Remembrance of Summers Past

I have a bone to pick. As I write this, we are less than a month into astronomical summer but everywhere I look and listen lately people are talking about the end of summer and I’m sick of it.

I love summer and feel like I have barely had a chance to enjoy the season yet. I refuse to accept its end when a bunch of fourth graders hop on buses for the first day of school (which is now criminally early). Labor Day is a holiday of the summer, not a fall holiday. The start of football season marks the final weeks of summer, not the beginning of fall.

Hey! You kids! Get off of my lawn!

Now that that’s off my chest, I want to talk about food.


When the idea of “California Cuisine” was first hitting its stride in the ’70s, there was a celebrated event designed to introduce the West Coast concept to French chefs. One of the French luminaries reportedly sniffed, “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping.”

I love that story and he was right. This whole idea of farm to table and eating fresh and local is based on the availability of good ingredients and presenting them at their best, without the cook getting in the way too much.

I don’t cook at home nearly as much as I used to but today I wanted to see what I had on hand, knowing that my trips to the farmers’ markets have become less regular. I did make a quick trip to a family farm stand in Birmingham a couple of days ago and bought some nice small-sized okra. The first bag of okra I pulled out today, however, had gone bad and was smelly and gross. After a shocked moment, I realized that I had discovered a bag of okra bought a couple of weeks ago that had been forgotten. The okra from this past weekend was safe, crispy, and sound in the crisper bin and ready to cut, batter, and fry up.

“Food memory” is a sensation that has long intrigued me – how a smell or a taste can bring back a flood of memories. Proust’s “madeleine moment” resonates for me.  A fresh cantaloupe was sitting near my okra; okra and cantaloupe always conjure up memories of midsummer lunches at my Grandmother Harbison’s kitchen table.

I don’t know if it was an intentional pairing on her part, but whenever I dig into a plate of fried okra with a slice of cantaloupe on the side, I remember childhood midweek meals at the Harbison table in Fairfield Highlands. We always sprinkled a bit of black pepper on cantaloupes. I’m not sure where that practice came from, or how widespread it is, but it always seems natural to me. Conversely, watermelon was always served with a shaker of salt standing by.

I had a couple of peaches left over from my most recent peach run. They were a little overripe so it seemed the best way to eat them was to grill them. I quartered the truly succulent peaches and grilled them as I finished up the breaded okra in the iron skillet. The meal didn’t take long at all to prepare but the plate of fried okra, sweet cantaloupe with a touch of pepper, and still juicy grilled peaches tasted like summer to me. It tasted like my childhood.

I didn’t take the time to make a cake of cornbread and I was fresh out of fresh tomatoes, but the plate of food – accompanied by a glass of iced tea with lemon – was more than enough to sustain me on a steamy midsummer day.

It won’t be fall for a while yet.

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Blind Faith

String Quilt (detail), Unidentified Maker (c. 1970)

Faith involves an acceptance of absurdity. – Zadie Smith, author

I’ve followed the work of various “folk” or “outsider” or “visionary” or “naïve” self-taught artists since college and remain eternally confused about what is the best and most inoffensive label to place on them. Of course, labels constantly evolve and what was respectful in one decade might be deemed offensive down the road.

The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), in its current exhibition, “The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection,” lands on “makers” as the appropriate contemporary term. It makes perfect sense since the word “maker” has had a resurgence among artists and those who apply hands-on skills. The term does not delineate between level of skill and training and place. Picasso, after all, was a “maker,” as are all of the artists in this compelling show.

I wrote about my connection to Helen and Robert Cargo when BMA presented an exhibit of their collection of Haitian vodou flags in 2016 (“Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art”). They were my neighbors and landlords during part of my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa.  Dr. Robert Cargo taught French literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Classics at Alabama. I was aware that they were collectors of art by various folk and outsider artists but did not realize the extent of their collection until they opened the Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1984.

Tree of Life quilt, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas (c. 1875-1880)

The Cargos have passed away but they made generous donations of their collection – in particular to the BMA – over the years. Their daughter, Caroline Cargo, has continued that generosity with substantial donations of the Cargo Collection – some of which are on view in the current Birmingham exhibition which will be up until the end of 2018.

The exhibit is sumptuous and detailed – a comprehensive overview of the range of the makers on display. The Cargos were avid collectors of Southern quilts and the exhibition includes a quilt by Dr. Cargo’s great-grandmother, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas, which sparked a life-long interest in quilts and quilters. Quilts from many periods and styles are on display throughout the exhibition, including works by more contemporary quilters such as Nora Ezell, Mary Maxtion, and Yvonne Wells, as well as Joanna Pettway of the acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilters. Some of the most stunning quilts are by unidentified makers. Dr. Cargo’s interest in male quilters is represented by a broken star patterned quilt by Afton Germany.

“Bust of Ethel (Artist’s Wife); Jimmy Lee Suddeth (1992)

Some of the makers in the exhibit are already well-known to me and others are new or lesser-known. Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Suddeth, and Mose “Mose T” Tolliver are familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in Alabama makers. Suddeth famously made the majority of his paints from various muds and clays and I was particularly moved by a painting of his wife, Ethel, done in the year she died.

Untitled (Men and Women Seated at Table), Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones (1993)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Among the artists who are new to me is Kentuckian Denzil Goodpaster, whose charming wood carvings include an image of Dolly Parton performing as well as a trio of cheerleaders. The smiling faces of the people and the stoic faces of the various animals are memorable in the works of Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones, while the subtly rendered ethereal paintings of faces, flora, and fauna on brown paper bags by Sybil Gibson are haunting. I passed these images quickly during my visit to the museum but found myself thinking about them later and wanting to look at them again. Fortunately, the exhibition catalogue, available in the museum gift shop, makes that possible.

“Story of My Life” (detail), Leroy Almon Sr. (1987)

Chuckie Williams’s two-sided paintings of pop culture icons are bold, vivid, and good-natured. While Williams was recovering from an emotional breakdown, he felt called by Jesus to paint. It was particularly exciting to discover the autobiographical six-panel “Story of My Life” by Leroy Almon Sr., including images of houses and places he lived, jobs that he worked, and his calling to pursue art. Almon became an ordained minister (as well as a police dispatcher) in the final years of his life.

 

 

 

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. — Paul Tillich, Christian theologian

various Gourds, Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins, c. 1984-1989

Starting with an interest in the divinely inspired works of visionary artists Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster and the evolution of W.C. Rice’s stark and foreboding installation, “Cross Garden,” near Prattville, Alabama, I have been fascinated with the many outsider makers who have felt called by God to create their art. In the Cargo exhibit, a centerpiece is the visionary work of Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins. Perkins’s colorful and inventive art is showcased in an installation of his painting on a variety of media – birdhouses, gourds, text tracts on wooden boards. Rev. Perkins felt divinely inspired to spread the Gospel through his individual works and installations and the bulk of works in that area of the exhibition are devoted to art that is specifically religious in nature. Also of interest, however, are the inclusion of Perkins images and paintings prompted by his fascination with American patriotism, the history of time and the calendar, and the contents of King Tuthankamun’s tomb.

“Angel Choir with Director,” Fred Webster (1983-1987)

Artist Fred Webster is represented by a series of cases filled with works inspired by biblical stories from the old and new testaments. The carved images cover a wide span of biblical events along with more fanciful images of a choir of angels and a band of devils. Webster’s more secular subject matter includes images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and George Wallace delivering an address from his wheelchair. A collection of busts of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, along with a full-body carving take up about half of a display case.

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, in essence, that there is no faith without doubt but there is a part of me that envies the blind faith of these makers, many of whom followed a divine inspiration without falter or question.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

I love the heat and activity of summer – the long days, the unpredictable showers, living out-of-doors. I always like to mark the Summer Solstice with a special activity, including my annual reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel set over the course of a summer told in the conversational voice of Gatsby’s erstwhile sidekick, Nick Carraway. It is Fitzgerald’s most perfect novel.

I have known since last October that I would be spending the evening of the 2018 Summer Solstice in Florence. I have written frequently about the “Friends of the Café” series of dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). These usually serve as fundraising events for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and are among the most anticipated events on my annual calendar. They are an escape.

The June 2018 dinner marked not only the Summer Solstice but a reunion with old friends, the opportunity to introduce friends who’ve never met each other, and the first “Friends of the Café” dinner for several of the people at my table.

I rode over to Florence from Decatur with my friends Anne and Deborah. Deborah, a Mobile native, was visiting from New Mexico. At the same time, my friends Scott and Michelle, with Scott’s parents, Jim and Judy – who were visiting from Ohio, were driving over from Owens Cross Roads, just over the mountain from Huntsville. Carol, a friend from Chicago, was already ensconced in Florence where she was attending week-long patterning workshops at Alabama Chanin.

When we arrived at the Factory, we were greeted with a beverage called the “Summer Solstice” – a refreshing mix of mint and peach-infused tea and Prosecco, ideal for celebrating the official start of my favorite season and for launching an impeccable meal.

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

The chef for the evening was Rebecca Wilcomb, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef – South. Wilcomb is Executive Chef at Herbsaint (www.herbsaint.com), a favorite New Orleans restaurant (I have a few) that is part of Chef Donald Link’s family of restaurants celebrating Louisiana roots and foodways.

Chef Wilcomb strayed a bit from her typical Herbsaint fare for this special Factory dinner, paying homage to her mother’s Italian roots – and especially to food prepared by her Italian grandmother in her kitchen in Italy. The meal was sumptuous and generous with Italian-inspired takes on fresh local food.

As the tribe gathered, hors d’oeuvres were passed by the always amazing Factory staff. I made sure I tracked down at least one of everything. The crab melt was a buttery mini-sandwich filled with perfectly rendered crab filling. Chickpea fritters with caponata, a well-spiced vegetable blend, provided a rich mouthful. Skewers of large spice-forward shrimp were incredible, and my favorites were skewers of beef chunks with anchovy and olive.

Dark clouds were gathering as we took our seats at the intimate Factory table settings. Thunder and lightning began to herald a passing storm as Natalie Chanin made her welcoming comments. The noisy storm prompted Deborah and me to exchange glances to acknowledge that a storm was the ideal accent for this special meal to cap the longest day of the year.  As the lightning began to subside, the rain intensified, pounding an energetic percussive beat on the Factory’s metal roof. Just as quickly, the storm moved away.

There was a lot of rain in the spring and recently; it promises to be a good year for fireflies.

  The first course for the seated meal was “Giannina’s  Tortellini.” It was revealed that Chef Wilcomb had never before served these tortellini at her restaurants or at a public gathering. Her Italian grandmother’s tortellini recipe was a special start to the meal with the stuffed tortellini served in a subtly flavorful broth. I tilted my bowl at the end to ensure that I could spoon out every last drop.

photo by D. Brunson

That first course was a finely rendered tease for the hearty second course to come. Served family style, it included six beautifully prepared and seasoned dishes highlighted by both a meat and fish offering. Pork belly from nearby Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.grazecart.com) was passed around along with an Open Blue cobia (www.openblue.com) from the Caribbean, paired with Calabrian chilies. The delicate white fish was a unanimous hit at our table, with a subtle creamy taste. Italian rice salad, marinated lunchbox peppers, a dish piled high with whole charred okra, and a beautiful bowl of seasoned porcini mushrooms completed the course.

photo by D. Brunson

The feast ended with platters piled with summer fruit hand fries; fig, blueberry, and peach pies were available and most of my dining partners managed to sample one of each. I was pretty full by that time and only ate two – fig and, of course, peach.

This will be one of the most memorable of the Factory meals because of the friends – old and new – who congregated for a very special event. I realized that all of the people who were seated at my table were there – either directly or indirectly – because of me. I worried that everybody might not have a good time but that concern melted away as we all talked and laughed, enjoyed the food together, and toasted the promise of summer.

An added treat of these dinners is the opportunity to see a chef I admire in a new context. Chef Wilcomb always brings to mind a favorite table by the window at Herbsaint; now, Herbsaint will always remind me of Giannina, her Italian grandmother, and of a Summer Solstice that was celebrated with friends in a most memorable way.

As we left the factory, the rains had moved on and a steamy glaze danced across the pavement of the road on a hot summer night. 

Lulu’s Herb Garden

As I write this, it is Friday morning and Lulu is lolling in her favorite sunny spot by the backyard fence. Lulu is my mother’s three-year-old chihuahua.

Last year I wrote about Clover, Mother’s chihuahua that died suddenly, and how deeply that loss was felt. Not long after that, Mother took in Lulu, a recent young mother whose human family had decided they needed to downsize. They decided to keep one of the puppies but to send Lulu to a new home. Mother had been recommended by a mutual acquaintance.

It was a rocky beginning for Lulu, who panicked when she realized she had lost the only family she had known. The first night was endless and exhausting with Lulu barking at and running away from the new humans she had been abruptly handed over to.

After a couple of days, she warmed up to Mother, but she absolutely hated me.

After a few weeks and many belly rubs, Lulu and I turned the corner and she came to recognize me as an ally and friend and the visitor who would always spoil and indulge and sneak treats to her. Over time, she has become a little obsessed with me. If Mother says, “Edward is coming,” she will go and keep watch by the front door until I get there. If I sit on the couch, she takes that as an invitation to join me for a belly rub. If I take a nap and leave the door open, she will jump in bed with me; if I leave the door closed, she will patiently wait by the door for me to emerge.

Lulu has the most highly alert sense of smell of any dog I’ve ever been around on a regular basis. She  has her nose up, sniffing the air, or down, searching the ground, to seek out whatever scents may be around. When I take her for a walk in Mother’s neighborhood, she frequently stops to check out the scents of various grasses and plants. There is a mailbox post draped in jasmine that transfixes her. She takes long sniffs all around the post before she can be enticed to move away.

In Mother’s back yard there is one patch of grass in particular that appeals to her. She will run to it and delicately scratch the ground to release the scents. Often, she will roll around in it to perfume herself after sniffing for a while. Then she happily scampers to the house.

This acute attention to smell inspired me to undertake a fragrant project for Lulu and treat her to her very own herb garden.

I did my research, looking up several articles about herbs that are good for dogs. Of course, on internet searches, everybody has an opinion whether they have facts to back them up or not. On this search, one site said that garlic in small amounts was good for dogs and the outraged responses went hysterical and haywire as only the internet can.

I didn’t plan to use garlic to begin with.

So, based on my research, I got a strawberry pot and planted a different herb in each pocket. I planted basil, mint, parsley, sage, and thyme. I also planted a pocket of cilantro – which I don’t like much, but I’m not a dog and cilantro seems to have good benefits. Finally, rosemary was planted in the top of the pot. Oregano was mentioned throughout my research but I passed since I have never had luck growing it.

It was relaxing to plant Lulu’s herb garden and I pulled out one of my own strawberry pots and planted another one just like it to add to my kitchen herbs outside the back door.

On the drive to Birmingham, the earthy aromas of the herbal bounty filled the car with sensuous smells. When I arrived at Mother’s house and tempted Lulu with her pot, the response was tepid at best. As I carried the pot on out to the back porch, Lulu watched from a distance and seemed mildly curious but underwhelmed.

The next time she went outside, Lulu gave the herb pot a wide berth. After trotting around the yard for a while and making a stop to sniff around her favorite rose bushes, she slowly approached the pot and smelled the basil. Then she tentatively worked her way around the pot, sniffing at each herb. And then she continued to make her rounds.

A day later, it’s not clear if Lulu realizes that the herb pot is hers or not. But I have noticed that she stops for a sniff or two on her way out into the yard to loll in her sunny spot. It is still an experiment in progress as I watch to see if Lulu takes ownership of her little herb garden; she might not.

Either way, there’s a new source of fresh herbs at Mother’s house for cooking. 

Lulu and her herbs

Adventures in Pottery

When I was little and living in Tuscaloosa, before the interstate came through, Hamm’s Pottery on Highway 11 just past Cottondale was a magical place on the road to Birmingham. I remember rows and rows of wheel-turned garden pots on the hillside outside the shop and a variety of pots – some made by Mr. Hamm and others mass manufactured – that were sold in the store by the highway.

My Harbison grandparents liked to stop at Hamm’s and I suspect that some of the glazed decorative pottery for houseplants that I now have in my house came from those visits. Over time, Mr. and Mrs. Hamm passed away and a barbecue place named The Pottery Grill took over the location.

Fast forward to my post-college years and I was again living in Tuscaloosa and, influenced by the Kentuck Art Center and its fall festival, I began to take a collector’s interest in art and functional pottery. In every room of my house now, there is pottery to contemplate.

My collection eventually outgrew the tables and shelves on which to display it. Just before I moved into my current house, I came into possession of my grandparents’ dining room table and china cabinet. Mother said she’d give me china to display in the cabinet but I had other ideas and the china cabinet became the home to a good many pieces of pottery.

Pottery by Timothy Weber

The first significant pieces of my pottery collection were a couple of “architectural” pots by Timothy Weber (www.tweberpottery.com) when he was based in Tuscaloosa. I lost track of Weber for a while when I was moving around for theatre and he had relocated to Tennessee. More recently, I have caught back up with him at the Kentuck Festival and other galleries around the region and have increased the Weber collection.

Pottery by Daniel Livingston

Daniel Livingston is a friend from my Tuscaloosa years whose delicate and intricate raku pieces have been added to my collection over the years. During a move, I dropped and broke one of my favorite Livingston pieces but gathered up the delicate shards and lined them around a plant in a flower pot. The piece took on a vibrant second life in that incarnation.

Pottery by Susan Brown Freeman

 

 

Susan Brown Freeman is still another potter with Tuscaloosa connections who is now based in Birmingham. I bought my first piece of her pottery at the Chimneyville Crafts Festival in Mississippi. Freeman’s deep glazes and intricate designs with delicately rendered reticulation and cutouts are favorites. When I purchased one as a present for my mother, it started her on a decades long habit of buying Freeman’s pieces.

 

I went through a period of seeking out horsehair pottery – pottery that has horsehair thrown on it during firing, leaving a dark carbon stain on the piece. My two favorite horsehair pieces came from a shop in Seaside on the Florida Gulf coast and from a gallery in Little Rock.

Horsehair Pottery

When I lived in southwestern Utah, I acquired pottery pieces that were fired in restored kilns of the ancient Anasazi by late 20th Century Native American potters. A Navajo-style wedding vase with two spouts bridged by a looped handle was a perfect wedding gift.

On theatre gigs and tours, I would pack a piece of my pottery in my luggage. I would unpack and display it in each of the endless series of hotel rooms to keep a connection to home.

On annual trips to Fairhope, I was pleased to discover The Kiln, Susie Bowman’s ceramics gallery and workshop (www.facebook.com/thekilnfairhope). In the early days of The Kiln, I was especially drawn to the pottery by Branan Mercer (www.b-metro.com/brananmercer) and usually bought a piece or two around Christmas. Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is a fairly short drive from Fairhope and its Shearwater Pottery (www.shearwaterpottery.com), started by Peter Anderson of the artistically prolific Anderson family, is an idyllic location along a wooded road perfumed by Gulf breezes.

Pottery by Shearwater

Pottery by Branan Mercer

Over the years, my collection has grown with gifts from those who know my predilection. A Sansai Trinity Vase, a three-sided Japanese porcelain vase with Chinese characters, was a gift from Pratt Dean, a former missionary in Japan (www.trinityvase.com). A piece of speckled blue “Cindyware” by my friend Cindy Edwards is displayed near functional pieces by Jerry Brown, the master potter of Hamilton, Alabama, who passed away in 2016 (www.jerrybrownpottery.com). Jerry Brown Pottery is a family operation and Brown’s work was created in close collaboration with his wife, Sandra, and other family members. Brown is best known for his whimsical “face jugs,” which is a form I never warmed up to. I am more drawn to the functional pieces like bacon cookers and corn bread cookers which I own and use regularly.

Miller’s Pottery

Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama (www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1033) continues a family tradition of stoneware pottery spanning the history of pottery-making in Alabama. The Miller family has a marital connection to the pioneering French LaCoste family of potters around Montrose on Alabama’s Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, whose kilns date back to around the 1840s. Eric Miller once told me a story about making a set of dinnerware for a relative who, upon receiving it, said, “This is so special, I would never dream of using it.” Mr. Miller sounded almost offended when he explained, “But I make it to be used.” I love the classic lines of Miller’s Pottery and the marks of individuals in the pottery. Eric Miller’s son, Steve, and his cousin, Allen Ham, each bring their own distinctive markings to the classic family designs.

Ceramic by Frank Fleming

The Alabama artist Frank Fleming passed away in March 2018 (www.bhamnow.com/2018/03/19/frank-fleming). Fleming’s monumental works featuring fantastical animals are found in many public and museum locations throughout the South and nationally. His most notable work is probably “The Storyteller” fountain in Birmingham’s Five Points South district. In my collection, Fleming is represented by a more prosaic miniature porcelain piece of an okra pod and garlic bulb resting on a magnolia leaf.

I have pottery pieces from many places but Alabama-based pottery is core to the collection. A key resource for information about pottery-making in Alabama is Joey Brackner’s comprehensive Alabama Folk Pottery (University of Alabama Press, 2006).

My pottery collecting spans four decades of adding pieces that speak to me in some special way at a given time on my travels. It reflects changes in my tastes over time. Its tactile nature makes it a pleasure to handle and use. Practically every piece evokes an individual story of the maker who sold it to me or the individual who gifted it to me. It is an integral ingredient in making my house my “home.”

Pottery by Timothy Weber

 

Florence Recolte du Printemps

It is a happy coincidence that on the week that Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurant in America, the Spring Harvest Dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory Café in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) featured local ingredients with a French twist, a combination on which Highlands’ reputation was built.

It was never my intention for this journal to become a food site but I realize that an abundance of the 150 essays so far has focused on food. And many of those food-focused essays are inspired by the series of transcendent meals served in Florence at the Friends of the Café series and related events.

The search for knowledge of foodways and the understanding of what it means to be “at table” have been a source of pleasure and release for me in recent years. It has filled a need both for roots and better understanding of culture through food. And the Factory dinners are a huge influence. Many of them have benefited Southern Foodways Alliance and almost all of them featured James Beard Award winners.

Here’s a particularly telling example: In 2016, I attended a Friends of the Café dinner which featured a whole hog prepared by Rodney Scott, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. The other dishes for the event were prepared under the leadership of Chef Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant. The dessert was a chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries by Dolester Miles, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Dining doesn’t get much better than that.

This most recent Florence dinner was the annual Spring Harvest Dinner helmed by Chef Ray Nichols, the Factory’s impressive young house chef. Chef Ray, inspired by a recent trip to France, did a French-inspired menu using local ingredients from the Shoals and nearby environs. The menu was also in French so my tablemates and I were kept busy with translations in addition to the exceptional meal.

The dinner was amazing. Chef Ray pulled out all the stops in this latest French-inspired meal.

As diners were seated at intimate table settings in the expansive room, an hors d’oeuvres course was served. It included a pork pate with gherkins and Dijon as well as escargot with butter and finely minced herbs.

The salad course was a fresh mixed salad perfectly tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. It put me in mind of the elaborate mixed salads I used to make for every occasion and that I have tended to simplify in recent years (though mine were never so beautifully dressed). I may be inspired to go back to my more elaborate salad days, tempered by the food knowledge I’ve gained by savoring the delights of the many food artists and restaurants – both grand and humble — that I’ve experienced through the years.

photo by Anne Fletcher

After such a beautiful beginning, the main course that arrived was truly the belle of the ball. Generous portions of steak au poivre were served with potatoes and wilted chard. The steak was perfectly cooked and juicy. Each course was accompanied by an organic French wine not yet available in Alabama. These included choice selections from Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire and Rhone valleys.

A cheese course featuring cow and goat cheeses from Bonnie Blue Farms (www.bonniebluefarm.com) was presented. The finale was a pound cake with luscious local strawberries and tarragon on a bed of lemon crème.

Ray Nichols became the Factory chef almost a year ago and quickly made his impressive mark with his Fall Harvest dinner in October 2017. In the meantime, he has hosted guest chefs and provides the culinary leadership for the Factory Café’s daily dining activities. His presence is a welcome fixture and inspiration at Factory dining events.

photo by Anne Fletcher

“This makes me really happy …”

… said chef Rick Bayless on Monday, May 7, as he announced Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill of Birmingham as the James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant in America. This came after the restaurant was a consistent semi-finalist for the award for the past decade. To sweeten the deal, Dolester Miles — Highlands’ long-time pastry chef — won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Pastry Chef earlier the same night.

Highlands has been a point of pride for Birmingham and the Southern culinary scene since it opened in 1982 and this honor further cements its place in America’s fine dining profile. Here is a 2015 essay I wrote about Highlands Bar and Grill.

My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had with an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. A new attitude and a new swagger is always creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship, setting the standard. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion as one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients with the menu changing daily, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands in summer 2014 and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week as the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs is held in Chicago on Monday night. Highlands Bar and Grill is again one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.”

I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

My mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, at Highlands Bar and Grill (June 2014)