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)

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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.

More Harbingers

We seem far from the official start of spring here in north Alabama, even though it’s only a month away and temperatures are mild in the last several days. This has been a relatively rough winter at times, especially compared to the almost non-existent winter weather of 2016-2017. Today, however, in mid-February, the temperatures are in the 70s and I couldn’t help but get giddy for the return of warm and hot weather as the norm – a giddiness that always kicks in once Mardi Gras has passed.

This feeling has been coming for days now and I have noted the hopeful signs in my own winter- ravaged yard, which has become a little spongy after a spate of hard rains. Even so, there are harbingers of spring popping up daily and everywhere if you pay attention. Spunky robins are lurking around the back yard in growing numbers and daffodils are abundant in nearby yards. 

In my own little front yard this week, I spotted a single blooming crocus and a bunch of crocus foliage that clearly has no plans to bloom this year. When I moved into my house eight years ago, I randomly planted sixty crocus bulbs around the front yard. In the first couple of years after planting, the tiny flowers would appear in profusion around the yard. I haven’t had time to maintain the yard as carefully as I used to and the crocus attrition rate has accelerated, but the few hardy plants that persist are a tiny little pleasure to discover as February hurries through.

The cherry tree in my front yard always puts on a grand show for a couple of weeks in early spring. We’ll have to see how it fares this time around since it underwent a pretty extreme pruning in the fall. In the meantime, my neighbor’s back yard cherry tree, which continues to grow unfettered and provides a significant canopy in my own yard, usually blooms a few weeks earlier than my cherry tree and will hopefully once again provide a magnificent borrowed view out the back windows. It is normal for my cherry tree to burst forth with blossoms just as the neighbor’s cherry blossoms are giving way to lush green foliage.

A ponytail palm that has been with me for twenty years now, flourishing in a cramped concrete planter that belonged to my Grandfather Harbison, seemed to bite the dust when I had prematurely moved it outside before the freeze last year; by mid-summer it had sprouted new ribbons of leaves and again graces my living room as beautifully as ever. I plan to wait longer this year before I put it outside the front door as a welcoming beacon.

In the back yard, the pots that held herbs in the 2017 growing season are sitting on a garden table outside my library window, waiting to be replanted. I usually have pots of mint and rosemary, thyme, parsley, oregano, and basil – lots of basil. This week, chives began to push up in one of the pots and I wonder what other volunteers might reappear. Many plants that began to flourish early last spring were killed off by that unexpected hard freeze in April while others eventually came back, a little worse for wear, and still others re-emerged better than ever.

The deep red camellia bush that replaces the tall 35-year-old Rose of Sharon that died last year is all abloom and I look forward to its off-season blooms and its evergreen presence just inside the back gate for this and years to come. The four potted crape myrtles just outside my back door always take their sweet time to get going, but they look healthy and I’m sure they’ll provide profuse color by mid-summer.

Outside the back gate, the potted wild rose that was foraged from a lakeside in Owens Cross Roads over in the Flint River Valley is already sprouting – as eager as I to get the warm weather underway.

Tulips that were left by the previous owner of my house are coming up but they don’t always bloom and I’ll be curious to see what they do this time around. At my mother’s house in Birmingham this week, I was greeted by a vase of burgundy tulips on the dining room table. These are just another temptation to make me long for spring to set in for a spell.

I have a list on my refrigerator of things I want to do in my backyard garden and I wonder how much of the list I might be able to tackle this year. In the library hangs a sketch, drawn by my nephew when he was about six or seven, of a plan for my back yard garden that includes specific spots for sitting areas and plantings, a grill, and a large central fountain. I regularly consult that sketch to see how it connects with my own plans. In lieu of the fountain, I may move the birdbath from the front yard to the back. It was originally placed to cover a bare spot in front of the window but that bare spot is now lush with plantings and the birdbath has gotten lost from view.

The yard is a constant work in progress with no master plan. Every warm evening that I sit at the bistro table in the rear of the little yard the list changes and I know the plan, like nature’s own evolution, will never reach completion. 

Homage to Sam

“There are times when I can’t help thinking about the past. I know the present is the place to be. It’s always been the place to be. I know I’ve been recommended by very wise people to stay in the present as much as possible, but the past sometimes presents itself. The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always comes in parts.

In fact it comes apart…”

When Sam Shepard died in July 2017, I wrote about what a strong influence his writing has been for me through the years. His final work, Spy of the First Person (Penguin Random House, 2017), is an undeniably autobiographical work of “fiction” written by Sam Shepard in his final year as he suffered from ALS.

The book is a labor of community and love. When Shepard began the book, he could still write. As his motor skills weakened, his children and sisters devised ways to help him keep the work going – recording devices, transcription, dictation. Shepard’s long-time friend and erstwhile collaborator Patti Smith assisted the writer in editing the book into final shape. Shepard’s involvement in the book continued until his death; he even chose the haunting cover photograph for the publication – a Graciela Iturbide photograph of a weathered man looking up at birds flying overhead.

When Shepard died, his children took the book to fruition and publication. The triumphant result is a book that reminds us what a masterful writer Shepard is and how masterful he remained until the end. In a touching twist, the book is dedicated to the writer by his children.

The book’s first-person narration is a duality of the observer and the observed. An unnamed man watches a sick man on a screened porch across the street, musing on the man’s situation and the events he can make out through the screen. The sick man, aware of being watched, becomes alternately paranoid and reflective as his memory travels far into his past – and childhood and youthful experiences become juxtaposed with visits to medical clinics.

The narrative consciousness of nature around us is strong and vivid, with detailed descriptions of landscapes and wildlife – particularly birds. One is reminded of playwright Shepard’s skill with monologues and all of the memorable moments he gave his characters in raw and mind-bending dramas spanning decades.

The narrative flow between the two voices is fluid and we lose track of which speaker’s voice we are reading. That is fitting as it becomes clear that the narrative voices are almost certainly of the same man, pondering his sickness and observing his physical degradation with a still sharp brain.

Spy of the First Person culminates with a celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant teeming with “a lot of noise and a lot more tequila.” The sick man is surrounded by his children, his sisters, and friends. In these final pages the man reveals the names of the people around him – Jesse and Walker – his sons; his daughter, Hannah; Roxanne and Sandy – his sisters. The names are the same as Sam Shepard’s children and sisters.

As the group leaves the festive restaurant, the man says, “The thing I remember most is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons. A man pushed by his sons in a wheelchair from a crowded restaurant to a street with nobody on it. A man sitting on shaggy wool with a Navajo blanket across his knees.”

Sam Shepard the man is gone but Sam Shepard the artist lives on in a body of work that had majesty and resonance to the very end.

Photo of Sam Shepard by Grant Delin

Red Beans Road Show

When I was first visiting New Orleans on a regular basis, Buster Holmes restaurant on the corner of Burgundy and Orleans was still in operation serving distinctive New Orleans food at amazingly reasonable prices. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox and a diverse clientele. It was well-known for catering to New Orleans musicians and was famous for its simple and excellent food.

Buster’s was best known for red beans and rice, that hearty New Orleans kitchen stalwart that was the traditional meal for Mondays – “wash day” for many households. Cooks could put on a big pot of red beans, let it simmer, go about their other chores, and have a good nutritious meal to eat on throughout the rest of the day.

Buster’s came to mind recently as I traveled with my friend Madeleine – who has been known as “Bunny” her entire life – to Florence for my first dinner of 2018 at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). The January dinner was a special Factory add-on and was not part of the Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series which will kick off its fourth season of dinners by award-winning chefs in April.

New Orleans-based writer, photographer, and raconteur Pableaux Johnson has been presenting the “Red Beans Road Show” for a few years now in a variety of locales. The event hearkens back to Johnson’s childhood memories of meals around his grandmother’s large round kitchen table. When that same table came into his possession, he felt a need to “feed the table” with informal Monday night red beans and rice dinners. Subsequently, epicurious.com recently named Pableaux Johnson to its list of “100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.” That “of All Time” phrase is pretty heady stuff (www.pableaux.com).

The ensuing “Red Beans Road Show” project is a series of traveling pop-up dinners inspired by meals around Johnson’s grandmother’s table and Pableaux’s desire to share Louisiana culture (www.redbeansroadshow.com).

It’s a simple premise. A local host provides the venue, the starters, and the dessert, and Johnson provides the heart of the meal – red beans and rice with skillet cornbread. Diners eat family-style around a table and lively conversation and new friendships accrue.

The Alabama Chanin Factory, helmed by Natalie Chanin with the Factory kitchen run by chef Ray Nichols, is the perfect setting for the concept; the precedent set by the “Friends of the Café” series makes it comfortable and familiar.

Bunny and I were greeted by Natalie Chanin when we arrived on a rainy Thursday night with a brutal cold front moving in. The crowd was mingling and exploring the racks of the Alabama Chanin showroom as appetizers were circulated. Pableaux Johnson’s photographs of Mardi Gras Indians were displayed on Factory walls and provided additional visual stimulation to the perfectly curated Factory space. We were a little late and I only got to the deviled eggs but I caught sight of other starters across the room.

Pableaux Johnson provided an animated introduction and explanation of the evening to the guests before we moved on to our seats at the many tables set up in the space. Once seated, huge bowls of rice appeared followed by bowls full of red beans. The assembled began to fill our bowls as plates of cornbread arrived to complete the serving.

Over the years I have realized that there are as many opinions about what constitutes the proper red beans and rice as there are people who eat it. Pableaux Johnson’s recipe for “Monday Night Red Beans” hits all of the high points and is a superior palate pleaser. Briefly, his version uses Louisiana-sourced Camellia brand red beans, andouille sausage, Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning, and Crystal Hot Sauce, along with the expected herbs, vegetables, and seasoning. It’s a pretty basic red bean recipe – no extreme frills or flourishes or experimentation – and it’s delicious.

The cornbread was a source of some culinary controversy as Johnson warned the gathering in advance that his cornbread contains a small amount of sugar. Those are fightin’ words in some quarters (including in my family) but the cornbread was very tasty nevertheless and a good complement to the savory dish. In Pableaux’s defense (if he needs one), the bit of sugar is part of his family’s cornbread recipe and that’s good enough justification for me. In fact, after a brief conversation with Pableaux in which I let him know that my mother is a bit of a cornbread snob, he brought over a couple of slices of the cornbread for me to take to Birmingham for her inspection.

Between the red beans course and the dessert, Pableaux discussed the Mardi Gras Indian portraits which lined two walls of the dining area. The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich and literally colorful history and tradition that is uniquely New Orleans and Pableaux’s respect for their craft and folkways is evident in his art and in his rendering of their story. It was satisfying to see the intricate details of the Indians’ painstakingly rendered and hand-sewn regalia sharing space with the meticulously crafted and hand-sewn garments of the Alabama Chanin showroom.

Chef Ray Nichols’s kitchen provided the dessert, a beautiful banana pudding that provided the ideal tasty end to a relaxing and rejuvenating evening at the Factory. As the guests departed, there was a washtub full of bags of Camellia red beans. Each guest received a bag of beans and a copy of Pableaux’s “Monday Night Red Beans” recipe.

Exchanging goodbyes with Natalie Chanin, we noted how nice it was to have an event such as the Red Beans Road Show so near the end of the holiday season (and, also, to kick off the Carnival season commencing on the Gulf Coast). I’m hoping there will be other such events at the Factory to signal the start of years and Mardi Gras seasons to come.

Bunny and I made our way home through a winter mist and fog and, by the time we got home, work and school were cancelled for the next day due to inclement weather. I’m happy the hard freeze waited until the Florence version of the Red Beans Road Show had reached its successful end.