Lulu’s Herb Garden

As I write this, it is Friday morning and Lulu is lolling in her favorite sunny spot by the backyard fence. Lulu is my mother’s three-year-old chihuahua.

Last year I wrote about Clover, Mother’s chihuahua that died suddenly, and how deeply that loss was felt. Not long after that, Mother took in Lulu, a recent young mother whose human family had decided they needed to downsize. They decided to keep one of the puppies but to send Lulu to a new home. Mother had been recommended by a mutual acquaintance.

It was a rocky beginning for Lulu, who panicked when she realized she had lost the only family she had known. The first night was endless and exhausting with Lulu barking at and running away from the new humans she had been abruptly handed over to.

After a couple of days, she warmed up to Mother, but she absolutely hated me.

After a few weeks and many belly rubs, Lulu and I turned the corner and she came to recognize me as an ally and friend and the visitor who would always spoil and indulge and sneak treats to her. Over time, she has become a little obsessed with me. If Mother says, “Edward is coming,” she will go and keep watch by the front door until I get there. If I sit on the couch, she takes that as an invitation to join me for a belly rub. If I take a nap and leave the door open, she will jump in bed with me; if I leave the door closed, she will patiently wait by the door for me to emerge.

Lulu has the most highly alert sense of smell of any dog I’ve ever been around on a regular basis. She  has her nose up, sniffing the air, or down, searching the ground, to seek out whatever scents may be around. When I take her for a walk in Mother’s neighborhood, she frequently stops to check out the scents of various grasses and plants. There is a mailbox post draped in jasmine that transfixes her. She takes long sniffs all around the post before she can be enticed to move away.

In Mother’s back yard there is one patch of grass in particular that appeals to her. She will run to it and delicately scratch the ground to release the scents. Often, she will roll around in it to perfume herself after sniffing for a while. Then she happily scampers to the house.

This acute attention to smell inspired me to undertake a fragrant project for Lulu and treat her to her very own herb garden.

I did my research, looking up several articles about herbs that are good for dogs. Of course, on internet searches, everybody has an opinion whether they have facts to back them up or not. On this search, one site said that garlic in small amounts was good for dogs and the outraged responses went hysterical and haywire as only the internet can.

I didn’t plan to use garlic to begin with.

So, based on my research, I got a strawberry pot and planted a different herb in each pocket. I planted basil, mint, parsley, sage, and thyme. I also planted a pocket of cilantro – which I don’t like much, but I’m not a dog and cilantro seems to have good benefits. Finally, rosemary was planted in the top of the pot. Oregano was mentioned throughout my research but I passed since I have never had luck growing it.

It was relaxing to plant Lulu’s herb garden and I pulled out one of my own strawberry pots and planted another one just like it to add to my kitchen herbs outside the back door.

On the drive to Birmingham, the earthy aromas of the herbal bounty filled the car with sensuous smells. When I arrived at Mother’s house and tempted Lulu with her pot, the response was tepid at best. As I carried the pot on out to the back porch, Lulu watched from a distance and seemed mildly curious but underwhelmed.

The next time she went outside, Lulu gave the herb pot a wide berth. After trotting around the yard for a while and making a stop to sniff around her favorite rose bushes, she slowly approached the pot and smelled the basil. Then she tentatively worked her way around the pot, sniffing at each herb. And then she continued to make her rounds.

A day later, it’s not clear if Lulu realizes that the herb pot is hers or not. But I have noticed that she stops for a sniff or two on her way out into the yard to loll in her sunny spot. It is still an experiment in progress as I watch to see if Lulu takes ownership of her little herb garden; she might not.

Either way, there’s a new source of fresh herbs at Mother’s house for cooking. 

Lulu and her herbs

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Adventures in Pottery

When I was little and living in Tuscaloosa, before the interstate came through, Hamm’s Pottery on Highway 11 just past Cottondale was a magical place on the road to Birmingham. I remember rows and rows of wheel-turned garden pots on the hillside outside the shop and a variety of pots – some made by Mr. Hamm and others mass manufactured – that were sold in the store by the highway.

My Harbison grandparents liked to stop at Hamm’s and I suspect that some of the glazed decorative pottery for houseplants that I now have in my house came from those visits. Over time, Mr. and Mrs. Hamm passed away and a barbecue place named The Pottery Grill took over the location.

Fast forward to my post-college years and I was again living in Tuscaloosa and, influenced by the Kentuck Art Center and its fall festival, I began to take a collector’s interest in art and functional pottery. In every room of my house now, there is pottery to contemplate.

My collection eventually outgrew the tables and shelves on which to display it. Just before I moved into my current house, I came into possession of my grandparents’ dining room table and china cabinet. Mother said she’d give me china to display in the cabinet but I had other ideas and the china cabinet became the home to a good many pieces of pottery.

Pottery by Timothy Weber

The first significant pieces of my pottery collection were a couple of “architectural” pots by Timothy Weber (www.tweberpottery.com) when he was based in Tuscaloosa. I lost track of Weber for a while when I was moving around for theatre and he had relocated to Tennessee. More recently, I have caught back up with him at the Kentuck Festival and other galleries around the region and have increased the Weber collection.

Pottery by Daniel Livingston

Daniel Livingston is a friend from my Tuscaloosa years whose delicate and intricate raku pieces have been added to my collection over the years. During a move, I dropped and broke one of my favorite Livingston pieces but gathered up the delicate shards and lined them around a plant in a flower pot. The piece took on a vibrant second life in that incarnation.

Pottery by Susan Brown Freeman

 

 

Susan Brown Freeman is still another potter with Tuscaloosa connections who is now based in Birmingham. I bought my first piece of her pottery at the Chimneyville Crafts Festival in Mississippi. Freeman’s deep glazes and intricate designs with delicately rendered reticulation and cutouts are favorites. When I purchased one as a present for my mother, it started her on a decades long habit of buying Freeman’s pieces.

 

I went through a period of seeking out horsehair pottery – pottery that has horsehair thrown on it during firing, leaving a dark carbon stain on the piece. My two favorite horsehair pieces came from a shop in Seaside on the Florida Gulf coast and from a gallery in Little Rock.

Horsehair Pottery

When I lived in southwestern Utah, I acquired pottery pieces that were fired in restored kilns of the ancient Anasazi by late 20th Century Native American potters. A Navajo-style wedding vase with two spouts bridged by a looped handle was a perfect wedding gift.

On theatre gigs and tours, I would pack a piece of my pottery in my luggage. I would unpack and display it in each of the endless series of hotel rooms to keep a connection to home.

On annual trips to Fairhope, I was pleased to discover The Kiln, Susie Bowman’s ceramics gallery and workshop (www.facebook.com/thekilnfairhope). In the early days of The Kiln, I was especially drawn to the pottery by Branan Mercer (www.b-metro.com/brananmercer) and usually bought a piece or two around Christmas. Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is a fairly short drive from Fairhope and its Shearwater Pottery (www.shearwaterpottery.com), started by Peter Anderson of the artistically prolific Anderson family, is an idyllic location along a wooded road perfumed by Gulf breezes.

Pottery by Shearwater

Pottery by Branan Mercer

Over the years, my collection has grown with gifts from those who know my predilection. A Sansai Trinity Vase, a three-sided Japanese porcelain vase with Chinese characters, was a gift from Pratt Dean, a former missionary in Japan (www.trinityvase.com). A piece of speckled blue “Cindyware” by my friend Cindy Edwards is displayed near functional pieces by Jerry Brown, the master potter of Hamilton, Alabama, who passed away in 2016 (www.jerrybrownpottery.com). Jerry Brown Pottery is a family operation and Brown’s work was created in close collaboration with his wife, Sandra, and other family members. Brown is best known for his whimsical “face jugs,” which is a form I never warmed up to. I am more drawn to the functional pieces like bacon cookers and corn bread cookers which I own and use regularly.

Miller’s Pottery

Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama (www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1033) continues a family tradition of stoneware pottery spanning the history of pottery-making in Alabama. The Miller family has a marital connection to the pioneering French LaCoste family of potters around Montrose on Alabama’s Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, whose kilns date back to around the 1840s. Eric Miller once told me a story about making a set of dinnerware for a relative who, upon receiving it, said, “This is so special, I would never dream of using it.” Mr. Miller sounded almost offended when he explained, “But I make it to be used.” I love the classic lines of Miller’s Pottery and the marks of individuals in the pottery. Eric Miller’s son, Steve, and his cousin, Allen Ham, each bring their own distinctive markings to the classic family designs.

Ceramic by Frank Fleming

The Alabama artist Frank Fleming passed away in March 2018 (www.bhamnow.com/2018/03/19/frank-fleming). Fleming’s monumental works featuring fantastical animals are found in many public and museum locations throughout the South and nationally. His most notable work is probably “The Storyteller” fountain in Birmingham’s Five Points South district. In my collection, Fleming is represented by a more prosaic miniature porcelain piece of an okra pod and garlic bulb resting on a magnolia leaf.

I have pottery pieces from many places but Alabama-based pottery is core to the collection. A key resource for information about pottery-making in Alabama is Joey Brackner’s comprehensive Alabama Folk Pottery (University of Alabama Press, 2006).

My pottery collecting spans four decades of adding pieces that speak to me in some special way at a given time on my travels. It reflects changes in my tastes over time. Its tactile nature makes it a pleasure to handle and use. Practically every piece evokes an individual story of the maker who sold it to me or the individual who gifted it to me. It is an integral ingredient in making my house my “home.”

Pottery by Timothy Weber

 

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

“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 2014 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.