Tag Archives: Alabama Chanin

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.

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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. 

Harvest and Rejuvenation

The cotton fields – which are still abundant between Decatur and Florence, Alabama – were peaking and startlingly beautiful with their fluffy and practical white yield as my friend  Anne and I made our way to the Alabama Chanin factory and the last dinner of the 2017 season (www.alabamachanin.com).

It was in this in-between area, around the community of Trinity, that I was one of many volunteers that helped out for a morning or a day with Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid’s 2012 experiment in growing organic cotton in north Alabama. With the industrialization and outsourcing of cotton harvesting, working the field was a “back to the roots” experience which helped me to recognize and honor the hard work of my own relatives who worked the cotton fields and harvests of their own Alabama farms in the first half of the twentieth century.

Inventive souls are finding new uses for local cotton these days, including downtown Birmingham’s Redmont Distillery which features an “Alabama Cotton Gin,” a spirit which is “distilled through Alabama cotton” and infused with other local product (www.redmontdistilling.com).

The most recent Alabama Chanin dinner was a celebration of the fall harvest, helmed by Ray Nichols, the new in-house chef for the Café at the Factory, who comes with an already impressive resume and who, before joining Alabama Chanin, was at Odette, a charming dining spot in downtown Florence. It was a rich season of Friends of the Café meals starting with Chef Scott Peacock re-emerging for an Easter season event and moving forward with the return of Chef Ashley Christensen for her second meal of the series. In August, in conjunction with the Billy Reid Shindig, Chef Asha Gomez presented a meal combining her American Southern experiences with her roots in southern India.

Chef Nichols’s dinner was a sold-out mix of locals, regulars, and new faces. Our friend Carol from Chicago showed up accompanied by a charming Chicago friend. We met guests from Hawaii and Colorado and a yoga master from Gray Bear Lodge in nearby Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have written before that there are times when the former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence seems like the center of the universe; chance meetings and serendipity abound.

Young Chef Nichols impressively held his own with his predecessors with a hearty dinner featuring the harvest of the region along with a couple of tasty imports, like Conway Cup oysters from Prince Edward Island. The mildly briny oyster was topped with a Harvest Roots kimchi from Mentone, a scenic village on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. The oysters on the half shell were pass-arounds at the start of the evening along with deviled eggs topped with a Harvest Roots curtido.

The pre-dinner beverage was served in a brown sugar-rimmed glass partially filled with cider from Florence’s Singin’ River Brewery. The cider was cut with Prosecco and the drink was finished with a splash of Sangria. 

When the guests were seated and the preliminary introductions were completed, platters of smoked chicken wings, pickled vegetables, and toasts topped with Bonnie Blue goat cheese were served family-style. The chicken was coated with a white sauce (this is, after all, north Alabama), and the goat cheese was from Waynesboro, Tennessee, just off the Natchez Trace.

A harvest salad with an abundance of greens and local harvest from area farms was served next with a burnt honey–sweet potato dressing. The main course featured Bear Creek pork served two ways. A large and tasty pork rib was presented alongside a ham steak. Both were accompanied by farro verde, turnips, and muscadine.

The dessert lived up to its preamble. A crumbly sweet potato cake and a creamy semolina pudding were garnished with cashews and citrus. 

Ray Nichols’s debut for an Alabama Chanin factory special dinner was a triumph with every bite, heralding a bright new presence in the Factory kitchen that will maintain and enhance an already impressive standard.

The yoga master asked me at some point during the evening if I spent my time going from one amazing dining experience to another. I wish … but no, I do not. Such evenings are few and far between in my schedule and each is anticipated with pleasure. I feel rejuvenated and ready to face the day to day challenges when I have the opportunity to eat an amazing meal in a singular place in the company of delightful people.

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. 

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.

Friends of the Café Dinner: Adam Evans

dscn0460  I’ve stopped trying to rank the meals I’ve had at the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence. When I think a Factory meal can’t be topped, I travel over to the Shoals and have another meal that once again makes me appreciate food in a new way.

I have missed a few of the Factory events but I think I have now attended six or seven starting with an amazing dinner featuring the food creations of chef Vivian Howard in July 2014.

The Factory’s own executive chef, Zachariah Chanin, and his staff created a truly memorable Spring Harvest dinner in May 2016 that blew me away with its exquisite simplicity and low-key elegance. That meal was not long after the legendary Frank Stitt and South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott teamed up for an amazing spread featuring Scott’s savory whole hog and a slough of accompanying sides by Stitt and his crew. dscn0472

So it was with great excitement and anticipation that my friend Anne and I trekked back to the Shoals for a late-summer dinner featuring chef Adam Evans, a Shoals native, and benefiting Southern Foodways Alliance. Evans is transitioning now after several years in Atlanta with gigs at The Optimist and Brezza Cucina; exciting rumors were circulating at the dinner about where he may launch his next culinary venture and, if they are true, I may have many more opportunities to sample his exciting food.

I have written in more than one essay about how Natalie Chanin promotes community in her work and design and in her outreaches such as the Factory dinners. At Zach’s dinner in May we sat across from a charming couple from Indianapolis and at the Evans dinner our dining partners were another great couple from Tulsa.

Chef Adam’s meal was personal and full of surprises, telling his story of working in restaurants in many locales with the feast “beginning and ending right here in Alabama” as the menu note stated. Passed around hors d’oeuvres included grilled oysters and lemon butter, pork belly and watermelon, lobster roll bites, and tomato and bacon tea cake sandwiches. The big surprise of the hors d’oeuvres was a chicken stew soup dumpling which demanded to be downed in one satisfying bite. The savory dumpling had a filling of actual chicken soup that was a surprise and a unique treat. There were wine pairings with every course. fullsizerender-4

When the diners were seated, we were served a beautiful garden salad harvested from the garden of “Henry H.” – the chef’s late grandfather. Henry’s garden is still maintained by chef Adam’s father. The chef’s story of the garden was as moving as the salad was good.

The surprises continued with a second course of a seafood gumbo with a lot of heat. In lieu of the serving of rice that usually accompanies gumbo, this gumbo had a dollop of potato salad on top. It might not sound good but everybody was raving about the gumbo – potato salad combination. John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance was among the diners and asked for the chef to come out and explain the potato salad with the gumbo. It turns out Evans picked it up from the father of a friend when he was working in New Orleans. He said the man made a great gumbo and always put potato salad on top. It’s a touch I plan to remember and steal. Indeed, I think Chef Evans managed to introduce a southern food way that surprised even John T. Edge.

fullsizerender-4The third course featured pancetta wrapped guinea hen with chanterelle mushroom, husked cherry, and Swiss chard. Just when it seemed the chef couldn’t possibly top himself, the fourth course arrived with duckfat poached Gulf swordfish with Carolina Gold rice grits, corn, charred okra, and shrimp chili butter.

Finally, a muscadine and fig crisp was served for dessert, the staff was introduced, and fond partings were exchanged with the community that had assembled for the evening in the very special place that Alabama Chanin has built in Florence in the Alabama Shoals.

At some point during the evening, the people at our table were discussing careers and I said, “I’m a university professor but I’d rather be a ‘lifestyle guru’. I didn’t realize that was an option when I was coming up.”

If I had known that “lifestyle guru” would be a thing that people might make a living at, and if I had managed to become one, I’m sure I would be proselytizing for the Alabama Chanin aesthetic and, after the meal of a couple of weeks ago, for the homegrown and brilliant culinary aesthetic of Adam Evans.

As always, I can’t wait for the next Friends of the Café dinner in October. img_4211

Serenity Now: Reflections on a Weekend

(for Anne T.)

DSCN0316 (2) So here’s the deal: Because of family matters in Birmingham, I have not spent an entire weekend in my house in eleven months. On the weekend of May 20 through 22 I had a dinner engagement over in the Shoals in Florence  and planned to spend the weekend at my house and return to Birmingham on Monday (I am on a break until Memorial Day).

On Friday morning I began to cultivate a kitchen herb garden in my tiny back yard and re-pot and re-plant some things that have been neglected in the past year. I met with my friends Scott and Michelle and their two daughters for dinner at a favorite chili place on Friday night but the daughters preferred Mexican  with buddies so Scott and I were dumped and had to be bachelors for the night (well, Scott did – I’m always a bachelor for the night).

My friend Cindy, who was supposed to be my companion on Saturday night in Florence, was forced to cancel and I was suddenly looking at wasting a much sought-after ticket for a sold out dinner. These are amazing dinners, however, so I was going whether the other ticket was taken or not.

I immediately thought of my friend Anne who lives in Decatur – about halfway between Huntsville and Florence. I also remembered that my friend Anne is a very busy and active woman and would most likely be out-of-town for the weekend.

I sent a text with a somewhat embarrassed invitation and, to my surprise and delight, Anne texted back “Yes. What time?”

Just before I got to Anne’s house in Decatur, my “low tire pressure” warning came on and I pulled into the driveway with a tire rapidly deflating. Anne was happy to drive her car and I decided to deal with the tire after the dinner.

As we prepared to leave for the Shoals, Anne’s beloved 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Zeke, had a frightening seizure and Anne rallied to try to get Zeke through the crisis. Zeke’s seizure ended but he remained disoriented and Anne called upon a trusted friend to sit with him for the evening.

Slightly disoriented ourselves, Anne and I left Decatur in Anne’s vehicle and she said the only stop we needed to make was for “petrol.” We pulled into a station on the outskirts of town and suddenly were met with a Michael Jackson impersonator with full Michael Thriller-era wig and complexion performing full out to “Beat It” in the filling station parking lot. Anne assured me that he was a Decatur tradition and passing vehicles rolled down their windows and cheered him as they passed. Anne wanted to tip him but I wasn’t so sure. Now I wish we had because how many guys are committed enough to run around performing Thriller tracks in Decatur in full Michael drag?

Next time I see him, I’ll take a picture. He gets a tip from me next time.

When we got to the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence for the Spring Harvest Friends of the Café dinner, the place was already jovial and full and hors d’oeuvres were being passed.  We grabbed a devilled egg and headed toward the dining area and were greeted by Natalie Chanin, the acclaimed “slow fashion” designer and host for the dinner (www.alabamachanin.com).

Anne was her always charming self, as was Natalie, but as we moved away Anne muttered “I’ve wanted to meet Natalie Chanin for years and when I finally do I have egg in my mouth.” Not to worry – Anne had another conversation with the designer at the end of the evening and I don’t think there was any notice of the hors d’oeuvres incident.

I need to write an essay on the dinner itself, and I plan to (but I got no decent photos – was far too busy eating the food and chatting). The featured chef for the evening was the Factory’s resident chef, Zachariah Chanin, and it was one of my favorite meals ever at the space (I think I’ve made six of the ten Friends of the Café evenings). The amazingly fresh spring harvest ingredients were primarily from Bluewater Creek Farm in Killen, Alabama, an organic farm run by Collins and Liz Davis in partnership with Doug and Donna Woodford (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). I wrote about my tour of Bluewater Creek Farm in the essay “Sustainability and Soul” in November 2014. IMG_0837

Suffice it to say, the meal was brilliant. Each Friends of the Café event is a benefit and this one was no different. The honoree was Nest, a non-profit organization that supports artisans and makers throughout the world and with which Alabama Chanin is very involved (www.buildanest.org).

Incidentally, the dessert, a strawberry shortcake with local strawberries macerated in a thyme simple syrup with freshly whipped cream is assuredly the best and freshest I’ve ever tasted. Almost as good as the dessert’s taste was watching Zach Chanin and his staff assembling the dozens of desserts on the café bar.

As always, new acquaintances and friends were made at the family-style seating. Anne and I sat across from a couple from Indianapolis. “What brings you to the Shoals?” I asked. “We drove down for dinner” was the honest reply. A family next to me had driven in from Corinth, Mississippi, for their first Factory meal and assured me they’d return.

During dinner, a spontaneous conversation erupted at my end of the table about “Seinfeld” catch phrases.

“A Festivus for the rest of us.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” “The Bro.” “Sponge-worthy.” “Yadda yadda yadda.” “The Contest.”

And my personal favorite  – “SERENITY NOW!”

As always when I am at the Factory, the spirit of community and connection is palpable. In addition to the fine company in the room, Anne texted our friend Deb in Paris and we both wished she was with us. So the good feelings spread beyond Alabama and the Shoals and were truly international. After a thoroughly satisfying evening of food and sociability, we said our goodbyes and walked out under a bright and friendly full moon. When we got back to Decatur my tire was flat as a pancake.

It was late. Anne offered her guest room and I decided AAA could wait until morning.

By morning, I went downstairs to find Anne tending to a much calmer Zeke and my ruined tire was tended to by a particularly pleasant AAA tow truck driver. At last, I was back on the road and headed home.

A very wise woman once advised me that I should reserve a part of each week to be quiet, relax, and regroup. When my schedule allows, that time has always been Sunday night at my house. I cook a good meal, sit quietly, and listen to soothing music until time to go to bed.

I realized that this particular Sunday night would be the first chance I’ve had to renew that tradition in a long while. Inspired by Zach Chanin and Bluewater Creek, I surveyed my recent farmers market purchases to see what I could put together that was fresh and local and planned a healthy evening meal. I needed to run to the grocery store to supplement some things. In the produce section I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over two years. As we quickly caught each other up on what had been happening, I realized anew how hectic my life has been recently; no wonder I feel tired

Returning from the store I decided to sit in the back yard to savor the warm weather, have a cold drink, and observe my weekend’s progress before cooking commenced. As I sat quietly, I heard a plaintive voice in the back alley: “Se-REN-ity … here, Serenity.”

As the voice got closer to my back gate I saw a woman looking in every direction and calling for Serenity.

I went out the gate and into the alley. “What have you lost?”

“My dog, Serenity. We just moved in to the house down the street and somebody left the gate open and she got out.”

I told her I would keep an eye out for Serenity and asked what she looked like.

Serenity is a Jack Russell terrier.

As I write this, I am sitting in the tire store getting a new tire. The HVAC guy should be at the house by the time I get back, working on some outside conduits. I’ll pack to go back down to Birmingham where there seems to be a full schedule waiting for me, including a trip to Tuscaloosa, taking Mother and her neighbor to see the Cahaba lilies in bloom, this season’s first peach run to Chilton County, a Japanese steakhouse dinner to celebrate my nephew finishing sixth grade.

When I get time, I’ll have to make some cheese straws for those new neighbors – the ones who named their dog “Serenity.”