Tag Archives: Alabama Chanin Friends of the Cafe

Fall Feast in the Shoals

The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.

It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.

Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.

James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.

The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.

After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to ­Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.

The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide  surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.

By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”

I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.

The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had  the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.

The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.

The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.

Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

Some things are worth the wait. Three years ago, Chef Adam Evans presented a dinner for Alabama Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” series that still ranks among my favorites of over two dozen meals eaten at that venue. Evans had just completed a successful run at The Optimist and other Atlanta restaurants, and, since I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to Atlanta, I had only admired him based on his press from afar. It was a pleasure to experience his menu and see that he lived up to his reputation. The course I most remember from that night was perhaps the simplest – a garden salad assembled with ingredients gathered from the chef’s grandfather’s garden that morning.

Evans is a Shoals native and the rumor in Florence that night was that he was working on a new restaurant concept for Birmingham. That rumor put Evans’s Birmingham restaurant on my radar and I began to do regular searches for “Chef Adam Evans Birmingham.”

My diligence did not yield much information until the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham in February 2018. The opening night reception was held on the loading dock of an abandoned factory on 5th Avenue S. in the Lakeview District. Chef Evans had grills set up off the loading dock and picnic tables were arranged for seating. It was a delicious, charming, and bare bones affair.

The theme for that symposium was “Narratives that Transform” and John T. Edge, SFA Executive Director, announced that the space where we had gathered for our opening night reception was the future site of Adam Evans’s new restaurant, and that the narrative begun that night would conclude at the 2019 SFA Winter Symposium with an opening night reception in the finished restaurant on that very site.

Now that I had a location, I drove past that corner of 5th Avenue every weekend to check on the progress. There wasn’t much to see for several months, but then windows began to appear and a restaurant began to take shape at what used to be the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation factory. Still, by January 2019, I was skeptical that there would be a finished restaurant in time for the symposium in February.

The SFA Winter Symposium 2019 held its opening night reception at Good People Brewing.


Automatic Seafood and Oysters (www.automaticseafood.com) opened in April. I was anxious to eat there as soon as possible but a good opportunity did not present itself until August, when my friend Christina drove down from Huntsville to join me for dinner during Sidewalk weekend.

If you ask about my favorite types of restaurants, my answers will be all over the map. I like any place where one can eat authentic and well-prepared food, whatever the price point and style, and where the ambience is warm and friendly. But one of my very favorites is an urban seafood place with a comfortable vibe and delicious and imaginative food. Birmingham’s Ocean (www.birminghamocean.com) on 20th Street S. has been a long-time favorite. Non-residents don’t realize that Birmingham is only about four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and trucks with fresh catches come into the city daily. I still won’t eat seafood in land-locked states, but it is always fresh and available in Birmingham.

With all of those points in mind, Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a new favorite to add to my lists. The interior, designed by Suzanne Humphries Evans, combines an open layout with furnishings that seem upscale and special while also recalling a seafood shack on the Gulf. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east facades add to the open feel. The restaurant is located in a transitioning neighborhood that still has an industrial feel, so the decision to put the main entrance off the street on the north side allows entry onto a terraced green lawn, away from the bustle and traffic of the street-side.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive and the menu is full of seasonal options. Christina commented that she’d like to order a bite of everything. Instead, our meal started off with crab claws and freshly shucked oysters from the large and beautiful oyster bar located in a corner of the room. For contrast, I ordered Canadian oysters from Prince Edward Island and Murder Point oysters from Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.murderpointoysters.com). The briny, buttery Murder Points were the best Gulf oysters I’ve ever had, and possibly the best oysters I’ve ever had, period.

My main course was a simply roasted grouper that was prepared, seasoned, and presented to perfection. Christina’s cobia dish was equally detailed. Conversation waned as we savored two beautifully prepared seafood dishes. Our generous shared side of basmati rice with smoked fish, curry, and peanuts was an ideal accompaniment to both dishes.

For dessert, there were several tempting choices but we chose brown sugar cake with peaches and cream. It was a perfect finale – a little decadent, but not too sweet.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a bright new jewel on an already vibrant Birmingham culinary landscape. After three years of waiting, I am happy to say my high expectations were met and exceeded. I look forward to my next of many visits to come.

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

Cedric Burnside: Blues in the Shoals Night

The brilliant October sunset was ever-changing heading west on another trip to Florence and the Shoals for the final 2018 Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin design factory (www.alabamachanin.com). This was the fifth season of dinners featuring guest chefs and benefiting Southern Foodways Alliance – a positive force for the study, understanding, and exaltation of southern food history and development (www.southernfoodways.org).

In her introductions, Anne Ryan Cavin, Alabama Chanin events coordinator, mentioned that the evening’s chefs – Kelly English and Camron Razavi – are the 21st and 22nd chefs of the series. That opportunity to sample the food offerings of so many chefs in one place a short drive away was initially the major draw of these dinners for me. After five years, however, an equally strong draw is the ambience of the place, the opportunity to reconnect with people who have become friends, and the new friends who have been made over the years at this inspiring venue.

Chefs English and Razavi presented a meal influenced by Mediterranean palates, heavy on spices and condiments originating in Italy, the Middle East, north Africa, and Turkey —  moving beyond the Mediterranean into Korea and east Asia. This diverse medley of tastes competed mightily for attention. English’s restaurant, Restaurant Iris, recently reopened in Memphis after a complete renovation which included an overhaul of the building and a radical rethinking of the menu under the leadership of executive chef Razavi (www.restaurantiris.com). Most appealing of the four courses were an Italian influenced andouille ‘nduja passed hors d’oeuvre on toast and a St. Louis lemon butter cake dessert – the alpha and omega of the meal.


Natalie Chanin, the regular host of these events, was out of town, so hosting duties fell to Reed Watson, the label manager for Florence-based Single Lock Records, and Will Trapp, one of Single Lock’s founders. Single Lock has developed an impressive roster of artists – many based in the Shoals – during its half decade of existence (www.singlelock.com).

For the Friends of the Café event, Trapp and Watson presented Cedric Burnside, a Single Lock artist who plays “Hill Country Blues,” a blues category – distinct from Mississippi Delta blues – that emerged from the hills and lumberyards of northern-most Mississippi (www.cedricburnside.net). Hill Country blues has a strong percussion influence, focused on the persistent drive of the “groove.”

Cedric Burnside, an award-winning drummer and guitarist, played four songs at the Factory. He sat with his guitar and sang and stomped the plaintive sounds of his distinctive brand of blues. Cedric is the grandson of R.L. Burnside (1926-2005), a preeminent artist of Hill Country blues. I was fortunate to see an intimate performance by R.L. Burnside in Jackson, Mississippi, around April 1999. It is thrilling to watch the continuation of that rich legacy with Burnside’s grandson.

Cedric Burnside’s short set was memorable and left one wanting more. Fortunately, his newest Single Lock release, Benton County Relic, was available at the event and became my driving music over the weekend. It’s a compelling compilation with one foot firmly planted in its Hill Country roots (just listen to the opening of “Death Bell Blues”) and the other sliding the genre confidently into its future.

Cedric Burnside’s music taps into the gritty, sexy belly of the blues, punctuating his lyrics with yelps and low groans in songs like “Typical Day” and “Give It to You.” “Life can be so easy / And life can be so hard” is the opening sentiment of the wonderful “Hard to Stay Cool.” It’s a simple statement, given new life and complexity in Cedric Burnside’s heart-felt delivery.

Other tracks, like “There Is So Much” and “Call on Me,” keep the down and dirty blues feeling intact while taking an almost flirty attitude. The final two tracks, “I’m Hurtin” and “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess,” are defiant, relentless anthems which caused me to step on the gas and pound the steering wheel on my weekend travels.

Cedric Burnside has already established himself. Keep watching him. If he’s new to you, find him.

As another Friends of the Café season ends, I cherish those evenings and look forward to new opportunities to spend an evening in the former tee-shirt factory in the Shoals – touching base, renewing inspiration, discovering bright new talent.

Figs. Finality. Fall.

Summer 2018 went out on a hot note, with September temperatures lingering in the ‘90s and not a lot of rain recently in my parts of the South – despite the hurricane devastation in the Carolinas. The heat does not bother me; the last days of summer are the sweetest because it’s almost gone. I always lament the things I didn’t do to take advantage of the longer summer days.

This year, I didn’t sit in my back yard much and that’s a loss.

I measure the progress of the warmest months by the fruit that comes and goes. Strawberries appear in April and are disappearing by the time the first Chilton County peaches arrive around Mother’s Day. Blueberries and blackberries come soon after, with local watermelons and cantaloupes appearing near Independence Day.

Figs come around a little later. The fig tree yield has been iffy in recent years. Even though I heard a grocery clerk bragging to a neighbor about the bounty on his family’s fig tree, I didn’t see a lot of fig action at the various farmers’ markets. 


I have often written about the community that comes together at the special dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence. It has enabled me to meet people I might have never known.

In the years that I have been attending the benefit dinners in Florence, two gentlemen were among the most regular attendees. We did not actually meet them until we were seated at a table together earlier this year. They are Milton and David, a father and son from Corinth, Mississippi, who regularly make the trip to Alabama Chanin’s factory for the singular dinner series that happens in that place.

On that first meeting, Milton, the father, entertained us with stories of the historical research he and his late wife, Stephanie, have done in and around Corinth, his hometown. He also mentioned, in passing, the fig trees on their property – collected over the years of their marriage and annually producing a nice harvest. My friend, Anne, was particularly interested in acquiring a fig tree for her house and Milton shared a recommended source, www.ediblelandscaping.com.

At the end of the most recent Florence dinner in August, Milton handed me a small jar labeled “Stephanie Sandy’s Figs.” Inside were “Milton’s North Carolina Style Whole Fig Honey-Lemon Amaretto Preserves.” I saved the jar for the last days of summer and ate the delectable fig preserves with some of my favorite local Humble Heart goat cheese and a piece of Mrs. London’s bread, another favorite from local farmers’ markets. The combination was delicious; it tasted exactly like the last days of summer should.


In the last week of summer, when I got home from work on a late afternoon, a deer was calmly grazing across the railroad tracks behind my house. I got out of the car and watched him. It’s rare to see a deer out in the open in the hottest part of a hot day. I normally only spot them behind my house at night. This daytime deer stopped grazing and looked back at me for a moment. Then, he slowly disappeared into the cool of the trees. It has been so dry here for the past few weeks, I suspect he had gotten bold in search of food and water.

On the morning of the last full day of summer, I woke before sunrise to the sound of rain against the windowpanes. By the time I got up and looked out the window, it had stopped. As I packed my car, I noticed single drops of water hanging on each of the berries of a backyard shrub. They seemed to be a token of a summer passing away and a promise of new seasons to come.

That evening, on the last full day of summer in Birmingham, it was hot and dry with clouds worthy of a biblical Renaissance landscape floating overhead. The neighborhood ice cream shop in Bluff Park atop Shades Mountain was packed to overflowing with people gathered in the parking lot and on benches outside the little shop. Suddenly, from one of the overlooks along Shades Crest Road, the sky turned pink and gold and the setting sun shone bright orange across Oxmoor Valley. I had left my camera at the house, but stopped to savor the display.

The next day, just after the Alabama game, I drove back up the mountain with camera in tow to see if I might catch a repeat of the previous day’s stunner. But fall had arrived; the sky was grey and overcast and the setting sun was a dingy circle partly visible through ominous clouds. On the other side of the mountain, an almost full moon peeked through more clouds in a still and colorless dusk. 

Big Bad Chef

In January 2006, four and a half months after the disaster in the aftermath of Katrina, I drove to New Orleans to join a crew of volunteers assembled by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) to work on the resurrection of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood place in New Orleans that was designated an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, less than four months before the storm. Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken is often declared the best anywhere (www.williemaesnola.com). Willie Mae passed away but her legacy is carried on by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton Stewart.

When I got to my hotel after an eight-hour drive, there was no room available. I produced a print-out of my reservation and confirmation number but the little French Quarter hotel – a place I had stayed at and enjoyed in the past – was full of construction workers who were working on the larger reconstruction efforts around the city. The desk clerk called a couple of places and declared there were no rooms in the area to be had at short notice. I was too tired to argue.

I blame myself. When I made the reservation in December, the staff Christmas party was going on in the background so maybe – confirmation or not – my reservation was lost in their revelry.

Despondent, I emailed my regrets to the SFA folks and drove back to Alabama that same night.

If I had figured out a way to stay and work, I would have been working with Chef John Currence, who headed up the Willie Mae’s restoration.


Currence, a New Orleans native who made his culinary mark in Oxford, Mississippi, may be as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his restaurant brand. City Grocery, his flagship restaurant on the Square in Oxford, is a fine dining restaurant with a famously rowdy upstairs bar. Snackbar and Boure are other Currence ventures in Oxford along with Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast also has locations in Alabama and Florida (www.citygroceryonline.com).

I’ve had a couple of great meals at City Grocery and was thrilled when it was announced that John Currence would be the guest chef for the August Friends of the Café event at Alabama Chanin’s Florence factory. He had been on my wish list of possible chefs for the series.

The Friends of the Café series of chefs and dinners is always announced in advance (www.alabamachanin.com). However, the August chef is kept secret until a few weeks before the event. This dinner always happens on the Thursday night before the opening of Billy Reid’s weekend-long “Shindig” the next day. I was happy when Currence was announced in July.

Currence’s dishes for the evening were paired with wines selected by Eric Solomon, a champion importer of French and Spanish wines through his European Cellars distributors in Charlotte. Solomon’s passion came through in his presentations and descriptions throughout the evening (www.europeancellars.com).

Passed hors d’oeuvres included a chicken liver pate with pickled egg mimosa on grilled bread. The hearty second pass-around was kheema pao, an Indian street food stalwart, with spiced lamb, soft scramble, cilantro chutney, and slivered serrano peppers served on a hefty sweet roll.

As the diners were seated, a first course of sweet corn soup with marinated blue crab arrived at the table. The course that followed was grilled summer vegetables served with spiced yogurt, smoked almonds, sweet onion, and a lemon vinegar. At the end of the night, Chef Currence touchingly revealed that the vinegar we were served was made from champagne that had been part of his mother’s cellar.

The third course was a perfectly prepared beef ribeye with celery root puree, vinegar-wilted arugula, and chimichurri. The dinner ended with the most elegantly presented Mississippi Mud Pie I have ever tasted. It was a soulful, well-paced meal, pleasingly complemented by Solomon’s pairings.


Currence’s food philosophy is on vivid display in his 2013 cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book is an enjoyable and colorful collection of profanity-laced insights on food and great recipes. Currence draws from his culinary training, international travel, a New Orleans upbringing, and long-time Mississippi residency for recipes that resonate and thrill. His culinary viewpoint is headstrong and provocative and his cookbook is a showcase for his culinary tastes and his opinions; I tend to agree with most of his takes on food, as I do with his takes on politics in his unbridled social media posts. The text of the cookbook, like the food Currence champions and serves, is honest and to the point.

This is not your grandmother’s cookbook.

After the dinner, Currence signed my copy of Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. As he signed, with a typical Big Bad Chef flourish, he blacked out a tooth on his picture on the facing page and gave himself a diabolical moustache.

It’s always hard to imagine how each Friends of the Café dinner might be topped. The parade of master chefs who present there seems to always come through. Add Big Bad John Currence to the list.

John Currence photo by Angie Mosier; photo defaced by John Currence

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.