Category Archives: travel

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 ( 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 (, 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 ( 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 ( 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.


A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

IMG_1134  My attraction to Mardi Gras is directly tied to my attraction to the Gulf Coast. Growing up inland, Mardi Gras always seemed mysterious and somehow “foreign” and like a place I’d rather be. I would see news reports of the activities in New Orleans and Mobile and other celebrations on a smaller scale along the Gulf and they seemed to be in stark contrast to the grey late-winter life around me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and we did not observe Ash Wednesday. When I realized the Christian tie-in to the revelry of Mardi Gras and better understood the season that begins on Epiphany and ends precisely at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, that knowledge gave the events of the season even more mystery and appeal.

Age, experience, and knowledge began to de-mystify the events of the carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras and more and more the events began to move farther inland. When I was living and teaching in Indiana in the 90s, I began to throw beads at the end of my Fat Tuesday classes to give myself a sense of connection to my home region. Huntsville, where I live now, had its 2nd annual Mardi Gras parade on Saturday, February 14, but it’s a sad substitute for the real deal on the coast.

I am a bit of a traditionalist and a purist when it comes to the proper way to do things and I bristle a bit at the fact that one can now stand beneath a New Orleans Bourbon Street balcony and be showered with Mardi Gras beads on virtually any night of the year. In my mind, Mardi Gras beads should only be thrown in the season. And then they should be packed away until the following January.

The appeal of tradition and the desire to recapture the mystique of “The Season” on the Gulf Coast of the Deep South is one of the reasons Joe Cain Day, observed in Mobile on the Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday (and the subject of my previous essay), has engaged me.

I hosted my first Joe Cain Day celebration this Sunday, February 15, and it brought some levity to a blustery February afternoon in north Alabama as still another cold front – “the weather of northern aggression” I call it – moved into the area. On the invitations I wrote “Masks and mourning attire optional.” My guests, some of them wearing masks and almost all dressed in some form of black in “mourning” for Joe Cain, enjoyed the respite before the cold and icy work week resumed.

IMG_1128One of my favorite images in New Orleans is that of Mardi Gras beads that never came down to earth during parades and got caught in the live oaks along the parade routes. They hang there throughout the year, gradually fading but always a reminder that the season has gone but will always come back again in January. I look for these stray beads on streetcar rides along St. Charles. With that image in mind, I threw beads from my second story bedroom window on the day before the party and let them catch in the cherry tree in my front yard so that my guests would have that image of beads in the trees upon arrival. (Now I will spend the rest of February retrieving Mardi Gras beads from the cherry tree.)

I designed the menu to reflect regional and seasonal tastes and as usual there was much more food than was needed. I made a lot of the food myself. I purchased other things from favorite vendors. Here’s my menu.

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading


Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

The gumbo was ordered from Wintzell’s (, a Mobile-based oyster house and restaurant that makes one of my favorite gumbos. The King Cake, a carnival season standard, came from Paul’s Pastry Shop ( in Picayune, Mississippi. My friends G. Todd and Anita brought a couple of other dishes — a crawfish beignet with a savory sauce and crostini topped with shrimp, red pepper jelly, and sweet potato. The chocolates were from the Chocolate Gallery in Huntsville (

IMG_1133“Mardi Gras Chicken” was a clear favorite of the day. When I was on the Gulf Coast in December, I was toying with the idea of a Joe Cain Day party. I asked my friends, the Brunsons – who are natives of Mobile, for a dish that their mother, Jean Brunson, would have made for Mardi Gras and Joe Cain Day. The response was unanimous – “Mardi Gras Chicken!” – and a recipe was produced. Mrs. Brunson was the caterer for the First Baptist Church of Mobile for many years and had a sizable repertoire. “Mardi Gras Chicken” is really an adaptation of a chicken tetrazinni recipe but Mrs. Brunson always made it around Mardi Gras and her children still refer to it as “Mardi Gras Chicken.”

I made my own revisions to the recipe and my adaptation of Mrs. Brunson’s adaptation is what I’m offering here. It’s a hit.

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

Cook rotelli pasta in chicken broth. Since it will be baked in a casserole, it is best to cook it until it is fairly limp. Drain pasta. Add chicken to pasta (chop chicken into fairly large bites). Add peppers, onion, celery, and pimento. Stir in cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and ½ cup cheese.

Place mixture in large casserole dish and top with ½ cup cheese and minced almonds. Bake at 350 degrees for I hour.

Happy Mardi Gras!


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 ( is a particularly fine independent bookstore. The Kiln ( 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 ( 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 (, a startlingly fine sushi place in the middle of fried fish territory.

Other great options downtown include Panini Pete’s (, 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 ( 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 (, 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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

Postcard from The Grand

     IMG_0938  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, ( 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.

IMG_0933    IMG_0925

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. IMG_0911


So, the Grand it is and the Grand it will be for this December and, I hope, many Decembers to come.



“The Professional Southerner” — and why

IMG_3349I think I was living in Indiana the first time I was referred to as a “professional southerner.” As I recall, it was around 1994 and I was frustrated because I had been unable to find okra in the produce sections of the local grocers. Someone innocently asked why I ate okra and my shock made me launch into a monologue of the virtues of okra and all the ways in which it could be consumed. But my favorite way was breaded and fried in the particular way my Grandmother Harbison had always made it and I had been craving fried okra around that time of that Indiana summer.

This led to questions about other ways in which okra could be consumed (I told them pickled okra was my favorite Bloody Mary garnish), other foods I like, and other queries about Southern foodways. Someone in the group mumbled, “I never realized you were such a professional Southerner,” and we all laughed but over the years, as I lived and traveled in other parts of the country, I became aware that I was often the go-to guy for issues dealing with the South and what it means to be Southern.

Having said that, I am a proud Southerner but very few people would classify me as a “typical” Southern male with all of the misconceptions and stereotypes that label evokes. But I realized, after traveling and working in different places – and to my surprise, really – that not only was the South my home, but that it was the place I best understood and the place where I felt most comfortable. It was the place I wanted to come back to. My politics, for one thing, are not typical of the South, but they are also not as atypical as some might suppose and I resent the whole “Blue State / Red State” way of thinking because it gives such a divisive idea of what is really happening in our country.

Not long ago, my friend Cindy and I attended a “Piggy Bank” dinner at the Factory of Alabama-based fashion designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama. The event was to honor Southern food and to benefit Southern Foodways Alliance. The chef for the evening was Vivian Howard who owns and runs Chef and the Farmer, a farm to table fine dining restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, with her husband Ben Knight. Between the entrée and the dessert, Shonna Tucker, an Alabama-born musician who has recently moved to Florence after many years on the road, sang her striking and original songs. The dinner guests were a wide range of people who shared an amazing communal meal and one of the most convivial and relaxed evenings I have enjoyed in a long time. At the end of the evening, all of the diners stood and sang “You Are My Sunshine” to Vivian Howard, led by Natalie Chanin, one of the most innovative and conscious fashion designers working today.

That night, walking from the Factory to the car, I commented to my friend that “This is one of those nights when I can’t imagine living anyplace else but Alabama.” And I decided that I – who have always detested the idea of blogs and the label of “blogger” – would make an effort to record and share some of the things that make my South so special to me. Plus, I have been told that I “think loudly.” Maybe, by writing this online journal, my loud thoughts will become more specific and defined.