Tag Archives: Alabama Chanin Friends of the Cafe

Sustenance

Sustenance does not come only from food and drink. In my own food memory, I am sustained by vivid recall of meals I had, with whom I had them, the service and the conversation and the ambience of the room; sometimes, though, when I remember such an event, I have only a vague recall of what I actually ate – only that the meal itself was an indispensable part of the memorable event.

Natalie Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” dinners at her Alabama Chanin factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) provide many levels of sustenance – only a part of which comes from the food and drink and the amazing chefs that create them.

My most recent Florence dinner was helmed by Asha Gomez, a native of India who has been in the United States for several decades and who has been creating food memories in Atlanta for most of the past ten years.

The Gomez “Friends of the Café” dinner on a Thursday in August anticipated the beginning of Billy Reid’s annual “Shindig” weekend. Reid, the other internationally acclaimed fashion designer based in Florence (www.billyreid.com), hosts a late summer event featuring his clothing line, concerts and screenings, and chefs and meals in various venues that create a “go to” weekend for arts, fashion, food, camaraderie, and innovation in the Shoals.

Alabama Chanin’s pre-Shindig dinner is always sold out and includes the regulars who travel from near and far for her dinner as well as fashion, food, and entertainment professionals in town for Shindig.

The sustenance comes from being in a place where forward-thinking Southerners and others are gathered together and one realizes that – despite the headlines and political turmoil and despite the international joke that Washington, D.C. has become – we are not alone.

The sustenance comes from the “Friends” events’ long-standing relationship with Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), which is the beneficiary of proceeds from most of the dinners. John T. Edge, Director of SFA, is a regular attendee at the dinners and his passionate introduction to the recent meal and to Asha Gomez was a masterful and positive statement on current events, a response to the “immigrant” issue as exemplified by Gomez, and a positive evocation of the forward-thinking and amalgamated South “just over the horizon – always just over the horizon.”

Gomez’s book on cooking, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen (Running Press, 2016), is an honestly detailed journey into her life and how her two souths, southern India and the American South, have created the sensibility of her aesthetic and cuisine. In her opening comments preceding the dinner, she balked at the word “fusion” – calling it “the other f-word.” Her food is personal, evolving from her roots in Kerala, India, and ever-expanding with the discovery of new foodways, new ingredients, and the commonalities contained therein. For Gomez, Southern fried chicken was nothing new; she brought her own strong tradition of fried chicken from Kerala.

Gomez claims both Southern India and the Southern U.S. as “home” and her food is a reflection and immersion into the rich compatibility of those shared homes, shared and unique flavorings, and Gomez’s personal interpretation of all of it.

Gomez understands why someone like me might be skeptical about Indian cuisine. I have been known to say that it is my least favorite of the international cuisines readily available in the States. I like the taste profile, the ingredients, and the spices of Indian cuisine well enough but have never been enchanted with its presentation in many Indian restaurants I have tried – usually at the urging of more enthusiastic friends. Gomez knows that the cuisine of her homeland is not represented by “the $4.99 buffets” and other iterations common to the American landscape and seeks to exalt it in a more authentically representative manner.

Sustenance comes in meeting new friends and getting better acquainted with others. My friend Cindy and I were seated at a table full of food professionals in town for Shindig. I was seated next to John T. Edge and across from Vanessa and Rick, a lovely Florence couple, and the conversation was lively and far-reaching. “I hear you’re in town to sign your 300th book,” I said to Edge. “Only 250, I think,” he blithely replied (actually, it’s over a dozen). John T. Edge’s latest, The Potlikker Papers (Penguin Press, 2017), is billed as “A Food History of the Modern South.”

Cindy was sitting beside a group of pastry chefs and other food professionals from New Orleans and the hilarity was pretty much non-stop off to my right side.

The evening commenced with hearty passed hors d’oeuvres including black pepper and black salt spiced roasted cashews, fry bread with mint chutney and quick pickled carrots, and curry chicken samosa pockets. The featured beverage, the “Muscadine Vine,” was a combination of muscadine wine, vinho verde. Prosecco, lime, and mint which successfully tamed and enhanced the tricky sweetness of muscadine wine. 

A first course of Sunday Vegetable Stew featured chunky vegetables in a lovely coconut milk base. A Kerala Fish Curry with kichidi grits and tempered mustard oil was the second offering. The fish beautifully rested on a lush bed of perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked grits and the sauce melded the flavors in a pleasing manner.

Beef Biryani was the third course, served family style. In My Two Souths, Gomez describes biryani as a “celebration dish” and describes the traveling biryani chefs of India as being similar to American barbecue pit masters. Her version for the recent dinner featured chunks of beef over rice with an intensely diverse panoply of spices and seasonings. Each course was accompanied by a complementary wine pairing.

After three very hearty and satisfying dishes, the undisputed star for the diners at my table seemed to be the dessert course. The Three Spice Carrot Cake arrived to a chorus of delighted responses and the first bite did not disappoint.

The sustenance of the evening came to fruition with the sustenance of the actual meal that brought us all together in a spirit of community and enlightenment. During Edge’s opening remarks about the Southern community being forged throughout the region by forward-thinking people of all stripes, Natalie Chanin quipped about it being found “in a former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence, Alabama.” She was right. The “Friends of the Café” events are forging that community three or four times a year at her factory and in events like Shindig.

I always leave these events with rejuvenated inspiration. I admit that I still have a somewhat wary relationship with Indian cuisine, but Asha Gomez has opened my mind and broadened my perspective. Indian restaurants may not become my first dining choice, but I will eagerly consume and find sustenance in the boundary-breaking cuisine of Asha Gomez. 

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Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

The first day of Summer 2017 ushered Tropical Storm Cindy up from the Gulf and energized the air farther inland in Birmingham, where I was helping to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It has been a few years since I experienced the typical effects of a tropical storm and – while I always hope there is no significant damage or injury – I always find the balmy air and windy bands of sporadic rain to be invigorating and energizing.

I reread The Great Gatsby as I have done for years on the Summer Solstice.

I was in my twenties when I began my annual reading of The Great Gatsby and the ritual has almost taken on a superstitious nature; if I missed a year, I would feel like something was awry. But I always manage to get in my June reading of the book and, after dozens of readings, I always find something new in Fitzgerald’s writing. And my heart always pounds in anticipation of the book’s inevitable ending.

On this most recent reading, I was struck near novel’s end by Nick Carraway’s account of a recurring West Egg nightmare – “a night scene by El Greco” in which a bejeweled drunken woman in a white evening dress is borne on a stretcher by “four solemn men in dress suits” to the wrong house. “But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.”  That particular paragraph had never stopped me in my tracks until this reading.

Perhaps that passage stood out this time because I read it while sitting in a car in the parking lot in Tuscaloosa in a steady tropical rainstorm, while Mother was in a beauty shop appointment. Those meteorological conditions just added to the gloom of Gatsby’s rain-soaked funeral in which he is laid to rest with only Nick, Gatsby’s father, a few servants, the local mailman, and the owl-eyed former party guest in attendance. I usually reread Gatsby outdoors in the sunlight so the weather definitely added a different perspective this year.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, the weather had cleared and the balmy weather turned blistering. Summer’s advent and Cindy dominated the days leading up to the most recent Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com). North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner and other Raleigh dining venues (www.ac-restaurants.com), was helming the meal. Once again, the event was a benefit for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org). I am proud to be a long-time member of the SFA, helping in a small way to support all of the good works the organization does.

Friends Anne, Michelle, Scott, and I traveled to the Shoals for the meal. Arriving at the Factory we were warmly greeted by Natalie Chanin, the creative force behind Alabama Chanin and the impetus for many community-building events, including an awesome schedule of Friends of the Café dinners.

The gathering was already going strong when we arrived. A delicious array of passed hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes topped with Alabama jumbo lump crab salad and Hook’s three-year cheddar pimento topping a cucumber slice. Along the serving table were shots of a sweet corn mousse with piquillo pepper.  The mousse literally melted in one’s mouth like a passing dream of sweet corn taste. A “Summer Cindy” libation was poured – Prosecco and Jack Rudy grenadine with a sprig of rosemary.

The seated meal began with a salad of local lettuces and vegetables dressed with buttermilk and roasted garlic. Next came a slice of heirloom tomato pie with spicy greens and sherry. My quest for the perfect tomato pie began years ago with the tomato pie competition that was an annual event at Decatur’s Willis-Gray Gallery (now Kathleen’s). The Decatur event hasn’t been held in several years but Ashley Christensen’s take on tomato pie is now the hands-down winner.

The third course was chargrilled Bear Creek ribeye steak cooked perfectly and served family style along with Poole’s macaroni au gratin and a room temperature marinated summer succotash which brought back vivid memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s take on hearty southern succotash.

The dessert course of a coffee panna cotta with Irish whisky caramel and North Carolina pecan granola crunch was served with a deep and earthy port.

I have never been disappointed in a meal at the Factory and Christensen’s recent menu continues to raise the bar.

Christensen seems to be as warm, down-to-earth, and authentic as the carefully selected ingredients she elevates. I think I have attended all but three of the Friends of the Café dinners and Ashley Christensen was the chef for my second in 2013.

When Natalie Chanin asked me recently which had been my favorite of the meals over the years, Ashley Christensen’s name was one of the first that came up. Now, Ashley Christensen is the first of the guest chefs in the series to come back for an encore. It seemed unlikely that she could top her first memorable performance at the space, but last Saturday night she did.

Copies of Christensen’s cookbook. Poole’s: recipes and stories from a modern diner (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016), were available for purchase and signing at the end of the event. It is a cookbook chock-full of exciting, well-explained recipes as well as a good introduction to the founding of Poole’s and to the James Beard Award-winning chef’s culinary aesthetic. It also provides the stories and impetus behind her restaurant empire of seven downtown Raleigh establishments. Chanin referred to her friend as “badass” and the book is full of Christensen’s warm and earthy takes on the food world (she refers often to an affinity for “beer flavored beer”).

For me, thanks to the friends who went with me, to Alabama Chanin, and, especially, to Ashley Christensen, that turbulent first week of summer 2017 ended on a high note indeed.

Pesto from “The Watercress Capital of the World”

 Inspired by my recent experience at the “Friends of the Café” dinner helmed by Chef Scott Peacock at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – and by the wonderful salad featuring fresh watercress that was served at that meal – I decided to make something that has been on my kitchen to-do list for a while.

It has always pleased me to know that Huntsville and Madison County, where I have lived for over 14 years, was known as the “Watercress Capital of the World” before Wernher von Braun and his team arrived from Germany after World War II to accelerate the space race and Huntsville dubbed itself “Rocket City.”

It’s becoming harder to find reminders of the pre-NASA days here in 21st century Huntsville but the watercress connection has intrigued me ever since I learned about it when I first moved to the area. Although more watercress was distributed from the Madison County area than from any other place in the nation until about 1960, there is only one major distributor of the crop left, in New Market, just north of Huntsville (www.bwqualitygrowers.com).

Buoyed by my Alabama Chanin experience, I decided to go on the hunt for fresh watercress – which is no easy task, even in the former watercress capital of the world.

After locating fresh watercress at a local market I set about to make a watercress pesto. I love pesto and usually keep enough basil plants around the back yard in season to make a batch of basil pesto now and then throughout the summer.

I looked at watercress pesto recipes and they mostly seem to follow the basic basil-based recipe, just substituting watercress for basil. For this latest experiment, however, I wanted to use fresh watercress and as many local or Alabama-sourced products as possible. I took down the basil pesto recipe that lives on my refrigerator door and began to doctor it up.

In addition to the watercress substitution for basil, I used pecans instead of pine nuts; I used pecan oil instead of olive oil. I kept Parmesan cheese for the texture, but split it with Humble Heart goat cheese from Humble Heart Farms (www.humbleheartfarms.com) just up the road in Elkmont. The result was a wonderful fresh pesto with a rich but milder flavor than more traditional basil pesto.

It’s been good with everything so far. Here’s my recipe:

Watercress Pesto

3 cups lightly chopped and loosely packed watercress
¼ cup chopped pecans
4 cloves chopped garlic
¼  cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese
½ cup virgin pecan oil
Juice of ½ lemon

Mix and blend ingredients together into a finely textured paste. Yields about 2 cups of pesto.

The Elusive Scott Peacock

 Every Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com) factory in Florence is special. I have not found its match in any other similar event I have attended. The sense of community and camaraderie is unparalleled and once one attends, one is hooked. When I was leaving the Factory this past weekend, Natalie Chanin, who hosts the dinners with her amazing staff, asked me what had been my favorite dinner so far (since I’ve attended most of them). I just started naming names and had no clear favorite. There is no clear favorite; each has been singular and memorable.

The April 15 dinner last week was especially noteworthy since Chef Scott Peacock was in the kitchen. In 2010, Peacock, the James Beard Award-winning Alabama native, left his position as head chef of Watershed in the Atlanta area, moved to Marion, Alabama, in the middle of the Black Belt, and became, for many who knew of him, a bit of a mystery man.

I first heard that Peacock was in Marion when a friend in Greensboro told me that Scott had contacted his mother to be interviewed for a documentary project about older Alabama cooks and their foodways. Over the past few years, I heard less and less about that project and wasn’t even sure if Peacock was still kicking around Marion. He has been a columnist for Better Homes and Gardens and I know he might occasionally be sighted at events such as a Rural Studio supper in the Black Belt.

His cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003), is a collaboration with Edna Lewis that is full of wisdom, information, and fresh takes on traditional recipes. It is an indispensable part of my kitchen library. Ms. Lewis, a Virginia native and expert on Southern food, gained fame as a cookbook author and in the kitchen at several New York restaurants. She and Peacock became close friends and she lived with him in Georgia where he cared for her in the last several years of her life.

In fall 2016 Natalie Chanin’s online journal did a piece on Scott Peacock’s experimentation with indigo and other plant-based dyes at his Marion home base and ended that fascinating conversation with the information that she and Peacock would be hosting a Friends of the Café dinner in Florence in spring 2017. Proceeds from the event would benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), one of Alabama Chanin’s favorite causes.

On the afternoon of the event I met my friend Cindy in Cullman and we made the trek to the Alabama Chanin Factory on a beautiful Holy Saturday evening in the Shoals.

As the passed hors d’oeuvres began to make the rounds among the assembling guests, there was much excitement about the varieties and tastes on display. In fact, the entire meal was a lesson in simplicity and finding the best flavors in the best ingredients. Most importantly, allow those ingredients to speak for themselves.

The hors d’oeuvres included iced oysters on the half shell with Edna Lewis’s spicy dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was simple and elegant with salt and vinegar, green onions and shallots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley. It was phenomenal, as were the Gulf oysters.

Other hors d’oeuvres included fresh radishes with a bowl of whipped butter for garnishing. One of the diners asked if it was a “Southern thing” to eat buttered radishes; I wasn’t aware that it was but after tasting those, it is now – at least at my house. Beautiful and delicious halved soft boiled eggs from Cog Hill Farm were passed around with a garlic-parsley sauce.

Beside the radishes were razor-thin slices of Pineywoods beef sausage from the Black Belt. The Pineywoods cattle are an endangered breed directly descended from cattle left on the Gulf Coast by Spanish explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. A renewed effort is being made to locate the breed, which lived for centuries in the wild, and replenish them (www.pcrba.org).

The final hors d’oeuvres to be passed were tomato and goat cheese toasts that had the crowd exclaiming. The goat cheese was rich and buttery and one of the servers said it was from Humble Heart Farm in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), I regularly buy my goat cheese and other products from the Spells at Humble Heart and was delighted to see them represented at this very special dinner.

As the diners were seated for the meal, the three-course menu sounded deceptively simple: salad, stew, and dessert. The simplicity of the menu allowed the fresh and carefully mixed ingredients to take center stage and the flavors built on one another as a seemingly simple meal created a complexity of tastes and discoveries.

The salad featured fresh watercress that Natalie Chanin had gathered from just down the road earlier in the day. The watercress was mixed with a number of other foraged greens dressed in a simple but perfect vinaigrette. It was noted later that Scott Peacock had assembled each of the several dozen salads himself.

The second course was a steaming “Straddle Stew” with chicken and ham broth, onion, garlic, peppers, turnips, carrots, tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice, peas, and collards. It was a hearty and delicious stew accompanied by servings of Peacock’s mother’s “hot water cornbread.” The recipe for Dorothy Peacock’s hot water cornbread is in The Gift of Southern Cooking and I look forward to making it soon. The stew was paired with a Z. Alexander Brown pinot noir; I knew the label but did not know until this dinner that the proprietor of this winery is Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band fame (www.zalexanderbrown.com).

The dessert course was a delectable strawberry shortcake with soft whipped cream. Sugared strawberries were generously paired with sweet cream biscuits topped with crushed sugar cubes and covered with a spectacular slightly sweet whipped cream.

The final offering was coffee and “three kisses goodnight” as the diners were presented with small plates overflowing with tiny tea cakes, benne brittle, and tiny chocolate truffles.

Finally, Scott Peacock emerged from the kitchen and shared thoughts and charm with the assembled diners. He introduced the staff that had helped him in the kitchen and talked about the good works of Heirloom Harvest (www.heirloomharvest.org), Will Dodd’s non-profit that cultivates a better and more sustainable connection between Alabama farmers and Alabama restaurants and consumers. Heirloom Harvest had gathered much of the food we consumed that night.

It turns out that Scott Peacock is not elusive at all. He was warm, funny, and giving as he met with diners and signed cookbooks at the end of the night.

In the past, I have praised Natalie Chanin and her cultivation of community. In gathering my thoughts about the Scott Peacock dinner, I realize how much she also cultivates education – about purveyors, products, movements – that her diners might not hear about otherwise. Heirloom Harvest. Cog Hill Farm. Pineywoods cattle. Z. Alexander Brown. These are things I had to research as soon as I got home from Florence.

The 2017 Friends of the Café season is underway with four more events to come between now and October; I am happy to be able to participate.

Two Southern Cookbooks

 

dscn0552 Back when I first got interested in learning about food and foodways, I discovered the pleasure of reading well-written cookbooks by chefs with a point of view. I read them cover to cover like a novel – focusing on the commentary and comments. I generally skim over the individual recipes, making note of particular dishes I might like to come back to and tackle at some point.

In the last year I haven’t had a lot of time to check out cookbooks. However in the past month I made the time to read two great ones by two Southern chefs whose food I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at those wonderful Alabama Chanin dinners at the company’s Florence factory.

Vivian Howard was the chef for my first Friends of the Café dinner. At the time the PBS show A Chef’s Life was already chronicling her restaurant Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. That award-winning program has familiarized audiences with Howard’s point of view and with her husband and partner, Ben Knight, her parents and family, and staff. Many people first learned about Glenn Roberts and his preservation of endangered grains at his South Carolina Anson Mills operation through an episode of A Chef’s Life. Farmer Warren Brothers and his staffer Lillie Hardy are popular semi-regulars on the series. I was able to access a bushel of my mother’s childhood favorite apples, Hackworths, based on an apple episode of A Chef’s Life.

In each episode of her show, Vivian Howard explores a local ingredient by going to the source. She then features a traditional preparation of the ingredient and goes back to her restaurant and “exalts” the ingredient with her restaurant’s culinary take on the basics.

Vivian Howard’s long-anticipated Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South (Little, Brown and Company; 2016), with photographs by Rex Miller, hit the shelves in October. I bought it on the day of its release. Actually, I showed up at my local bookseller a day early and had to come back the next day to get a copy.

Anyone who is familiar with the television show will be immediately at home with the packed cookbook. Each section focuses on an ingredient and features Howard’s essay (she’s an excellent writer, by the way) and a blend of recipes suited to every kitchen and skill level.

When people who are familiar with Chef Howard find out that I attended Howard’s Friends of the Café dinner at the Factory, the first question is “Did she serve Tom Thumb?” I regret that she did not (although she did serve a version of her famed Cherokee purple tomato sandwich, so there!) but Howard aficionados know that Tom Thumb is a sausage mix stuffed into the cleaned and rinsed cavity of a pig’s appendix. It is unique, apparently, to eastern North Carolina where she grew up. Her Tom Thumb recipe comes from her father’s mother’s family. You can find the details in the book but I will never tackle that one. I’ll wait until I can taste Vivian Howard’s preparation of it one day.

Howard’s book also includes her mother’s recipe for chicken and rice that she and her mother, Scarlett Howard, made famous on the show. I can vouch for that one.

Vivian Howard is endearing and prickly and I suspect that her show’s award-winning success is due in part to the way those qualities are balanced. Her show is addictive and her book is compulsory for any cook who wants to explore authentic Southern cuisine off the beaten path. She writes:

This is a Southern cookbook, but not one that treats the South like one big region where everybody eats the same fried chicken, ribs, shrimp and grits, collard greens, and gumbo. Instead, I interpret Southern cooking the way we understand French, Italian, and Chinese food: as a complex cuisine with variations shaped by terrain, climate, and people.

Vivian Howard is what my Grandmother Harbison would have called a “pistol ball.”

dscn0554

So is Chef Sean Brock. His cookbook, Heritage, with photographs by Peter Frank Edwards (Artisan; 2014), synthesizes his Virginia heritage with his culinary training and his adult experience as the acclaimed chef of Charleston’s McCrady’s and of Husk, with locations in Charleston and Nashville.

Sean Brock was the chef of my most recent meal at Friends of the Café in Florence.  Now, after eating his meal and reading his cookbook, I feel like he might have been my best buddy in another life.

Heritage is as compulsively readable as Deep Run Roots and each treads some of the same territory, albeit with somewhat different perspectives. Brock’s passion for farm to table seems even more compulsive than Vivian Howard’s and his gorgeous book is an educational text as much as it is an autobiographical and culinary one.

Brock plays loose and free with his opinions on every page of Heritage. While Vivian Howard focuses each chapter of her book on a specific ingredient, Brock  titles his chapters with subjects like “The Garden,” “The Yard,” “The Creek and the Sea,” “The Public House,” and “The Sweet Kitchen,” etc. and includes a plethora of applications for each category. I love anything pickled but have had a fear of the pickling process; Sean Brock and Vivian Howard have given me the courage to pickle, maybe.

Sean Brock’s respect for his heritage, his ingredients, his colleagues, and his methods are contagious. I was already inquisitive about food and foodways and now I want to find out even more. I realize that questioning the growers, chefs, home cooks, and purveyors is not invasive but a way of preserving and “exalting” a culture and its ingredients. I already knew that but Heritage reinforced it.

A few years ago Alabama native chef Scott Peacock moved to Marion, Alabama, and was interviewing older home cooks throughout the state in an effort to archive and preserve their methods and techniques. This is a mission that Brock and Howard exemplify and carry forward in their debut cookbooks.

If you are a cook, or if you just appreciate thoughtful and well-prepared food with a human touch, these are texts you will cherish.