My review of D.B. Tipmore’s My Little Town is just published. Check it out here:
My first memory of the photographs of William Christenberry (1936-2016) is in 1973 in an exhibit at the art gallery in Garland Hall on the University of Alabama campus. I was on campus for freshman orientation and had a couple of free hours one afternoon. It is my first awareness of putting Christenberry’s name with images that seemed immediately familiar somehow.
I have written about Christenberry in the past. He photographed the forgotten byways and captured a disappearing South; his disappearing South has nothing to do with nostalgia or the myths of any “lost cause.” He was drawn to the kudzu-covered landscapes and decaying buildings of primarily rural areas, mostly in Hale County, Alabama, where his “people” came from.
Christenberry’s photographs of places rarely have people in them, so his best-known work has escaped the racial politics which sometimes taints contemporary perceptions of 20th Century Southern photography. (He did have a somewhat obsessive installation called “The Klan Room” on his property, behind locked doors; rarely seen – except in photographs in books – it included objects that the artist collected and created to express his fascination and revulsion with that racist terrorist group.)
As I have begun to wander out a bit more recently, I find myself taking back roads and being attracted to the kinds of places that Christenberry exalted and taught me to better appreciate. These are not sad places. Instead, there is a pride that comes through the decay and a sense-memory inspired by them.
A couple of weeks ago, traveling to Harrison Fruit Farms in Chilton County for my first “peach run” of the season, I became acutely aware of places on the side of the road that I have probably passed hundreds of times over the years. A group of abandoned buildings in Thorsby, Alabama, called out to be photographed. Especially appealing are the ruins of the once stately Bank of Thorsby building, dated 1909. It is in the remaining details – the cornices, the lettering in the windows, the date – that the history is revealed and the legacy is sealed.
The town of Thorsby was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th Century. They were among the first farmers to cultivate the famous Chilton County peaches. The current remains of the town’s business district still face the railroad tracks running alongside U.S. Highway 31. Concordia Cemetery, a peaceful resting place for some of those early Scandinavian settlers, sits on the town’s edge.
A few days after the peach run, I took my mother on a quick trip to Ryan’s Creek Cemetery in Cullman County to check on her parents’ graves and make sure the flowers placed for Decoration Day on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend had survived recent storms. We always drive around and visit sites from Mother’s childhood during these trips. On this day, she wanted to see the Shady Grove Church that I had photographed back in December. She had never been there but had admired the photographs I took several months ago.
The little church is in the Logan community, on the other side of the county from Ryan’s Creek, but we took off down backroads and eventually found our way to the churchyard of Shady Grove Methodist, part of north Alabama’s “Hallelujah Trail” of historic places of worship. Dating from the 1890s, the church is a peaceful and quiet place. During the half hour we were there, not a single car passed on the narrow road that runs between the church and its adjoining cemetery. The church has not held regular services in a hundred years, but it is well-maintained and freshly painted with bud vases and cut flowers in the windows. Paths lead down into the woods in several directions. Visiting there is a tranquil interlude in a frantic world.
These were the kinds of places Christenberry was drawn to several counties away. I think of him whenever I find one. On this Memorial Day, get off the interstate and find a place of contemplation along the backroads, wherever you might be.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.
I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.
It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.
Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?
Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.
In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of
ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.
Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:
the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.
Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that
Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.
From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:
As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.
Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:
To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.
This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,
Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”
Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”
I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.
Bessemer, AL It seems that every family has a restaurant where it convenes for special events and commemorations – the place where the family goes to celebrate graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries, and to gather after funerals and hospital visits and other more somber occasions. For my family, that restaurant in the Birmingham area is The Bright Star west of the city in Bessemer. The Bright Star, Alabama’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1907 and has been family-owned ever since. The Bright Star was awarded as an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2010.
Mine is a family of strong, vocal, and often divergent opinions on pretty much everything, including food. The Bright Star is one of the places that is in every family member’s “comfort zone.” In addition to being a safe choice, it also has a good and diverse menu with offerings for every taste. I always look forward to eating at The Bright Star, whether it is a quick lunch or a leisurely evening meal.
Frank Stitt triggered Birmingham’s ascent on the national culinary map with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill in the 1980s. But the culinary history of the Birmingham area is full of the stories of Greek families and immigrants who opened restaurants. Many of their descendants are still restaurateurs into the 21st century. The Bright Star is the anchor of that Greek-influenced dining tradition in Birmingham with off-shoots that range from fine dining establishments to fish markets, barbecue joints, and hot dog stands.
The Bright Star was started by Tom Bonduris and has been continuously owned by Bonduris and Koikos family members ever since. Jimmy and Nick Koikos, sons of long-time owners Bill and Tasia Koikos, are the current faces of the restaurant, along with a large and long-serving support staff. Much of my recent planning with the restaurant has been coordinated through the invaluable and gracious help of Jimmy and Nick’s niece, Stacey Craig, and maître d’ Marlon Tanksley. The restaurant always bustles and the place is full of regulars as well as people who are traveling through or have made the effort to come to Bessemer just to check it out.
The Bright Star has grown over the years in its current building in the middle of downtown Bessemer. The vibe of The Bright Star reminds some of New Orleans’ Galatoire’s. (It is a lesser known fact that the first Galatoire’s was in downtown Birmingham before Jean Galatoire ended up in New Orleans and opened his iconic Bourbon Street bistro.) The Bright Star menu that features seafood and steaks in the evenings serves a classic Southern “meat and three” lunch menu each day. The shredded cabbage with the signature slaw dressing is a staple, as is a superior bread pudding and an array of fine pies. The Bright Star serves one of my favorite gumbos. Tipping its hat to the New Orleans influences on the menu, The Bright Star does an annual “Taste of New Orleans” event in August that usually features the executive chef of New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace.
Fresh seafood is delivered daily and Alabama Cattlemen’s Association has named Bright Star’s beef the best steak in Alabama. The large foyer entrance to the restaurant is full of memorabilia including awards, national magazine and newspaper articles, and archival photographs of the many celebrities and dignitaries who have enjoyed a meal at The Bright Star. One finds photos of Sandra Bullock and her father dining there among an array of celebrities and sports figures from earlier times.
The main dining room is flanked with highly varnished pastoral murals painted by an itinerant German painter in 1915. A century of varnishing and cigarette smoke creates a warm glow from the murals and the combination of the murals and the high wooden booth backs creates an intimate and cozy feeling in the large room, even as the aisles are full of servers and patrons coming and going.
Far in the back of the main dining room is the enclosed booth that was Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s favorite booth. For a recent birthday dinner, my mother reserved the Bryant booth and I dined there for the first time with a large portrait of “the Coach” looking down from the west wall.
When The Bright Star turned 100 in 2007, a book, A Centennial Celebration of The Bright Star Restaurant, was released. The book, a project by nieces of Jim and Nick Koikos with assistance from Niki Sepsas, is a compilation of history, memories, recipes, and photographs of the restaurant.
Bessemer, a vibrant industrial town in the early 20th Century, lost much of its industry in the 1970s and has suffered economic downturns and redefinition. Through it all The Bright Star has endured. I was in the restaurant this past weekend and am convinced that The Bright Star will be serving good meals to happy patrons for generations to come.
Note: The top image is a detail from Scott Smith’s assemblage, “Ensley” (2010), featuring the menu listing for The Bright Star’s “famous snapper almondine.” “Ensley” was a commission celebrating my parents’ marriage. Each pin represents a place they have lived during the marriage. Images of Ensley, the Birmingham neighborhood where they met, and other aspects of their marriage are represented, including images from The Bright Star menu.
During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.
“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?
The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.
“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:
- Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
- Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
- With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
- Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
- Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
- Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
- Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
- While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
- Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
- Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.
He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”
American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”
His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”
In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)
His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”
Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.
Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”
In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen 8½, you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”
I re-watched 8½ not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.
Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.
Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).
I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”
Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.
As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.
Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.
Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”
I wish I had known to meet him.
It is often written that there is no indigenous “Alabama-style” of barbecue and it seems that circumstance may be a key to our abundance of options. Opinions about barbecue in Alabama – indeed, throughout the South – are as strong as those about football, religion, or politics. Everybody has a favorite place and favorite style and it is often based on tradition and habit as much as quality and taste.
I don’t put much stock into website rankings, but a 2014 online study by “Estately Blog,” using five statistical criteria for all fifty states, ranked Alabama as the most “Barbecue-Crazed State in America.” Among the criteria in which Alabama ranked highest are the overall percentage of restaurants devoted to barbecue (1st — 8.27% of all restaurants in the state are barbecue places according to this report) and number of barbecue restaurants per capita (3rd). I have seen previous reports that ranked Alabama as 1st in that “per capita” category also.
With such an abundance to choose from, I long ago stopped taking the time to grill out or barbecue since there are so many better options from which to choose.
A few days ago, I saw another online article with the title “Are These the Most Iconic Restaurants in Every State?” I try to avoid those articles because it’s inevitable that they’ll annoy me; that’s the reason they’re there. But it was about food and I had to take a look. Before I opened the webpage I began to imagine the possibilities and the various ways to define “iconic” and wondered what might be the selection for Alabama. Candidates that immediately came to mind were Highlands Bar and Grill, the fine dining restaurant in Birmingham’s Five Points South; The Bright Star, the Bessemer institution for over a century; and Dreamland, the superior barbecue joint in Tuscaloosa.
The website’s choice, alas, was Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que (www.bigbobgibson.com) in Decatur. Congratulations to them for their designation but this is one of those selections where personal taste has to speak up. (“They’re not even the best barbecue in Decatur,” said a friend who is a longtime resident of Decatur.) I was aware of Big Bob Gibson’s and know they are a force on the competition circuit. I even like their food fine. But it seems that their “iconic” status is based on something this Alabamian was unaware of until he moved to the Tennessee Valley of north Alabama: white sauce slathered on barbecue (chicken, usually). This is not a béchamel but a mayonnaise-based sauce for barbecued meat.
White sauce is a staple for most barbecue places in this part of north Alabama. I was unaware of its existence until I moved to the area over twelve years ago. I tried it out – more than once and at more than one place – and I don’t like it. I like all of the ingredients – mayonnaise, vinegar, pepper, occasionally horseradish – but I declared the combination “nasty” the first time I tried it and have not waivered on subsequent attempts. I know people who love it and they are entitled to their taste. It’s not for me. I have met people who claim that they ship it by the case to people who want it and can’t get it in other parts of the country. Feel free to give them my share. Please.
To add insult to injury – and I think this was fueled by the Food Network – the sauce is now commonly being referred to as “Alabama sauce.” I first heard this appelation on the Food Network and have now encountered it in other national media including PBS. This rankles me a bit. I could live with it being called “Decatur Sauce” or “Tennessee Valley Sauce” or “North Alabama Sauce.” Jim ‘n Nick’s, a Birmingham stalwart, refers to it as “Morgan Co. White Sauce.” I’m good with that. But I find that white barbecue sauce is an anomaly outside north Alabama. And my vote is for it to stay that way.
Since the website listings of “iconic” eateries chose to represent Alabama with barbecue, I began to brainstorm my favorite Alabama restaurants for barbecue. The first names that came to mind were places around Birmingham and the part of Alabama that is most familiar to me. I have eaten Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) most of my life. Its location in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham, is always busy and the product is consistent. It’s a good sauce and the pulled pork is my favorite. Jim ‘n Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q (www.jimnnicks.com) is a Birmingham-based brand that has only been around since 1985 (short-lived by barbecue standards) but has quickly become iconic with its support of community, locally grown ingredients, and far-reaching philanthropy backed up by truly high quality product. There are now Jim ‘n Nick’s in a number of states and the corporate and quality policies are consistent throughout the franchise. Corporate policy forbids freezers at Jim ‘n Nick’s.
For me, and for many Alabamians who grew up away from the pull of Big Bob’s white sauce, the barbecue mecca for Alabama is still Tuscaloosa County. There is some difference of opinion on who tops the Tuscaloosa ‘cue culture but it’s a happy dilemma since the debate focuses on two long-time joints – Dreamland and Archibald’s.
The original Dreamland (www.dreamlandbbq.com) was opened by “Big John” Bishop in 1958, the year Bear Bryant came to coach at Alabama. It is located in the community of Jerusalem Heights in southeast Tuscaloosa fairly near US Hwy. 82 and I-59/20. Turn onto Jug Factory Road, drive the curvy road to the top of the hill, and take a right to Dreamland. Follow your nose if you get turned around and you will sometimes know the place by the happiest parking lot dogs to be found.
Dreamland has franchised and can be found in other locations but Jerusalem Heights, the “OG,” is the end of the barbecue rainbow for me. The original place used to serve only ribs and white bread (“No Fries, No Slaw, Don’t Ask” said a sign over the register at one time) and that is enough. It’s a cinderblock temple with noisy screen doors. “Alabama” is a Native American word meaning “Here We Rest” and that is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I am in Mr. Bishop’s original Jerusalem Heights establishment. The ribs are available as a sandwich, a plate, or a slab, and the sauce is amazing with sweet undertones beneath a bold vinegary bite.
While I would have to vote for Dreamland as the best and most iconic barbecue in the state, cross the river from Tuscaloosa into Northport and there is amazing and even more rustic competition from Archibald’s. The late writer Barry Hannah introduced me to Archibald’s in the early ‘80s. It is basically a shed surrounding a pit with a few seats on the inside and a few picnic tables around the small parking lot. The menu is minimal but the quality is splendid, and the sauce is more mustardy. Archibald’s is a little bit off the beaten path and I haven’t eaten there nearly as often as I’ve eaten at Dreamland but I’d venture to guess that if I had been introduced to Archibald’s first, it might be my favorite. As it is, it’s almost a toss-up between Dreamland and Archibald’s for me.
And there’s not a drop of white sauce to be found at either place.
Birmingham. Every Baby Boomer growing up in Birmingham was taught in elementary school that Birmingham is the only place in the world where iron ore, coal, and limestone – the three essential raw materials used to manufacture steel – can be found in such close proximity. Every local schoolboy of that generation knew that Birmingham was not in existence during the Civil War and that this unique confluence of natural resources had led to its founding as the first major industrial center of the post-war South in 1871.
The steel industry was still what drove Birmingham when I was a boy and both of my grandfathers worked in Birmingham factories – one at U.S. Steel and one at Butler Manufacturing.
I remember standing on the observation deck at Vulcan, Birmingham’s “Iron Man” statue overlooking the city, and watching with awe as the night sky turned bright orange as molten iron was poured at steel manufacturing locations in the western section, in north Birmingham, and at the Sloss Furnaces just east of downtown. For a young boy, the sight of such robust heavy industry was thrilling.
Vulcan now overlooks a city in which heavy industry is less prominent than healthcare and finance; Sloss Furnaces closed down in 1970 and was designated as a National Historical Landmark in 1981. The remains of the structures of U.S. Steel’s Ensley works loom over what is now a desolate landscape. I still look for ruins and remnants of the once vibrant industrial landscape as I drive around the area.
In 2007, as a result of the efforts of Freshwater Land Trust and dedicated citizens, ownership of 1200 acres of U.S. Steel-owned land on Birmingham’s Red Mountain was transferred and development began on Red Mountain Park (www.redmountainpark.org), an urban greenspace which now comprises over 1500 acres and twelve miles of trails. There are also an adventure area, zip lines, an 80-foot repelling tower, a dog park, and overlooks in the current development of the eastern Phase 1 of the park. At the overlooks, the hiker is afforded views of the city which have been unavailable for half a century. The Phase 2 western development, scheduled for completion in 2016, will include more trails and features.
Red Mountain Park has become my favorite place to hike. The layout of the trails enables one to do a quick and easy hike or a more rigorous and challenging one, such as the Ike Maston Trail, or to mix and match. The land, once active with railroad and mining activity from the 1860s to 1962, has reverted now to mostly wilderness.
A large appeal for me, though, is in the ruins of the industrial sites like mine entrances and shaft mines that pepper the site. One is walking in the woods and then there are the tightly secured masonry entrances to Ishkooda #13 or #14 mines, or the Redding Shaft Mine farther west. Encountering these ruins, it isn’t difficult to imagine the bustle of activity which once occurred in what is now such a serene and natural environment. One walks just a few feet away from these sites and is again immersed in total wilderness. It is as if the ruins are ghosts that appeared and then are gone. They are.
I try to hike Red Mountain Park whenever I am in Birmingham for more than a day or two. It is a potent symbol of urban progress and commitment to the environment built on the relics of the progress of an earlier era.
O! How I love time spent south of the salt line in December! We were all doubtful that I’d be able to see my friends Deb and Jeana Brunson in Fairhope this year but they arrived in town on Thursday, my last day at The Grand, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Tallahassee, Florida, respectively.
We gathered for afternoon tea at The Grand with Deb and Jeana, their brother Richard and his wife, Allison, and Allison and Richard’s dapper youngest son, William, who insisted on wearing a tie for tea at The Grand. I helped him tie the tie and commented that with his blue blazer, button-down shirt and tie, and khakis, he looked like an Alabama frat boy headed to a game. All of the Brunsons had a Christmas concert to attend but Deb, Jeana, Allison, Richard, and I met later for a memorable meal at Dragonfly Foodbar in downtown Fairhope.
During dinner, I mentioned that I was out of Mardi Gras beads and Allison and Richard insisted that I stop by their house and get some of their stash. Later, at their beautiful home on Mobile Bay, Allison and Richard not only brought out a load of shiny beads from storage, but they also insisted on untangling them, separating them by size, and tying each bundle together before they loaded them into a huge box which should fulfill my Mardi Gras bead needs for a while.
It is a true friend, I realize, who will sort and tie your Mardi Gras beads.
As I headed north from Point Clear on Friday, I realized that it was December 19 and I had not photographed any churches for my 2015 Christmas card. Realizing that there was still plenty of time and that there were a couple of back-up buildings I might use in north Alabama, I decided to keep my eyes open for any Christmas card-worthy churches along the drive home. In an earlier post for this journal, I recount my criteria for my annual Christmas card designs. I look for buildings that are often vernacular, were photographed in the month of December, and are always honest.
On this most recent trip, I had already taken photographs of Little Bethel Baptist Church in Daphne. Traveling along Alabama SR 225 in rural Baldwin County, I decided to check out St. John’s, a small yellow Catholic chapel that I had passed many times before but never photographed. As I pulled away from St. John’s, I noticed a small white building through the trees. I pulled off the road again and discovered what looks like a former schoolhouse that is now designated as “James E. Cook Memorial Presbyterian Chapel.” It is a charming little church I had never before noticed.
A few hours later, approaching Montgomery, I remembered the small town of Lowndesboro off U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery has been designated by the National Park Service as the “Selma to Montgomery National Voting Rights Trail,” a national scenic byway. Turning off 80 onto CR 29 into Lowndesboro, one travels through an impressive and well-maintained collection of antebellum architecture compressed into a very brief stretch of road. I have been to the town several times now, but it is always a shock to see such pristine examples of domestic and non-secular architecture in such a compact little community (population 140).
A particular oddity among the roadside attractions of Lowndesboro is the C.M.E. church, erected around 1830. Instead of a traditional steeple, the building is topped by a structure which was the original dome of the first Alabama state capitol in Cahaba. It was moved to Lowndesboro and mounted on the church when the original capitol building in Cahaba was demolished.
St. Paul’s Episcopal is a stately and dignified structure. Lowndesboro Baptist has intricate Carpenter Gothic detailing in the wooden columns on its portico. Lowndesboro Presbyterian (pictured at the front of this post) has simple Doric columns.
The only one of the impressive old churches that did not make the cut was Lowndesboro United Methodist. The main structure is very handsome but I couldn’t get past the steeple, which just couldn’t quite live up to the building’s base. Alabama-native writer Eugene Walter, who was quoted in an earlier post, referred to such steeples as “little-prick.” I now regret not taking a picture of the building, since it was a lovely church (other than that unfortunate steeple) and I likely won’t be back in Lowndesboro for a while.
Lowndesboro was a treasure trove in my search for picturesque churches. After roaming the street and photographing for about an hour, I drove away with the certainty that I have now found my Christmas card image for 2015. The challenge will be choosing just one out of many.
A playwright friend recently sent a note from Los Angeles and said “it isn’t Christmas at our house until your church arrives!” It is because of such kind words from many friends and correspondents that I take particular pride and effort in my December sojourn to photograph churches and other images of the season throughout Alabama.
Fairhope, AL. I first learned the phrase “south of the Salt Line” from the great boulevardier and Mobile native Eugene Walter, who is worthy of his own post and will get one from me soon enough. It was Walter’s contention, based on growing up in his beloved Mobile, that “folks who live below Alabama’s salt line are a little crazy.”
He means “crazy” in a good way. Walter’s philosophy is extensive but it has to do with the belief that Southerners who live with ocean salt in the air tend to be a little less uptight, reserved, and conservative. He felt it applied to people in south Alabama, the Mississippi coast, and the environs of New Orleans in particular. I hope he’s right because whenever I travel down this way, regardless of the weather, I like to roll down the window and breathe a little of the salt air. It frees me up, somehow. On the other hand, there are a lot of Republicans down here.
An added benefit of my annual sojourns to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear is my proximity to the chain of little Baldwin County towns south of the Salt Line along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. When I hit the northeastern start of the Bay, I travel through Spanish Fort, Daphne, Montrose, and Fairhope prior to my arrival in Point Clear and The Grand on Scenic Hwy. 98. Continuing past The Grand along Scenic 98 to regular 98, I cross the Fish River and Weeks Bay and arrive in Magnolia Springs.
I could spend my entire vacation on the grounds of the Grand and in the environs of Point Clear, but explorations of the surrounding communities make the trip richer and even more special. I like to contrast Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore with a popular stretch of Highway 30-A in the Florida panhandle that has become a mecca for striving professionals. The village of Seaside is lovely and had the best intentions but its appeal and success have caused a desecration of 30-A in many ways. The once undeveloped byway is now congested with developments, each seeing how they might out-pastel and out-gentrify the other. 30-A developers slash the landscape and then build homes and business districts evocative of the turn of the previous century, causing gridlock, exorbitant prices, and desecration of a once pristine local landscape. The towns of Alabama’s Eastern Shore naturally have the authenticity and character that all of those Seaside-inspired communities struggle mightily to achieve.
Fairhope, Alabama, was founded in 1894 as a utopian “single tax” colony. Historically, it was a place that encouraged progressive free thinking. The downtown is thriving with locally-owned businesses and the area is a draw for artists and writers. There are art galleries, specialty shops, antiques, and other treasures throughout the walkable downtown which is beautifully and seasonably landscaped year-round. Page and Palette (www.pageandpalette.com) is a particularly fine independent bookstore. The Kiln (www.thekilnstudio.com) is a ceramics gallery and studio that I never fail to visit and usually I walk out with new items for gifts or for my ceramics collection. Owner/artist Susie Bowman has beautiful tastes and a beautiful shop.
Over time, I have found my favorite Fairhope eateries at each end of the price spectrum.
Last night I had another great meal at Camellia Café in downtown Fairhope (www.camelliacafe.com). Chef Ryan Glass presents an impressive array of fine dining options in a cozy and relaxed setting. Down the street from Camellia Café on Section Street is Master Joe’s (www.masterjoessushi.com), a startlingly fine sushi place in the middle of fried fish territory.
Other great options downtown include Panini Pete’s (www.paninipetes.com), a bustling place that spills out into an attached conservatory and onto the courtyard of Fairhope’s French Quarter shopping district. I love the muffaletta panini but everything on the menu is worth a try. In a new downtown location – or new to me, anyway – is Dragonfly Foodbar (www.dragonflyfoodbar.com). “Foodsmith” Doug Kerr presents an ever-changing menu of creative small plates, bowls, and tacos. Dragonfly continually offers fine dining dishes at affordable prices in a dive-y setting. Now that they have moved from the former hot dog stand location on Fairhope Avenue to larger digs on Church Street the wait is no longer hours like it used to be.
Farther out, Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), with a Fairhope location just down scenic 98 from The Grand, is a Mobile establishment that has branched out with a handful of locations on the coast and farther inland. It provides a large variety of seafood options with its signature Gulf oysters served “fried, stewed, or nude.” Wintzell’s is usually the destination on my first night in the area, a familiar and comfortable place after a long drive.
Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) has added a Fairhope location to complement its original location in Daphne. I like to order the Market’s shrimp po’ boy that has so much shrimp in it that I have started calling it “box full o’ shrimp.” The Market’s location in Daphne is a great seafood market in addition to a cozy eatery.
Closer to The Grand in Point Clear is the Wash House restaurant (www.washhouserestaurant.com). The Wash House is located in a rustic building, part of which housed the washing facility for the large country house on the main road. I have dined alone and with friends at the Wash House on many occasions and the experience always feels like a special occasion. The restaurant is behind the old farm house that is now the home of Punta Clara Kitchen (www.puntaclara.com). Punta Clara is my local stop for pralines to carry back home. They sell all kinds of handmade specialty foods, jams, jellies, and preserves. Punta Clara Kitchen products are usually well-represented at my New Year’s Day lunch for friends.
I always enjoy traveling the expanse of Baldwin County but I usually find myself staying in the area surrounding Point Clear and The Grand resort. A short trip down the coast on Highway 98 takes me through huge pecan groves, farms, and homes. Shortly after crossing the Fish River and Weeks Bay, I arrive in the town of Magnolia Springs, which is as idyllic as its name suggests. Residents along the Magnolia River in Magnolia Springs still get mail delivered by boat to boxes on the edges of their piers. Live oaks arch over the narrow streets and I usually find myself ditching the car and taking long leisurely walks through the streets and along the river. A popular dining option in Magnolia Springs is Jesse’s (www.jessesrestaurant.com).
For those who wonder why I always return to the same place for my December getaway, it’s hard to explain the attraction of the place unless they experience it for themselves. When I first started coming down here, I felt an obligation to venture away from Point Clear and would plan side trips into Mobile, or down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, or over into coastal Mississippi. Eventually, I realized that it was enough – and exactly what I needed – to just come to The Grand and relax, occasionally venturing out to places that are minutes away. I feel like there is still plenty of Baldwin County to discover and explore.
Point Clear, AL. People have been coming to a hotel at this spot for rest and rejuvenation since the 1830s. For me, a visit to The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, (www.Mariott.com/Point-Clear) has become an annual December event. I occasionally get down here at warmer times of the year but the pre-Christmas visit is my constant.
The Grand Hotel is located on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, a short distance south of the town of Fairhope, at a point where the bay broadens as it gets closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The various buildings overlook the Bay and out toward the Gulf on one side and a peaceful lagoon surrounded by ancient, Spanish moss-dripping live oaks and walking paths on the other. The grounds are expansive and beautifully landscaped with paths along the bay. Pathways open to the public radiate beyond the resort and one is welcome to stroll past the private sides of bay-front Point Clear homes and get a sense of local living.
In the warm months the place bustles. A huge swimming pool is full of sun-worshippers and all kinds of outdoor activities – biking, kayaking, croquet, beach bonfires, etc. – are available throughout the grounds.
Now, in December, it is more quiet and less crowded and I have found that this trip is a perfect and much-needed way to shake off my job after a demanding semester and to brace for the holidays with family and friends.
As might be expected from such a place, there is a feel of tradition. Hurricane Katrina did massive damage to the Alabama coast in 2005 and the hotel was closed for over a year while renovations occurred. When I returned in December 2006 after the renovation, I was relieved to see that the restoration had taken pains to restore the look and feel of the place prior to the storm.
The site has history and tradition and it manages to retain the feel without overwhelming one with the past. Every afternoon there is a small military procession through the grounds ending at a Civil War-era cannon. After the hotel’s military history is recounted – it served as a military hospital during the Civil War, was fired upon during the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the grounds include a Confederate cemetery containing the remains of many casualties of the Battle of Vicksburg (which happened 250 miles away) – the cannon is fired and can be heard throughout the area.
While the cannon fires outside, an afternoon tea is held around the grand fireplace every afternoon at 4:00. There is a blazing fire and a huge Christmas tree this time of year.
Outside Bucky’s Birdcage Lounge, also located in the main building, is a sunset bell that is rung thirty minutes before sunset each day. It is a reminder to move toward the lounge and toward the Bay-front to observe and celebrate what is almost always a spectacular sunset. “Bucky” Miller was a beloved employee of the Grand for 61 years and a life-sized statue of Bucky stands outside his namesake lounge, his hand extended in greeting. Bucky’s cats still roam the grounds – or by now maybe Bucky’s cats’ descendants. I was greeted by one of Bucky’s cats as I went into the main building for check-in yesterday.
I have heard about the Grand my whole life but I didn’t start coming down for regular visits until over a decade ago in the early 2000s. Several years ago an acquaintance who used to come to the Grand for decades remarked, when I told him I was about to come down, “I hear the Grand isn’t so ‘grand’ anymore.” (Isn’t there always that guy?) Things change and the events of the past may not be happening with the velocity they once had, but my Grand experience is always peaceful and invigorating and exactly as grand as I want it to be. The fact that I always splurge and treat myself to a massage at the hotel’s highly-rated spa makes my experience that much more grand.
In the earlier years of the Grand’s history, it was owned by individuals and families. It is now a Marriott resort owned by Retirement Systems of Alabama, part of Alabama’s much lauded Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (the property includes Lakewood Country Club). The staff is international and far-flung in origin but there are many locals who work here too and there are faces and names that are familiar to me trip after trip. It may all be an act, but I will say that the employees at the Grand always seem happy and they make every guest feel special and welcome. It’s a wonderful place for families and couples but I am usually here as a single and feel totally at home and comfortable as such.
I was already in my 40s when my recurring “Grand experience” began. I know people who started coming here with their families when they were very young. There are always happy children and young people at play when I make my visits. However, I have always felt that I started coming at just the right time for me – at a time when I was looking for stability and peace of mind in my life. I worry that if I had started my annual treks even a decade earlier I might have found the place a little staid and slow.
I have a long list of places I still want to visit in this world, but, for me, if I want to relax and regroup, coming back to a place I know and a place where I feel like I can just sit on the balcony and while the day away with a good book is the ticket to a perfect vacation (New Orleans is another of those places for me). After staying in buildings all over the resort, I now have and always request my favorite room in the Spa building.
So, the Grand it is and the Grand it will be for this December and, I hope, many Decembers to come.