Tag Archives: Alabama Chanin

A Legacy of Cotton

Lincoln Mill, built in 1900 near downtown Huntsville, Alabama, was once the largest cotton mill in a town that thrived on cotton production in the first half of the 20th Century. When Lincoln Mill shut down in 1955, the buildings were repurposed to house NASA offices. Now, the remaining Mill #3 has become a base for innovative technology and other concerns that seek to define Huntsville in the 21st Century.

Remnants of the historic mill village remain in structures like Lincoln School, the mill commissary, and numerous residential sites – duplexes and single-family houses – originally built to house mill workers and management.

Lincoln Mill #3

Upon moving to Huntsville, I was intrigued by the remaining evidence of the area’s cotton production that was scattered throughout the area. Not that long ago, the Memorial Parkway / Highway 231/431 corridors were still lined with significant fields of cotton. Today, most of those fields have disappeared – victims of urban growth and development – but at this time of year, and despite semi-drought conditions, I am heartened when the fluffy white cotton bursts forth and what remains of the local cotton harvest commences.

Cotton production in the South has been stigmatized by a regrettable history. For me, however, it still represents a part of my personal family history; my foreparents in north Alabama worked their own modest farms without the assistance of enslaved people and, into the 20th Century, without assistance from anyone outside immediate family. My Grandfather Harbison worked his family farm until the 1940s when he moved his family and his skills to the steel-based factories of Birmingham.

I vividly recall a trip, as a young boy, to visit relatives in Cullman County in mid-October. It was cotton-picking time and my older cousins strapped a sack over my shoulder and led me into their family field to help pick cotton. I probably wasn’t out there for a very long time, but I have always cherished the memory of the time I helped with the harvest of such an important and enduring crop. That brief adventure provides a connection to my family’s farming legacy.

Decades later, in 2012, I was one of many volunteers from far-flung places who helped to maintain a seven-acre field of organic cotton near Trinity, Alabama, in Morgan County. When I went there, my job was to weed. Chemicals were not being used with the crop and weeds were prodigious. It was an experiment by the Florence-based fashion designers Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid to gauge the feasibility of growing their own totally organic cotton crop in north Alabama. I’m not sure of the conclusions of the experiment, but for me the yield produced one of my favorite tee-shirts of all time and a scarf which has been repurposed as a table runner. .


Holtz Leather Co. – exterior

Holtz Leather Company (www.holtzleather.com) is located in the former Lincoln Commissary, not far from the campus where I teach. The recently renovated 1920’s-era building is also home to Preservation Co., a family-owned architectural antiques business. I wish I had more excuses to stop by the Holtz retail shop because each visit makes me happy.

Holtz is a family-owned business offering high quality leather goods. The showroom smells of leather and displays an array of distinctive and authentic wares. Belts, wallets, bags, portfolios, purses, and journals are among the distinctive designs available from Holtz Leather. The company catalog is itself a thing of craft and beauty, as readable as a compelling piece of literature.

I first came to Holtz to purchase engraved journals for my teenaged nephew and a couple of favorite girls who are the daughters of friends. As is the case with all good gifts, I yearned for a Holtz journal of my own.

Instead, I stopped off at the Holtz showroom when I needed a new leather belt. The sales associate led me to choose my waist size, my color, my buckle, and the monogram for the loop. I left with a custom belt, crafted while I watched. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

Ian finishing a belt

Holtz Leather Co. – interior

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days ago, I needed another belt and went through the custom process again with an equally attentive associate, Ian. The Holtz showroom is transformative; one looks out the expansive street-side windows and imagines the days of the factory workers whose long and hard labor had such an impact on the local economy. At the same time, Holtz employees like Ian are exalting the handmade traditions of the place with their own skills and returning a small slice of Huntsville to some semblance of its admirable, but disappearing, roots.


About forty-five miles southwest of Huntsville, Red Land Cotton (www.redlandcotton.com) in Moulton, Alabama, is an even more direct tribute to Southern cotton culture. The Yeager family grows and monitors its own cotton fields in northwest Alabama to create luxurious heirloom linens that are totally produced in the American South. Their slogan is “Heirloom Offerings from Our Farm to Your Home” and their story, lovingly presented through videos and essays on their company website, is a hopeful and inspiring one.

Red Land Cotton linens are grown and ginned in Alabama, spun and woven in South Carolina, and finished in Georgia, using minimal processing and chemicals. Finally, the cotton returns to Moulton to be sewn, sold, and shipped to consumers across the country. Red Land collections include bed and bath linens – including linens for baby beds, quilts, and a line of women’s loungewear.

Mark Yeager was inspired to produce heirloom linens by memories of the sheets he slept on as a boy at his grandmother’s house. These memories led to taking a 1920s heirloom bed sheet, sending it off for an engineering analysis of its construction, and producing a thicker yarn than one finds in contemporary store-bought sheets.

Red Land Cotton linens have only been available for a few years but I have heard enough good things about them that I decided to invest in a set recently. The package arrived promptly and the packaging was beautiful. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been excited about a new set of bed linens before but the Red Land Cotton experience felt special.

Once the sheets were washed and put on the bed, they did not disappoint. They are sturdy and comfortable and lend themselves to a rich and deep night’s sleep.


With the holidays soon to be upon us, it’s sometimes hard to find quality items from local purveyors using local workers and materials. The quality family-owned businesses like Holtz Leather and Red Land Cotton give assurance that such companies are still out there if we just keep our eyes and ears open. These fresh new businesses, built on tradition and on the relics of the Southern cotton legacy, are forward-thinking treasures to be supported.

Ferry Boats Sink

Chef Bill Smith, a legendary chef, of Crook’s Corner, a legendary restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has a museum-quality collection of vintage tee-shirts from mid-to late-20th Century rock bands reaching into the 21st Century (www.crookscorner.com). While making plans to attend a dinner prepared by Smith at the Alabama Chanin Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series, I considered wearing one of my own vintage tee-shirts, collected from years as an undergraduate volunteer for the University Program Council’s series of concerts and events at the University of Alabama.

I had settled on my most cherished tee-shirt (and one of the few that still fits) – the simple black tee from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 concert tour appearance in Tuscaloosa – but I chickened out at the last minute and opted instead for my college professor drag of open-collar dress shirt with jacket and slacks.

I was not the only one considering the tee-shirt gesture. John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, revealed the concert tee under his jacket during his virtuosic introduction of Bill Smith and Alabama Chanin’s inaugural Project Threadways Symposium (www.alabamachanin.com/project-threadways), which kicked off in Florence that night (www.southernfoodways.org).

John T. Edge, whose prodigious knowledge of southern foodways and culture is always impressive, tied together the Shoals music and textile culture, Smith’s food, and Alabama Chanin’s Project Threadways, in inspired fashion. Project Threadways, an Alabama Chanin outreach and research initiative, collects information specific to the Southern textile industry – which was a major player in the Shoals prior to NAFTA. In addition, Project Threadways explores the Shoals and the broader Southern community through oral histories and other relevant research.

I was only able to make it to Bill Smith’s opening night feast at the Factory but visitors from throughout the country joined the locals and regulars for an event that explored the ongoing pull and mystique of the Shoals.


Chef Bill Smith’s recipes often exalt the contributions of talented immigrants who have worked in his kitchen over the years. He cherishes his relationships with Crook’s Corner co-workers from Vietnam, China, the former Soviet republics, Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere. His recipes reflect the international flavors he’s learned in his kitchens from employees from throughout the world. He even, he writes, had a period when he employed “rockers” in need of employment between gigs. He learned from all of them.

“I realize that everyone in the world cannot come here to live in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who complain so loudly about immigration have had much experience with new immigrants. Getting to know people from all these places has been one of the great privileges of my life.”

I don’t often sport bumper stickers but this past winter I was compelled to order a bold bumper sticker that simply reads “FAKE CRISIS.”

I think Bill Smith would agree.


For those who haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Crook’s Corner (and that includes me), Bill Smith might be familiar from his regular appearances with Chef Vivian Howard in the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” where he memorably shared his preparations of persimmon pudding, corned ham, and – my favorite – his father’s family recipe for sunchoke relish.

Bill Smith, who retired from Crook’s Corner in January 2019,  absorbs all of the foodways of his Southern culture and his family, including his Southern grandmother’s “mean Yankee German” grandparents, to create his food. He also honors the traditions of Crook’s Corner founding chef Bill Neal, who preceded Smith and is credited with making shrimp and grits a Southern staple.

The food Smith served in Florence last week was real food – humble and authentic, quietly sophisticated, honest, and finessed without showing off. It was a suitable accompaniment to lively conversation punctuated by occasional gasps at the deliciousness of the bites being savored. Many of the recipes are featured in, or variations of, recipes in Smith’s essential book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006), a cherished touchstone for many cooks of the South and beyond.

Seasoned in the South has an introduction by author Lee Smith, one of the South’s most authentic voices. Bill Smith’s recipes and menus follow and honor each season’s harvest with evocative intervals such as “An Outdoor Supper after the Last Outing of the Season”; “Snowed In”; “A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass”; and “Big Picnic on the Fourth of July.” His “New Year’s Day” menu is very similar, amazingly, to the one I served to guests at my own house for many years in many places.

Smith’s Florence dinner was superb from the moment we walked into the Alabama Chanin Factory. Passed appetizers were circulating and each was a treat. The bread that accompanied three of the pass-arounds was delicious, but a little too chewy to accommodate conversation; that glitch, however, did not distract much from the fine and distinct flavors.

Alabama Chanin’s Anne Ryan Cavin curates the beverages for the Factory dinners and always presents with a unique and impeccable taste. For the Smith dinner, she selected local options from Florence’s Singin’ River brewery, a Sangria, two Spanish wines, and a Prosecco for dessert.

My first taste of the evening was a chicken liver mousse with onion jam. I love well-prepared chicken liver to begin with and Smith professes an affinity for “guts,” so that first bite was an automatic hit. I have my own strong affinity for pimento cheese, which my mother often served on celery when I was a kid, and I take pride in the pimento cheese I make myself; Chef Smith’s pass-around pimento cheese appetizer was perfectly spiced, as was the hot pepper jelly that followed. The fourth appetizer, unencumbered by the bread, was a very plucky and fulfilling deviled egg.

As the guests were seated, the first course was unexpectedly simple and superb. A white bean and turnip green soup arrived in a clear broth. Startling in its simplicity, the soup was magnificent. Before that initial bliss faded, a mixed salad second course was served with local spring greens coated with a subtle Crook’s house dressing.

 

The third course was a generous platter of braised pork shank with posole (hominy soup), chayote (a squash), and Salsa Ranchera. The plate’s flavors, distinctly Latinx, had the familiar sense of a Sunday dinner at any family table. Our table happily accepted seconds.

I suspect that the most talked-about dish of the night was the dessert course – “Atlantic Beach Pie” with freshly whipped cream. This dessert apparently sprang from Smith’s eastern North Carolina region’s conviction that one must never eat dessert after a seafood meal. The exception, it seems, was lemon meringue (or any citrus-based) pie. Our meal did not include seafood, but Atlantic Beach Pie is probably Crook’s Corner’s most revered dessert. Regardless of its evolution, the pie was a hit. Smith’s original adaptation used a saltine cracker crust but his published and Florence versions used more buttery Ritz crackers.

There is a kindness and decency that emanates from Bill Smith. These qualities are evident in his dishes and in his comments at the end of the meal. There was a serene tranquility while the chef interacted with guests at the conclusion of the evening. It moved me.


In the 1990s I was working at a theatre on Galveston Island, Texas. Because the thought of living in Texas had always been anathema to me, I was fond of telling folks that I lived “on an island off the coast of Texas.”

Crossing Galveston Bay with a good and trusted friend on a ferry one day, I was worried about the theatrical show I was currently directing. I had the usual problems – inexperienced cast, imperfect set, inadequate budget. I was stating – for neither the first nor the last time – my stress as a director.

“I want a low-pressure job,” I said. “Maybe I should be a ferry boat captain, going back and forth across the bay all day.”

My friend was silent for a while. Finally, he took a deep and significant breath and said, “Well, y’know, ferry boats sink sometimes.”

More recently, friends have told me I should have pursued a career in the culinary industry. They note that I seem to be comfortable with food culture and I like to cook when I have the opportunity. But I think – given my temperament – that I might spend my kitchen time worrying that I might have inadvertently poisoned a diner.

It’s too late to worry about what my culinary career might entail; it was probably a bad idea to begin with.

That thought provides even more incentive to admire and extol the fearless cuisine of Chef Bill Smith.

That Lingering Burn

The preponderance of good and great barbecue joints in Birmingham is reaching overload. Every time I discover one, it seems that two or three more that I haven’t tried are recommended. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Alabama barbecue. Despite my effort to be as diplomatic as possible, a reader took me to task for having the audacity to make a less than glowing comment about Morgan County white sauce. She took the opportunity to challenge my taste and attack some of the places I had complimented.

If she had read the essay closely, she would have caught my point that taste in barbecue is personal and that there is no right or wrong opinion; taste is a factor, but also place and family and tradition. Here’s an example: I lived in Texas for two years and never found any of its much-vaunted barbecue satisfactory. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good (I know some of it was very good indeed); it simply means that I prefer pork and Texas brisket just did not meet my very personal taste standards.


With that said, I have to share my excitement – the whole city’s excitement, it seems — about Rodney Scott’s (Whole Hog) Bar-B-Que, which just opened in the Avondale neighborhood east of downtown Birmingham (www.rodneyscottsbbq.com).

Rodney Scott has become a star among pit masters in a relatively short period of time. He learned from his father in the Scott family’s general store in Hemingway, South Carolina. Every Thursday, Scott’s offered whole hog barbecue cooked over hardwood on a pit behind the store. Over the years, the reputation spread and demand grew, the family expanded to offering whole hog four days a week, and Rodney, the son, began to build a reputation in the national press and other media. John T. Edge’s New York Times piece about the Scott family barbecue was a seminal moment in the ascendance of Rodney.

That’s when I first noticed Rodney Scott. After a 2013 fire destroyed the Hemingway pits, Rodney’s signal was strong on the foodways radar as he toured the region, doing pop-up whole hog barbecue along the way.

Rodney Scott and Zachariah Chanin; Florence, Alabama; 2016

I finally sampled Rodney’s barbecue at a memorable Friends of the Café dinner at Alabama Chanin’s Florence, Alabama, factory in 2016. The evening’s imaginative concept was to merge Scott’s whole hog with sides and desserts from Birmingham fine dining chef Frank Stitt. My strongest memory of that evening is the moment when Rodney Scott and Chef Zachariah Chanin entered the factory showroom with a whole hog splayed across chain-link fencing. The gathering crowd turned into paparazzi with phone cameras spinning into overload.

The meat-centric homage that followed was an expert display of culinary expertise, harmony, and tact, culminating in one of the memorable meals of my life. I will remember forever the night that I dined at an event featuring the offerings of James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt (2001) of James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (2018), with a meat course from James Beard Award-winning chef Rodney Scott (2018), and dessert from James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles (2018). And, most memorable of all, this singular dinner occurred less than ninety miles from my house.

Rodney Scott has subsequently teamed up with Nick Pihakis – co-founder with his father, Jim, of Birmingham pacesetter and stalwart Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q – to open Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston in 2016. Rodney’s son, Dominic Scott, has taken over the pit master duties at the original Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway. Dominic still relies on the advice of his Scott grandparents, Ella and Roosevelt. Roosevelt Scott is the original pit master of the family’s whole hog tradition.

Avondale is one of Birmingham’s neighborhoods that was in a decades-long decline but is now having a renaissance. The new business ventures by and large seem to exalt the authentic spirit of the old neighborhood, revitalizing what were once desolate or deserted spots.  Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que joins SAW’s Soul Kitchen BBQ to make Avondale a mecca for barbecue aficionados. I hope that the neighborhood will continue to adapt to its growing popularity while avoiding the over-gentrification that might threaten its charm and character.

Rodney Scott’s Avondale location is fresh and minimalist with a cinder block smokehouse added to the former location of the Saigon Noodle House. It’s typically crowded, but the line moves fast, the service is good, and the parking – though tight – is plentiful. On the Saturday that I visited, an iron-clad smoker occupied one of the handicapped parking spaces at the front door. The hood was open and succulent, fragrant spare ribs were sending out an aroma that was far more effective than any advertising one might conjure.

It was my intent to sample as many of the items as possible on a first visit. I was ordering for myself and my mother. Since Mother has pretty extensive dietary restrictions, I observed the menu closely to be sure there was something to please both of us.

Mother can no longer handle spicy heat and is not a fan of smoky meats, so we opted for the chicken tenders as her meat. It was a wise choice since the fried tenders were generous, nicely breaded, and mild. The Carolina-style mustard sauce set the chicken flavor off with a distinctive flair.

Her side choices were “greens” and baked beans. Mother is not a fan of collard greens and was disappointed that the greens seemed to be entirely collards. I like any greens and thought the collards were splendidly prepared and generously seasoned with chunks of pork. I was happy to eat any leftovers. Her baked beans, seasoned with meat also, had a rich and smoky taste. Once again, there were more leftovers for me.

For myself, I ordered a two-meat combo with spare ribs and pulled pork from the whole hog. My ribs were lush and meaty with a rich burgundy hue. The succulent pulled pork included bark and skin pieces and was finely shredded. The cole slaw was spare and simple, seasoned perfectly, crunchy and cool. The potato salad, which had come highly recommended, was chunky and delicious.

I should state that everything I have described to this point (except the chicken tenders) has a rich, spicy heat to it. The throat remembered the meal long after it was digested. From me, that is an enthusiastic compliment; for more sensitive palates and stomachs, that is a warning.

Rodney Scott’s barbecue did not need a bit of sauce for my palate. There was plenty of taste going on without any augmentation.  However, I did use his two barbecue sauces for occasional dipping and was very pleased with both. The original sauce, the “Rodney Sauce,” is very thin (which has caused some debate in some circles). It consists of a white vinegar with cayenne and black pepper. On the side, as I ordered it, the peppers sink to the bottom and the sauce needs to be shaken or stirred to re-combine the basic ingredients.

The second sauce, “The Other Sauce,” is thicker and, thus, more traditional, with a base of apple cider vinegar mixed with ketchup and black pepper. Slices of white bread were included with each order to sop up the juices and the sauce. My Alabama-bred barbecue tastes have always favored vinegar-based sauces; I am not ashamed to say that after I had finished my meal, I had no hesitation about slurping down the remaining portions of each of the amazing vinegar-based Scott sauces.

For my money, that lingering burn in the back of the throat after tasting a great vinegar-based red southern barbecue sauce is one of life’s special pleasures.

A generous helping of banana pudding is the perfect dessert for any substantial barbecue meal. Scott’s uses Ella Scott’s banana pudding recipe; the happy result has hearty helpings of banana with a creamy pudding and vanilla wafer crumbles. The cool pudding is a lovely balance to the heat of the rest of the meal.


In my travels around the country, I made it a point to ask locals about the best barbecue in any given location. I have had people take me off the beaten path to share the barbecue that they have declared as “the best anywhere,” or, at least, “the best around here.”

These days, my travel is more restricted, but with the recent additions of Rodney Scott’s in Birmingham’s Avondale, and of Martin’s (another whole hog joint) in Birmingham’s Cahaba Heights, it seems that Birmingham is still my one-stop shop for superior barbecue.

Once upon a time, the quest for the best local barbecue was an ongoing part of my travels. Nowadays, maybe, there’s no place like home.

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.

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

Tribe

Regular treks to the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) in Florence have become a refuge and release from the everyday pressures of work and life. I notice that these events are among the most frequent topics of this journal. Often, I find myself wondering how I’ll work an upcoming Café event into a demanding schedule, but I almost always find a way and am always richly rewarded for the effort.

The April 12 Friends of the Café dinner, helmed by chef Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union (www.stevensatterfield.com), was the eighteenth in the dining series. I have missed only three. The dinners often benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and this was the case for the April event. Most – if not all – of the guest chefs for the series have been James Beard Award winners and nominees.

Satterfield, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, has been called a “vegetable shaman” for his celebration of fresh vegetables and his emphasis on season and terroir – that French word beloved by wine enthusiasts that is applicable to all crops. His palate is neither vegetarian nor vegan but his dishes emphasize the special seasonal character of vegetables and fruits.

Satterfield’s cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons (Harper Wave, 2015), is one of the most helpfully informative food books I have read. Not only does the chef take you through the seasons, with in-depth consideration accompanied by recipes of the fruits and vegetables that characterize each, but he includes invaluable information about shelf life, storage tips, and preservation.

When my friend Scott and I arrived at the Factory, hors d’oeuvres were already being served. There were several options including a cheese pastry and radishes with whipped feta. I always keep radishes on hand in-season and these were particularly tasty and beautiful but my favorite pre-meal taste had to be the deeply golden rye biscuits filled with country ham and sweet butter.

As we were seated for the meal service, I was delighted to find myself sitting across from my friend Carol from Chicago, with whom I have dined at several of these events now. She comes to Florence frequently for Alabama Chanin workshops and events and is always an entertaining dining companion. We laugh a lot.

Seated two seats down was Shelly, another friend from a previous dinner, with her son, Evan. I met Shelly and her husband, Andy, at a dinner a couple of years ago and it was good to catch up with Shelly, who now lives in Illinois, and to meet Evan, who remains in Indianapolis, their hometown. Shelly and Andy, Indy car enthusiasts, were looking forward to a trip back to Alabama the following weekend to catch the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park and Museum in Birmingham (www.barbermuseum.org).

A four-course meal with wine pairings was served. After welcoming comments and introductions, a first course of a spring pea soup with spinach dumplings was presented. It was followed by a spectacular and simple chilled spring vegetable salad served with fromage blanc and green garlic breadcrumbs. The first two courses were creative and delicious with an inviting presentation and wonderfully fresh tastes.

The main course, served family style, featured a perfectly prepared and crusted guinea hen with Dijon-herb jus. The hen was presented with bitter greens and polenta with nettles and mushrooms. The guinea was a big hit at my table with diners quickly reaching for the platter and second helpings. 

The satisfying meal ended with a strawberry and buttermilk cake trifle.

As the meal came to an end and the trip home loomed, I said my goodbyes and began to ponder the significance of these meals for me. I look forward to them; I miss them when there is too much of a lapse of time between them.

The food and the chefs are, of course, the draw – but the community and camaraderie are what truly beckon and compel me to return time and again.


I ponder the use of the word “tribe” in its contemporary popular culture iterations. The word is used more and more often to describe a group of like-minded people rather than in its traditional anthropological sense of communities sharing deeply embedded common customs and cultural ancestry.

It has become a prominent political trope to address the growing divides within the United States and throughout the world with essays and editorials that examine the “red tribe” and the “blue tribe” in American politics and an ever-growing set of more specific variations on the ideas of tribes and tribalism.

I think that Alabama Chanin and the Friends of the Café have taken on an apolitical tribal significance for me. Through these dinners, I meet like-minded people with shared interests and a diversity of styles and tastes. Politics rarely come up at these events and I harbor a suspicion that some of my companions might not see eye-to-eye with me politically.

That doesn’t matter. What counts is that we share common interests in so many other things – in food and creativity; in aesthetics and sustainability; in making lasting connections and new discoveries; in meeting, communicating, and learning about others.

Red Beans Road Show

When I was first visiting New Orleans on a regular basis, Buster Holmes restaurant on the corner of Burgundy and Orleans was still in operation serving distinctive New Orleans food at amazingly reasonable prices. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox and a diverse clientele. It was well-known for catering to New Orleans musicians and was famous for its simple and excellent food.

Buster’s was best known for red beans and rice, that hearty New Orleans kitchen stalwart that was the traditional meal for Mondays – “wash day” for many households. Cooks could put on a big pot of red beans, let it simmer, go about their other chores, and have a good nutritious meal to eat on throughout the rest of the day.

Buster’s came to mind recently as I traveled with my friend Madeleine – who has been known as “Bunny” her entire life – to Florence for my first dinner of 2018 at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). The January dinner was a special Factory add-on and was not part of the Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series which will kick off its fourth season of dinners by award-winning chefs in April.

New Orleans-based writer, photographer, and raconteur Pableaux Johnson has been presenting the “Red Beans Road Show” for a few years now in a variety of locales. The event hearkens back to Johnson’s childhood memories of meals around his grandmother’s large round kitchen table. When that same table came into his possession, he felt a need to “feed the table” with informal Monday night red beans and rice dinners. Subsequently, epicurious.com recently named Pableaux Johnson to its list of “100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.” That “of All Time” phrase is pretty heady stuff (www.pableaux.com).

The ensuing “Red Beans Road Show” project is a series of traveling pop-up dinners inspired by meals around Johnson’s grandmother’s table and Pableaux’s desire to share Louisiana culture (www.redbeansroadshow.com).

It’s a simple premise. A local host provides the venue, the starters, and the dessert, and Johnson provides the heart of the meal – red beans and rice with skillet cornbread. Diners eat family-style around a table and lively conversation and new friendships accrue.

The Alabama Chanin Factory, helmed by Natalie Chanin with the Factory kitchen run by chef Ray Nichols, is the perfect setting for the concept; the precedent set by the “Friends of the Café” series makes it comfortable and familiar.

Bunny and I were greeted by Natalie Chanin when we arrived on a rainy Thursday night with a brutal cold front moving in. The crowd was mingling and exploring the racks of the Alabama Chanin showroom as appetizers were circulated. Pableaux Johnson’s photographs of Mardi Gras Indians were displayed on Factory walls and provided additional visual stimulation to the perfectly curated Factory space. We were a little late and I only got to the deviled eggs but I caught sight of other starters across the room.

Pableaux Johnson provided an animated introduction and explanation of the evening to the guests before we moved on to our seats at the many tables set up in the space. Once seated, huge bowls of rice appeared followed by bowls full of red beans. The assembled began to fill our bowls as plates of cornbread arrived to complete the serving.

Over the years I have realized that there are as many opinions about what constitutes the proper red beans and rice as there are people who eat it. Pableaux Johnson’s recipe for “Monday Night Red Beans” hits all of the high points and is a superior palate pleaser. Briefly, his version uses Louisiana-sourced Camellia brand red beans, andouille sausage, Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning, and Crystal Hot Sauce, along with the expected herbs, vegetables, and seasoning. It’s a pretty basic red bean recipe – no extreme frills or flourishes or experimentation – and it’s delicious.

The cornbread was a source of some culinary controversy as Johnson warned the gathering in advance that his cornbread contains a small amount of sugar. Those are fightin’ words in some quarters (including in my family) but the cornbread was very tasty nevertheless and a good complement to the savory dish. In Pableaux’s defense (if he needs one), the bit of sugar is part of his family’s cornbread recipe and that’s good enough justification for me. In fact, after a brief conversation with Pableaux in which I let him know that my mother is a bit of a cornbread snob, he brought over a couple of slices of the cornbread for me to take to Birmingham for her inspection.

Between the red beans course and the dessert, Pableaux discussed the Mardi Gras Indian portraits which lined two walls of the dining area. The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich and literally colorful history and tradition that is uniquely New Orleans and Pableaux’s respect for their craft and folkways is evident in his art and in his rendering of their story. It was satisfying to see the intricate details of the Indians’ painstakingly rendered and hand-sewn regalia sharing space with the meticulously crafted and hand-sewn garments of the Alabama Chanin showroom.

Chef Ray Nichols’s kitchen provided the dessert, a beautiful banana pudding that provided the ideal tasty end to a relaxing and rejuvenating evening at the Factory. As the guests departed, there was a washtub full of bags of Camellia red beans. Each guest received a bag of beans and a copy of Pableaux’s “Monday Night Red Beans” recipe.

Exchanging goodbyes with Natalie Chanin, we noted how nice it was to have an event such as the Red Beans Road Show so near the end of the holiday season (and, also, to kick off the Carnival season commencing on the Gulf Coast). I’m hoping there will be other such events at the Factory to signal the start of years and Mardi Gras seasons to come.

Bunny and I made our way home through a winter mist and fog and, by the time we got home, work and school were cancelled for the next day due to inclement weather. I’m happy the hard freeze waited until the Florence version of the Red Beans Road Show had reached its successful end.