Category Archives: the south

Book Review: The Gulf South

Here’s my latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. The Gulf South is a fascinating anthology that addresses one of the most urgent issues of our current moment — the environment.

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/03/20/the-gulf-south-an-anthology-of-environmental-writing

Eating around Chattanooga

IMG_1202    Chattanooga, TN. My parents honeymooned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1950s. Knowing that from an early age has given me a sense of familiarity with Chattanooga that probably exceeds my actual knowledge and experience of the place.

When I was a very young elementary school student, I traveled with my parents from Birmingham to Chattanooga for a weekend getaway in the early ‘60s. We hit the highlights of the time which included Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline railway, and the Confederama.

The Confederama, unfortunately, fell victim to political correctness and now exists farther up Lookout Mountain, I hear, in an altered and watered-down form as “The Battles for Chattanooga Museum” in Point Park somewhere near Rock City. As I recall the Confederama from 50+ years ago, it was a relief diorama of the area around Chattanooga with lights and teeny soldier replicas illustrating the Civil War battles; as I recall, there was a distinct Confederate bias. I remember thrilling to the tiny red flashes of guns being fired as a somber recording gave the history lesson.

We are entering the last month of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, an anniversary that began in 2011. When I was an elementary school student in the early 1960s, the Civil War Centennial was ubiquitous. I have been saddened – but not surprised – that the nation has seemed hesitant to discuss that defining moment of our national history for the sesquicentennial. Perhaps right now it’s just too complicated to evaluate.

The annual Spring convention of Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is the largest theatre convention in the United States. I have been attending it most years since 1983 with a few gaps here and there. Because of the logistical demands of the event, a few southeastern cities seem to be on the convention’s regular rotation and Chattanooga has been the most frequent host city of the event over the past decade.

I spent hours each day at the convention; this year my main obligations were presenting a paper and attending editorial board meetings for Southern Theatre magazine. I decided that in my rare off-time I wanted to check out the current new culinary offerings of Chattanooga, a town in perpetual transition.

Even though it was my plan to adventure into some new eateries, as it turned out I only dined at Chattanooga restaurants I had enjoyed on previous visits. My desire to return speaks well for the restaurants and the fact that each managed to surprise and delight me anew speaks volumes.

IMG_1217When I arrived in Chattanooga on Wednesday evening, I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day and wandered down Broad Street toward the aquarium and the river to check out the options. Among all of the options I remembered a good SETC meal several years back at Easy Bistro and Bar (www.easybistro.com) in a space that used to house “the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant.” It’s a lovely space and a good respite from the abundant tourists on the street in that tourist-driven part of town. The chef is New Orleans native Erik Niel and the menu is adventurous and ever-changing and reflects the influences of New Orleans adapted for the hills, rivers, lakes, and tastes of eastern Tennessee. I decided to try a couple of small plates and had Crispy Chicken Skins 3-Ways and a lovely and filling beet salad with feta and onions. Both dishes were creative, beautifully plated, and delicious.

Thursday was a busy day full of meetings – bitterly cold and windy with sleet and rain all day – and my dining plans were limited to grabbing quick snacks at the convention and hotel.

I presented my convention paper on Friday morning and had already planned to treat myself to lunch at Public House (www.publichousechattanooga.com), a Chattanooga eatery I discovered and loved in 2012. I ordered a couple of small plates at Public House three years ago and have such fond memories of a plate of fried chicken livers with grits and a plate of pimento cheese with fried pickles that I debated eating the same things all over again. But in the interest of expanding my knowledge of the Public House menu I opted for a vegetable plate so I could sample an assortment of dishes. I ordered perfectly prepared collard greens, cheesy mashed potatoes, and a rich mac and cheese combo.

IMG_1209Public House is located in a downtown development called Warehouse Row and is one of those places that emphasizes environmental consciousness and lists many of its local and specialty purveyors on the menu. The space is full of windows and the design is simple, warm, and inviting. Many items on the menu are traditional Southern favorites as mentioned earlier but the preparation and presentation is skilled and a meal there feels uptown and special. The pimento cheese is exceptional – a member of the wait staff told me they use the same recipe that I use (Miss Verba’s from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook) – and even though I didn’t order it this visit, I found it delightfully stuffed in an olive.

My server at Easy had strongly recommended the restaurant’s weekend brunch so I made a second trip to Easy and managed to get there in time for Saturday’s brunch after my last session at the convention. For brunch I had Easy’s version of Eggs Jonathan which was Eggs Benedict with fried oysters added. Once again, it was delicious.

Before heading back to the hotel, I wandered down to the riverfront close to the aquarium and up a hill past the Hunter Museum to the Bluff View Art District (www.bluffviewartdistrict.com) with its River Gallery Sculpture Garden overlooking the Tennessee River. IMG_1206  After a rigorous convention and the ice and snow of this past February, it seemed like a good portent of Spring approaching and was a relaxing brief escape. Chattanooga’s City Center is compact and very walkable but there is also a good free shuttle that travels between the aquarium and the Choo-Choo, the town’s old train station that is now a hotel.

Over the years, it has become traditional for me to meet with a group of friends for a stress-free meal on Saturday night of the SETC convention. This is after the papers have been presented, the workshops presented and attended, the auditions are ended, and the booths are struck. Six of us decided to congregate at Porter’s Steakhouse (www.porterssteakhouse.com) on the street level of The Read House, the historic downtown hotel where I was staying. Sometimes a traditional steakhouse with good company is the perfect way to relax and this Porter’s fit the bill entirely. We enjoyed an exuberant meal, excellent and very patient service, and an evening full of anecdotes and laughter. I go back three decades with some of the people in my dining party and there is always plenty to talk about and to catch up and reminisce about. And there are always plenty of things to laugh about. IMG_1214

A perusal of websites shows a wide range of opinions about Porter’s at The Read House but this is my second time to end a Chattanooga SETC there and I was totally pleased. My steak was cooked perfectly and everybody in my group had good comments about their meals. When we were all full, a dessert cart was rolled up and we decided to order one of everything and share. The perfect way to cap the evening was when Russell, a member of our group, revealed that he had ordered a Brandy Alexander for everybody at the table. This is the sort of classic establishment where you know that a Brandy Alexander will be done correctly and ours were.

Whenever I leave an SETC convention, I am utterly exhausted and feel a need to sleep for a few days. It’s a nice thought but work always starts again bright and early on Monday morning. IMG_1199

Note on artworks pictured: The sculpture overlooking the river is “Icarus” by Russell Whiting in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden. The end photo is “Roll Wave” by Christopher Fennell, on the riverfront near the aquarium. The lead photograph is the Hunter Museum of American Art.

Robert Altman’s Nashville

IMG_1109  My directing students are currently engaged in a project in which they are analyzing five favorite films. It is a way to develop critical and analytical skills and to find their own directorial “voice.”

In discussions with the students, I realized that my all-time favorite movie, Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, turns forty this year. I fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa and by the end of the first week of its Tuscaloosa run I had already watched it four times. I kept saying to friends “Have you seen Nashville yet?” and when they had not I made them drop whatever they were doing and it was off to the Bama to catch the next screening.

I was a little obsessed.

I was 20 when Nashville was released in 1975. That was sort of an annus mirabilis for American movies. The Academy Award nominees for Best Picture that year were Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; Dog Day Afternoon; Jaws; Nashville; and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the winner). It was also the year of Fellini’s Amarcord; The Day of the Locust; The Man Who Would Be King; Shampoo; Three Days of the Condor; and one of my guilty pleasures, Ken Russell’s Tommy (that amazing music by the Who; those saturated over-the-top images by Ken Russell, a madman – Ann-Margret rolling around in those baked beans!).

Nashville is an examination of American culture and politics set in the country music capital. Altman weaves together the stories of 24 characters that converge in Nashville over five days. A presidential candidate, never seen but often heard as his campaign van roams the streets of the city blaring his inane populist rhetoric, provides the context that finally brings all of the characters together at a political rally. The film employs Altman’s trademark techniques of overlapping dialogue and an ensemble of colorful and vivid characters that ultimately merge in a sobering and insightful commentary on American society in the second half of the twentieth century. This is my favorite film from probably my favorite movie director.

Altman’s oeuvre includes Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, and Short Cuts among many others over a long career. They weren’t all great but Altman is one of those directors whose weaker works are more interesting to watch than many other directors’ strongest work. I was in Tuscaloosa when Alabama’s student programming film division did an “Altman Week” in 1979. The week of Altman films culminated in a visit to the campus by the director along with a screening of his latest film, A Perfect Couple. I got to interview him for a journal published at the time by the College of Arts and Sciences. It was a great week.

Prior to its release, Nashville was famously previewed by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, the best in the business and the most provocative writer to ever cover the movies. She wrote a breathless and over-the-top rave of the film that caused some people to love it and others to hate it before they had even seen it. Kael, a brilliant writer, was a divisive critic – you either loved her or loathed her – and if she was enthusiastic about a movie, she did not hold back. The same was true of movies that did not meet her standards. I read her reviews ravenously and did not always agree with her but on the subject of Nashville and its greatness we shared common ground.

I own a well-worn copy of the Nashville script by Joan Tewkesbury, developed from cast improvisations and her journals of “Music City,” but I have watched the movie so many times that the script is hardly necessary. It’s a brilliant patchwork of intersecting lives with poignancy and sadness but also with abundant humor that never ceases to amuse me.

The memorable cast includes a number of people making their film debuts. The Nashville cast almost seemed like family to me and for decades I would follow the career path of actors just because I had first noticed them in Nashville.

I have watched the movie many times and find myself anticipating my favorite lines and moments; many of them continue to make me laugh.

“She can’t even comb her hair,” Connie White (Karen Black) snarls about Julie Christie (playing herself in a cameo) when she is told that Christie is a “famous movie star.”

Ned Beatty’s delivery of the line “I think I’ll just boil me an egg” as Delbert Reese still cracks me up as does the scene in which Winifred – aka “Albuquerque” – played by the brilliant Barbara Harris, tries to explain the industrial revolution to her grumpy husband by talking about “those flyswatters with the red dot.”

There was a widespread misconception and rumor that Southerners hated the movie. I know people who didn’t care about the movie as much as I did, but I wasn’t aware of any particular backlash against it. There was resentment in the country music community around Nashville about the broad strokes with which some of the country singers were presented; Loretta Lynn reportedly was offended by the Barbara Jean character – perhaps because her story hit a little too close to Lynn’s personal narrative.

Altman suggested that the country music establishment was offended that he used original music instead of music by Nashville songwriters. Many of the actors wrote and performed their own songs and they are sometimes good-natured spins on popular country music themes. Still, I find the music to be clever and fun and cherish some of the most absurd lyrics. Actor Keith Carradine’s soulful ballad “I’m Easy” won the Academy Award for best song that year (the only Academy Award the movie received). Country personalities of the time are seen in cameos in the Grand Ole Opry scenes and there is a lovely moment when legendary country fiddler Vassar Clements is featured in striking close-up.

It is an oversimplification to say that Altman uses Nashville as a metaphor and microcosm for America in the 1970s, while Watergate is winding down and while the lessons of the ‘60s are sinking in. But that is exactly how the movie works. For Baby Boomers like me who grew up in the Cold War and with the social upheavals of the ’60s, with a regular diet of political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War, Nashville – with its paranoia, cynicism, and, finally, its senseless violence, seems par for the course. It celebrates the American spirit and illuminates the American lie. Connie White purrs to a couple of young boys at the Opry, “I want you to study real hard because just remember anyone of you can grow up to be the president.” This, less than a year removed from Nixon’s resignation, inspires a single clueless audience member to clap, joylessly.

The climactic violent act of Nashville is senseless and meaningless and it is a fitting denouement to the decade we Baby Boomers, our parents, and grandparents had just endured. In her introduction to the published script, screenwriter Tewkesbury says, “… whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”

 

Photographing Churches

IMG_1059    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. Allison Brunson sorting Mardi Gras beads  Richard Brunson sorting Mardi Gras beads

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.

IMG_1011

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.

IMG_1021  IMG_1024

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. IMG_1042

IMG_1035St. 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. IMG_1047

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.

Merry Christmas.IMG_1055

South of the Salt Line

IMG_1004   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. IMG_0999Continuing 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.

IMG_0982Fairhope, 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.

IMG_1006 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). IMG_0980 “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. IMG_0987 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. IMG_0990 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). IMG_0997

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.

With that in mind, I take a deep and relaxing breath of salt-infused air, take a left when I ought to take a right, and check out the next treasure south of the Salt Line. IMG_0962

“… a brief meditation …” : Why I Mail Christmas Cards

IMG_0444   My Christmas cards went in the mail on December 1. I started designing my own Christmas cards over a decade ago and it has become something many of my correspondents seem to appreciate. And expect.

I looked forward to receiving and looking at Christmas cards when I was a child and many of the people who sent cards to my parents every year were people I never met but felt I knew from the stories my mother would share about them each December when the card arrived. Genevieve O’Brien in Chicago, Christine Allen in Georgia, and Doris and Bill Fuller in Fort Worth are among the annual cards we received without fail from people I never met. When I was grown and out on my own, I would send Christmas cards as often as I could but sometimes work schedules or finances would make it prohibitive.

From a very young age I had set opinions about Christmas greetings and Christmas décor. For example, I am a Southerner and never quite understood why so many Southerners would buy into the Madison Avenue version of Christmas and send out pristine snow scenes and winter scenes depicting images that were not part of my reality of the season growing up in Alabama. I have traveled and worked all over the country and I have had white Christmases a few times. But the Christmases of most of my life have been bracing Alabama Christmases with a chill in the air and no snow. Actually, I’m not a fan of snow and have never once dreamed of a white Christmas.

A number of years ago I decided to design my own Christmas cards and feature photographs that represented December in the South. I developed rules: 1) The photograph had to be taken during the month of December and 2) the photograph had to be taken somewhere in Alabama. Those are the only hard and fast rules but over time most of the photographs have been of old country churches I have discovered around the state. A couple of times the image has been landscapes around Mobile Bay where I try to spend some time each December.

The only exception was in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t design the card that year; instead, I purchased museum holiday cards with a detail from a still life of a bountiful holiday table which somehow reminded me of good times on the Gulf and in New Orleans.

I developed rituals: I try to get my card to the printer around October 1 each year. I start signing and addressing the cards by November 1. On December 1, my cards are in the mail. Over time the mailing list has gotten quite large. Most of the people on my list don’t send cards anymore. For me, however, it’s a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances all over the world. Some of them are people I may never see again but I like to keep a connection. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and the Christmas card list is something that keeps me in touch and grounded.

Most people who know about or receive my Christmas cards are grateful and look forward to them each year. Someone might ask if I’ve picked next year’s image yet or they’ll send me a new mailing address to ensure that they won’t miss this year’s card.

But occasionally someone will grouse “I don’t know why you do it. Who has the time? It’s so expensive. And so much trouble.” Here’s my response: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I do it because it gives me pleasure. I look forward to it. I want to do it.

With each card I sign and with each address I write on an envelope, it’s a brief meditation on that recipient.

When I first moved to Huntsville, there was a lady, Grace Clark, who lived in my apartment complex. We didn’t see each other often, but whenever we did we’d have a very pleasant conversation. I added her to my Christmas card list. She never mentioned my cards but when I moved from that apartment to my house I kept sending Christmas cards to Mrs. Clark. A couple of years ago, when Christmas was past, I received a note from a woman I didn’t know. She was Mrs. Clark’s daughter telling me that her mother had recently passed away. She told me that when she was going through her mother’s papers, she found a stack of my Christmas cards. Mrs. Clark had saved each one over the years.

If you don’t have time to send Christmas cards, I totally understand. I’m busy too. I have no time for Facebook and Twitter. We each choose what we have time to do.

This year’s image, by the way, is St. Luke’s Church (c. 1850), a cedar church in Cahaba. Cahaba is a ghost town and state park now, but it was Alabama’s first state capital from 1820-1826.

Happy Holidays.IMG_0456

 

Food Memory: Kushmagudi

 

IMG_0881     As the cold weather holidays roll in, I look forward to family food traditions. Going into Thanksgiving week and celebrations in Birmingham with my family, food memory kicks in bigtime.

There is a dish called “kushmagudi” (this is my own spelling; there is no official spelling) which is always on the Journey family tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is simple Southern food and its name (and my phonetic spelling) has no precedence that I can find.

My brother wrote a lovely essay about this dish a couple of years ago but since I haven’t been able to retrieve it, I will reintroduce the basics to “Professional Southerner” readers.

My grandmother Eula Harbison used to make kushmagudi and I always assumed that it was a known thing, like salt on watermelon, pepper on cantaloupe, and celery sticks served with turkey. As long as I can remember, kushmagudi was on the holiday table so I would mention it casually and be surprised at the blank stares I received. As I lived and traveled around the country, I realized that nobody outside my immediate family seems to have a clue what “kushmagudi” is.

Many might know some variation of the dish, I think, but not by that name.

Kushmagudi is nothing more than a tasty mixture of crumbled cornbread with the potlikker of turnip greens. I say “nothing more” but I am convinced that one needs a cook’s instinct to pull off the right mix. I have always heard stories about Grandmother feeding the masses of her family and crowds from church at short notice in the ‘30s and ‘40s and having family move into her family home between jobs and houses, during travel, etc. Based on what I know, I realize that Grandmother’s kushmagudi may have been invented as Depression food and a way to make the food in the rural house and garden go farther.

Based on what I know, I am sure that the word “kushmagudi” is Grandmother’s own coinage to name a dish she already knew but reinvented for her immediate and extended families. I have talked with Southerners who know a variation of potlikker and greens but, so far, none outside my own family have referred to it as “kushmagudi.”

After Grandmother died in December 1995, I was asked if I would make the kushmagudi for Christmas. I will admit that I was daunted. I had eaten it all of my life but I had never thought about it.

I relaxed and thought about the dish. I realized that it is a basic and instinctual recipe and that if one understands its components one should be able to make it in a satisfactory manner.

Here’s my basic recipe for my grandmother’s kushmagudi:

Eula McCarn Harbison’s Kushmagudi

  1. Make 1-2 cakes of cornbread or use leftover cornbread if you have it (remember that sugar is never acceptable in cornbread).
  2. Boil up a pot of turnip greens with your favorite spices and seasonings.
  3. Bring the greens to a boil and simmer on low for at least a half hour.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, crumble 1-1½ of the cakes of cornbread.
  5. Ladle the potlikker of the greens over the crumbled cornbread in the mixing bowl and mix to your preferred consistency and taste.
  6. Let the mixture meld for a while, keep it warm, and serve it.

I like to mix some collard greens with my turnip greens to vary the flavor of the potlikker a bit. Grandmother tended to use less spices in her greens than I do; she used salt and pepper. I like to add a little pepper sauce, sage, bacon fat, garlic powder, thyme, and other seasonings to the greens before I strain them into the cornbread. I also might add a small dash of sugar to the greens (but never to the cornbread). I also like to mix more of the actual greens into the mix. Grandmother generally just used the potlikker and served the seasoned turnip greens as a separate side dish.

This is truly a recipe that may be adapted to your and your family’s preference.

A bowl of kushmagudi with a glass of buttermilk is a perfect meal on a chilly night in late fall or winter.

Even though kushmagudi is cornbread-based, it is different enough that my family serves it alongside Mother’s traditional cornbread dressing. I think one must sprinkle pepper sauce over a good kushmagudi at table. This is a dish that is always on my family’s table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is often a side at my New Year’s Day luncheon.

If you have a variation of this dish, or a variant name, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve never tried it, you ought to. It’s easy and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving.

My Grandmother’s Quilt

IMG_0861   In the popular imagination, there has long been a romanticized picture of quilting as “quilting bees” in which ladies gathered, gossiped, and used their genteel skills to create colorful quilts. Folk art aficionados and museums have elevated quilts made for everyday use into works of art and the market for vintage quilts has gone through the roof in recent decades.

Quilts are works of art but lost on many are the practical utilitarian reasons for quilts to exist in the first place. As beautiful and artful as quilts may be, they were used to keep us warm and most of the people – mostly women – who created them were creating them as part of their job to feed and clothe and look to the comfort of their families. As beautiful as many quilts are and as much pride as is shown in the careful and intricate construction of quilts, their exhibition and appeal to collectors was far from the motivation for the quilter. More likely the motivation was along the lines of Will it keep the family warm at night? and Will it hold up? and Will I be embarrassed for the neighbor ladies to see it hanging on my clothesline?

As a child, I was fascinated with the quilts that would come out of the chiffarobes and cedar chests and closets when the nights started to become cool in the fall. The intricate patterns and pieces of fabric told a tale of the maker and her family. As I became older, my mother would occasionally offer me quilts that she had from her or Dad’s families. I have never turned down the gift of a quilt and now have a small but precious collection.

I am always curious about the provenance of the family quilts I receive but, because of the nature of the pieces and their creation, the information is often sketchy. These quilts, after all, were not made to be passed down as heirlooms. They were made to cover people and beds and serve a purpose. I have quilt tops that never got quilted and at least one quilt attributed to Snow Patton Journey, one of my paternal great-grandmothers.

Most of the quilts I have, however, were made by Eula McCarn Harbison (1909-1995), my maternal grandmother. All but one of Grandmother Harbison’s quilts are traditionally patterned –star and snowflake forms are popular – and delicately and masterfully structured. There is one exception and that quilt is on my bed as I write this and has been on my bed every cold season for years. This exception is one that my mother gave to me with the disclaimer that “your grandmother would be horrified if she thought anybody would see this one.”

I hope Grandmother Harbison is not horrified when I say that this is my favorite quilt and I am proud to show it to others. It is clearly a “crazy quilt,” with unmatched and large pieces of fabric and no patterning. In examining it, my guess is that it was put together very quickly (perhaps in advance of an approaching cold spell?). It is also the heaviest and warmest quilt I have ever encountered. I don’t much like cold weather but one of the few pleasures of “the weather of northern aggression” is knowing that I will be sleeping under this amazing quilt for a while. My mother can’t remember when this quilt was made but I am guessing the 1940s before Mother’s family relocated to Birmingham after World War II. Mother says that’s a good guess since she doesn’t recall Grandmother quilting after the move to Birmingham.

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As an artist and as a lover of art, my tastes often run toward the modernist and minimalist and Grandmother Harbison’s quilt fits in both categories in its abstract and random collection of fabrics and in its asymmetrical and challenging composition. There is a large square of solid olive fabric placed near one of the corners that always reminds me of the blocks of color or text found in some Asian prints. This would not have been something my grandmother necessarily knew about but the artistic impulse and prescience intrigues me. Grandmother always said that every room should have a touch of red somewhere and I always thought Well, she and Diana Vreeland have that in common! 

One of Grandmother’s “nicer” more traditional quilts lives on the foot of the bed in my guest room but it’s the thick and crazy one that will cover me tonight and for many nights to come.

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(All quilts shown are by Eula McCarn Harbison.)

 

 

 

Food Memory: Turnip Green Soup

IMG_0769  When I was growing up I didn’t think much about turnip greens because they were ubiquitous. They’d be served at home regularly, most restaurants had them on the menu, and any “meat and three” joint or cafeteria would serve them. As long as there was a bottle of pepper sauce – hot peppers in vinegar – on the table to sprinkle over them I was good.

Turnip greens were one of the many Southern staples that I didn’t much think about or miss until I began to travel and lived in places where they were hard to get or completely unavailable. That’s when I began to pay more attention to them. I began to grab them fresh when I could find them. I questioned older Southern cooks about how to prepare them.

I also began to experiment with collard greens which were generally less served in my own native environs. I enjoy cooking collard and turnip greens together; turnip greens have a bit more of a bite and the collard greens pull that down a notch. I even began to play around with the actual turnips, which were rarely served on Southern menus. I occasionally make a creamed turnip puree which is good to spread on bread or use as a dipping sauce with a plate of crudités.

Several years ago my mother, knowing my appreciation of greens prepared well, mailed to me a recipe for “turnip green soup” that she had cut out of the newspaper. I have a rule that I never tamper with a recipe until I have prepared it as written at least once. After that, I can start playing around.

I thought the “turnip green soup” would be a recipe that I messed with because it used frozen turnip greens and some canned ingredients. I would make it their way and then see how I might improve it with fresh ingredients. But here’s what happened: It was so delicious as written that I wasn’t sure I wanted to mess around with it.

I did tamper with it a bit though, and have made substitutions when I was missing an ingredient in the pantry. When fall weather and football season roll around, it’s a great quick meal to prepare. I cook a large batch of it in a cast iron dutch oven, transfer it to containers in the refrigerator, and eat on it for a few days. You must have cornbread with it and I sometimes just make a cake of cornbread but I prefer to make corn sticks as the accompaniment so that I can just dip the corn stick in the soup.

I often serve turnip green soup as a starter course to my New Year’s Day luncheon. A few years ago, when my sister-in-law ran her first half marathon in Huntsville, I prepared a pot of it for lunch after the run and found that it was the perfect post-run comfort food. Friends from Ohio have transferred it up North and I hear it “has legs” along Lake Erie.

I am teaching a Saturday morning class this fall and there are hours of college football to watch when I get home from class. When I left class around 11:00 this Saturday morning, I ran by the store to pick up some ingredients, came home, made a batch of turnip green soup and corn sticks, and had a hearty meal before my main game aired at 2:30.

Here’s the recipe for turnip green soup as I usually make it. It is a forgiving recipe, open to substitutions or deletions depending on taste. It can easily be a vegetarian dish if one is so inclined.

TURNIP GREEN SOUP

2 packages (about 24 ounces) frozen turnip greens with diced turnips

1 package Knorr vegetable mix (from the soup section)

1 can (about 15 ounces) northern beans

1 can (about 15 ounces) navy beans

1 small onion, chopped

5 cups chicken broth

1 pound smoked sausage, sliced thin (I use Conecuh smoked sausage from south Alabama)

1 teaspoon hot sauce (I use more)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning to taste

Combine all ingredients in a soup pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until sausage is done. Serve with corn bread, corn muffins, or corn sticks.

Coke and Peanuts

IMG_0749 Back when I subscribed to Oxford American magazine, I would regularly threaten (to myself) to cancel my subscription if I saw one more picture of a snake handler in their pages. Snake handlers and alligators were a little too common as OA’s attempt to capture “Southern-ness” occasionally tilted a little too far toward surreal Southern Gothic.

So it is with some trepidation that I feel a need to address the very Southern taste for salted peanuts in Coca-Cola as a snack. This is something I remember from early childhood. We would take a bottle of Coke and a sleeve of salted peanuts. Take a couple of good swigs of the Coke to make room for the peanuts and then slowly pour the peanuts into the narrow top of the Coke bottle. The combination of the sugary Coca-Cola with the salty peanuts is really good. Trust me on this, but don’t ask me to explain why.

I had relegated peanuts in Coca-Cola to a distant childhood memory until this summer when Coach Jimbo Fisher of Florida State dumped some peanuts in his Coca-Cola during ACC media days. The non-Southern press in attendance was flabbergasted and felt the need to address this odd behavior in multiple columns which then led to a deluge of online responses, contradictions, and opinions. We Southerners who grew up with peanuts in Coke as a normal treat were a little bemused by the brouhaha. While I suspect that this tradition is more familiar to Baby Boomers and their parents than to younger generations, I asked a recent class of college-age students how many of them had heard of or had peanuts in Coca-Cola and was surprised at how many hands went up. A few of them opted for RC Cola instead of Coke. I can accept that.

The resurgence of peanuts in Coca-Cola as a topic of conversation in the 21st century surprised me as much as the emergence of one of my guilty pleasure road treats – fried pork rinds – as a healthier junk food choice (no carbs, high protein, low-fat and a high percentage of the same healthy unsaturated fats as olive oil – go figure).

There is a long tradition of Coke in recipes. “Atlanta Brisket” – brisket glazed with cola – has been around for a while and “America’s Test Kitchen” did a version of it fairly recently. “Coca-Cola Cake” is a mainstay of Southern cookbooks and I have seen a Coca-Cola cake with a peanut glaze inspired by the classic peanuts in Coke tradition.

Bartenders are constantly upgrading the football Saturday stalwart bourbon and Coke into more sophisticated renderings such as the “Reengineered Bourbon and Coke Cocktail” recently featured in Garden and Gun magazine. Even more to the point, I recently heard that a place in Birmingham has a cocktail called the “Tallulah” which is made of Coca-Cola, peanut syrup, and Jack Daniel’s. An investigation is in order.

North Carolina chef Vivian Howard, in an episode of her PBS show “A Chef’s Life,” explored the North Carolina tradition of putting peanuts in Pepsi. I have a lot of respect for Chef Howard and she is a wonderful chef, but this will not do. Howard’s Pepsi and peanuts exploration did, however, lead to what looked like a great recipe of Pepsi-glazed pork belly with country ham braised peanuts. I bet it would be even better with a Coke glaze.

After teaching a Saturday class in Huntsville this past weekend, I hopped in the car to drive to Birmingham for a quick visit. Stopping for gas outside Decatur, I spotted an 8 oz. Coke in a glass bottle in the drinks case. I grabbed it and a sleeve of Golden Flake salted peanuts and headed to the car. I downed a few gulps of the Coke, emptied the peanuts into the bottle, and headed south on I-65 listening to the radio and the pre-game shows leading up to the Alabama-Ole Miss game. It has been at least forty years since I indulged in peanuts in Coca-Cola. I was transported back to football Saturdays growing up and “The Bear Bryant Show” on television each Sunday after game days. Coca-Cola and Golden Flake potato chips sponsored the show (“’Great pair’, says The Bear”).

It was an exhilarating drive.