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.

The Vine and Olive Colony

Demopolis, Alabama – the “City of the People” – was founded in 1817 at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers by French Bonapartist exiles and other French who had fled the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791-1803.

The founding Frenchmen’s original charter was to create a “Vine and Olive Colony,” growing olive trees and grapes for wine-making. They were misinformed that the Canebrake region around what is now Demopolis was suitable for those crops. The vine and olive experiment was short-lived and most of the French settlers moved on to other locations. The few who remained assimilated into the area’s plantation and agricultural economy and Demopolis, despite its shaky beginnings, went on to be a flourishing center of the Black Belt in the nineteenth century.

The story of Alabama’s vine and olive colony of French expatriates had “legs” and was reimagined and enhanced, becoming an integral part of Alabama lore and mythology. The Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis has been recounted in numerous ways in fiction and was even a climactic plot point of the John Wayne film, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949).

When I first met the artist Julyan Davis (www.julyandavis.com) in the 1980s, he was a recent art school graduate from England who had come to Alabama to learn more about the Vine and Olive colony. He had read about it in books from his novelist father’s library, particularly the fictionalized version found in Carl Carmer’s 1934 “creative non-fiction” novel, Stars Fell on Alabama.

Although Julyan is a painter, he is also a skilled writer whose earliest interest in the Vine and Olive Colony was literary; he travelled to Demopolis with plans to write about it and its unique and romanticized history.

I met Julyan at a New Year’s Eve party in Tuscaloosa that I attended with one of my good friends, Madeleine, whom Julyan later married. Julyan’s travels are far-flung but he more or less settled in the American South over the past three decades and much of his painting focuses on Southern landscapes, overlooked architecture, and abandoned interiors. As a painter, his interests often complement the interests of photographer and Alabama native William Christenberry, whose life-long work in photography, painting, sculpture, and assemblage chronicles a vanishing and overlooked South and southern landscape.

Like Christenberry, Julyan explores the beauty in the decay of the forgotten detritus. He paints proud buildings in disrepair and humble buildings that retain their dignity. He paints cascading Carolina waterfalls in their primitive majesty and Maine seashores in their rustic authenticity.

My favorite of his paintings is an early one that I first saw in a gallery in Birmingham. It is a traffic light at a desolate crossroads somewhere in Hale County, Alabama. I haven’t seen that painting in a long time, but I have it memorized, I think, and it’s always just at the edge of my memory.

Over the years I stayed in touch with Julyan and followed his art and career as he and Madeleine lived in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Highlands and Asheville, North Carolina. The marriage ended but Julyan and I have stayed in tentative contact over time.

Julyan’s literary vent did not ultimately tackle the Vine and Olive Colony but a story-telling sensibility informs his paintings.  Perhaps his most heralded project is his on-going “Appalachian Murder Ballads” series of paintings inspired by Appalachian folksongs of Celtic origin. He takes the ancient texts and places them in modern settings – trailer parks, abandoned factories, river beds and railroad trestles, burning buildings.

A few years ago, Julyan decided to return to his early infatuation with the Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis and Marengo County, but as a painter, not a writer. He began a series of “Demopolis” paintings focused on the Symbolist character of Madame Raoul, the Marchioness de Sinabaldi. The moody series of “Demopolis” paintings captures the loneliness of a European expatriate transported to a wild and foreign place. My favorite of the series, “Son premier soin,” shows a lone Madame Raoul from behind, wearing an Empire gown and dragging cane through a canebrake. She holds an axe to her side. It is an evocative painting of stoic solitude.

On the occasion of Demopolis’s bicentennial, Julyan Davis took his Demopolis paintings to be displayed in the town that inspires them. Lyon Hall, an 1853 Greek Revival mansion near the center of town, is a mansion that is maintained but not “restored” and was the ideal site for the exhibition of the “Demopolis” series.

Julyan gave a talk about his work and the history of the “Demopolis” paintings on Friday night of the bicentennial event to a packed house in Lyon Hall’s double parlors. The paintings were hung throughout the mansion’s first floor, providing a moody accent to the expansive rooms of the venerable house.

Julyan Davis is a fascinating raconteur with a dry wit who takes pleasure in discussing the impulses that fuel his art. He talked about how bringing these Demopolis paintings to the place that first inspired his Southern sojourn seemed to be a way of bringing his career “full circle.”  He talked about why the Southern landscape entrances him. 

I was only able to be in Demopolis for the opening of the exhibition and for Julyan’s talk but the next day Julyan set up his easel in Lyon Hall and painted in the house while visitors enjoyed the finished paintings and the place itself.

As I left Lyon Hall that evening, I walked the grounds, intrigued by the dependencies that surround the house. The rustic charm of these outbuildings competes with the grandeur of the stately main house, where the sounds of the gathering that had assembled for the art filtered out through a peaceful late-summer dusk.

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Notes from Neutral Ground

  Wednesday, 9/7/2017: As I cross from Mississippi into Louisiana, WWOZ – “the most indispensable radio station in the country” – plays the instantly recognizable opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and my spirits lift immediately (www.wwoz.org).

I am traveling to New Orleans to present a paper on Joan Didion’s California at the American Literature Association’s symposium, “Regionalism and Place in American Literature” (www.americanliteratureassociation.org).

I love the Stones and am rocking out and singing along behind the steering wheel as I pull into the Louisiana Welcome Center north of Slidell. However, since I am aware of criticism over the past several years that WWOZ has sometimes strayed from its mission of promoting local New Orleans and Louisiana music, I wonder how “Gimme Shelter” fits into the scenario.

I don’t much care at the moment since I am immersed in one of my favorite songs from arguably my favorite rock ’n’ roll band ever. I muse that it may be a reference to the fact that Texans and west Louisianans are seeking dry ground after Hurricane Harvey or that Floridians and others on the east coast are fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma. For either group, New Orleans is a place that is not in the crosshairs of the storm this time.

Instead of calling them “medians,” New Orleanians refer to the grassy strips between lanes on their broad streets as “neutral ground.”  On St. Charles Avenue, for example, the grassy area in the middle that the streetcars travel is “neutral ground.” I realize that in the current tropical storm scenario, the whole city of New Orleans is “neutral ground” with visitors coming in from all directions.

The Stones wrap up and immediately the track segues to Merry Clayton’s solo version of “Gimme Shelter” and it all makes sense. Clayton, a New Orleans native, provides the fierce back-up vocals on the Stones’ original of the song, challenging Mick Jagger’s dominance in the process. Her solo version, recorded a few years later with a shrieking horn back-up, is a skillful and equally naked vocal performance. You must give it a listen.

Getting out of the car, I am approached by an agitated man who tells me to give him gas money to get back to Beaumont. I am inclined to help him but I feel a need to engage him for a moment to see if he’s really a flood victim or if he’s scamming.

As soon as I start to talk, he says, “If you ain’t gonna help me, bye!”

“I just need to …”

“If you ain’t gonna help me, BYE!”

“But …”

“BYE!” and he’s gone, approaching another car just pulling up.

A half hour later I am at the Hotel Monteleone, check into my room (which happens to be across the hall from the Tennessee Williams Suite), and unpack.

There is a little time before the symposium’s registration and opening reception so I go to Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley off Jackson Square (www.faulknerhousebooks.com). The proprietor is talking to a group of European customers. One is particularly interested in reading Faulkner and asks what he should start with. I walk past and whisper “As I Lay Dying” to the proprietor and the conversation continues as I browse.

Outside, a bored young tour guide stops in the alley and I hear him say, “The writer William Faulkner lived here. Also, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here.”

“That’s not true,” the proprietor says to his customers. “Faulkner lived here, yes. Tennessee Williams, no.”

The ill-informed tour moves on.

“Should I chase him down?” I ask, joking.

“If I chased down every tour guide who gave false information in that alley, I’d never get any work done,” is the reply.

I find the book I am looking for at Faulkner House, pay, and am leaving as the European guy decides to try a book of Faulkner’s short stories (good move).

I stop by Napoleon House, one of my favorite spots in the French Quarter, and text my friend Deb that I am there; it is one of her favorite spots, too. Her response includes the terrible news that one of her good friends, a woman in her forties that I also know, has died.

I absorb that piece of sad news and move back to the Monteleone, symposium check-in, and the reception.

After a quick appearance at the reception, I get dressed for dinner. I am going to Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. It is my habit on New Orleans trips to try to have dinner at one of the New Orleans classics, at one of my favorites, and at some place new.

Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) is one of the stalwart classics that I have never dined at. After recently viewing a charming documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, I decided I could not delay a trip to Commander’s any longer so this will be my first visit to the turquoise landmark. 

Commander’s vaunted hospitality is alive and well and I am greeted warmly by every staff member as I make my way to my table in an elegant dining room. I have often said I would like to write a column or book about the “solo diner” and I always find that the best restaurants in New Orleans have no problem making a solo diner feel comfortable. I judge a restaurant partially by its treatment of solo diners and, with only one notable exception, New Orleans comes through splendidly.

The tempting menu is full of tasty offerings, making it hard to choose what to have from Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s selections. The waiter, upon learning that Birmingham is my home town, asks me if I know the Bright Star in Bessemer where the late summer “Taste of New Orleans” event features a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant. I tell him that I know the Bright Star very well and have attended Chef McPhail’s dinners there.

Finally, I order a group of “tried and trues.” As I choose a meal of turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, and bread pudding soufflé, the waiter smiles and says “a Paul Prudhomme meal.” Prudhomme sealed his reputation at Commander’s where his tenure preceded Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and McPhail. He introduced Cajun influences to Commander’s – making Cajun food a national sensation – before going on to open his iconic restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the Quarter.

The dinner is lovely and the ambiance is magnificent but I have a long day of presenting and listening tomorrow and, leaving Commander’s, I retreat to my room to practice my presentation one more time before sleep.


Thursday, 9/8/2017: After the symposium’s opening plenary session, in which it is announced that a number of presenters cannot make it to New Orleans due to impending weather, I present my Didion paper at the “California” session at 10:30. It goes well, I think. I field a lot of questions during the Q and A that follows.

Lunch follows that, and then sessions that stretch to 7:30.  Papers on the “undead” seem to be trending; these I avoid. There is impressive scholarship at the symposium and I hear a lot of good papers, but by the time the day wraps up I am famished and have made no dinner plans.

I remember that I have time to get to Willa Jean (www.willajean.com), the new-ish restaurant (2015) in the Warehouse District that I learned about at a recent Alabama Chanin event in Florence. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Kelly Fields, who named it after her grandmother, and the general manager is Leah Richard, who I met and was terribly amused by at the Florence dinner. It is part of the ubiquitous John Besh Restaurant Group of New Orleans restaurants that impressively cover New Orleans like kudzu covers the South.

Willa Jean is a shiny spot, sleek and chic with wood accents. The menu is inventive and fun, with offerings like Cookies + Milk and a wo’Manwich and an impressive selection of juice-based drinks. An array of enticing pastries is available just inside. I opt for the WJ Burger, an Angus beef burger with herb/pecorino fries. The burger is offered with American cheese but I ask to substitute the menu’s pimento cheese for American. The dessert menu provides too many tasty options and I finally choose a chocolate pudding generously sprinkled with crushed pecans.

I notice how young the wait staff – the entire staff – is at Willa Jean. It’s not unusual to see older waiters in New Orleans where it is a career choice rather than a part-time job, but Willa Jean is full of attractive fresh young faces. Looking around the room, I realize that I am at least 25 years older than everybody in sight. As I leave, a three-some arrives that looks my age (or older) and I am relieved as I decide to walk back through the Central Business District and to the hotel.

Streets that used to be dark and somewhat deserted in the CBD are now bustling, with new restaurants and other establishments on almost every block. In a late summer evening, there are groups of people chatting and walking, going into lofts and coming out for a night in the city.

My first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans was a mere four and a half months after the flood when many areas were still without power and some places looked like the flooding had been days, rather than months, ago. It is heartening to see what much of the city has become (although there is still plenty of recovery left to do) on each visit back.

I get back to the Quarter and consider going in search of live music but I realize that the Quarter on a Friday night has become, for me, as depressing as a New Year’s Eve party – too many people too desperate to have too good a time. Maybe it’s my age. I retreat into the more staid Monteleone where the crowd at the Carousel Lounge is getting geared up for a late evening of carousing.


Saturday, 9/9/2017: It’s the final day of the symposium and I start the day at the second of two sessions on New Orleans regional literature with impressive papers by college students – one on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and another focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

At another session that I am looking forward to, I am disappointed. The session is supposed to deal with native cultures in the Americas and the four presenters have topics of interest to me. The first paper deals with Nahua structures in central Mexico and the presenter has time to give her entire presentation. However, the second presenter announces that she is an Elder of the Apache Nation and that she is going to use her status as entitlement to go beyond her allotted time.

It is a shocking moment and the moderator should step in but doesn’t.  Everyone sits politely as the Elder inserts lengthy asides and largely toots her own horn of accomplishments and vents her anger at the plights of the native cultures. It is the sole uncollegial moment in what is a very collegial symposium. When the Elder finally reels herself in, there are only minutes left for the final two presenters to sketchily synopsize what their work entails.

The last two papers – one about hymns written in indigenous languages and another about tribal performance as theatre – were of particular interest to me and I am sorry I am not allowed to hear them due to a brazen and unprofessional power play.

At a reception later, I have the opportunity to tell the presenter who was supposed to talk about her hymn research that I had wanted to hear her paper. “Thank you. I wanted to present it,” she graciously replies. I admire her calm in the situation. I am livid still.

After lunch, I sneak away to my favorite New Orleans gallery up the street from the hotel. Elliott Gallery (www.elliottgallery.com) is owned by Catherine Martens Betz, who is knowledgeable and pleasant. It is at Elliott Gallery that I first learned about and developed a great affection for the French abstract artist, James Coignard (1925-2008), who had a studio for a time in New Orleans. Elliott Gallery offers the largest collection of his work in the world and I must visit it whenever I am in New Orleans.

On this visit, Catherine is closely watching the weather radar since Irma has not yet made the predicted northward turn. If it doesn’t turn, it could make a beeline for New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast. I have noticed the same thing and we commiserate over that anxiety.

After my visit with Elliott Gallery, I return to the symposium and one of the sessions I most look forward to about “Rough South Regionalism,” including papers about Harry Crews and Larry Brown, has been canceled due to the participants being in the projected path of Irma.

The closing reception includes a session with the editors of four regional academic journals and the opportunity to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues. By this time also, Irma is making the predicted turn northward.

I am asked for restaurant recommendations for future trips to New Orleans and I highly recommend Upperline, among others.

“What sets Upperline apart?” I am asked.

“Well,” I answer, “the menu is outstanding but I’d have to say that what makes it unique is JoAnn.”

What I do not mention is that I have a reservation at Upperline tonight (www.upperline.com). JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline, is always present at the restaurant. It is full of artwork she has collected – most of it New Orleans-themed – and she circulates among the diners, seemingly interested in everyone’s story, throughout the evening. She glides through the restaurant as if it is her own private salon; in ways, I guess it is.  I try to make an Upperline dinner a feature of every visit to New Orleans.

Andrew Thornton is the Upperline chef, but the menu is very evocative of JoAnn. She is a fan of garlic so a “Garlic Festival” is a menu feature each summer (including garlic in the dessert). Thomas Jefferson is a hero so a Jefferson dinner is a recurring event and the menu is always peppered with dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. Dorothy Parker-themed cocktails are featured on the drinks menu. 

The menu is highly influenced by Creole cooking styles and I have never had a bad bite at Upperline. Tonight I stay traditional, ordering Oysters St. Claude as an appetizer. My entrée of Sauteed Drum Meuniere is on a bed of succulent cooked greens and cornbread. For dessert, I order a pecan encrusted Crème Brulee.

As I wait for my cab, a waiter asks me where I’m visiting from. I tell him I live in Huntsville but Birmingham is “home.” His immediate response is “Frank Stitt.” He’s a fan of the Birmingham chef and we discuss Highlands Bar and Grill’s perpetual James Beard nomination as Best Restaurant.

About that time, JoAnn walks up and I say, “And we also need to figure out what we need to do to get JoAnn the James Beard Restaurateur of the Year award.” She has been a finalist or semi-finalist many times but, like Highlands, she’s never taken home the prize. Anyone who has ever dined at Upperline knows she deserves it.


Sunday, 9/10/2017: I decide to check out early since I have a long drive ahead with a stop in Birmingham. The bellman who takes my bags down tells me that most of the new guests arriving since Friday are people from Florida, escaping Irma.

“I pray for them,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s not headed our way. We’ve had our turn with that.”

I tell him that maybe for those taking shelter in New Orleans, the way New Orleans has sprung back will be an encouragement for whatever they might be returning to in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“Takes a lot of time, lot of patience,” he says. “They’ve had it before, too.” 

It’s a glorious morning in New Orleans. I take a photo of the Esplanade neutral ground as I leave the Quarter. I drop by Willa Jean, grab an almond mini-bundt cake and café au lait for the road, and get onto I-10 east toward the lake, out of the city.

Shortly after I cross into Mississippi, WWOZ’s signal begins to fade away. The last song I hear is a jazz instrumental of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” I know the words and sing along:

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed,

Some forever not for better,

Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.

I turn off the radio.

By the time I get to Birmingham, Monday school closings are being announced. The remnants of Irma are headed our way. 

Sidewalk 2017

“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”

That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.

I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.

The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.

Two screenings stood out for me.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.

Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.

Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.

“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.

“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.


A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.

45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.

I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).

The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.

One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.

Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.

The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.

Sustenance

Sustenance does not come only from food and drink. In my own food memory, I am sustained by vivid recall of meals I had, with whom I had them, the service and the conversation and the ambience of the room; sometimes, though, when I remember such an event, I have only a vague recall of what I actually ate – only that the meal itself was an indispensable part of the memorable event.

Natalie Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” dinners at her Alabama Chanin factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) provide many levels of sustenance – only a part of which comes from the food and drink and the amazing chefs that create them.

My most recent Florence dinner was helmed by Asha Gomez, a native of India who has been in the United States for several decades and who has been creating food memories in Atlanta for most of the past ten years.

The Gomez “Friends of the Café” dinner on a Thursday in August anticipated the beginning of Billy Reid’s annual “Shindig” weekend. Reid, the other internationally acclaimed fashion designer based in Florence (www.billyreid.com), hosts a late summer event featuring his clothing line, concerts and screenings, and chefs and meals in various venues that create a “go to” weekend for arts, fashion, food, camaraderie, and innovation in the Shoals.

Alabama Chanin’s pre-Shindig dinner is always sold out and includes the regulars who travel from near and far for her dinner as well as fashion, food, and entertainment professionals in town for Shindig.

The sustenance comes from being in a place where forward-thinking Southerners and others are gathered together and one realizes that – despite the headlines and political turmoil and despite the international joke that Washington, D.C. has become – we are not alone.

The sustenance comes from the “Friends” events’ long-standing relationship with Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), which is the beneficiary of proceeds from most of the dinners. John T. Edge, Director of SFA, is a regular attendee at the dinners and his passionate introduction to the recent meal and to Asha Gomez was a masterful and positive statement on current events, a response to the “immigrant” issue as exemplified by Gomez, and a positive evocation of the forward-thinking and amalgamated South “just over the horizon – always just over the horizon.”

Gomez’s book on cooking, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen (Running Press, 2016), is an honestly detailed journey into her life and how her two souths, southern India and the American South, have created the sensibility of her aesthetic and cuisine. In her opening comments preceding the dinner, she balked at the word “fusion” – calling it “the other f-word.” Her food is personal, evolving from her roots in Kerala, India, and ever-expanding with the discovery of new foodways, new ingredients, and the commonalities contained therein. For Gomez, Southern fried chicken was nothing new; she brought her own strong tradition of fried chicken from Kerala.

Gomez claims both Southern India and the Southern U.S. as “home” and her food is a reflection and immersion into the rich compatibility of those shared homes, shared and unique flavorings, and Gomez’s personal interpretation of all of it.

Gomez understands why someone like me might be skeptical about Indian cuisine. I have been known to say that it is my least favorite of the international cuisines readily available in the States. I like the taste profile, the ingredients, and the spices of Indian cuisine well enough but have never been enchanted with its presentation in many Indian restaurants I have tried – usually at the urging of more enthusiastic friends. Gomez knows that the cuisine of her homeland is not represented by “the $4.99 buffets” and other iterations common to the American landscape and seeks to exalt it in a more authentically representative manner.

Sustenance comes in meeting new friends and getting better acquainted with others. My friend Cindy and I were seated at a table full of food professionals in town for Shindig. I was seated next to John T. Edge and across from Vanessa and Rick, a lovely Florence couple, and the conversation was lively and far-reaching. “I hear you’re in town to sign your 300th book,” I said to Edge. “Only 250, I think,” he blithely replied (actually, it’s over a dozen). John T. Edge’s latest, The Potlikker Papers (Penguin Press, 2017), is billed as “A Food History of the Modern South.”

Cindy was sitting beside a group of pastry chefs and other food professionals from New Orleans and the hilarity was pretty much non-stop off to my right side.

The evening commenced with hearty passed hors d’oeuvres including black pepper and black salt spiced roasted cashews, fry bread with mint chutney and quick pickled carrots, and curry chicken samosa pockets. The featured beverage, the “Muscadine Vine,” was a combination of muscadine wine, vinho verde. Prosecco, lime, and mint which successfully tamed and enhanced the tricky sweetness of muscadine wine. 

A first course of Sunday Vegetable Stew featured chunky vegetables in a lovely coconut milk base. A Kerala Fish Curry with kichidi grits and tempered mustard oil was the second offering. The fish beautifully rested on a lush bed of perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked grits and the sauce melded the flavors in a pleasing manner.

Beef Biryani was the third course, served family style. In My Two Souths, Gomez describes biryani as a “celebration dish” and describes the traveling biryani chefs of India as being similar to American barbecue pit masters. Her version for the recent dinner featured chunks of beef over rice with an intensely diverse panoply of spices and seasonings. Each course was accompanied by a complementary wine pairing.

After three very hearty and satisfying dishes, the undisputed star for the diners at my table seemed to be the dessert course. The Three Spice Carrot Cake arrived to a chorus of delighted responses and the first bite did not disappoint.

The sustenance of the evening came to fruition with the sustenance of the actual meal that brought us all together in a spirit of community and enlightenment. During Edge’s opening remarks about the Southern community being forged throughout the region by forward-thinking people of all stripes, Natalie Chanin quipped about it being found “in a former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence, Alabama.” She was right. The “Friends of the Café” events are forging that community three or four times a year at her factory and in events like Shindig.

I always leave these events with rejuvenated inspiration. I admit that I still have a somewhat wary relationship with Indian cuisine, but Asha Gomez has opened my mind and broadened my perspective. Indian restaurants may not become my first dining choice, but I will eagerly consume and find sustenance in the boundary-breaking cuisine of Asha Gomez. 

Taste of New Orleans 2017

Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com), a 2010 James Beard “American Classics” award-winner, has always had a touch of New Orleans and Creole cuisine on its daily menu. Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907 when Bessemer – just thirteen miles from downtown Birmingham – was a bustling factory town in its own right, the restaurant is designated as the oldest restaurant in Alabama. The family-owned stalwart, which has been owned and operated by Jim and Nick Koikos since 1966, is a prime example of Birmingham’s culinary tradition of Greek-flavored restaurants with deep Southern roots.

Bright Star has a classic “meat and three” menu by day and transforms into more upscale dining for evening service. It is known for its seafood. People unfamiliar with Birmingham often don’t realize that the city is only a few hours from the Gulf and daily deliveries of fresh seafood are commonplace in area restaurants. Gulf shrimp, snapper, and crab are menu features and fried snapper throats are a house specialty at the Bright Star. The Greek-style beef tenderloin is another popular offering and the restaurant has one of the best seafood gumbos around.

About five or so hours down I-59 from Bessemer is New Orleans. A Bright Star tradition since 1990 has been the annual “Night in New Orleans” event in which a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant takes over the Bright Star kitchen to offer a special menu of that chef’s Louisiana-influenced dishes.

“Night in New Orleans” usually occurs in August and past guest chefs include Jamie Shannon and Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace, Richard Bickford and Marcus Woodham of Tujaque’s, and Jared Tess of John Besh’s Luke.

For the 2017 edition, the Bright Star staff pulled out the beads and featured a special menu from Thomas Finch, Executive Chef of Cellardoor (www.cellardoornola.com), a newish restaurant in a circa-1830s building on Lafayette Street in the Central Business District.

Finch and Cellardoor are new to me but he’s a native of the New Orleans area, from the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain around Slidell.  He has done his requisite term of service in the Commander’s Palace kitchen and has picked up knowledge in culinary school and around the world.

As is usual for the New Orleans event, the Bright Star offered a two-sided menu. One side featured Bright Star classics like Greek-style snapper, Greek-style tenderloin, Greek-style chicken, and Snapper Almondine along with gumbo, crab claws, and shrimp cocktail and a selection of the restaurant’s famous pies.

Chef Finch’s offerings included appetizers of Crispy Oyster and Pork Belly Rockefeller and Soft Shell Crab Bisque, and a Creole Tomatoes and Crab Boil Mozzarella Salad. The chef’s featured entrees were Cracklin’ Crusted Red Snapper, Gulf Shrimp Lafayette, and BBQ Braised Boneless Beef Short Ribs.

I opted for the oyster and pork belly appetizer which was a pleasing line-up of crisp fried oysters and braised belly. The “Rockefeller” sauce was a modern take on a traditional classic – a green puree spread generously on the plate.

The tastes of New Orleans were prevalent in the entrée. I ordered the red snapper which was generously topped with brown butter poached lobster and presented over a creamy smooth salsa verde. This dish is where the true complexity of New Orleans cuisine was capsulized with a nice level of spice and a multitude of tastes popping forth in each bite. The crispy snapper crust complemented the mild and tasty meat and all was enhanced by the rich sweetness of the lobster.

Chef Finch’s dessert offering was Oreo Beignets. The classic tradition of the New Orleans beignet was modified with an Oreo twist, full of chocolate flavor and dusted with powdered sugar. The plate of three beignets arrived on a brandy praline sauce with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Bright Star has been a family tradition in my family for decades. It’s nice to grab the opportunity to share in the Koikos family’s “Night in New Orleans” tradition every few years. 

In a Summer without Peaches

This year’s first trip down to Chilton County to get peaches at Jimmie’s Peach Stand on Highway 82 was delayed a couple of weeks; it usually happens on Mothers’ Day weekend but when I arrived at the stand near the end of May there were few baskets left for the day. Mrs. Harrison and her son, Lynn, told me their peach crop was going to be truncated this year.

According to news reports, the same sparsity occurred throughout the 2017 Southern peach crop.  I had worried about the effect that a late brutal cold snap might have on this year’s peaches but the Harrisons assured me that it had not been that but the lack of enough cold weather in the 2016-17 winter.

So, I bought all of the peaches the stand had left that day to try to satisfy the promises I had made to people in North Alabama.

For years, I have tried to save a Jimmie’s peach to have on Labor Day night. The people at Jimmie’s said this year’s crop would likely be finished by mid-June; it usually lasts until the end of July and has been known to go deep into August. I promised to make one more trip to Chilton County before the stand closed for the season; I never made it back down but the one basket of Jimmie’s peaches I had this year was as delicious as always and quickly gone.

In the meantime, I tried to satisfy my peach cravings with the offerings of the Tennessee River Valley closer to my house and by trips to the Saturday morning Pepper Place Market and the Alabama Truck Farmers Market in Birmingham. Often, when I got to Pepper Place, the vendors with peaches were sold out early in the day due to smaller than usual supplies.

And the prices went up – sometimes drastically – for what peaches there were.

My favorite Tennessee River Valley peach vendor, Isom’s in Athens, was a no-show this year at the Thursday evening Greene Street Market that I frequent in Huntsville. I settled for a couple of other Greene Street vendors with peaches but was disappointed in the product. So far I’ve had the best luck with Reeve’s Peach Stand on highway 36 outside Hartselle.

I haven’t seen a single local fig this year but that has become commonplace. My friends with fig trees have been lamenting the lack of figs for several years now.

My time spent in my own yard has been limited during the warm season due to travel back and forth to Birmingham but the drought ended this summer and my back yard, which is usually pretty hopeless by the heat of August, is still lush and green. The grass is being cut weekly and needs it more often than that.

That very late freeze in the spring killed off some of the house plants that had already been moved outside and many of the outside plants were already in bud and bloom when the freeze got them so the schedule has been off this year. The Brunson begonia, an ancient begonia that I grew from cuttings friends gave me several years ago, was a casualty of the freeze as were a schefflera and nine-foot ficus, but other things sprang back to life, I acquired new plants, and “volunteer” plants filled the gaps.

My grandfather’s wild rose took the freeze as a minor setback and then took off with a vengeance. Its blooms and buds have occupied my back yard and occupied a small bud vase on the coffee table in the living room all season. Another wild rose at the back gate that my friends Scott and his daughter Cecilia foraged with me from the lake across the street from their house has had to be pruned back several times already; it produced exactly one bloom this year, which is exactly three less than it produced last year – but it is still a welcoming and lively green and thorny thing outside the gate.

The small beds and containers in the front yard recovered quickly after the freeze and have reemerged more prolific than ever. A pony-tail palm that I have nurtured for almost twenty years in the same concrete container given to me by my Granddaddy Harbison almost thirty years ago lives in the house most of the year and had just been moved outdoors when the freeze hit while I was out of town. I had given up on it but now it seems rejuvenated by its near-death experience and is coming back even more elegantly than before.

The four crape myrtles outside the back door were flourishing until the freeze killed them back; they have only just now recovered and begun to bloom. The Rose of Sharon – which has become a tree – is still full of white blooms but is cowered by the neighbor’s towering cherry tree which encroaches on its sunlight. My Rose of Sharon seems to be dying away slowly. I sit and wonder how to address the situation: My neighbor loves her cherry tree and it puts on a magnificent show for the two or three weeks it is in bloom in early spring. I appreciate the opportunity to share the view and shade as it overhangs my back fence.

But it is becoming very evident that my Rose of Sharon can’t compete much longer and I contemplate how to fill in the gap in the back corner of my yard that its loss will create.

The season’s greatest surprise, though, is the redbud that I picked up at a plant giveaway at Mother’s church over a year ago. It was essentially a stick in the ground with one struggling leaf when I got it. I put it in my back room with a lot of light and nursed it through the winter with no success. I moved it outside and it was trying to bud until it became another of the casualties of that late freeze.

It sat there, in its container, in the corner of the yard by the house like a dead stick because I didn’t have time to get rid of it. The guy who cuts my grass assured me that there was no hope. By June the little redbud began to bud and now it’s flourishing. I think I’ll let it winter inside for one more year and put it in the ground next spring. 

My time enjoying my little postage stamp of yard has been limited this year, but it still has provided hours of stolen pleasure with many weeks to go. I’m already hatching plans for next year’s improvements and looking forward to next summer being one with an abundance of peaches to savor; I will have to make up for my summer without peaches.

Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

  At the start of my directing classes, I often mention a quote by Sam Shepard that I read somewhere a long time ago. The playwright says that what he likes about live theatre is the same thing he likes about music: “It goes out into the air,” he says, “and it disappears.”

The first show I directed in graduate school was Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and when I was a young director starting out I said that I would be happy to direct nothing but Sam Shepard plays for the rest of my career.

That didn’t happen and I did broaden my horizons but I kept close track of Shepard as both a playwright and as an actor and looked for the opportunities to pull his plays into the classroom when I was a teacher. I only directed one more Shepard play, “Action,” for the public; in that play, a roasted Thanksgiving turkey is torn apart and a raw fish appears in a tub of water. In True West, radios, toasters, and typewriters are beaten to a pulp with a golf club. Shepard’s plays are demons to prop.

I frequently use Shepard’s plays and monologues in acting and directing classes and still harbor a desire to direct and act in his long monologue, “Killer’s Head,” in which a blind-folded guy strapped in the electric chair rambles on about horses and the blue pickup truck he plans to buy today.

I plan to pair Shepard’s True West with Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog in my fall directing class. It seems to be an interesting project for analysis – two plays exploring brothers in conflict.

When I heard about Shepard’s death, at 73, a few days ago, I felt like an old friend was gone. My first memories of Shepard are probably from reviews of off-off Broadway productions in the Village Voice in the early ‘70s. I think the first time I heard about Patti Smith was when she and Shepard had collaborated on the play Cowboy Mouth. In addition to writing plays, Shepard was an erstwhile drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders and co-wrote with Bob Dylan. His plays sounded like hallucinations of American life, of family life, of the lie of the American dream; they sounded like the kinds of statements I wanted to bring to life as a director.

When I began to read those early plays, I was not disappointed. They are full of humor and pathos, complex and transient characters who might live in an altered reality just a few blocks away, and images that never leave the memory.

Shepard’s popularity spread as much due to coolness of character and nonchalance to increasing fame as to the skill and beauty of his writing. No one else could wear jeans and a tee with such effortless style. The camera loved him and it was inevitable that he would become a strong presence in film. His face, the squint, the shock of brown hair that he constantly pushed back, the crooked teeth that seemed to add to the appeal rather than diminish it, and his lanky gait made him the logical subject for photographers like Bruce Weber (whose portrait of Shepard illustrates this essay).

He was ornery, opinionated, and cantankerous, even when he was young. He took advantage of his aging and a changing society around him to become even more of a character. “I don’t have a computer,” he said. “I don’t have an Internet. I don’t have the e-mail. I don’t have any of that shit.”

His plays are a joy for actors and directors because he leaves so much room to explore, so much acreage for the imagination to roam. There are no answers, I imagine him saying, and that’s the answer.

One of the most enduring Shepard images – in plays and films full of enduring images – is the tale of the eagle and the tom cat that ends Curse of the Starving Class. The eagle and the tom cat are fighting over lamb testes and the eagle lifts the cat into the air:

…They fight like crazy in the middle of the sky. That cat’s tearing his chest out, and the eagle’s trying to drop him, but the cat won’t let go because he knows if he falls he’ll die. …And the eagle’s being torn apart in midair. The eagle’s trying to free himself from the cat, and the cat won’t let go. …And they come crashing down to the earth. Both of them come crashing down. Like one whole thing.

In Shepard’s works, like in Harold Pinter’s plays, the playwright introduces an outsider into the dysfunction who tries to find some logic and order in the turmoil and often just confuses things further.  Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child memorably uses this device and Martin, May’s hapless date, serves that purpose in “Fool for Love.”

In “Fool for Love,” the bed in the middle of the room creates the literal and figurative obstacle between the doomed lovers, Eddie and May. They bicker and fight and embrace under the watchful but distracted eye of a spectral Old Man who may be their common biological father.

“HEEZ MY HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAART!!!” Beth wails about the man who almost killed her in A Lie of the Mind.

Sam Shepard wrote plays in which the love spiral and the death spiral are often indistinguishable.

Sam Shepard has gone out into the air now, and disappeared. His plays will be around as long as theatre-goers like a challenge.