built, there was a river view. Now, with  tall trees going down to the river, the river itself is only sensed.

The original L-shaped house was 1,540 square feet. Wright’s built-ins – desks, shelves, tables – provide a distinctive Wright feel to the space. The narrow hall in the bedroom wing adds extra drama when one steps into the light and views from each bedroom.

Despite the design flaws, the Rosenbaums treasured their masterpiece and turned to Wright to build an addition when the family outgrew the original space. That 1,084 square foot addition, also L-shaped, incorporates a more spacious kitchen, a guest room, a “dormitory” with bunk beds for the four Rosenbaum boys, and a second cantilevered carport for Mrs. Rosenbaum. The L-shape of the addition embraces a walled Japanese garden.

The Rosenbaums budgeted $15,000 for the 1948 addition; the final cost was closer to $40,000. Such cost overruns are ubiquitous in Wright’s architectural history and homeowners were willing to pay them to live in a Wright house, flaws and all.

In 1999 when the city of Florence acquired the house from Mildred Rosenbaum, a city inspector recommended demolition. The house was overrun with damage from leaks and termites and restoring it seemed to be more than the city could handle. Led by Florence’s mayor and a dedicated group of civic leaders, the city took on the task of restoration and turning the Rosenbaum House into a house museum.

The restored house is now an integral part of Florence’s evolving cultural landscape, drawing thousands of visitors annually. Rosenbaum family effects are still in the house and as much of the Wright-designed furniture as could be retained or reproduced.

I first toured the house when it was newly opened as a museum and find that I return periodically to savor the feel of the place. There is a sense of tranquility and completeness that permeates the building and its grounds. It was a treasure for the Rosenbaums for decades and now it is a treasure for the Shoals.

The life of the house is beautifully chronicled in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House: The Birth and Rebirth of an American Treasure by Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Donald E. Lambert, and Milton Bagby (Pomegranate, 2006).

A Notable Addition to Lincoln Lore

  For a couple of years in the ‘90s I worked for a theatre at Lincoln State Park (www.indianasabelincoln.org)  in southwestern Indiana that presented an annual summer musical, Young Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s boyhood years in Indiana from ages 7 to 21 were full of sorrow – he lost his mother and his sister there; much of his lifelong melancholy has its roots there – but crowds could flock to the park on a summer night to watch that story being told in song and dance.

The show was performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre. On the drive to the theatre, one passed the churchyard where Lincoln’s sister, Sarah, is buried. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, is buried across from the state park in what is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (nps.gov/libo). Young Abe Lincoln was sweet and charming and it played fast and loose with the history.

One rejected marketing pitch for Young Abe Lincoln was “Walk in Lincoln’s Shoes by Day, Dance in Them at Night!” It wasn’t used but it made me smile.


The mythology and biography of Abraham Lincoln is in constant revision. In a timely discussion of unpopular U.S. Presidents not long ago, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was so disliked in many quarters that there were those who did not think he would live through his first inauguration.

Somebody said, “But everybody loved Lincoln.”

Such is the filter of time on history. Even though Lincoln is almost universally revered and practically deified today, he was widely reviled by many Southerners and Northerners alike when he assumed the presidency in 1861. Of course some were so fearful of his presidency that there was mass secession and civil war.

Even so, as an elementary school student in a still all-white public school in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights movement and the centennial of the American Civil War, my history lessons presented Lincoln as the epitome of goodness – loved and revered by all, the Great Emancipator, the man who brought unity from division. He was the leader of the northern troops during a bloody civil war but my southern teachers, in teaching that war, always painted Lincoln in a beatific light.

My parents were taught that same reverence for Lincoln in southern classrooms two decades before me.

The dichotomy is not lost on me.


Lincoln has been a popular persona of American culture since his death, celebrated by artists from Walt Whitman’s sublime “O Captain! My Captain” to the ridiculous Seth Grahame-Smith novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its subsequent film adaptation.

Since the advent of film, it seems every generation produces a definitive biographical film about Lincoln. New Lincoln titles are added to book lists annually.

Like most Americans, at least from Baby Boomers back, Lincoln’s life and legacy have been a constant. On my one and only trip to Springfield, Illinois, in the ‘90s, my only objective was to visit Lincoln’s tomb.

On a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky, I found myself stumbling across places that had relevance to Mary Todd Lincoln’s early life even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for them.

Several birthdays ago, I received Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) as a gift to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day – February 12, 1809. Gopnik explores the profound impact those two distinct 19th century lives had on society and culture in the two centuries since their births.


Now comes an extraordinary novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The title character of Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders (who is already wildly acclaimed as a short story writer), is Willie Lincoln, not Abraham. Willie, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s third son, died at age 11 in 1862, barely a year into the War. It is known that, after Willie’s funeral, Lincoln travelled alone to the cemetery at night to be with his son’s body, to mourn and weep over him.

That element of fact provides the impetus for Saunders’s highly entertaining choral meditation on death and grief. He uses the night of Willie’s burial as the material for a brilliantly compelling work of robust, complex, and unique fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is hypnotic and hallucinogenic. The virtuosic structure combines real historical accounts with fictional historical accounts and, most intriguingly, a chorus of the voices of spirits whose bodies are laid to rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Willie has just been interred in a borrowed crypt.

The “bardo” of the title is a liminal state – a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the transition from one life to the next. The spirits of Lincoln in the Bardo have, for a variety of reasons, not moved on and are in denial about their own deaths. They refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and, despite their supernatural abilities and extreme permutations, await the time when they might return to their normal earthly lives.

I hesitate to divulge too much about Lincoln in the Bardo since it is best to encounter the book with a fresh eye. Suffice it to say that the novel begins with a poignant narrative about an unconsummated marriage and ends with a moment that is thrilling in its abrupt and surprising impact. In between are dozens of distinct voices that narrate the struggle for young Willie Lincoln’s soul, framed by historical documents providing further context for the political and emotional struggles of his father.

Abraham Lincoln’s appearances in the book provide a hush and urgency to the turmoil of the night of Willie’s burial. Saunders captures Lincoln’s insurmountable grief through many eyes and illuminates the undependable nature of personal perception.

In the course of the book, observers call Lincoln “The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on” and “The homeliest man I ever saw.” A page later someone comments that “He never appeared ugly to me, for his face … had the stamp of intellectual beauty” and another adds that “neighbors told me that I would find Mr. Lincoln was an ugly man, when he is really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life.” Such contradictions abound in the historical testimony of the novel.

Such moments of human and otherworldly cacophony make Lincoln in the Bardo a triumphant read despite its grim and often disturbing subject matter.

I am not an aficionado of audiobooks but I am curious about this one. Each character is voiced by a different performer – 166 in all, including Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, and George Saunders. I may have to listen to it. In fact, while reading the book, I kept envisioning it as a play or a staged reading event. Its theatricality is undeniable.

Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly not typical summer reading fare and it’s definitely not going to be to everybody’s taste, but for an adventurous reader willing to tackle it, it’s easy to be quickly drawn into this original, magnificent, and challenging book.

Pesto from “The Watercress Capital of the World”

 Inspired by my recent experience at the “Friends of the Café” dinner helmed by Chef Scott Peacock at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – and by the wonderful salad featuring fresh watercress that was served at that meal – I decided to make something that has been on my kitchen to-do list for a while.

It has always pleased me to know that Huntsville and Madison County, where I have lived for over 14 years, was known as the “Watercress Capital of the World” before Wernher von Braun and his team arrived from Germany after World War II to accelerate the space race and Huntsville dubbed itself “Rocket City.”

It’s becoming harder to find reminders of the pre-NASA days here in 21st century Huntsville but the watercress connection has intrigued me ever since I learned about it when I first moved to the area. Although more watercress was distributed from the Madison County area than from any other place in the nation until about 1960, there is only one major distributor of the crop left, in New Market, just north of Huntsville (www.bwqualitygrowers.com).

Buoyed by my Alabama Chanin experience, I decided to go on the hunt for fresh watercress – which is no easy task, even in the former watercress capital of the world.

After locating fresh watercress at a local market I set about to make a watercress pesto. I love pesto and usually keep enough basil plants around the back yard in season to make a batch of basil pesto now and then throughout the summer.

I looked at watercress pesto recipes and they mostly seem to follow the basic basil-based recipe, just substituting watercress for basil. For this latest experiment, however, I wanted to use fresh watercress and as many local or Alabama-sourced products as possible. I took down the basil pesto recipe that lives on my refrigerator door and began to doctor it up.

In addition to the watercress substitution for basil, I used pecans instead of pine nuts; I used pecan oil instead of olive oil. I kept Parmesan cheese for the texture, but split it with Humble Heart goat cheese from Humble Heart Farms (www.humbleheartfarms.com) just up the road in Elkmont. The result was a wonderful fresh pesto with a rich but milder flavor than more traditional basil pesto.

It’s been good with everything so far. Here’s my recipe:

Watercress Pesto

3 cups lightly chopped and loosely packed watercress
¼ cup chopped pecans
4 cloves chopped garlic
¼  cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese
½ cup virgin pecan oil
Juice of ½ lemon

Mix and blend ingredients together into a finely textured paste. Yields about 2 cups of pesto.

The Elusive Scott Peacock

 Every Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com) factory in Florence is special. I have not found its match in any other similar event I have attended. The sense of community and camaraderie is unparalleled and once one attends, one is hooked. When I was leaving the Factory this past weekend, Natalie Chanin, who hosts the dinners with her amazing staff, asked me what had been my favorite dinner so far (since I’ve attended most of them). I just started naming names and had no clear favorite. There is no clear favorite; each has been singular and memorable.

The April 15 dinner last week was especially noteworthy since Chef Scott Peacock was in the kitchen. In 2010, Peacock, the James Beard Award-winning Alabama native, left his position as head chef of Watershed in the Atlanta area, moved to Marion, Alabama, in the middle of the Black Belt, and became, for many who knew of him, a bit of a mystery man.

I first heard that Peacock was in Marion when a friend in Greensboro told me that Scott had contacted his mother to be interviewed for a documentary project about older Alabama cooks and their foodways. Over the past few years, I heard less and less about that project and wasn’t even sure if Peacock was still kicking around Marion. He has been a columnist for Better Homes and Gardens and I know he might occasionally be sighted at events such as a Rural Studio supper in the Black Belt.

His cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003), is a collaboration with Edna Lewis that is full of wisdom, information, and fresh takes on traditional recipes. It is an indispensable part of my kitchen library. Ms. Lewis, a Virginia native and expert on Southern food, gained fame as a cookbook author and in the kitchen at several New York restaurants. She and Peacock became close friends and she lived with him in Georgia where he cared for her in the last several years of her life.

In fall 2016 Natalie Chanin’s online journal did a piece on Scott Peacock’s experimentation with indigo and other plant-based dyes at his Marion home base and ended that fascinating conversation with the information that she and Peacock would be hosting a Friends of the Café dinner in Florence in spring 2017. Proceeds from the event would benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), one of Alabama Chanin’s favorite causes.

On the afternoon of the event I met my friend Cindy in Cullman and we made the trek to the Alabama Chanin Factory on a beautiful Holy Saturday evening in the Shoals.

As the passed hors d’oeuvres began to make the rounds among the assembling guests, there was much excitement about the varieties and tastes on display. In fact, the entire meal was a lesson in simplicity and finding the best flavors in the best ingredients. Most importantly, allow those ingredients to speak for themselves.

The hors d’oeuvres included iced oysters on the half shell with Edna Lewis’s spicy dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was simple and elegant with salt and vinegar, green onions and shallots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley. It was phenomenal, as were the Gulf oysters.

Other hors d’oeuvres included fresh radishes with a bowl of whipped butter for garnishing. One of the diners asked if it was a “Southern thing” to eat buttered radishes; I wasn’t aware that it was but after tasting those, it is now – at least at my house. Beautiful and delicious halved soft boiled eggs from Cog Hill Farm were passed around with a garlic-parsley sauce.

Beside the radishes were razor-thin slices of Pineywoods beef sausage from the Black Belt. The Pineywoods cattle are an endangered breed directly descended from cattle left on the Gulf Coast by Spanish explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. A renewed effort is being made to locate the breed, which lived for centuries in the wild, and replenish them (www.pcrba.org).

The final hors d’oeuvres to be passed were tomato and goat cheese toasts that had the crowd exclaiming. The goat cheese was rich and buttery and one of the servers said it was from Humble Heart Farm in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), I regularly buy my goat cheese and other products from the Spells at Humble Heart and was delighted to see them represented at this very special dinner.

As the diners were seated for the meal, the three-course menu sounded deceptively simple: salad, stew, and dessert. The simplicity of the menu allowed the fresh and carefully mixed ingredients to take center stage and the flavors built on one another as a seemingly simple meal created a complexity of tastes and discoveries.

The salad featured fresh watercress that Natalie Chanin had gathered from just down the road earlier in the day. The watercress was mixed with a number of other foraged greens dressed in a simple but perfect vinaigrette. It was noted later that Scott Peacock had assembled each of the several dozen salads himself.

The second course was a steaming “Straddle Stew” with chicken and ham broth, onion, garlic, peppers, turnips, carrots, tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice, peas, and collards. It was a hearty and delicious stew accompanied by servings of Peacock’s mother’s “hot water cornbread.” The recipe for Dorothy Peacock’s hot water cornbread is in The Gift of Southern Cooking and I look forward to making it soon. The stew was paired with a Z. Alexander Brown pinot noir; I knew the label but did not know until this dinner that the proprietor of this winery is Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band fame (www.zalexanderbrown.com).

The dessert course was a delectable strawberry shortcake with soft whipped cream. Sugared strawberries were generously paired with sweet cream biscuits topped with crushed sugar cubes and covered with a spectacular slightly sweet whipped cream.

The final offering was coffee and “three kisses goodnight” as the diners were presented with small plates overflowing with tiny tea cakes, benne brittle, and tiny chocolate truffles.

Finally, Scott Peacock emerged from the kitchen and shared thoughts and charm with the assembled diners. He introduced the staff that had helped him in the kitchen and talked about the good works of Heirloom Harvest (www.heirloomharvest.org), Will Dodd’s non-profit that cultivates a better and more sustainable connection between Alabama farmers and Alabama restaurants and consumers. Heirloom Harvest had gathered much of the food we consumed that night.

It turns out that Scott Peacock is not elusive at all. He was warm, funny, and giving as he met with diners and signed cookbooks at the end of the night.

In the past, I have praised Natalie Chanin and her cultivation of community. In gathering my thoughts about the Scott Peacock dinner, I realize how much she also cultivates education – about purveyors, products, movements – that her diners might not hear about otherwise. Heirloom Harvest. Cog Hill Farm. Pineywoods cattle. Z. Alexander Brown. These are things I had to research as soon as I got home from Florence.

The 2017 Friends of the Café season is underway with four more events to come between now and October; I am happy to be able to participate.