Automatic Seafood and Oysters

Some things are worth the wait. Three years ago, Chef Adam Evans presented a dinner for Alabama Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” series that still ranks among my favorites of over two dozen meals eaten at that venue. Evans had just completed a successful run at The Optimist and other Atlanta restaurants, and, since I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to Atlanta, I had only admired him based on his press from afar. It was a pleasure to experience his menu and see that he lived up to his reputation. The course I most remember from that night was perhaps the simplest – a garden salad assembled with ingredients gathered from the chef’s grandfather’s garden that morning.

Evans is a Shoals native and the rumor in Florence that night was that he was working on a new restaurant concept for Birmingham. That rumor put Evans’s Birmingham restaurant on my radar and I began to do regular searches for “Chef Adam Evans Birmingham.”

My diligence did not yield much information until the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham in February 2018. The opening night reception was held on the loading dock of an abandoned factory on 5th Avenue S. in the Lakeview District. Chef Evans had grills set up off the loading dock and picnic tables were arranged for seating. It was a delicious, charming, and bare bones affair.

The theme for that symposium was “Narratives that Transform” and John T. Edge, SFA Executive Director, announced that the space where we had gathered for our opening night reception was the future site of Adam Evans’s new restaurant, and that the narrative begun that night would conclude at the 2019 SFA Winter Symposium with an opening night reception in the finished restaurant on that very site.

Now that I had a location, I drove past that corner of 5th Avenue every weekend to check on the progress. There wasn’t much to see for several months, but then windows began to appear and a restaurant began to take shape at what used to be the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation factory. Still, by January 2019, I was skeptical that there would be a finished restaurant in time for the symposium in February.

The SFA Winter Symposium 2019 held its opening night reception at Good People Brewing.


Automatic Seafood and Oysters (www.automaticseafood.com) opened in April. I was anxious to eat there as soon as possible but a good opportunity did not present itself until August, when my friend Christina drove down from Huntsville to join me for dinner during Sidewalk weekend.

If you ask about my favorite types of restaurants, my answers will be all over the map. I like any place where one can eat authentic and well-prepared food, whatever the price point and style, and where the ambience is warm and friendly. But one of my very favorites is an urban seafood place with a comfortable vibe and delicious and imaginative food. Birmingham’s Ocean (www.birminghamocean.com) on 20th Street S. has been a long-time favorite. Non-residents don’t realize that Birmingham is only about four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and trucks with fresh catches come into the city daily. I still won’t eat seafood in land-locked states, but it is always fresh and available in Birmingham.

With all of those points in mind, Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a new favorite to add to my lists. The interior, designed by Suzanne Humphries Evans, combines an open layout with furnishings that seem upscale and special while also recalling a seafood shack on the Gulf. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east facades add to the open feel. The restaurant is located in a transitioning neighborhood that still has an industrial feel, so the decision to put the main entrance off the street on the north side allows entry onto a terraced green lawn, away from the bustle and traffic of the street-side.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive and the menu is full of seasonal options. Christina commented that she’d like to order a bite of everything. Instead, our meal started off with crab claws and freshly shucked oysters from the large and beautiful oyster bar located in a corner of the room. For contrast, I ordered Canadian oysters from Prince Edward Island and Murder Point oysters from Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.murderpointoysters.com). The briny, buttery Murder Points were the best Gulf oysters I’ve ever had, and possibly the best oysters I’ve ever had, period.

My main course was a simply roasted grouper that was prepared, seasoned, and presented to perfection. Christina’s cobia dish was equally detailed. Conversation waned as we savored two beautifully prepared seafood dishes. Our generous shared side of basmati rice with smoked fish, curry, and peanuts was an ideal accompaniment to both dishes.

For dessert, there were several tempting choices but we chose brown sugar cake with peaches and cream. It was a perfect finale – a little decadent, but not too sweet.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a bright new jewel on an already vibrant Birmingham culinary landscape. After three years of waiting, I am happy to say my high expectations were met and exceeded. I look forward to my next of many visits to come.

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I Want My Sidewalk 2019

 Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com) is always the final full weekend in August before college football season commences. Although the festival events begin several days before the weekend main event, Sidewalk, for me, always begins on Friday evening and ends late on Sunday night. During that time, there are several hundred screenings of every variety of shorts, documentaries, animation, and feature-length moving pictures at venues throughout the northside of downtown.

2019 marked the 21st edition of Sidewalk. In the early years, I would pride myself on how many screenings I could cram into a 48-hour period. Nowadays, I study the schedule carefully, curate a schedule that fits my time, and allow myself time to breathe. At Sidewalk, it’s impossible to see everything one might want to see; that’s part of the charm and mystique.

Sidewalk’s most exciting new addition to downtown Birmingham this year is the Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center, a two-theatre complex in the basement level of the Pizitz building that will screen indie films 365 days a year. With the two screens at the Pizitz, the Alabama, the Lyric, the Carver, Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret space, and the McWane Center’s IMAX, Birmingham’s downtown “theatre district” is once again living up to its name.

Friday, August 23

Traditionally, my Sidewalk weekend begins with lunch at Chef Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. My weekend pass is waiting at the Central Ticket Office at the Pizitz, around the block from the Alabama, Sidewalk’s most storied venue (www.alabamatheatre.com).

In the early days of Sidewalk, the Opening Night presentation was often a cutting-edge film which might open to mixed response. I remember the grumbling after John Sayles’s Silver City opened Sidewalk in 2004. It wasn’t Sayles’s best, but I was happy to catch a new Sayles movie on a big screen in Birmingham.

Since those days, the Opening Night film is most often a goofy documentary geared to a broad general audience. Although I enjoy being there for the opening festivities, I am sometimes likely to leave when the feature starts. A few years ago, when they opened with a documentary about some cat that was a sensation on the internet, I didn’t even bother to attend opening night.

This year, the opening feature is I Want My MTV. The 2019 documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, premiered in May at the Tribeca Film Festival. I Want My MTV is both informative and a great feel-good way to open Sidewalk 21. Alan Hunter, one of the original MTV veejays interviewed in the doc, is a Birmingham native, a founder of Sidewalk, and, for many years, was the very popular opening night emcee for the festival.

A short documentary, “Lost Weekend,” is screened prior to the feature. “Lost Weekend,” by Birmingham filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, chronicles the climaxes and misadventures of a young Pennsylvania man who wins a 1980s MTV contest in which the prize is a weekend for two to hang out in Detroit with Van Halen’s concert tour. Everything you expect to happen in that scenario, happens.

Alan Hunter is on hand to help introduce the feature film, which focuses on the genesis and early years of what was then a music video network that became a major force of 1980s popular culture.

As the Opening Night movie ends, the sell-out Alabama Theatre audience flows onto 3rd Avenue North in front of the theatre for the opening night street party. I have no doubt a good time will be had by all, but I walk through the festivities and straight to my room at the Tutwiler Hotel.

Saturday, August 24

When I arrive back at the Alabama on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, I don’t quickly comprehend why there are “cigarette girls” in the theatre lobby offering packs of candy cigarettes to patrons. However, I am there to attend a screening of the new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, directed by Avi Belkin, and am about to watch an hour and a half of on-screen smoking from a time when on-screen cigarette smoking was common, even for reporters on the job.

The life of Wallace, the legendary investigative news man who is best remembered for his decades on “60 Minutes,” is examined in detail in a fascinating no-holds-barred way that is reminiscent of the interviewing style of Wallace himself. His detailed examination into every story he covers is as incisive and prickly with Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand as it is with the Ayatollah Khomeini and John Ehrlichman.

After the screening, I grab a quick bite at the Pizitz Food Hall and head to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for a block of Alabama- and politically-themed documentary shorts. My favorite is Carroll Moore’s “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” an examination of Bey’s photography mission to capture images of children the same age as the “four little girls” of the Birmingham church bombing were when they were murdered in 1963. He also includes homage to the two young boys who were murdered later in the day during the bombing’s aftermath.

“Call Me,” directed by Megan Friend and Norris Davis, is a most entertaining exploration of the rhymes and reasons behind attorney Alexander Shunnarah’s ubiquitous billboards that cover the state of Alabama. The 9-minute short includes the full 48-second Alexander Shunnarah / Jurassic Park parody by Kelly Coberly.

Other documentaries in the block explore political activism to get out the vote (“Woke Vote”); emergency responders in Tuscaloosa (“Druid City Strong”); photographic documentation of abandoned buildings in Birmingham (“Walls of Jericho”); diversity and inclusion in a rural Alabama climbing expedition (“The People of Climbing”); student debt (“A Generation Drowning”); and a 70-year-old murder case that went unpunished (“Murder in Mobile”).

From the School of Fine Arts, it’s a short walk to Birmingham Museum of Art for Vita and Virginia (2018), a British film directed by Chanya Button. This is another biographical exploration of the tortured romance of Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). This latest one is adapted from the 1992 play of the same name by actor/playwright Eileen Atkins.

Vita and Virginia lingers over the cat and mouse game that leads up to the affair of Woolf and Sackville-West in the artistic communities of 1920s England – particularly the Bloomsbury group. The story is told realistically, but with the occasional inclusion of tangled imagery that seeks to capture Virginia Woolf’s mental instability and emotional confusion. There is a stilted, stagey formality to the dialogue at times, but one adjusts to the play’s pace and structure. Atkins based much of her play on the letters of the two title characters; there are some fine moments when the camera rests on a face speaking directly into the camera, delivering emotional and occasionally laughably over-the-top declarations.

Despite noble and occasionally brave performances, Debecki and Arterton seem miscast to me.

Among the supporting actors, Peter Ferdinando delivers an understated, complex, and compassionate performance as Leonard Woolf and Isabella Rossellini has a fine turn as Vita’s snarky mother, Baroness Sackville.

By the time Vita and Virginia is over, a passing thunderstorm drenches downtown and Museum maintenance staff is scrambling to deal with puddles and leaks outside the main entrance as I make haste to get back to the Tutwiler to change and join a friend for dinner.

Sunday, August 25

I will not go to church today, but I waken to the pealing of church bells throughout the city – not an unpleasant way to meet the day. And I plan to attend something equally spiritual and, to my tastes, more inspirational.

A few months ago, when I first heard the buzz about the new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace (1972/2018), I remember thinking I hope that’s scheduled to play Sidewalk this year.

It was.

In 1972, director Sydney Pollack and his crew filmed the two-night recording session of what would be Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live gospel album, Amazing Grace. The recording took place in the sanctuary of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was supported by legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and an all-star group of musicians. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are spotted in the audience.

For some reason, during Pollack’s recording of the two services, the audio and video were not synched, the footage was deemed unusable, and eventually the film was presumed lost.

Fast forward to the early 2000s: the “unusable footage” is rediscovered, producer Alan Elliott supervises a team of digital experts in the rehabilitation of the “lost” footage, and the resulting movie is a revelation. During her lifetime, Franklin kept suing to halt screenings of the reconstructed movie. After her death, the family consented to the release and it is finally being shared with audiences world-wide.

No real effort was made to mold the concert into something “cinematic.” Much of the footage is raw and immediate, with awkward camera movement, sloppy zooms, finding focus – all still there for the world to see.

So is raw emotion – James Cleveland breaking down in sobs at one point; the choir clearly overcome by the event they are witnessing and being a part of; Rev. C.L. Franklin – Aretha’s father – jumping up to wipe the sweat from her face and neck as she plays the piano. His handkerchief completely covers her face at one point just before she starts to sing. The audience, lost in emotion and awe, becomes a part of the power of the film and Pollack’s camera crew scrambles to capture it all.

You must see it.

As the Sidewalk audience gathers outside the Lyric Theatre for the screening, ladies distribute church fans on the sidewalk. When the audience is seated in the theatre, Birmingham-based gospel singer Belinda George Peoples emerges from the wings to sing “Amazing Grace” a capella. By the end of Peoples’s performance, the audience is singing along.

The event feels more like a church service than a movie screening as the audience claps and sways with Aretha’s powerful sound on songs like “What a Friend,” “Wholy Holy,” “God Will Take Care of You,” and the title song. There’s a very effective medley of the gospel standard “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

But the song that gets to me most is Franklin at the piano playing and singing “Never Grow Old,” with the camera closing in tight. It moves me to see a young Aretha Franklin (she was 29 when the album was made) plaintively repeating the phrase “never grow old” and its contemplation of eternity. Mick Jagger is there, also 29-years-old at the time, and, in the Lyric, I am sitting a few seats down from a friend I knew in college in the ‘70s.

When our work here is done and the life crown is won

And our troubles and trials are over

All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend

With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Never grow old, never grow old

In a land where we’ll never grow old

I leave the theatre and drive across town to have lunch with Mother. I have a list of movies I plan to see later on Sunday afternoon, but – blessedly assured that I have gotten what I came for – I actually feel a little sanctified as I hit the road for home.

Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

Spahn Ranch | Yasgur’s Farm | Shaggy Dog Stories of 1969

Today, in August 2019, I am older than three of my four grandparents were in summer 1969. My oldest grandfather, Leonard Harbison, was only a year and a half older than I am now.

Back then, of course, they all seemed ancient to me. I keep that in mind as a college professor, surrounded daily by 20-year-olds.

The summer of ’69 is being talked about throughout this, the 50th anniversary. It seems that each week is the golden anniversary of some significant, grand, or unsettling milestone. The Who’s brilliant and pretentious “rock opera” Tommy was released in May 1969 and formed a significant part of the soundtrack of that summer. So did Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” recorded by Glen Campbell – which most of us didn’t realize was an anti-war song. The counter-culture biker movie Easy Rider was in theatres, as were John Wayne in True Grit and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy.

The Stonewall uprising occurred in June, signaling the birth of an organized gay rights movement. And Chappaquiddick, an event that forever stained Sen. Ted Kennedy’s reputation, occurred in July. But the first manned moon landing was the most significant event of July, and of the year.


Since I currently live in Huntsville, there has been a certain level of Huntsville-style hoopla in celebration of the first manned moon landing in July 1969. The Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo missions was created in Huntsville and there is justifiable pride in the accomplishments of NASA that pervade the community all the time, regardless of the year. What Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is to Tuscaloosa, the Saturn V is to Huntsville.

Back then, my interest in the myth of the “final frontier” was peripheral at best. It was exciting to watch launches from Cape Kennedy on classroom televisions in the 1960s, and it was exciting to watch the capsules’ safe splash-downs in the Atlantic afterwards. The whole country grieved when the three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during a pre-flight launch pad test in 1967.

Two and a half years later, my family was living in Nashville when Neil Armstrong made that first “small step” on the moon in that grainy video transmitted back to Earth. My memory of that moment is vivid still. I remember that when the satellite transmission ended on broadcast television, I walked out into our front yard and looked up at the moon. The fact that two Americans were sitting there, and that another was orbiting to facilitate their return, is still daunting, inspiring, transformational to think about.


August of 1969 is particularly memorable for two tragedies – Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the Tate – La Bianca murders perpetrated by the “Manson family” in the hills of Los Angeles. Some say that the gruesome Tate – La Bianca slayings signaled the end of the 1960s, while others make the case that Nixon’s defeat of McGovern in 1972 was the end of the ’60s era. Either way, the Tate – La Bianca case signaled an end to a certain optimistic innocence that characterized large chunks of that decade, despite the war protests and social and political upheaval that fomented throughout those years. August 1969, of course, is also remembered for a slipshod celebration that became an enduring legend – the Woodstock music festival, held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York.


My first memory of Hurricane Camille is a strange one. My family was traveling from Six Flags in Atlanta to Birmingham and made a rest stop in Anniston late in the night. While we were waiting for Mother, Dad struck up a conversation in the parking lot with another man traveling with his family; they began to talk about the massive hurricane that was then bearing down on the Mississippi coast. Somehow, that conversation conjures a memory of the animated neon Goal Post Bar-B-Q sign, an iconic Anniston fixture depicting a football player kicking a football through a goal post. Our rest stop was down the highway from the barbecue joint and I was watching that sign as the two grown-ups chatted, we waited for my mother, and my brother slept in the back seat.


These distant memories are stimulated by a recent viewing of fanboy Quentin Tarantino’s latest ultra-violent fantasy, Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, set in the summer of 1969. The film focuses on two fictional characters, a fading western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt man, best friend, and jack-of-all-trades, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). A presence throughout the film is the very non-fictional Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski, rents the house next door to Dalton. Tate, who is 8½ months pregnant at the movie’s end, floats through the proceedings with a serenity and presence that are exhilarating to watch. Another recurring presence throughout the movie is members of Charles Manson’s hippie cult, skulking regularly on the edges.

Tarantino weaves a shaggy dog story with many loose ends and an entertaining jumble of real-life and fictional characters. The movie begins on February 9, 1969 (my 14th birthday), sets up the characters, and jumps, later, to August 9 of the same year. Tarantino assumes that the audience knows its 1969 pop culture history and throws teases and period references in with the imaginative fictionalization. Quick appearances are made by actors playing Steve McQueen, James Stacy, Sam Wanamaker, and other real-life personalities of the era. We briefly catch a bit of a car radio news broadcast announcing the sentencing of Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In a lovely, carefree interlude, the camera follows Cass Elliott, Michelle Phillips, and Sharon Tate as they hold hands, running through a party at the Playboy mansion, and begin to dance. In another scene, three Manson girls are seen holding hands, smiling like Moonies, singing and skipping down an L.A. sidewalk.

It’s a fascinating and enjoyable movie, made moreso by its frequent dips into a splashy late-60s reality, but always tempered by the very real presence of the darkness that lurks at the Spahn Ranch, the former western movie lot that has been infested by Manson’s followers and hangers-on. In a tense scene, Cliff goes to the Spahn Ranch – a place he knows from past film and television shoots – with a hitchhiker he’s picked up in Hollywood. When he insists on seeing George Spahn, an old friend who is now the blind and aging owner of the ranch, the mood shifts. We worry for the safety of Cliff, and for the foreboding scenarios still to emerge.

I have never warmed up to DiCaprio as an adult actor, but his portrayal of a washed-out, whiny former tv star is effectively irksome and desperate. Brad Pitt, who is aging gracefully, has rarely been as appealingly authentic as he is in his role as Cliff – who might have murdered his wife, but moves through the world with a carefree and amused attitude.

Sharon Tate, who was only 26 when she was murdered, is most remembered now for the last day of her life. In Tarantino’s movie, there is a celebration – through Robbie’s performance – of Tate’s joie de vivre and potential. We follow her as she goes through her day, and discover a complex, upbeat woman far removed from the tragic headlines that have become her legacy. Tarantino’s camera worships Pitt and Robbie in this film, and doesn’t hesitate to linger and marvel at each of them when it has the opportunity.

Obviously, since this is a Tarantino film, there is violence; sometimes, that violence seems gratuitous. Here’s my stance on Tarantino and violence, and I realize there will be those who disagree: To me, Tarantino’s violence is so over-the-top and wild that I find it hard to take seriously. One stifles the urge to laugh at the outrageous excess; the filmmaker does not glorify or even endorse violence, it seems to me, but uses it as a device to celebrate the absurdity all around us to which he seems so drawn.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy” and many find that hard to wrap their mind around. I think I get it with Chekhov. He explores and revels in the absurdity of our surroundings and everyday lives. I don’t think of Tarantino as “Chekhovian” by any stretch, but I think his prankish and warped world-view enjoys taking his audience to the extremes of a violent society.

For those who think they know how Once upon a Time in Hollywood must inevitably end, and are avoiding it for that reason, I suggest that you see for yourself. Without going into detail, I think the final image of this movie is one of the sweetest images I’ve seen in a movie in years. It’s a moment that portends a whole new trajectory for the end of the ‘60s – an ending that was earned, but, sadly, was never achieved.

New Orleans to Bessemer, 2019

The Bright Star Restaurant’s “Night in New Orleans,” which had its thirtieth incarnation last week, has become a rite of passage for the month of August at the venerable 1907 restaurant in Bessemer, just down I-20/59 from Birmingham. Long billed as “Alabama’s Oldest Restaurant” and the winner of a 2010 James Beard Foundation Award as an “American Classic,” Bright Star has remained a popular dining destination even after the heavy industry that once defined Bessemer has slipped away (www.brightstar.com).

It was my father’s favorite restaurant; at his funeral, one of the ministers quipped in his eulogy that “Grover would sell his lawnmower to eat at the Bright Star.”

“Night in New Orleans” is a three-night event in which a New Orleans chef takes over the Bright Star kitchen and offers selections from a Crescent City restaurant. The late Jamie Shannon of Commander’s Palace and Tory McPhail, current executive chef of Commander’s, are among the notable past chefs who have presided over the event.

This year’s chef, Thomas Robey, recently took over executive chef duties at Tujague’s, the 163-year-old New Orleans staple on Decatur Street on the river side of the French Quarter. Tujague’s is probably most recognizable to New Orleans visitors for the iconic sign over America’s oldest stand-up bar on the corner of Decatur and Madison. The doors are always open and the bar is always crowded with locals and tourists alike (www.tujaguesrestaurant.com).

Chef Robey is no stranger to Birmingham or the Bright Star. He was on Jamie Shannon’s staff for previous “Night in New Orleans” events in the ‘90s and was executive chef of Birmingham’s Veranda on Highlands for several years. He left Veranda for another stint with McPhail at Commander’s before being named executive chef of Tujague’s in summer 2018.

Mother and I arrived on a Saturday evening about twenty minutes before the restaurant opened. A sizable crowd was already waiting in the Bright Star’s large lobby space – a crowd clearly made up mostly of the Bright Star’s dining room’s seasoned veterans. Some chose to sport Mardi Gras beads for the occasion and New Orleans jazz was just audible over the general din as Bright Star hosts began to quickly seat the crowd.

The menu for these events is split into two parts – one features dishes from Bright Star’s regular menu and the other is a sampling of the guest chef’s dishes from his home restaurant. Since my mother has dietary restrictions, the Bright Star part of the menu was her reliable go-to.

I was there, however, for the tastes of New Orleans and focused on the Tujague’s menu, choosing the cheesy char-broiled oysters as my first course. Other first course options were a shrimp and tasso bisque and a watermelon and tomato salad.

The main course offered a skin-on snapper over a corn maque choux, pan-roasted Maple Leaf duck breast, and a grilled pork loin with a mirliton dressing. I, of course, opted for the seafood and the snapper arrived atop a generous and complex maque choux, an elevated succotash-like preparation. Chef Robey’s iteration had a corn and tomato base with finely chopped peppers, green onions, peas, okra, and Creole spices. As I was trying to break down the maque choux ingredients for Mother, Chef Robey strolled past our tableside to explain that the name “maque choux” is probably a French derivation of a Native American name for the dish, which has become an amalgamation of indigenous and Creole techniques.

For the final taste of New Orleans, there was a creamy Grasshopper panna cotta – a nod to the minty signature cocktail invented at Tujague’s in 1918. Garnished with chocolate mints, it was a smooth capper to a rich New Orleans-inspired meal.

Leaving Bright Star’s “Night in New Orleans” in the sultry summer dusk, the urge is strong to take I-59 southbound and travel the quick five hours to experience another night in New Orleans for real.

The Portent of Figs

 I almost passed on the downtown Greene Street Market at Nativity this afternoon (www.greenestreetmarket.com). I’m afraid I’m gathering more at my various farmers markets this summer than I have time to deal with. Birmingham’s Pepper Place on Saturday morning, Latham’s on Tuesdays, and Nativity on Thursday afternoon … occasionally, the Alabama Truck Farmers market on the industrial side of Birmingham, a few others here and there.

At the last minute, though, a brief and gentle rain revived me, and I ventured on out to Nativity to see if inspiration would hit. It always does.

My first stop is always the Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) booth to stock up on their various goat cheese blends and to check in with the Spells, the proprietors. A running joke for Paul Spell when he sees me is to say, “Sir, would you like to sample some goat cheese?” as if I haven’t been using his product for years now.

“Goat cheese!?!” I exclaimed today, as if I’d never heard of such a thing.

Some snooty Huntsville woman, who was finishing her transaction, looked over at me and said, with a sniff, “I love goat cheese. You should try it some time.”

I smiled, batted my eyes at her, and placed my order as she cluelessly walked away.

I had given up on locally grown kale here in mid-July but one of the growers from southern Tennessee had several fresh bags of Russian kale just perfect for several applications. I had passed a booth with enticing bags of field peas and vowed to return to buy a couple. When I circled around a minute later, there were no peas to be found.

I said, “Didn’t you have peas here a minute ago?”

“Yes,” came the speedy reply. “And a man just bought me out. But I have more in the cooler … if I’d told him I had more, he might have cleaned me out completely!”

Grabbing what I needed, I moved on. I had plenty of peaches and cantaloupe, so I passed those places by.

I was about to leave when I noticed a few small baskets of figs nestled among more prolific produce at a bustling stand toward the back of the market.

It seems a little early for figs, but the fig yield has been sparse for the past few years and maybe my timing is off. I heard myself sigh figs at precisely the moment a woman behind me did the same.

I moved quickly to the stand with mixed emotions.

First, I associate figs with the end of summer and I’m not nearly ready for that. But, also, I didn’t really grow up with figs; they were not a part of my own family’s eating heritage and I was late to that club. It was while working with a theatre in Montgomery that some of the locals and transient actors began to awaken me to the charm of the fig crop. It was there that figs became another of my harbingers of the stages of the summer fruits.

Strawberries. Peaches. Blackberries and Blueberries. Figs. Apples.

Often, when the figs disappear, so has the summer.

I debated whether I was ready to invite portentous figs into my seasonal kitchen. The woman behind me made her move and so I quickly maneuvered to the front of the line. I pointed to the basket I wanted and said, “Aren’t they early?”

Apparently, they are, but they might also have a longer growing season than in the past several years, so my lament for the end of summer might be delayed for several weeks.

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.


Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.


The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.


Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019