Category Archives: Alabama Chanin Factory

Harvest and Rejuvenation

The cotton fields – which are still abundant between Decatur and Florence, Alabama – were peaking and startlingly beautiful with their fluffy and practical white yield as my friend  Anne and I made our way to the Alabama Chanin factory and the last dinner of the 2017 season (www.alabamachanin.com).

It was in this in-between area, around the community of Trinity, that I was one of many volunteers that helped out for a morning or a day with Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid’s 2012 experiment in growing organic cotton in north Alabama. With the industrialization and outsourcing of cotton harvesting, working the field was a “back to the roots” experience which helped me to recognize and honor the hard work of my own relatives who worked the cotton fields and harvests of their own Alabama farms in the first half of the twentieth century.

Inventive souls are finding new uses for local cotton these days, including downtown Birmingham’s Redmont Distillery which features an “Alabama Cotton Gin,” a spirit which is “distilled through Alabama cotton” and infused with other local product (www.redmontdistilling.com).

The most recent Alabama Chanin dinner was a celebration of the fall harvest, helmed by Ray Nichols, the new in-house chef for the Café at the Factory, who comes with an already impressive resume and who, before joining Alabama Chanin, was at Odette, a charming dining spot in downtown Florence. It was a rich season of Friends of the Café meals starting with Chef Scott Peacock re-emerging for an Easter season event and moving forward with the return of Chef Ashley Christensen for her second meal of the series. In August, in conjunction with the Billy Reid Shindig, Chef Asha Gomez presented a meal combining her American Southern experiences with her roots in southern India.

Chef Nichols’s dinner was a sold-out mix of locals, regulars, and new faces. Our friend Carol from Chicago showed up accompanied by a charming Chicago friend. We met guests from Hawaii and Colorado and a yoga master from Gray Bear Lodge in nearby Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have written before that there are times when the former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence seems like the center of the universe; chance meetings and serendipity abound.

Young Chef Nichols impressively held his own with his predecessors with a hearty dinner featuring the harvest of the region along with a couple of tasty imports, like Conway Cup oysters from Prince Edward Island. The mildly briny oyster was topped with a Harvest Roots kimchi from Mentone, a scenic village on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. The oysters on the half shell were pass-arounds at the start of the evening along with deviled eggs topped with a Harvest Roots curtido.

The pre-dinner beverage was served in a brown sugar-rimmed glass partially filled with cider from Florence’s Singin’ River Brewery. The cider was cut with Prosecco and the drink was finished with a splash of Sangria. 

When the guests were seated and the preliminary introductions were completed, platters of smoked chicken wings, pickled vegetables, and toasts topped with Bonnie Blue goat cheese were served family-style. The chicken was coated with a white sauce (this is, after all, north Alabama), and the goat cheese was from Waynesboro, Tennessee, just off the Natchez Trace.

A harvest salad with an abundance of greens and local harvest from area farms was served next with a burnt honey–sweet potato dressing. The main course featured Bear Creek pork served two ways. A large and tasty pork rib was presented alongside a ham steak. Both were accompanied by farro verde, turnips, and muscadine.

The dessert lived up to its preamble. A crumbly sweet potato cake and a creamy semolina pudding were garnished with cashews and citrus. 

Ray Nichols’s debut for an Alabama Chanin factory special dinner was a triumph with every bite, heralding a bright new presence in the Factory kitchen that will maintain and enhance an already impressive standard.

The yoga master asked me at some point during the evening if I spent my time going from one amazing dining experience to another. I wish … but no, I do not. Such evenings are few and far between in my schedule and each is anticipated with pleasure. I feel rejuvenated and ready to face the day to day challenges when I have the opportunity to eat an amazing meal in a singular place in the company of delightful people.

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Serenity Now: Reflections on a Weekend

(for Anne T.)

DSCN0316 (2) So here’s the deal: Because of family matters in Birmingham, I have not spent an entire weekend in my house in eleven months. On the weekend of May 20 through 22 I had a dinner engagement over in the Shoals in Florence  and planned to spend the weekend at my house and return to Birmingham on Monday (I am on a break until Memorial Day).

On Friday morning I began to cultivate a kitchen herb garden in my tiny back yard and re-pot and re-plant some things that have been neglected in the past year. I met with my friends Scott and Michelle and their two daughters for dinner at a favorite chili place on Friday night but the daughters preferred Mexican  with buddies so Scott and I were dumped and had to be bachelors for the night (well, Scott did – I’m always a bachelor for the night).

My friend Cindy, who was supposed to be my companion on Saturday night in Florence, was forced to cancel and I was suddenly looking at wasting a much sought-after ticket for a sold out dinner. These are amazing dinners, however, so I was going whether the other ticket was taken or not.

I immediately thought of my friend Anne who lives in Decatur – about halfway between Huntsville and Florence. I also remembered that my friend Anne is a very busy and active woman and would most likely be out-of-town for the weekend.

I sent a text with a somewhat embarrassed invitation and, to my surprise and delight, Anne texted back “Yes. What time?”

Just before I got to Anne’s house in Decatur, my “low tire pressure” warning came on and I pulled into the driveway with a tire rapidly deflating. Anne was happy to drive her car and I decided to deal with the tire after the dinner.

As we prepared to leave for the Shoals, Anne’s beloved 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Zeke, had a frightening seizure and Anne rallied to try to get Zeke through the crisis. Zeke’s seizure ended but he remained disoriented and Anne called upon a trusted friend to sit with him for the evening.

Slightly disoriented ourselves, Anne and I left Decatur in Anne’s vehicle and she said the only stop we needed to make was for “petrol.” We pulled into a station on the outskirts of town and suddenly were met with a Michael Jackson impersonator with full Michael Thriller-era wig and complexion performing full out to “Beat It” in the filling station parking lot. Anne assured me that he was a Decatur tradition and passing vehicles rolled down their windows and cheered him as they passed. Anne wanted to tip him but I wasn’t so sure. Now I wish we had because how many guys are committed enough to run around performing Thriller tracks in Decatur in full Michael drag?

Next time I see him, I’ll take a picture. He gets a tip from me next time.

When we got to the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence for the Spring Harvest Friends of the Café dinner, the place was already jovial and full and hors d’oeuvres were being passed.  We grabbed a devilled egg and headed toward the dining area and were greeted by Natalie Chanin, the acclaimed “slow fashion” designer and host for the dinner (www.alabamachanin.com).

Anne was her always charming self, as was Natalie, but as we moved away Anne muttered “I’ve wanted to meet Natalie Chanin for years and when I finally do I have egg in my mouth.” Not to worry – Anne had another conversation with the designer at the end of the evening and I don’t think there was any notice of the hors d’oeuvres incident.

I need to write an essay on the dinner itself, and I plan to (but I got no decent photos – was far too busy eating the food and chatting). The featured chef for the evening was the Factory’s resident chef, Zachariah Chanin, and it was one of my favorite meals ever at the space (I think I’ve made six of the ten Friends of the Café evenings). The amazingly fresh spring harvest ingredients were primarily from Bluewater Creek Farm in Killen, Alabama, an organic farm run by Collins and Liz Davis in partnership with Doug and Donna Woodford (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). I wrote about my tour of Bluewater Creek Farm in the essay “Sustainability and Soul” in November 2014. IMG_0837

Suffice it to say, the meal was brilliant. Each Friends of the Café event is a benefit and this one was no different. The honoree was Nest, a non-profit organization that supports artisans and makers throughout the world and with which Alabama Chanin is very involved (www.buildanest.org).

Incidentally, the dessert, a strawberry shortcake with local strawberries macerated in a thyme simple syrup with freshly whipped cream is assuredly the best and freshest I’ve ever tasted. Almost as good as the dessert’s taste was watching Zach Chanin and his staff assembling the dozens of desserts on the café bar.

As always, new acquaintances and friends were made at the family-style seating. Anne and I sat across from a couple from Indianapolis. “What brings you to the Shoals?” I asked. “We drove down for dinner” was the honest reply. A family next to me had driven in from Corinth, Mississippi, for their first Factory meal and assured me they’d return.

During dinner, a spontaneous conversation erupted at my end of the table about “Seinfeld” catch phrases.

“A Festivus for the rest of us.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” “The Bro.” “Sponge-worthy.” “Yadda yadda yadda.” “The Contest.”

And my personal favorite  – “SERENITY NOW!”

As always when I am at the Factory, the spirit of community and connection is palpable. In addition to the fine company in the room, Anne texted our friend Deb in Paris and we both wished she was with us. So the good feelings spread beyond Alabama and the Shoals and were truly international. After a thoroughly satisfying evening of food and sociability, we said our goodbyes and walked out under a bright and friendly full moon. When we got back to Decatur my tire was flat as a pancake.

It was late. Anne offered her guest room and I decided AAA could wait until morning.

By morning, I went downstairs to find Anne tending to a much calmer Zeke and my ruined tire was tended to by a particularly pleasant AAA tow truck driver. At last, I was back on the road and headed home.

A very wise woman once advised me that I should reserve a part of each week to be quiet, relax, and regroup. When my schedule allows, that time has always been Sunday night at my house. I cook a good meal, sit quietly, and listen to soothing music until time to go to bed.

I realized that this particular Sunday night would be the first chance I’ve had to renew that tradition in a long while. Inspired by Zach Chanin and Bluewater Creek, I surveyed my recent farmers market purchases to see what I could put together that was fresh and local and planned a healthy evening meal. I needed to run to the grocery store to supplement some things. In the produce section I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over two years. As we quickly caught each other up on what had been happening, I realized anew how hectic my life has been recently; no wonder I feel tired

Returning from the store I decided to sit in the back yard to savor the warm weather, have a cold drink, and observe my weekend’s progress before cooking commenced. As I sat quietly, I heard a plaintive voice in the back alley: “Se-REN-ity … here, Serenity.”

As the voice got closer to my back gate I saw a woman looking in every direction and calling for Serenity.

I went out the gate and into the alley. “What have you lost?”

“My dog, Serenity. We just moved in to the house down the street and somebody left the gate open and she got out.”

I told her I would keep an eye out for Serenity and asked what she looked like.

Serenity is a Jack Russell terrier.

As I write this, I am sitting in the tire store getting a new tire. The HVAC guy should be at the house by the time I get back, working on some outside conduits. I’ll pack to go back down to Birmingham where there seems to be a full schedule waiting for me, including a trip to Tuscaloosa, taking Mother and her neighbor to see the Cahaba lilies in bloom, this season’s first peach run to Chilton County, a Japanese steakhouse dinner to celebrate my nephew finishing sixth grade.

When I get time, I’ll have to make some cheese straws for those new neighbors – the ones who named their dog “Serenity.”

Tonic

DSCN0179 The restorative powers of the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence are palpable each time I go. At the most recent dinner I attended in March, walking through the factory doors had cathartic impact.

For those who have never visited the Alabama Chanin factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – which is the workplace for the artisans and craftspeople responsible for clothing designer Natalie Chanin’s line of organic hand-crafted clothing and other lifestyle products – the space itself has an instant sense of community and a tonic effect. The aesthetics of the place are in a harmonic balance and the products displayed in the retail area are diverse but somehow all work together. Art works and objects of interest are placed throughout; they are spare and do not overwhelm. DSCN0184

The Factory’s Café is helmed by Zach Chanin, executive chef (and Natalie’s son), and serves exceptional and locally sourced menus daily. Periodically, however, the Factory hosts guest chefs and special evening meals that provide camaraderie and splendid dining.

At the March event, the meal was the product of the unpredictable collaboration between Frank Stitt, Birmingham-based chef and restaurateur, and South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott. Stitt’s flagship Birmingham restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com), has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s “most outstanding restaurant” award for eight years in a row now. The 2016 winners will be announced in San Francisco at a ceremony on May 2. Scott’s Bar-B-Que (www.thescottsbbq.com) in Hemingway, South Carolina, is legendary among pork barbecue aficionados and gained new  followers when the original cookhouse burned to the ground in 2013 and The Fatback Collective, a project of Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), teamed up to sponsor a “Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Exile Tour” to raise money to get Scott’s home turf back in operation. The “tour” travelled throughout the South, introducing his singular barbecue to an even broader audience.

The combination of Stitt and Scott is an inspired pairing and the resulting meal at The Factory was masterful. Diners were greeted with a “Southern Apertivo Highball” featuring vermouth, Capelleti, citrus, bitters, and Birmingham’s Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale. Pass-around hors d’oeuvres were crudités and a tasty combination of pork rind and pimento cheese.

About twenty minutes before seating for the meal, as the diners assembled, Rodney Scott and Zach Chanin brought in the whole hog and displayed it on a table in the showroom. We all gathered like paparazzi to snap photos and take in the sight and the aromas.DSCN0182

Frank Stitt introduced the meal by saying that Rodney Scott prepared the whole hog while Stitt and staff conceived and prepared the side dishes. Stitt was charmingly persnickety about the correct way to pass dishes at table. Grassroots Wines did the wine pairings with the various courses.

After a beautiful asparagus salad with farm egg, “just dug” potatoes, and ham hock vinaigrette, the abundant second course was served family style. Mr. Scott’s magnificent barbecue pork was accompanied by a turnip gratin, a hearty salad featuring farro and barlotti beans with grilled red onion, and a Brussels sprout slaw with pecorino dressing. I recently told a vegetarian friend that even though pork was featured, she would have had no problem getting her fill from the side dishes. DSCN0188

Dessert was Dol’s chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries. “Dol” is Dolester Miles, the pastry chef at Highlands who is also nominated for a James Beard Award this year as outstanding pastry chef. If you have ever eaten one of Ms. Miles’s desserts, you will know that the nomination is highly deserved.

I have written previous essays about the sense of pride and community that permeates events at The Factory. Amazing meals by renowned talents only add to the aura of the place that Natalie Chanin’s singular vision has created. Each time I leave a Factory event, I look forward to the next opportunity to be there.  The next dinner at The Factory will feature in-house chef Zach Chanin. Can’t wait.IMG_0754