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.

Impending December

Thirty years ago, as the first day of December eased in on a cold midnight, I was sitting at the City Pier on the New London, Connecticut, waterfront. I was in the former whaling center and seaport on tour with a theatre group and had just completed a long and difficult work day in a long and occasionally demanding schedule.

As late and as cold as it was, I had walked through the quiet, empty town toward the water in a light snow to let the frigid sea air clear my head. The walk to the waterfront includes a charming statue of an earnest Eugene O’Neill as a boy, writing intently on his tablet. The acclaimed playwright spent boyhood summers at his family’s Monte Cristo Cottage a couple of miles down the harbor.

As I sat at the harbor, I listened to George Winston’s classic 1982 album December on my Walkman. That music became a frequent companion on the fall 1989 tour. It relaxed me in particularly stressful times.

As each December approaches, I find myself thinking about the soothing music of December. It speaks to the title’s power of suggestion that I only think about that album when December approaches; I would never think of listening to it after New Year’s Eve. Winston’s meditative solo piano perfectly captures the mood of the winter holiday season with its long dark nights, bittersweet memories, pensive moods, and festive gatherings.

December is upon us in this Thanksgiving week of late November. Holiday decorations are beginning to pop up in neighborhoods and stores are already a frenzy of commercial Christmas “cheer.” I plan to find my Christmas wreath at this Saturday’s Pepper Place Market in downtown Birmingham. My Christmas cards are boxed up and ready to be taken to the post office on December 1.

Everything in Alabama will seem to grind to a standstill on the afternoon of November 30 as the annual Iron Bowl football game between Alabama and cross-state rival Auburn occurs – the 84th time that this rivalry has been played. For years it was played in Birmingham’s Legion Field; now it alternates between Tuscaloosa and Auburn. It is as entrenched as any holiday tradition.

My annual December trip to the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay is on hold. I took too long to figure out my dates and there seem to be no rooms at the inn. I will keep working on it, and I could always go somewhere else – or even take a room somewhere near Point Clear – but the pull of the Grand is strong for me this time of year and I am determined to still make it happen. Memories of Spanish moss hanging from holly trees on the lagoon are always a strong pull.

Another piece of music that comes to mind around December is Joni Mitchell’s classic, “River,” which writer Dan Chiasson calls “the song that, almost two thousand years late, made the Christmas season bearable.” “It’s coming on Christmas,” Mitchell sings, “They’re cutting down trees / Putting up reindeer / Singing songs of joy and peace // Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on …”

I prefer my rivers unfrozen, but the sentiment is clear. As dear as the Christmas holiday is, it can also be a time of stress and tension and feelings of loss. Whenever I hear somebody say, “I’ll be glad when the holidays are over,” I cringe a little.

But I get it, too.

In the meantime, I will celebrate the holidays and – like my mother’s dog, Lulu – I will seek out my warm spot in the sunshine until I find a river I can sail away on.

Waning October

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Proust. Or maybe it’s because I watched part of a Bob Ross marathon on public television over the weekend. Maybe it’s because I heard Prince’s “When Doves Cry” night before last. Whatever it is, as I began to winterize my back yard yesterday, I found myself more attuned than usual to detail and the melancholy of changing seasons.

October was more manic than usual in this Tennessee River Valley region of north Alabama. There were drought-like conditions for a while, accompanied by record-breaking heat. Now the weather is more seasonal, but there is minimal fall color on local foliage. This will be a year when it rains, leaves turn brown, wind comes, and leaves blow down.

I have watched the weather closely, wanting to keep house plants outside as long as possible before moving them indoors. With a first freeze forecast for this weekend, I decided it was time to pull the trigger and move things in.

Only a few things needed to be brought inside this year. The ponytail palm I have kept for twenty years still resides snugly in the concrete pot inherited from my grandfather. A philodendron, remaining from a memorial arrangement of plants sent to my father’s funeral, is being tricky; a few months outdoors seemed to be reviving the plant to its former glory but it has dwindled again. It’s hoped that a few months being pampered in a sunny spot just inside the back door will revive it.

The braided ficus now hovers over the philodendron, standing again in its cold weather spot welcoming anyone entering through the back door. It will probably shed leaves for a while due to the shock of being moved from outdoors to inside – a distance of perhaps eight feet – but it always recovers quickly, brightening up the indoors during the drearier months.

An unexpected import to my library was a container full of basil that has spent the warm weather just outside the back door. I usually allow nature to take its course with the backyard container herbs but the basil is still so healthy that it was moved in, taking a spot in a back window. It’s on the table where I like to eat my summer tomato sandwiches, dressed with basil from those same plants. I’m challenged to see how long into the chilly season I can keep home-grown fresh basil and pesto.

Most of the outdoor plants that will remain outdoors seem oblivious to the encroaching cold. My grandfather’s wild rose, planted along the back walk, has taken advantage of the milder weather to sprout a whole new bunch of blooms and buds. Based on weather forecasts, those may be gone by this time next week. The hydrangea is beginning to retreat. For several years now it has refused to bloom. Every year at this time I vow to do the needed soil amendments to help it flower again next year and every year at this time I regret putting it off for another year.

The redbud, which had such an impressive growth spurt over the summer, has already dropped all but two of its heart-shaped leaves. Based on the success of the little tree this year, I am finally confident that it will survive to flourish next year. Meanwhile, the camellia seems healthy and strong and should be showing crimson blooms within the weeks to come. A fragrant tea olive, planted outside the back gate, is putting on a final fall show of delicate white blossoms.

There was no time to pursue many of my desired garden goals this year, but the one I committed to was nurturing a pot-grown wild rose at my back gate (opposite the tea olive). Over the years, I have tried to train a flowering plant to climb over my back fence and gate. Jasmine never took the hint, but this wild rose, which has become a fast-growing and wildly prolific mainstay at the back gate, is taking well to being trained. It doesn’t look like much now, but I look forward to the two or three weeks in early spring when it blossoms and creates a sweetly fragrant welcome when I arrive home.

Even as the yard is made ready for cooler weather, I make mental notes of changes and improvements to be made come spring. These thoughts of next year propel me forward to face the long nights and dreary cold days ahead.

 

Fall Feast in the Shoals

The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.

It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.

Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.

James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.

The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.

After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to ­Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.

The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide  surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.

By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”

I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.

The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had  the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.

The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.

The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.

Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.

A Legacy of Cotton

Lincoln Mill, built in 1900 near downtown Huntsville, Alabama, was once the largest cotton mill in a town that thrived on cotton production in the first half of the 20th Century. When Lincoln Mill shut down in 1955, the buildings were repurposed to house NASA offices. Now, the remaining Mill #3 has become a base for innovative technology and other concerns that seek to define Huntsville in the 21st Century.

Remnants of the historic mill village remain in structures like Lincoln School, the mill commissary, and numerous residential sites – duplexes and single-family houses – originally built to house mill workers and management.

Lincoln Mill #3

Upon moving to Huntsville, I was intrigued by the remaining evidence of the area’s cotton production that was scattered throughout the area. Not that long ago, the Memorial Parkway / Highway 231/431 corridors were still lined with significant fields of cotton. Today, most of those fields have disappeared – victims of urban growth and development – but at this time of year, and despite semi-drought conditions, I am heartened when the fluffy white cotton bursts forth and what remains of the local cotton harvest commences.

Cotton production in the South has been stigmatized by a regrettable history. For me, however, it still represents a part of my personal family history; my foreparents in north Alabama worked their own modest farms without the assistance of enslaved people and, into the 20th Century, without assistance from anyone outside immediate family. My Grandfather Harbison worked his family farm until the 1940s when he moved his family and his skills to the steel-based factories of Birmingham.

I vividly recall a trip, as a young boy, to visit relatives in Cullman County in mid-October. It was cotton-picking time and my older cousins strapped a sack over my shoulder and led me into their family field to help pick cotton. I probably wasn’t out there for a very long time, but I have always cherished the memory of the time I helped with the harvest of such an important and enduring crop. That brief adventure provides a connection to my family’s farming legacy.

Decades later, in 2012, I was one of many volunteers from far-flung places who helped to maintain a seven-acre field of organic cotton near Trinity, Alabama, in Morgan County. When I went there, my job was to weed. Chemicals were not being used with the crop and weeds were prodigious. It was an experiment by the Florence-based fashion designers Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid to gauge the feasibility of growing their own totally organic cotton crop in north Alabama. I’m not sure of the conclusions of the experiment, but for me the yield produced one of my favorite tee-shirts of all time and a scarf which has been repurposed as a table runner. .


Holtz Leather Co. – exterior

Holtz Leather Company (www.holtzleather.com) is located in the former Lincoln Commissary, not far from the campus where I teach. The recently renovated 1920’s-era building is also home to Preservation Co., a family-owned architectural antiques business. I wish I had more excuses to stop by the Holtz retail shop because each visit makes me happy.

Holtz is a family-owned business offering high quality leather goods. The showroom smells of leather and displays an array of distinctive and authentic wares. Belts, wallets, bags, portfolios, purses, and journals are among the distinctive designs available from Holtz Leather. The company catalog is itself a thing of craft and beauty, as readable as a compelling piece of literature.

I first came to Holtz to purchase engraved journals for my teenaged nephew and a couple of favorite girls who are the daughters of friends. As is the case with all good gifts, I yearned for a Holtz journal of my own.

Instead, I stopped off at the Holtz showroom when I needed a new leather belt. The sales associate led me to choose my waist size, my color, my buckle, and the monogram for the loop. I left with a custom belt, crafted while I watched. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

Ian finishing a belt

Holtz Leather Co. – interior

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days ago, I needed another belt and went through the custom process again with an equally attentive associate, Ian. The Holtz showroom is transformative; one looks out the expansive street-side windows and imagines the days of the factory workers whose long and hard labor had such an impact on the local economy. At the same time, Holtz employees like Ian are exalting the handmade traditions of the place with their own skills and returning a small slice of Huntsville to some semblance of its admirable, but disappearing, roots.


About forty-five miles southwest of Huntsville, Red Land Cotton (www.redlandcotton.com) in Moulton, Alabama, is an even more direct tribute to Southern cotton culture. The Yeager family grows and monitors its own cotton fields in northwest Alabama to create luxurious heirloom linens that are totally produced in the American South. Their slogan is “Heirloom Offerings from Our Farm to Your Home” and their story, lovingly presented through videos and essays on their company website, is a hopeful and inspiring one.

Red Land Cotton linens are grown and ginned in Alabama, spun and woven in South Carolina, and finished in Georgia, using minimal processing and chemicals. Finally, the cotton returns to Moulton to be sewn, sold, and shipped to consumers across the country. Red Land collections include bed and bath linens – including linens for baby beds, quilts, and a line of women’s loungewear.

Mark Yeager was inspired to produce heirloom linens by memories of the sheets he slept on as a boy at his grandmother’s house. These memories led to taking a 1920s heirloom bed sheet, sending it off for an engineering analysis of its construction, and producing a thicker yarn than one finds in contemporary store-bought sheets.

Red Land Cotton linens have only been available for a few years but I have heard enough good things about them that I decided to invest in a set recently. The package arrived promptly and the packaging was beautiful. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been excited about a new set of bed linens before but the Red Land Cotton experience felt special.

Once the sheets were washed and put on the bed, they did not disappoint. They are sturdy and comfortable and lend themselves to a rich and deep night’s sleep.


With the holidays soon to be upon us, it’s sometimes hard to find quality items from local purveyors using local workers and materials. The quality family-owned businesses like Holtz Leather and Red Land Cotton give assurance that such companies are still out there if we just keep our eyes and ears open. These fresh new businesses, built on tradition and on the relics of the Southern cotton legacy, are forward-thinking treasures to be supported.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Want My Sidewalk 2019

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

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

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

Friday, August 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 25

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

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

You must see it.

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

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

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

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

And our troubles and trials are over

All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend

With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Never grow old, never grow old

In a land where we’ll never grow old

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

Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

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

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

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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