Florence Recolte du Printemps

It is a happy coincidence that on the week that Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurant in America, the Spring Harvest Dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory Café in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) featured local ingredients with a French twist, a combination on which Highlands’ reputation was built.

It was never my intention for this journal to become a food site but I realize that an abundance of the 150 essays so far has focused on food. And many of those food-focused essays are inspired by the series of transcendent meals served in Florence at the Friends of the Café series and related events.

The search for knowledge of foodways and the understanding of what it means to be “at table” have been a source of pleasure and release for me in recent years. It has filled a need both for roots and better understanding of culture through food. And the Factory dinners are a huge influence. Many of them have benefited Southern Foodways Alliance and almost all of them featured James Beard Award winners.

Here’s a particularly telling example: In 2016, I attended a Friends of the Café dinner which featured a whole hog prepared by Rodney Scott, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. The other dishes for the event were prepared under the leadership of Chef Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant. The dessert was a chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries by Dolester Miles, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Dining doesn’t get much better than that.

This most recent Florence dinner was the annual Spring Harvest Dinner helmed by Chef Ray Nichols, the Factory’s impressive young house chef. Chef Ray, inspired by a recent trip to France, did a French-inspired menu using local ingredients from the Shoals and nearby environs. The menu was also in French so my tablemates and I were kept busy with translations in addition to the exceptional meal.

The dinner was amazing. Chef Ray pulled out all the stops in this latest French-inspired meal.

As diners were seated at intimate table settings in the expansive room, an hors d’oeuvres course was served. It included a pork pate with gherkins and Dijon as well as escargot with butter and finely minced herbs.

The salad course was a fresh mixed salad perfectly tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. It put me in mind of the elaborate mixed salads I used to make for every occasion and that I have tended to simplify in recent years (though mine were never so beautifully dressed). I may be inspired to go back to my more elaborate salad days, tempered by the food knowledge I’ve gained by savoring the delights of the many food artists and restaurants – both grand and humble — that I’ve experienced through the years.

photo by Anne Fletcher

After such a beautiful beginning, the main course that arrived was truly the belle of the ball. Generous portions of steak au poivre were served with potatoes and wilted chard. The steak was perfectly cooked and juicy. Each course was accompanied by an organic French wine not yet available in Alabama. These included choice selections from Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire and Rhone valleys.

A cheese course featuring cow and goat cheeses from Bonnie Blue Farms (www.bonniebluefarm.com) was presented. The finale was a pound cake with luscious local strawberries and tarragon on a bed of lemon crème.

Ray Nichols became the Factory chef almost a year ago and quickly made his impressive mark with his Fall Harvest dinner in October 2017. In the meantime, he has hosted guest chefs and provides the culinary leadership for the Factory Café’s daily dining activities. His presence is a welcome fixture and inspiration at Factory dining events.

photo by Anne Fletcher

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“This makes me really happy …”

… said chef Rick Bayless on Monday, May 7, as he announced Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill of Birmingham as the James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant in America. This came after the restaurant was a consistent semi-finalist for the award for the past decade. To sweeten the deal, Dolester Miles — Highlands’ long-time pastry chef — won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Pastry Chef earlier the same night.

Highlands has been a point of pride for Birmingham and the Southern culinary scene since it opened in 1982 and this honor further cements its place in America’s fine dining profile. Here is a 2015 essay I wrote about Highlands Bar and Grill.

My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had with an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. A new attitude and a new swagger is always creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship, setting the standard. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion as one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients with the menu changing daily, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands in summer 2015 and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week as the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs is held in Chicago on Monday night. Highlands Bar and Grill is again one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.”

I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

My mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, at Highlands Bar and Grill (June 2014)

Tribe

Regular treks to the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) in Florence have become a refuge and release from the everyday pressures of work and life. I notice that these events are among the most frequent topics of this journal. Often, I find myself wondering how I’ll work an upcoming Café event into a demanding schedule, but I almost always find a way and am always richly rewarded for the effort.

The April 12 Friends of the Café dinner, helmed by chef Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union (www.stevensatterfield.com), was the eighteenth in the dining series. I have missed only three. The dinners often benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and this was the case for the April event. Most – if not all – of the guest chefs for the series have been James Beard Award winners and nominees.

Satterfield, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, has been called a “vegetable shaman” for his celebration of fresh vegetables and his emphasis on season and terroir – that French word beloved by wine enthusiasts that is applicable to all crops. His palate is neither vegetarian nor vegan but his dishes emphasize the special seasonal character of vegetables and fruits.

Satterfield’s cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons (Harper Wave, 2015), is one of the most helpfully informative food books I have read. Not only does the chef take you through the seasons, with in-depth consideration accompanied by recipes of the fruits and vegetables that characterize each, but he includes invaluable information about shelf life, storage tips, and preservation.

When my friend Scott and I arrived at the Factory, hors d’oeuvres were already being served. There were several options including a cheese pastry and radishes with whipped feta. I always keep radishes on hand in-season and these were particularly tasty and beautiful but my favorite pre-meal taste had to be the deeply golden rye biscuits filled with country ham and sweet butter.

As we were seated for the meal service, I was delighted to find myself sitting across from my friend Carol from Chicago, with whom I have dined at several of these events now. She comes to Florence frequently for Alabama Chanin workshops and events and is always an entertaining dining companion. We laugh a lot.

Seated two seats down was Shelly, another friend from a previous dinner, with her son, Evan. I met Shelly and her husband, Andy, at a dinner a couple of years ago and it was good to catch up with Shelly, who now lives in Illinois, and to meet Evan, who remains in Indianapolis, their hometown. Shelly and Andy, Indy car enthusiasts, were looking forward to a trip back to Alabama the following weekend to catch the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park and Museum in Birmingham (www.barbermuseum.org).

A four-course meal with wine pairings was served. After welcoming comments and introductions, a first course of a spring pea soup with spinach dumplings was presented. It was followed by a spectacular and simple chilled spring vegetable salad served with fromage blanc and green garlic breadcrumbs. The first two courses were creative and delicious with an inviting presentation and wonderfully fresh tastes.

The main course, served family style, featured a perfectly prepared and crusted guinea hen with Dijon-herb jus. The hen was presented with bitter greens and polenta with nettles and mushrooms. The guinea was a big hit at my table with diners quickly reaching for the platter and second helpings. 

The satisfying meal ended with a strawberry and buttermilk cake trifle.

As the meal came to an end and the trip home loomed, I said my goodbyes and began to ponder the significance of these meals for me. I look forward to them; I miss them when there is too much of a lapse of time between them.

The food and the chefs are, of course, the draw – but the community and camaraderie are what truly beckon and compel me to return time and again.


I ponder the use of the word “tribe” in its contemporary popular culture iterations. The word is used more and more often to describe a group of like-minded people rather than in its traditional anthropological sense of communities sharing deeply embedded common customs and cultural ancestry.

It has become a prominent political trope to address the growing divides within the United States and throughout the world with essays and editorials that examine the “red tribe” and the “blue tribe” in American politics and an ever-growing set of more specific variations on the ideas of tribes and tribalism.

I think that Alabama Chanin and the Friends of the Café have taken on an apolitical tribal significance for me. Through these dinners, I meet like-minded people with shared interests and a diversity of styles and tastes. Politics rarely come up at these events and I harbor a suspicion that some of my companions might not see eye-to-eye with me politically.

That doesn’t matter. What counts is that we share common interests in so many other things – in food and creativity; in aesthetics and sustainability; in making lasting connections and new discoveries; in meeting, communicating, and learning about others.

Birmingham’s Evocative Past

Coe’s “Down Town Birmingham” (c. 1935)

My father was born in the Employees Hospital in Fairfield in 1931. The hospital – which was later renamed Lloyd Noland Hospital in honor of its founding physician – was a company hospital of Tennessee Coal and Iron, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Dad grew up in Ensley, within sight of U.S. Steel’s mammoth Ensley Works, where my grandfather worked.

 

Lloyd Noland Hospital went through changes in ownership, was closed in 2004, and razed in 2009.

 

The mining districts and steel mills around Birmingham, and the communities that sprang up around them, hold an ongoing fascination for me. My mother’s family moved from Cullman County to Birmingham in the 1940s and her father transitioned from farmer to steel worker at a steel fabrication factory. Mother’s parents lived in west Birmingham throughout their decades in the city. The house I most attach to them was in Fairfield Highlands. The Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel was visible down in the valley from their back yard. I remember my grandmother taking a damp rag to wipe the factory soot off her clothesline when she hung clothes on the line to dry.

 

My ongoing interest in the industrial history of the Birmingham district was greatly satisfied by a new exhibit hanging in the Birmingham Museum of Art this spring (www.artsbma.org). “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” is a collection of over sixty pieces – mostly etchings and a few paintings – by Alabama native Richard Coe. The pieces were made during Coe’s residency in Birmingham during the Depression in the mid-1930s.

 

Sometimes, it feels like the only history of Birmingham that gets any attention began in 1963 but the place has a rich and fascinating 90+ year history prior to that watershed year of the Civil Rights Movement. Coe’s Depression-era works capture a moment of that history and make me feel closer to my own family’s Birmingham. His etchings capture urban images of downtown and hospitals and churches; industrial scenes of factories – in action sometimes, idle other times; and domestic scenes of neighborhoods and humble houses – often in the shadow of the factories. One of the paintings features a neighborhood “No Nox” gas station. 


The 1930s images of the downtown city center feature many of the same buildings that made up the core of the downtown when I was a young child in Birmingham in the ‘50s and 60s, before newer buildings in the ‘70s and ‘80s moved the city center a few blocks north and transformed the skyline.

 

Part of my mother’s family’s lore is evoked by a Coe etching of St. Vincent’s hospital on the city’s southside. My mother and her mother before her would recount how my great-grandmother, Dura Graves McCarn, was in St. Vincent’s when she was dying at a young age. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, my great-grandfather, John Houston McCarn, ordered her brought home. Aunt Bertha sent her car and driver to pick Dura up and transport her back to Cullman to be at home with her family in her final days.  

 

Coe’s “Saint Vincent’s Hospital” (c. 1935)

Four decades later, when I was quite young, my grandmother Harbison was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s; it was still in the same imposing old brick building pictured in a 1930s Coe etching. Nuns still walked the grounds in full traditional habit, just as they do in the foreground of Coe’s depiction. The St. Vincent’s of the 21st Century is very different – another megalith serving the city’s southside medical complex.

 

Coe’s Stilt Walkers (c. 1935)

Coe’s domestic images often feature humble houses and outbuildings, rickety fences, the inevitable clothesline. Most often, the people featured in these environments are African American – women talking off a front porch; children playing with a “Pet Possum” or walking on makeshift stilts; a birdhouse perched atop a roof. 

 


But it’s the industrial scenes that I find most pleasing and beautiful in the series. Sloss Furnaces alongside First Avenue North is pictured at its peak, before it was abandoned in 1971 and became today’s National Historic Landmark and industrial museum (www.slossfurnaces.com).  

Coe’s “Sloss Furnaces” (c. 1935)

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, 2018

Steel mills, steam plants, streetcar barns, railroad tracks, even the desolate landscape of a slag pile evoke a Birmingham of the past that I still find incredibly vibrant and rich in industrial-era history. As I drive through Birmingham now I still seek out the remains of that industrial past which wasn’t so long ago, really, but seems incredibly distant and almost quaint.


These are the memories that are inspired by Richard Coe’s art at the Birmingham Museum. And any sighting of a clothesline always brings a flood of memories to mind. 

Eula Harbison at Clothesline; Fairfield Highlands (c. 1960)

Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, USA

The small town of Leeds is an eastern suburb of Birmingham. When I was a boy, we would sometimes travel with Dad on business trips to the Anniston area and I remember a big billboard on the highway that said “LEEDS, USA.” To this day I still refer to it as “Leeds, USA.”

These days, Leeds is probably best known along I-20 for its proximity to an outlet mall and the Barber Motorsports Museum and as Charles Barkley’s home town. Earlier generations might have known it as the home town of baseball pitching great Dixie Walker. It is credited as the origin point for the legend of John Henry, a “steel-drivin’ man.”

Let me add Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) to that list of notable Leeds trivia.

I became aware of Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Norton Dill’s lip-smacking documentary, Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends (2015).  There, among the state’s legendary barbecue joints and pit masters, were culinary school grads Rusty and Beth Tucker, who decided to open a barbecue place in Leeds after culinary school and stints in fine dining. Rusty was the pit master and Beth was taking care of the sweets – pies and other desserts.

Theirs were among the most charming of the many interviews in the documentary and I promised myself I would seek out Rusty’s whenever I found myself near Leeds.

Fast forward to February 2018 and my reporter friend Bob introduces me to Rusty at the Southern Foodways Alliance winter symposium. The three of us share a table during the event and I find Rusty’s commentary insightful and entertaining. I decide I need to make a trip to Leeds sooner rather than later.

At the symposium, I told Rusty that I don’t get to Leeds very often. “Nobody does,” he deadpanned. But on the Saturday night when I drove over, the place was packed and people were lined up to place and pick up orders.

To get a good sampling of the barbecue, I ordered a sampler platter which includes two ribs, a quarter chicken, and pulled pork. For sides I ordered marinated coleslaw and fried onion rings. Mother ordered a barbecue sandwich with a side of the traditional mayonnaise-based slaw. 

Rusty’s serves really good barbecue, slow smoked over hickory on an open brick pit and based on family recipes.  Here’s the deal: I am a lover of Birmingham / Tuscaloosa-style regional barbecue and I have tasted most of the standouts and contenders; Rusty’s holds its own with the best of them. It is authentic, heart-felt, and distinctly Alabama barbecue.

The sauce was served on the side and I chose the house sauce — a good, thin vinegar and tomato-based red sauce. I don’t over-sauce good ‘cue and this sauce, based on Rusty’s grandfather’s recipe, was a nice complement to beautifully smoked meat. It reminded me a bit of a cocktail sauce with some citrus notes and I swear I caught just a hint of horseradish. I look forward to sampling the other red and mustard sauces; I’ll leave the white sauce to be savored by those who are so inclined.

Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the desserts. We ordered two – coconut cream pie and banana pudding – and I didn’t realize it was my responsibility to retrieve them from the cooler. After we got home, I realized that I stupidly left without the desserts I had ordered.

It’s no big deal. Now that I’ve found Rusty’s, I plan to get back to Leeds, USA again sooner rather than later. 

The Drug Lord of Dauphin Street

 

Bienville Square; Mobile, AL

Mobile, AL. The annual Southeastern Theatre Conference convention (www.setc.org) is a rigorous event, typically drawing several thousand participants for auditions, meetings, workshops, and panels. Activities are scheduled from early morning to well past midnight and it can be exhausting. I have been regularly attending this event for thirty-five years now and, when I get home, a good bit of recovery is required.

SETC is held in a different city in the region each year; the 2018 version is in Mobile. It’s good to be in Mobile again. I travel to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay every year but don’t cross the bay into the city that often. Since my last visit four years ago, the place seems to have blossomed. There are fewer empty store fronts downtown and there seems to be more to do on a warm March week as the city’s vaunted azaleas are bursting forth wherever one looks. I am staying at the historic Battle House Hotel, part of and close to all of the convention events.

Battle House lobby; Mobile, AL

There are more dining options in downtown than in years past. To get a heightened feel for the geography of the place, I ate my first meal of the trip at Dauphin’s (www.godauphins.com), a fine-dining restaurant on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark building. It’s a beautiful dining spot with floor to ceiling windows revealing sweeping views of the riverfront, the city, and the bay.

 

Church Street Grave Yard; Mobile, AL

On a break between meetings on Friday, I strolled down Government Street to the Church Street Grave Yard to visit the final resting place of two particular Mobile legends – Joe Cain (1832-1904), who re-established Mobile’s Mardi Gras after the Civil War; and Eugene Walter (1921-1998), the author/editor, food expert, actor, and raconteur whose influence spans continents.

Joe Cain and his wife, Elizabeth, lie beneath a stone that declares “Old Joe Cain” as the “heart and soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.” Eugene Walter’s stone, adorned with his fanciful drawings and one of his many “monkey poems,” declares “Born in the land of lizard fever / in sweet lunacy’s county seat / this untidy pilgrim of the world / lived by the credo: When all else fails / throw a party.”

After paying my respects, I dashed over to Dauphin Street to eat at the original Wintzell’s Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). After a quick lunch, heading along Dauphin Street to the convention, a guy stepped toward me on the sidewalk and informed me that I looked “like a Colombian drug lord.”

I stopped and said “Excuse me?” and realized I had heard right the first time. I was wearing a pair of khakis, a dress shirt (tucked in), and a black blazer at the time. And aviator sunglasses. Hardly a drug lord look, I think. In fact, this is essentially how I dress for work most days. The specificity of the random comment is what startled me.

When the guy saw my startled look, he began to laugh, apologized, and said, “I just had to tell you that!”

Which begs the question Why? Why did you have to tell me that? 

I continued on my way, but detoured to the hotel to change clothes before making my way back to the convention’s keynote speaker.

Later, after a long editorial board meeting for Southern Theatre magazine, I remembered that I had been seeing signs for the LoDa Art Walk, a monthly event on the second Friday of the month on and around Dauphin Street. In lieu of scoping out a place for dinner, I decided I’d walk Dauphin and take in some art galleries. Eight galleries were participating and a dozen other venues were offering live music, art on display, and other walk-related offerings.

Part of the street was closed to motor vehicles and a sizable crowd made the rounds of the event on a pleasant pre-Spring evening. Celtic musicians played in Cathedral Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Jigs and reels were danced at the pre-St. Patrick’s Day event as giant puppets glided soundlessly past and down the street.

Inside the cathedral, baritone Xavier Johnson, accompanied by pianist Clinton Doolittle, performed a short program that ranged from the spirituals “Fix me, Jesus” and “By an’ by,” through Bellini’s “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” ending with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” with its memorable final lyric, “For I’ve had a taste of society / And society’s had a taste of me.”

Across the square, Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.org) presented a beautifully curated exhibition, “Back to Havana,” featuring fifteen contemporary Cuban artists. The Alabama Contemporary space is deceptively spacious and the various galleries surprised with visual stimulation at each turn. Baseball is an almost predictable recurring motif through the exhibit and it was intriguing to see the evocative ways Cuban artists were incorporating the symbolism and iconography of “America’s pastime.”

“Back to Havana”; Alabama Contemporary Art Center

A meandering line was filling the narrow hallway at a Mobile Arts Council (www.mobilearts.org) gallery space, viewing a group of sometimes dazzling miniatures in a national exhibit from the Spanish Moss Miniature Society. Works by Melissa and Richard Diegan, paintings of precious stones by Kristen Dunreath Harris, and the slightly disturbing “humanimals” of Joseph Smith completed the Arts Council exhibits.

Farther down Dauphin, at Cathedral Square Gallery (www.cathedralsquaregallery.org), a substantial stable of artists’ works was on display. Live music was presented by Bayou Rhythm, a quirky band playing classic and unexpected ditties, keeping the crowd moving and tapping its feet with brass and percussion, raucous vocals, and a washboard in tow.

Bayou Rhythm; Mobile, AL

Finally, I headed over to St. Louis Street to The Cheese Cottage (www.thecheesecottagellc.com), a really special newly opened cheese and wine shop with café. Located in an old gas station, the tiny shop has an old Pure oil sign in the front and a cozy dining pavilion adjoining the structure. I ordered a pimento goat cheese sandwich that was truly spectacular. The Cheese Cottage is clearly a project of entrepreneurial passion and heart. It was a perfect way to end a Friday night exploration of Dauphin Street.

The Cheese Cottage; Mobile, AL

Saturday is the final full day of the convention and I managed to take in workshops on vocal technique to share with my students.

Tonight, I will be joining my friends Janet, Kitty, Patty, and Russell for what has become our own SETC tradition – a relaxing dinner away from the hubbub of the convention’s closing night banquet and dance party. We all agree that the Saturday night dinner has become the part of the convention we most look forward to. It is a good way to relax, catch up, and prepare for the drives home tomorrow and the work week ahead.

Since we’re in Mobile, we’ll travel across the bay to Fairhope and Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), one of several of my Baldwin County favorites.

Another successful (and grueling) SETC convention is soon to be history.

 

Narratives that Transform

Birmingham; Friday, February 23, 2018. The Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 winter symposium, “Narratives that Transform,” began its narrative on Friday night with a reception on a loading dock behind a chain-link fence at an apparently abandoned building in an industrial district near the edge of downtown Birmingham (www.southernfoodways.org).

Although it is late February, it was a balmy evening with temperatures hovering in the 80s all day.

I drove past the place twice to be sure I had the right address.

When I parked the car and got out, the aromas drew me in to what was already a bustling gathering in progress. Grills were smoking and guests were gathered around picnic-style tables, creating a convivial spirit that enlivened the surroundings.

The ragtag location is the future site of chef Adam Evans’s new Birmingham restaurant that will open later this year. I first had Adam Evans’s food at a Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence in August 2016; I still remember that evening as one of the best meals I have eaten at that venue. The rumor was already circulating back then that Evans, a Shoals native who had recently left The Optimist in Atlanta, was contemplating a “new concept” in Birmingham and I have been regularly checking for news ever since.

At the reception Evans’s pass-arounds included Gulf clam chowder, Gulf oysters, and salt-baked fish. It all lived up to my expectations.


Saturday morning, February 24, 2018: When I told my mother that I would be spending most of the day at a food symposium in downtown Birmingham, she asked, as she is wont to do, how much I was paying for the event.

When I answered her, she said, “That’s a lot of money to listen to people talk about food all day.”

When I told her that Dolester Miles was making breakfast, Mother – remembering past desserts from Highlands Bar and Grill — laughed and said, “Well, it may be worth it then.”

The symposium venue was WorkPlay, the southside multi-purpose entertainment and work facility where food professionals, writers, and enthusiasts gathered for a packed day of presenters and food.

As participants arrived early on Saturday morning, Royal Cup coffee was being served on the WorkPlay sidewalk and Dolester Miles was plating up her cornmeal cake with strawberry preserves in the lobby. Ms. Miles is the James Beard-nominated pastry chef for chef Frank Stitt’s family of Birmingham restaurants and her dessert offerings are things of beauty and exquisite taste.

I ran into my friend, reporter Bob Carlton, who introduced me to Rusty Tucker, the force behind Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, Alabama (www.rustysbarbq.com).The three of us sat together for most of the event. I have not been to Rusty’s, but I remembered him as one of the featured pitmasters in the documentary Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends that aired on Alabama Public Television and PBS. After hearing Tucker’s take on food and particularly barbecue throughout the day, I plan to make it a priority to drive over to Leeds to check his place out soon.

After breakfast, the gathering assembled in the WorkPlay soundstage for “Morning Corridos” – narrative protest ballads performed by La Victoria, a three-piece all-woman mariachi band based in Los Angeles. As they travel, the musicians meet with immigrants in each location, compiling stories and creating new corridos for each locality. With Birmingham-based Latino activists and residents on the stage, they performed “Heart of Alabama,” their newest ballad of Birmingham. 

It was a good way to wake the audience.

Two papers followed in the morning session. Moni Basu of CNN presented a powerful discussion of how narratives can influence change. She began with her memories of being a young Indian girl relocated to Tallahassee after living around the world. Later, she told of the homeless girl, Dasani, whose mother named her “after a bottle of water she could never afford.” The greatest takeaway for me of Basu’s presentation was her statement that we are “compelled to share our stories for our sake as well as yours.”

In the presentation “Whiskey and Credit,” writers Clay Risen of The New York Times and Fawn Weaver explored the story of Nearest Green, the African-American man who shared his methods for distilling whiskey with Jack Daniel in the 19th century. Green’s story was largely lost until Clay Risen published a recent piece about it in the Times. Weaver, influenced by Risen’s narrative, was inspired to buy a farm and move from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to dig deeper into the Green story. She shares an uplifting story of how the various families associated with the Jack Daniel saga – Daniel, Green, Motlow – have assisted and supported her in her undertaking. Most intriguing is Weaver’s conviction that Jack Daniel’s spirit is somehow behind the unearthing and renaissance of Mr. Green’s narrative. She asserted several times that “Jack wants this story to be told.”


Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2018: An appetizer, of sorts, before the lunch service, was a preview screening of Ava Lowrey’s short SFA film, “Dol,” about Birmingham pastry chef Dolester Miles. The lovingly shot film, to be released in March 2018, is deliberate and sumptuous in its presentation of Miles’s techniques and of her food that always looks as wonderful as it tastes. Among her many desserts over the years, I still particularly savor the memory of her Bastille Day cake I had at Chez Fonfon years ago. Miles has been with Frank and Pardis Stitt’s restaurants since 1982 when Highlands Bar and Grill opened.

After the “Dol” screening, a generous “Family Lunch without Tweezers” was served by Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile. Southern National is a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Best New Restaurant award. The meal included Kung Pao chicken breasts and a pea and Gulf shrimp salad along with a preponderance of other sides – a packed plate of delicious, hearty food. 

David Hagedorn, a Washington, D.C.-based writer on food and dining, was born in Gadsden, Alabama, and summered at his family’s house on nearby Lake Guntersville. His presentation, “The Thank You / Screw You Paradigm,” ultimately seemed to be questioning the efficacy of exploiting and exalting his Southern heritage in his food writing and expertise, when he is so ambivalent about the South as it relates to his identity as a gay Jew from a prominent Southern family. His narrative was hilarious and heart-breaking – sometimes simultaneously; his bitterness was tempered with affection, generosity, and clarity.

During the Q&A that followed the talk, an undocumented woman, also from Gadsden, asked Hagedorn about his prognosis for Gadsden’s future. His response was empathetic but grim, prompting SFA executive director John T. Edge to say, to Hagedorn, “I’ll claim you if you’ll claim me.”  Alas, Hagedorn sighed but had no ready response.

Writer, recipe developer, and activist Julia Turshen spoke about the process of putting together her new book, Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, in which chefs who are politically active provide suggestions for a synthesis of food activity with political activism. Chapter titles include “Easy Meals for Folks Who Are Too Busy Resisting to Cook” and “Feeding the Masses: Food for Crowds.”

Writers and scholars Ralph Eubanks and Tom Ward presented “Still, Still Hungry,” in which an upcoming reissue of Still Hungry in America, a 1969 book featuring photographs by Al Clayton and a text by Robert Coles, was discussed. The book grew out of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Clayton’s photographs provide stark evidence of the dire poverty of areas of America including Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.  The session was introduced by Clayton’s daughter and the presenters provided sobering contemporary evidence of the ongoing blight of American poverty and the government’s failure to confront it effectively.

The final presentation, by Rosalind Bentley, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was a master class in how to present transformative narrative. “Radical Hospitality” was a memoir of Bentley’s relatives and role models – Aunt Lucy, Cousin Carol, and Sandra, women who each participated in her own way in the Augusta, Georgia, chapter of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Aunt Lucy and Cousin Carol “fed the Movement” with home-cooked meals for the activists and their attorneys. Sandra “fed the movement” as a teenager jailed for marching, who shared care packages from her family with her fellow political prisoners.

Bentley built her narrative with care, seasoning it with the perfect amounts of humor and family stories, and building to a powerful climax and conclusion which provided the ideal resolution for a deeply felt and moving day of food-fueled activism.

As the day ended, Becky Satterfield and her crew from Satterfield’s, a Birmingham restaurant, were in the lobby serving a Conecuh County sausage gumbo as part of the event’s closing happy hour.


The 2018 SFA symposium is over, but its narrative, which began at the make-do reception on the loading dock, will end in a year at a reception at the same spot to launch the 2019 winter symposium. Next year, however, the site will have transformed into Adam Evans’s spanking new Gulf seafood restaurant and oyster bar.

The narrative of southern food and foodways is always, after all, a continuing saga.

I’ll be there.