Author Archives: gedwardjourney

About gedwardjourney

Edward Journey is an educator, administrator, and theatre artist who currently lives and works as a university professor in Huntsville, Alabama. "Professional Southerner" is an online journal focusing on topics -- Southern and other -- that stoke Edward's interests. He has been told that he has a tendency to "think loudly." Perhaps, by writing this journal, his loud thoughts will become more specific and defined. Edward may be reached at likatrip@yahoo.com.

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.


The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.


At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.


The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.


We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

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Remembering Highland Avenue

 

Independent Presbyterian Church

Highland Avenue meanders along the north slopes of Birmingham’s Red Mountain for a couple of basically east-west miles. It starts at the business end of the Five Points South community and ends at Clairmont Avenue in Lakeview, beside the Highland Park Golf Course.

The area around Highland has always struck me as the epitome of a great urban neighborhood. By the 1960s, many of Highland’s grand houses had been split up into apartments, but now, many of those houses have given way to new development while others have mostly returned back to single family dwellings or event venues. What once were trolley tracks are now well-planted raised beds which run down the middle of most of the drive.

Donnelly House

Highland Avenue was conceived as a main thoroughfare through real estate development in the town of Highland before the town was annexed into the city of Birmingham.

Nowadays, the area is a mix of commercial and residential with high-rise apartments and condominiums among the houses and townhouses. It’s a surprisingly charming architectural mix with late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture co-existing comfortably with contemporary high-rises. Three cozy parks – for relaxing, playing with dogs, or shooting baskets – provide respite among the bustle of the avenue’s traffic. The street has a casually elegant feel – a mixture of contemporary with doses of a more elegant time past; it’s still easy to imagine trolleys and carriages moving along the avenue, and people leaving their calling cards at houses during Sunday strolls.

Avalon condominiums

The last time I lived in Birmingham, my apartment was up Red Mountain from Highland and the area was a regular walking spot for me. The neighborhood always relaxes and inspires me with occasional glimpses north to the Birmingham skyline, a sighting of Vulcan to the southwest, or the grand houses of the Redmont neighborhood along the Red Mountain crest.  If I am anywhere near the area, I will usually take a quick detour over to Highland rather than a more direct route.

A long-gone Birmingham-based chain of cafeterias called Britling had locations throughout the city, but I always thought the Highland Avenue location, which was known as “Britling on the Highlands,” somehow stood apart from the rest. That “on the Highlands” tag gave it a sense of elegance to my young mind.

Temple Beth-El

Temple Emanu-El

South Highland Presbyterian Church

Impressive houses of worship are scattered along Highland Avenue. Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El are just a couple of blocks apart. South Highland Presbyterian Church is located near the west end of the avenue and the neo-Gothic Independent Presbyterian Church is situated near the east end, across from the golf course. The two Presbyterian churches started out as South Highlands; Independent formed after a doctrinal split in the early 1900s.

Chef Frank Stitt’s Bottega and Bottega Café, his Italian-inspired dining spots, are housed right on the avenue in the Bottega Favorita building, a limestone charmer with visual as well as culinary distinction. Other notable restaurants along the avenue are Galley & Garden in the old Merritt House, and Hot & Hot Fish Club, half a block down and behind Highland Plaza, an art deco shopping center anchored by locally-owned Western Supermarket. Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill, 2018’s James Beard Award winner for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, is located just a couple of blocks from Highland Avenue, in Five Points South.

Bottega Favorita

I was saddened to learn recently that Western Supermarkets are going out of business after over seventy years. The Western on Highland was the closest grocery store to my Southside apartment in the ‘90s – and the only grocery store near downtown at the time. I frequently stopped there on the way home from work and often walked down early on Sunday mornings to pick up the Birmingham News and New York Times. The closing of the supermarket coincides with the purchase of Highland Plaza by a developer, with rumors of a major overhaul and redevelopment of the site in the works – another beloved landmark that will soon bite the dust.

Galley & Garden restaurant with Vesta apartment construction behind

Traveling past the Highland Plaza toward Temple Beth-El used to be one of my favorite quick glimpses of the Vulcan statue overlooking the city. That particular vista is gone forever with the construction of the high-rise Vesta apartment complex now obscuring the view.

The former Town and Gown Theatre is nestled just off Caldwell Park, which also used to be the front yard of sorts for John Carroll High School. John Carroll has moved to the suburbs, making way for more house construction, and Town and Gown has morphed into Virginia Samford Theatre, still a destination in the city for theatre-goers. I still have fond memories of auditioning for a juvenile role in a Steve McQueen movie at the old Town and Gown in the 1960s.

Highland Plaza

Despite considerable changes – and more to come – Highland Avenue retains its character and still feels like a neighborhood, a calm and shady retreat from the city center only a couple of miles away. It’s still one of my favorite streets to drive. 

Rethinking Rocket City

Huntsville – the north Alabama town where I live – was just named to the New York Times annual list of “52 Places (in the world!) to Go in 2019.” It’s an honor for a place. Montgomery made the list last year and Birmingham was on the 2017 list so Alabama has been well represented.

The incentive for Huntsville’s inclusion this year is the 50th Anniversary of the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Planned local celebrations will honor Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s integral role in the 1950s and 1960s activities that ultimately landed the first humans on the moon. The moon landing was the fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge, motivated by the Cold War and the American space race with the Soviets. It was spearheaded by Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers who were brought to the United States and to Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center after working with the Nazi regime during World War II.

The New York Times designation is just one of the many “best places to …” or “must see” lists on which Huntsville frequently lands. Huntsville locals are all atwitter with the projection that Huntsville might become the largest city in Alabama in the 2020 census. I get smug glares when I try to point out that the population within the city limits of Huntsville might indeed surpass that within the city limits of Birmingham in the next few years, but that the metropolitan population of the Birmingham region will still be three or four times that of Huntsville and its satellites.

I have gotten used to smug glares since I moved to Huntsville.


Not that it matters, but readers have asked me why I don’t write much about the town where I live. After sixteen years in residence, I am still ambivalent about the place. My house in southeast Huntsville is indisputably my “home”; it’s the place where I keep my stuff and where I feel at peace – it’s my haven. But the city where my home is located is a place where I still feel like a visitor, and sometimes an interloper. I’m a quasi-Luddite in a town full of military types, federal employees, IT workers, engineers, and rocket scientists. I’m not really at home in Huntsville’s STEM paradise; I find it lacks STEAM (which, for the uninitiated, is STEM with an Art component).

My lack of enthusiasm probably dates back to my days in elementary school. When I was in fifth grade, in Birmingham, we took a field trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. In those days, we frequently watched space launches on black and white classroom televisions. As a first grader, I was enthralled watching the coverage of John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbits. I was excited to contemplate going to Huntsville, the place where so much of the technology for the space race had been formulated – the place where the astronauts trained. When my fifth-grade field trip occurred, the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy had not yet happened and the 1969 moon landing seemed to be in the distant future.

Most importantly, perhaps, these were the days before there was a U.S. Space and Rocket Center so Marshall was all business – with no bells and whistles – for a school field trip.

As I recall, after a long bus ride, we were herded into a lecture hall on the Marshall Space Flight Center campus where we listened to rocket scientists and looked at projected charts. After the lectures, we got back onto our bus and had a picnic at what I remember as a depressing public park near the Arsenal. That park is still there; it doesn’t look like it’s changed at all. (I shudder whenever I pass it.)

Then we had a long bus ride back to Birmingham.

I have met people all over the country who tell me that childhood trips to Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center or Space Camp (www.rocketcenter.com) changed their lives, turning them into space and science enthusiasts. I’ve no doubt that my class experience would have been much different with the more exciting and interactive experience of the Space and Rocket Center, but, for me, the trip to Huntsville was the worst field trip ever.

My second visit to Huntsville was years later when I was stage managing a touring theatre production that played an arts festival in Huntsville’s Big Spring Park. It wasn’t a great tour stop. Some of the locals complained that the production – a salute to the music of Stephen Sondheim – was too “adult” for the family crowds at the festival. There was some sort of power glitch during an afternoon show that caused the performance to grind to a halt for a few minutes.

Despite these early experiences, when what seemed to be a promising opportunity to take a teaching job in Huntsville arose many years later, I accepted the offer and hoped for the best.


Huntsville had less than 15,000 inhabitants in 1940, prior to the establishment of Redstone Arsenal during World War II. At that time, it was the “watercress capital of the world” and a place focused on cotton and textile production. The remnants of some of the local mills and the “company town” communities which surrounded them are still around and repurposed today.

When I moved to Huntsville in 2002, I was thrilled by how many cotton fields could still be found within the city limits. In the years since, I have seen most of those disappear and be converted to more prosaic uses. Still, one doesn’t need to travel far to find rich agricultural land and scenic beauty. One of my favorite vistas within the city limits is what remains of Jones Valley Farm, a once expansive family farm that has mostly been sold off for residential and retail development. Enough of the farm land remains to capture the beauty of what that valley area nestled among three mountains must have been long before I came to live here.

With the arrival of the “Space Age” came the arrival of space age architectural flourishes and, while I am a fan of mid-century modern architecture, I never found my comfort zone with some of its incarnations, such as the Googie branch of futurism which took off with the advent of the space age (think “The Jetsons”). Unfortunately, Huntsville’s growth spurt was simultaneous with that style so you have the anomaly of an unfortunate modernist county courthouse sitting in the middle of a still charming and historic town square; a foreboding city hall looming over the big spring that spurred the area’s earliest settlement; and First Baptist Huntsville’s rocket-inspired carillon and trippy “Cosmic Jesus” mosaic façade. These remnants of the early days of space technology in the area are jarring amidst the vernacular structures that still provide local character.

The local visual arts scene is centered in Lowe Mill (www.lowemill.net), a converted cotton mill housing dozens of artist studios. It’s a great idea in principle, but it becomes exhausting to separate the wheat from the chaff in the expansive space.

Incidentally, living near the Arsenal, one tries to get comfortable with random large booms and the sounds of explosions – some of which are house-shaking – with military helicopters regularly flying overhead. I’m not quite there yet.


I am constantly in search of my local “comfort zones,” and I have found several. Here are a few:

I was pleased recently with the opening of a sharp new gallery space – Burnwater Gallery – nestled far away from the hustle of Lowe Mill (www.burnwatergallery.com). Not far from Burnwater, Holtz Leather Co. is a family business specializing in fine leather goods crafted on-site (www.holtzleather.com).

I find culinary community at 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern (www.1892east.com) in Huntsville’s 5 Points neighborhood. 1892’s originally more adventurous menu has settled into routine in its near decade of existence and I suspect that’s to please its local clientele. The menu is still based on a farm to table philosophy and it’s a comfortable place to unwind, with a charming and knowledgeable wait staff. The Walt Whitman quote, “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough,” inscribed above the bar, seems to capture the spirit of the restaurant, which I have taken to describing as my own personal “Cheers.”

Anaheim Chili (www.anaheimchili.net) in Jones Valley is a casual place specializing in about a dozen chilis, other hearty menu items, and a variety of local brews on tap. The regular tastings at the local Wine Rack (www.winerackhsv.com), a neighborhood wine shop with a quirky assortment of regulars, provide another setting for lively community interaction. There are also some good food trucks to be found scattered throughout Huntsville. My favorite is Peppered Pig (www.pepperedpig.net).

I am currently excited about Purveyor (www.purveyorhuntsville.com), a new local restaurant in The Avenue multi-use development downtown. Based on word-of-mouth, I was worried that the place might be a little too pretentious and “precious” for my taste. Purveyor is a little expensive, but after dining there recently, I am a convert. Chef Rene Boyzo is providing an adventurous and ambitious menu, setting an exciting and desperately needed new bar for Huntsville dining.


In the middle of writing this essay, my mother, my nephew, and I were standing outside late on a cold and cloudless Sunday night in Birmingham watching the Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. The night was calm and peaceful and I re-encountered that awe that I had as a first-grader, that must have inspired the moon mission and its earliest explorations – that still inspires so many residents of the Huntsville area today.

A few days later, it was announced that a new rocket engine facility locating to Huntsville is negotiating with NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center to re-purpose and use the Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand that has stood abandoned since the days of the Saturn V rocket and development of the space shuttle. It’s an imposing structure, still one of the tallest buildings in the state, and visible from many parts of Huntsville – standing isolated and alone in the distance. I have often thought it was a shame that it’s no longer utilized. Now, perhaps, it will be.

Since moving to Huntsville in 2002, I have had the vague impression that the local aerospace concerns were constantly trying to justify their continued existence amid constant changes in the political climate and shifting allegiances to space exploration and its implications. With recent developments, there may be justifiable life in the old girl yet.

I have no intention or desire to remain in Huntsville past retirement, but my interest in the place and its future has been newly titillated. I plan to keep watching in the future … and from a distance. 

 

Fear Not

My annual getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear just ended and I am here to report to all of the people that harbored trepidations about the resort’s recent overhaul that I think it will be okay for them to go back; they’ll be fine with the changes.

A Grand Hotel has been located on the “point” of Point Clear on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore since 1847. When I visited in December 2017, much of the facility was a construction site and I was told that “every inch” of the facility was being touched by a massive renovation. I was eager to see what the final results looked like and am happy to report that they are finished and the place looks great.

Driving through the gate, one is not aware of all of the work that has been done. The grounds are immaculate as always, the live oaks are decked out for the holidays, and what blooms this time of year is blooming in profusion. My recently planted camellia bush did not have a single bloom this year so I was a tad jealous of the profusion of camellias all around the lagoon.

Most of the renovation work is interior and the result is a fresher, lighter, and more open effect with calm shades of blues and greys predominant.

The most visible change in the main building’s lobby area is a new casual food option, Local Market, in the space once occupied by the gift shop. A gift shop boutique, Oak and Azalea, is now located off the Grand Hall. Bayside Grill and Southern Roots are new dining options flanking the Grand Hall, as is the new 1847 Bar. The Grand Hall itself is now the setting for an afternoon High Tea in addition to breakfast and Sunday brunch. On one afternoon as I passed through, groups of hat-wearing ladies were enjoying the High Tea service. Gone is the 4:00 p.m. community tea that was a beloved tradition in years past, but the warm aromas of a wood fire from the fireplaces still waft through the main building on a crisp December evening. 

Old traditions remain. The Sunset Bell still rings thirty minutes before sunset, summoning guests to gather for the usually spectacular Mobile Bay sunset. The historical salute to the Grand’s military history is still an afternoon tradition, culminating in the firing of the Civil War-era cannon on the edge of the Bay.

One of the first things I checked was if Bucky’s Lounge was still there. Bucky’s, a gathering spot overlooking the Bay, is named to honor Bucky Miller, a mainstay who worked at the resort in many capacities over sixty years from the 1940s to his death in 2002. A life-size statue of Bucky, right hand outstretched to greet a guest, has stood outside the lounge for years. A subtle new touch is Bucky’s image smiling on the guests from one of the lounge walls.  More patio firepits have expanded Bucky’s out and closer to the Bay.

I do have to register one gripe about the changes: One of the stalwarts of the Grand’s appetizer offerings has always been an order of crab claws. For some reason, crab claws are missing from the current menus. I asked one of the wait staff for confirmation that the popular appetizer is, indeed, gone from all menus. It seems like a slight omission, but it is also something that is so simple and popular that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get rid of it. If I have a complaint to register about the updates, it’s simply that I want crab claws back on the menu. 

Throughout the various buildings of the resort, the fresher theme persists. In my favorite room with a spectacular view in the Spa building, the footprint is the same but the furnishings are somehow more functional and comfortable. In my room, I spent a lot of time lounging on a corner chaise that was a perfect spot for reading, writing, and napping.

The Grand is still a great spot to relax, both indoors and out. Any worries about the changes should be calmed by how well those changes were handled. I hope to be going there for holiday retreats for years to come. 

“The Mad Potter of Biloxi”

George E. Ohr ceramic

I first saw photos of architect Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house in the 1970s and filed him away as an architect I wanted to keep tracking. Gehry and his wife bought a two-story pink Dutch Colonial bungalow on a conventional neighborhood street and the rule-bending architect began his process of revision and deconstruction. Parts of the interior were stripped down to the studs and exterior additions incorporated materials such as plywood, corrugated steel, glass cubes, aluminum siding, and chain-link fencing. To be honest, I didn’t think the end product was very appealing to look at but I was drawn to the audacity of it and how Gehry thumbed his nose at convention – and the neighbors – and created a functioning house that still remains a home for the Gehry family forty years later.

Keeping track of Gehry was a smart move as his architecture flourished internationally with hallmark commissions like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“The Pods”: Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art; Biloxi, Mississippi

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, Mississippi, is a Gehry design that was years in the making (www.georgeohr.org). Showcasing the work of potter George E. Ohr (1857-1918), the self-proclaimed “mad potter of Biloxi,” the museum campus was well-underway when I stopped to photograph the construction site in August 2005. The “O’Keefe” of the museum’s title refers to a prominent Biloxi family that was key to the project being built. Two weeks after I photographed the construction, Hurricane Katrina dumped a casino barge on the site and construction of the museum facility was delayed until 2008.  The “pods,” a grouping of metallic structures primarily housing Ohr’s work, finally opened in 2014.

I drove over to Biloxi in 2010 when the first three buildings of the campus were newly opened. Gehry’s design plotted the five structures to leave intact the live oaks already established on the site. A brick courtyard centers the facility. The east side of the campus includes three structures – a welcome center with gift shop and two intimate galleries. The gift shop features a generous selection of pottery and ceramics by artists from within the region. The Beau Rivage Casino Gallery of African American Art includes changing shows focused on African American artists. The IP Casino Resort and Spa Exhibitions Gallery houses temporary shows.

View of “Transcendent Coincidences for Existence” by Ron Bechet; Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

On a recent visit in December 2018, the Beau Rivage Gallery featured the show, “Transcendent Coincidences for Existence.” by New Orleans artist Ron Bechet. Bechet’s large charcoal works explore interconnected roots, trunks, and botanical decay – knotted and matted and decomposing.

A small cove of the Beau Rivage Gallery houses a permanent exhibit exploring the Ohr legacy, “I Am the Potter Who Was.” Ohr spent much of his life courting scandal and controversy and his ceramics did not sell very well in his lifetime. His ceramics’ queer twisted shapes with random pinches and extreme glazes did not find a significant market while he was alive but he is now considered a modernist pioneer in ceramics.

George E. Ohr ceramics at Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

The IP Casino Gallery was showing a juried exhibit, “Echoes of Ohr,” a survey of contemporary ceramic arts with nods to the Ohr legacy.

The west side of the campus features the most audacious architecture – three metallic pods which house some of the Ohr collection and a multi-story City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics with working artist studios and kilns. The Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center anchors the north end of the museum campus. The Pleasant Reed house was a preserved 19th century Biloxi house that had served as the home of Pleasant Reed and his family in the African American community of Biloxi. The house and its furnishings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and a replica of the house was built to replace it. Currently, the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center features an exhibit, “City Within a City: African American Culture in Biloxi,” documenting Biloxi’s vibrant and self-sufficient African American community after World War II.

As much as I appreciate George Ohr and the offerings within the museum, the main draw of the Ohr-O’Keefe for me is still the distinctive Frank Gehry architecture along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I keep returning to see how these quirky buildings continue to dance with the landscape of live oaks looking out to the Gulf and the pine forests of the barrier islands. It’s a pleasure to come across the humble museum campus amid the high-rise casinos that dominate the Beach Boulevard drive. I continue to be surprised at how much of the property along the stretch of highway remains vacant since the hurricane. I recall the grand residences that once lined this scenic drive.

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art; Biloxi, Mississippi

The Ohr-O’Keefe is a gem on many levels and ought to be a destination for lovers of art and architecture. It seems that the facility has been under-supported and under-appreciated in its community. George Ohr famously said, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come.” Let’s hope that his namesake museum will not have to wait so long to come into its own well-deserved prominence.

Peace and Justice

The Sunday morning church bells were pealing as I walked away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, but the words that were ringing in my ears were those of artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar:

We’re having a national conversation right now about public monuments. And in this discussion … we have this sort of binary conversation about keeping these sculptures up or taking them down. And I actually think that that binary conversation is problematic. I think there is another possibility, and I think that possibility has to do with bringing in new work that speaks in conversation with this old work. It’s about a willingness to confront a very difficult past…

Kaphar made that statement as part of a radio interview on NPR and I thought it was perhaps the most coherent and rational statement I’ve yet heard about our ongoing conversation about controversial history and what to do with the monuments that commemorate it.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known – unfortunately – as “the lynching memorial,” is an important project of Equal Justice Initiative (www.museumandmemorial.eji.org), founded by Montgomery-based attorney Bryan Stevenson. It is an outdoor memorial to over 4000 known African American lynching victims between the years 1877 and 1950. The names (or lynching date, if the name is unknown) are engraved on over 800 slabs representing each U.S. county in which a lynching is documented during those years.

The Memorial sits on a six-acre site overlooking Montgomery. The main structure is entered after taking a winding path up a hill with informational narratives at regular intervals. Upon entering the main structure, the first slabs sit at eye level. There are clearly visible names of counties and states and the victims and lynching date for each. Gradually, the floor begins a gradual rake and the slabs hang over the visitors’ heads, suggesting the hanging bodies of the victims. It’s not hard to recall Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, in which the wall starts slowly at your feet and gradually towers over the viewer as one walks deeper into the war.

At one end of the Memorial for Peace and Justice is a water wall with words of comfort and dedication. This, too, reminds one of the Civil Rights Memorial, a few blocks away at the Southern Poverty Law Center, also by Maya Lin, with its water rushing over the framing wall and the black granite table marking the deaths of Civil Rights martyrs (www.splcenter.org.what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/history).  

In the middle of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a peaceful grassy hill. Stopping there, one sees the skyline of modern Montgomery through the slabs – even catching a glimpse of the Capitol dome at times. Standing there, one is surrounded by the silence of the victims memorialized in the stark slabs hanging from every side.

As one leaves the memorial, there are rows of identical slabs for each county represented in the Memorial, waiting to be claimed by the designated county when it has documented its movement to rectify the issues that lead to the lynchings within its borders.

In my home city of Birmingham, a monument to Confederate veterans has stood for 113 years in the city’s Linn Park downtown. For the past several years, its base was blocked by a black plywood barrier erected by a previous city administration. The fate of that monument has been tied up in legal battles for years. Here’s my modest proposal: Take down the plywood box, keep the Confederate monument where it’s been for over a century, and hang Jefferson County’s slab of lynching victims beside it. Let them interact and let the observers begin to interpret and heal.

In downtown Montgomery, in the entertainment district now called “The Alley,” one may find the EJI’s “Legacy Museum,” which places our national lynching history in more context and documentation. Both the Memorial and the Legacy Museum are touching and transformative memorials to a history that is too often overlooked.

Too often, I find that our national history is narrowed down to the victimized and the guilty. The EJI’s well-documented and striking efforts seem to go beyond that — to spotlight uncomfortable history without placing blame on the descendants whose hands were not involved.

I hope for a day when we might remember our history without being forced to wallow in it.

Montgomery is a city full of history, museums, and memorials – to the Confederacy, to Civil Rights, … to Hank Williams. These latest powerful Montgomery memorials document a history that we must never forget. But neither should we wallow in the shame and guilt of it. We should – together – work toward a future in which the sins of the past may never be forgotten, but neither should they be exploited to expedite and fuel the sins of the future.

Artist Titus Kaphar has a powerful piece called “Doubt” in the Legacy Museum. He should have the last word:

I think one of our challenges is that we sort of consistently try to make public sculpture in a way that it’s a sentence with a period at the end. And inevitably it’s not — it’s a comma, and there should be a clause after that. 

“Peace, Be Still”

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Birmingham

The overly attributed quip, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there,” does not apply to me.

I remember the ‘60s very well but I was too young, at the time, to be “really there.” I remember the decade as energetic and often frightening with assassinations, bombings, riots, Vietnam, constant protests, and the birth and maturation of an array of social movements. It was also a time of great music and free-wheeling fashion. It was scary at times, but it was also hopeful with optimism, a desire for change, and a constant moving forward toward an idealistic place that seemed inevitable and just around the bend.

Now, we’re again in challenging times with mercurial instability and megalomania occupying the White House. I cringe with shame and embarrassment for my country at incessant narcissistic White House tweets from a cowardly bully that are mistaken for policy statements. We are in the midst of crises with an ongoing stream of mass shootings, a commander-in-chief who demeans women, environmental disaster, an embattled education system, the complicity of our congress with corrupt insurance companies threatening our health care, a growing racial divide, and a protective executive relationship with  a corrupt, repressive, and murderous Saudi regime. Authoritarian dictators are given respect and deference by a White House that insults our nation’s trusted democratic allies. The NRA has abandoned any lofty Constitutional goals it claimed to espouse and become, instead, an enabler of domestic terrorism.

These days, we seem lacking in the optimism and hope that characterized the ‘60s. Mass protests, which had an impact during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, now seem naïve and pointless in the current environment saturated with meaningless social media. I’m embarrassed when I hear the same tired chants and cheers – even when I agree with the sentiments that inspire them.

In Lanford Wilson’s great play, Fifth of July, June Talley – a former ‘60s activist – tells her daughter, “You’ve no idea the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”

Later in the play, one of June’s fellow sojourners from the activist days says to that same daughter, “How straight do you have to be to see that nothing is going to come from it? But don’t knock your mother, ’cause she really believed that ‘Power to the People’ song, and that hurts.”

As much as I try to be engaged in progressive change, I grow weary of the constant divide and the shouting from every side. The message with every issue seems to be Either you’re totally with us or you’re against us. There seems to be no acceptable middle zone anymore. Civility, compromise, and diplomacy are forgotten relics in contemporary social discourse. It’s trickling down from the top in our country.


As regular readers of this journal know, I put a good bit of thought into my annual holiday card – trying to find the best reflection of where my life and thoughts are each year when the holidays roll around. I have written in the past about the “brief meditation” of signing and addressing each card and remembering the recipient. My Christmas card this year bears a simple message: “Peace, Be Still.” It’s a quote from the Bible, from the Gospel of Mark’s version of Jesus calming the stormy sea.

I wanted to change up my Christmas card a bit this year. Instead of the exterior scenes I usually use (most often of small country churches), I used an interior from the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. The cathedral was empty on the Christmas Eve morning when I photographed it last year – a peaceful place to relax and retreat. As I moved around the space, taking photographs, a couple of women arrived to prepare for Christmas Eve mass.

In these times of stress, I seek quiet times and calm – a time to reflect. I try not to add to the raucous din that surrounds me.

At this holiday season, it seems more than ever that everybody needs to take a moment to regroup, to be still – to focus on the positive things in our lives and try to tune out the negativity that bombards us. In doing so, we may be better able to address the adversity and strife that surround us with clear heads and rational responses in the year ahead – a year for which I am reserving a great deal of optimism.

Current challenges may be resolved while new challenges inevitably emerge but we all need to step back and re-energize on occasion. The holidays seem the ideal time to pause and reflect.

May our holidays be happy and peaceful ones. May our new year be a time of hope and progress.

Peace on Earth. “Peace, be still.”

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Birmingham