Tag Archives: Alabama

Shotgun

“Magenta on White,” (oil on panel), Jared Small (2019)

I went to the Huntsville Museum of Art (www.hsvmuseum.org) for inspiration this week. That is always an iffy proposition since I tend to find the Huntsville Museum cold and sterile. I visited frequently when I first moved to Huntsville but, over the years, I just stopped out of apathy and frustration.

This week I was on a short break from work and I was at home for a few days and I woke up one morning determined to take a mini-vacation. The main incentive for choosing to spend some time at the Huntsville Museum was an exhibit in conjunction with Alabama’s 2019 bicentennial. “Our Shared Heritage: Alabama Artists from the Collection” is a two-part exhibit featuring Huntsville Museum holdings by artists from Alabama or with an Alabama connection.


 

“Celebrated Figure” sculptures by Clifton Pearson with 4 William Christenberry photographs on the wall behind.

The first part, which I missed, showcased Alabama artists from 1850 to 1940. The current companion exhibition features Alabama art from 1940 to the present. It’s a nice hit-and-miss exhibit, featuring artists I know and with whom I am familiar. Some of the most significant Alabama artists of the past 75 years are missing, but a number of notable artists are represented. So is the ubiquitous Mr. Nall. Among my personal favorites in the exhibit are a trio of the noble “Celebrated Figure” series by ceramic artist and sculptor Clifton Pearson and four classic photographs by William Christenberry.

As I walked through the bicentennial exhibition, I kept being distracted by the luminescence of oil paintings in a side gallery. It was an exhibit called “Encounters – Jared Small: Southern Moments in Time.” When I was finished with the Alabama exhibit, I ducked into the side gallery to see what that was about (www.davidluskgallery.com/artists/jared.small).

Small is a Memphis-based artist whose work seems to transverse reality with a painterly form of magical realism. At a glance, the paintings seem photorealist, but – upon closer examination – there always seems to be something else going on – color suddenly swooshes across the canvas, ethereal light emanates from an unseen source, flowers float and drip mysteriously.

In one of the narratives that accompanies the exhibit, Small talks about how his flower paintings were inspired by the flowers sent for his father’s funeral. He speaks of observing them closely, of noting the fleeting nature of the flowers that serve as tributes to those who have passed on.

Small’s subjects include portraits, vibrant still lifes, and even more vivid architecture. The architectural paintings were my favorite. In his own way, Small seems to be doing something similar to what Christenberry did – albeit in a different medium. Each artist takes places that are fading into memory and exalts what remains.

This technique is most potent for me in a couple of paintings of shotgun houses in the exhibit. There were other styles of architectural paintings in the show, but the shotgun is a style of Southern vernacular architecture that always speaks to me with its simplicity and functionality of design.

“Pink Roses” (oil and resin on paper), Jared Small (2018)


The standard for s shotgun house is three to four rooms lined up one after the other with no hallways. Typically, the front room is the living area, the central rooms are bedrooms, a bathroom is thrown in there somewhere, and the back room is a kitchen. Most agree that the structures were labelled as “shotgun houses” because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the shells would go straight through every room of the house, exiting through the back door. There are other etymologies, but that’s the one I prefer.

These old styles of vernacular architecture were used in the South before air conditioning was common and one of the best things about them was their ability to circulate air throughout the space. Having the front and back doors of a shotgun house open creates a natural cooling airflow throughout the residence. The “dogtrot,” one of my other favorite styles of historic domestic architecture, incorporates an open breezeway down the center of the house with rooms opening off either side of the breezeway. My Grandmother Harbison grew up in a dogtrot house in rural Cullman County; by the time I knew that house, at what was always referred to as the “old homeplace,” the dogtrot had been closed in. However, the idea of the dogtrot breezeway was still in effect whenever the front and back doors were open.

Shotguns seem more common to urban areas and dogtrots are often in rural settings. Both – whether urban or rural – were usually lifted a few feet off the ground, which gives the advantage of added airflow beneath the floors. A few years ago, when I was playing around with home designs and toying with the idea of building my own, I settled on a modified dogtrot with a loft on the public side.

The shotgun style is often considered low-income worker housing, and, indeed, many former factory towns and industrial cities had an abundance of the style. Many of those have gone away over time but the charm and practicality of the style seem to be receiving renewed appreciation.

“Shotgun Houses; Bessemer, Alabama,” Nick Gruenberg

One of my favorite photographs by photographer Nick Gruenberg (www.nickgruenberg.com) is a photo of a row of shotgun houses in Bessemer, a former industrial town a few miles southwest of Birmingham. Each house has been painted a vivid bright rainbow hue; collectively, they create a happy block among the houses of the community.

Shotgun houses are still abundant throughout New Orleans, in an abundance of uses. In the upscale Garden District, the immaculate Seven Sisters houses sit in a pretty row on Coliseum Street. Urban legend has it that the Seven Sisters were built by a father for his seven daughters, but the more prosaic version is that they were built as “spec houses.” Shotgun houses were ideal for urban areas since they were only one-room wide and fit comfortably on a narrow city lot. The “double-barrel shotgun,” even more space-efficient, was two individual shotgun houses that were duplex-joined.

New Orleans’s renowned Brigtsen’s restaurant, Frank and Marna Brigtsen’s Riverbend staple, is housed in a modified shotgun (www.brigtsens.com). Outstanding examples of shotgun houses still serve as residences throughout the French Quarter, Treme, and Marigny neighborhoods.

In my very favorite episode of the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” the last remaining shotgun house in Waco was moved to a new lot and turned into a dream home for a young couple. I would move into that house in a minute (except I wouldn’t move to Waco, so there’s that). However, watching that episode on several occasions, I notice that closet or storage space is never shown. That has always struck me as the major flaw in the 19th century shotgun – there never seem to be closets for modern residents.


As I was thinking about this essay, I heard a cut of music called “Sama” by the English ambient/electronic duo ISHQ. The sounds of ISHQ were fluid and dream-like and, since I already had Jared Small’s paintings in mind, seemed the perfect score for his vivid, evocative, and contemplative art.

Go into an art museum – any art museum, even one you don’t particularly like – for inspiration. You never know the unexpected places where it might lead.

“Shotgun House; French Quarter” (2007)

“Shotgun House; French Quarter,” (2007)

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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.

Tuscaloosa Babylon

 A friend of mine who has an authentic voice and a story to tell recently told me that she is beginning to write an “autobiographical memoir.” Those words immediately made me flash on Family Bible (University of Iowa Press, 2008), Melissa J. Delbridge’s autobiographical memoir about growing up in Tuscaloosa in the second half of the 20th century. I consider it a benchmark of the genre.

Since the book was on my mind, I pulled it down and began to re-read it. Delbridge has written a fearlessly honest account of being a child and coming of age in a dysfunctional and highly entertaining family in Alabama, which she labels a “simmering stew of religion, race, sex, and corruption.” She writes vivid and loving portraits of her parents that present each as simultaneously charismatic, loving, and at times repulsive. Her colorful and skilled way with language makes for hilarious reading at some times and gut-wrenching accounts at others.

I have enough familiarity with the places that Delbridge references in the memoir to find my own connections. We did our laundry at the same University Boulevard laundromat and attended the same high school, albeit a few years apart. All of us at that time had late night adventures at Hurricane Creek and Moundville. She changes some names of people and places for discretionary reasons, but it usually isn’t hard to fill in the blanks if you were around then.

The first time I met Melissa was when she paid a visit to Mrs. Garrabrant, the faculty advisor of the high school literary magazine that I served as a co-editor in my senior year. I had leveraged my editorial position into an excuse to spend my final class period in Mrs. Garrabrant’s room instead of the study hall to which I was assigned.

I remember being a little in awe of Melissa’s worldliness as well as her earthiness. I was a fairly sheltered teenager, always shy from often being “the new kid” in various schools. Melissa was forthright and uninhibited; she seemed in complete control of herself and of her surroundings.

The next time I remember encountering Melissa was in a University Theatre summer production of Gypsy. She was one of the strippers in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and further confirmed that she was way ahead of me in the worldliness category.

Years after both of us had left Tuscaloosa, I read an article about “Alabama Literature” in Encyclopedia of Alabama that referenced Melissa Delbridge’s Family Bible. I searched it, bought it, and marveled at the writing skills of a work that was so embarrassingly familiar but still so removed in many ways from my own experience of Tuscaloosa. My parents would have disapproved of certain things about the Delbridge family.

In Family Bible, Delbridge writes with an effortless grace that complements her acerbic, spot-on wit. She is a clear-eyed observer who withholds judgement as she presents truth about her faith – “I was the most frequently baptized child in the state of Alabama,” about her family, and about her sexual awakening(s). In a note “To the Reader” at the front of the book she concludes “I’m writing from memory most of the time, so be forgiving, gentle reader. I went to college in the seventies.” Despite that disclaimer, her words ring with truth and authenticity. I hesitate to doubt her memory.

Rereading the entire book after about a decade, I am struck by my fresh reactions. When I read it for the first time, shortly after its publication, I was moved, amused, and impressed. Not much shocked me. Reading it now, in the wake of “Me Too” and the more fragile sensitivities of our times, I find myself occasionally shocked by some of the memories – not so much for myself (after all, I went to college in the seventies, too), but for the fragility and thin-skinnedness of our times.  I ponder how our society has managed to become both annoyingly super-sensitive and alarmingly callous and crass at the same time.

I have not read most of Family Bible in over a decade, with one exception. The essay, “Billy Boy,” is one that I find myself drawn to year after year. I share it with other writers as an example of a powerful evocation of memory. A forthright account of Delbridge’s physical abuse by her step-father, “Billy Boy” is told with a compassion and grace that seem unparalleled in abuse narratives. The author lays out the facts of her own experience and truth while taking into account the truth of her abuser and his wretched background. It is a rare and unique balancing act, highlighted by this harrowing and triumphant passage:

Enough. You can have the nights. Granted, I suffered some wrongs as a girl. Once upon a time a pathetic man scared me with his ugly bedtime story. I will never deny this experience, but I refuse to grant it more than its true weight. We all have wonderful and horrible experiences having nothing to do with our own actions, right? … We don’t always deserve what we get. Most times that’s a blessing.

The book’s final essay, “Girls Turned In,” is a poignant account of Delbridge’s time working with mentally and emotionally challenged “residents” at Tuscaloosa’s various mental institutions such as Bryce Hospital and Partlow School. Some of my family that lived in other parts of the state seemed to think that “Tuscaloosa” and “Bryce’s” were one and the same. If someone said “they had to send her (or him) down to Tuscaloosa,” they usually didn’t mean the University.

Although Melissa and I were only casual acquaintances, I was always pleased to run into her during our Tuscaloosa years. She was a stimulating conversationalist with sparkling eyes and a wicked dry humor. I often thought that her style of Southern womanhood was a modern incarnation of Tallulah Bankhead, the outrageous actress daughter of a most prominent Alabama political family.

Back when Melissa and I knew each other, we were both probably poor as Job’s turkey. Since its publication, I have purchased at least a dozen copies of Family Bible – for myself and as gifts for others. Melissa is in North Carolina now, and I hope those royalties have gone to buy her a couple of sweet teas – which I probably owe her – or a few meat and threes at Posey’s. Better yet, perhaps they helped fund some early morning breakfast at The Waysider – to once again scope out who spent Saturday night with whom.

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.


The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.


At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.


The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.


We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

Remembering Highland Avenue

 

Independent Presbyterian Church

Highland Avenue meanders along the north slopes of Birmingham’s Red Mountain for a couple of basically east-west miles. It starts at the business end of the Five Points South community and ends at Clairmont Avenue in Lakeview, beside the Highland Park Golf Course.

The area around Highland has always struck me as the epitome of a great urban neighborhood. By the 1960s, many of Highland’s grand houses had been split up into apartments, but now, many of those houses have given way to new development while others have mostly returned back to single family dwellings or event venues. What once were trolley tracks are now well-planted raised beds which run down the middle of most of the drive.

Donnelly House

Highland Avenue was conceived as a main thoroughfare through real estate development in the town of Highland before the town was annexed into the city of Birmingham.

Nowadays, the area is a mix of commercial and residential with high-rise apartments and condominiums among the houses and townhouses. It’s a surprisingly charming architectural mix with late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture co-existing comfortably with contemporary high-rises. Three cozy parks – for relaxing, playing with dogs, or shooting baskets – provide respite among the bustle of the avenue’s traffic. The street has a casually elegant feel – a mixture of contemporary with doses of a more elegant time past; it’s still easy to imagine trolleys and carriages moving along the avenue, and people leaving their calling cards at houses during Sunday strolls.

Avalon condominiums

The last time I lived in Birmingham, my apartment was up Red Mountain from Highland and the area was a regular walking spot for me. The neighborhood always relaxes and inspires me with occasional glimpses north to the Birmingham skyline, a sighting of Vulcan to the southwest, or the grand houses of the Redmont neighborhood along the Red Mountain crest.  If I am anywhere near the area, I will usually take a quick detour over to Highland rather than a more direct route.

A long-gone Birmingham-based chain of cafeterias called Britling had locations throughout the city, but I always thought the Highland Avenue location, which was known as “Britling on the Highlands,” somehow stood apart from the rest. That “on the Highlands” tag gave it a sense of elegance to my young mind.

Temple Beth-El

Temple Emanu-El

South Highland Presbyterian Church

Impressive houses of worship are scattered along Highland Avenue. Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El are just a couple of blocks apart. South Highland Presbyterian Church is located near the west end of the avenue and the neo-Gothic Independent Presbyterian Church is situated near the east end, across from the golf course. The two Presbyterian churches started out as South Highlands; Independent formed after a doctrinal split in the early 1900s.

Chef Frank Stitt’s Bottega and Bottega Café, his Italian-inspired dining spots, are housed right on the avenue in the Bottega Favorita building, a limestone charmer with visual as well as culinary distinction. Other notable restaurants along the avenue are Galley & Garden in the old Merritt House, and Hot & Hot Fish Club, half a block down and behind Highland Plaza, an art deco shopping center anchored by locally-owned Western Supermarket. Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill, 2018’s James Beard Award winner for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, is located just a couple of blocks from Highland Avenue, in Five Points South.

Bottega Favorita

I was saddened to learn recently that Western Supermarkets are going out of business after over seventy years. The Western on Highland was the closest grocery store to my Southside apartment in the ‘90s – and the only grocery store near downtown at the time. I frequently stopped there on the way home from work and often walked down early on Sunday mornings to pick up the Birmingham News and New York Times. The closing of the supermarket coincides with the purchase of Highland Plaza by a developer, with rumors of a major overhaul and redevelopment of the site in the works – another beloved landmark that will soon bite the dust.

Galley & Garden restaurant with Vesta apartment construction behind

Traveling past the Highland Plaza toward Temple Beth-El used to be one of my favorite quick glimpses of the Vulcan statue overlooking the city. That particular vista is gone forever with the construction of the high-rise Vesta apartment complex now obscuring the view.

The former Town and Gown Theatre is nestled just off Caldwell Park, which also used to be the front yard of sorts for John Carroll High School. John Carroll has moved to the suburbs, making way for more house construction, and Town and Gown has morphed into Virginia Samford Theatre, still a destination in the city for theatre-goers. I still have fond memories of auditioning for a juvenile role in a Steve McQueen movie at the old Town and Gown in the 1960s.

Highland Plaza

Despite considerable changes – and more to come – Highland Avenue retains its character and still feels like a neighborhood, a calm and shady retreat from the city center only a couple of miles away. It’s still one of my favorite streets to drive. 

Rethinking Rocket City

Huntsville – the north Alabama town where I live – was just named to the New York Times annual list of “52 Places (in the world!) to Go in 2019.” It’s an honor for a place. Montgomery made the list last year and Birmingham was on the 2017 list so Alabama has been well represented.

The incentive for Huntsville’s inclusion this year is the 50th Anniversary of the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Planned local celebrations will honor Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s integral role in the 1950s and 1960s activities that ultimately landed the first humans on the moon. The moon landing was the fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge, motivated by the Cold War and the American space race with the Soviets. It was spearheaded by Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers who were brought to the United States and to Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center after working with the Nazi regime during World War II.

The New York Times designation is just one of the many “best places to …” or “must see” lists on which Huntsville frequently lands. Huntsville locals are all atwitter with the projection that Huntsville might become the largest city in Alabama in the 2020 census. I get smug glares when I try to point out that the population within the city limits of Huntsville might indeed surpass that within the city limits of Birmingham in the next few years, but that the metropolitan population of the Birmingham region will still be three or four times that of Huntsville and its satellites.

I have gotten used to smug glares since I moved to Huntsville.


Not that it matters, but readers have asked me why I don’t write much about the town where I live. After sixteen years in residence, I am still ambivalent about the place. My house in southeast Huntsville is indisputably my “home”; it’s the place where I keep my stuff and where I feel at peace – it’s my haven. But the city where my home is located is a place where I still feel like a visitor, and sometimes an interloper. I’m a quasi-Luddite in a town full of military types, federal employees, IT workers, engineers, and rocket scientists. I’m not really at home in Huntsville’s STEM paradise; I find it lacks STEAM (which, for the uninitiated, is STEM with an Art component).

My lack of enthusiasm probably dates back to my days in elementary school. When I was in fifth grade, in Birmingham, we took a field trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. In those days, we frequently watched space launches on black and white classroom televisions. As a first grader, I was enthralled watching the coverage of John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbits. I was excited to contemplate going to Huntsville, the place where so much of the technology for the space race had been formulated – the place where the astronauts trained. When my fifth-grade field trip occurred, the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy had not yet happened and the 1969 moon landing seemed to be in the distant future.

Most importantly, perhaps, these were the days before there was a U.S. Space and Rocket Center so Marshall was all business – with no bells and whistles – for a school field trip.

As I recall, after a long bus ride, we were herded into a lecture hall on the Marshall Space Flight Center campus where we listened to rocket scientists and looked at projected charts. After the lectures, we got back onto our bus and had a picnic at what I remember as a depressing public park near the Arsenal. That park is still there; it doesn’t look like it’s changed at all. (I shudder whenever I pass it.)

Then we had a long bus ride back to Birmingham.

I have met people all over the country who tell me that childhood trips to Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center or Space Camp (www.rocketcenter.com) changed their lives, turning them into space and science enthusiasts. I’ve no doubt that my class experience would have been much different with the more exciting and interactive experience of the Space and Rocket Center, but, for me, the trip to Huntsville was the worst field trip ever.

My second visit to Huntsville was years later when I was stage managing a touring theatre production that played an arts festival in Huntsville’s Big Spring Park. It wasn’t a great tour stop. Some of the locals complained that the production – a salute to the music of Stephen Sondheim – was too “adult” for the family crowds at the festival. There was some sort of power glitch during an afternoon show that caused the performance to grind to a halt for a few minutes.

Despite these early experiences, when what seemed to be a promising opportunity to take a teaching job in Huntsville arose many years later, I accepted the offer and hoped for the best.


Huntsville had less than 15,000 inhabitants in 1940, prior to the establishment of Redstone Arsenal during World War II. At that time, it was the “watercress capital of the world” and a place focused on cotton and textile production. The remnants of some of the local mills and the “company town” communities which surrounded them are still around and repurposed today.

When I moved to Huntsville in 2002, I was thrilled by how many cotton fields could still be found within the city limits. In the years since, I have seen most of those disappear and be converted to more prosaic uses. Still, one doesn’t need to travel far to find rich agricultural land and scenic beauty. One of my favorite vistas within the city limits is what remains of Jones Valley Farm, a once expansive family farm that has mostly been sold off for residential and retail development. Enough of the farm land remains to capture the beauty of what that valley area nestled among three mountains must have been long before I came to live here.

With the arrival of the “Space Age” came the arrival of space age architectural flourishes and, while I am a fan of mid-century modern architecture, I never found my comfort zone with some of its incarnations, such as the Googie branch of futurism which took off with the advent of the space age (think “The Jetsons”). Unfortunately, Huntsville’s growth spurt was simultaneous with that style so you have the anomaly of an unfortunate modernist county courthouse sitting in the middle of a still charming and historic town square; a foreboding city hall looming over the big spring that spurred the area’s earliest settlement; and First Baptist Huntsville’s rocket-inspired carillon and trippy “Cosmic Jesus” mosaic façade. These remnants of the early days of space technology in the area are jarring amidst the vernacular structures that still provide local character.

The local visual arts scene is centered in Lowe Mill (www.lowemill.net), a converted cotton mill housing dozens of artist studios. It’s a great idea in principle, but it becomes exhausting to separate the wheat from the chaff in the expansive space.

Incidentally, living near the Arsenal, one tries to get comfortable with random large booms and the sounds of explosions – some of which are house-shaking – with military helicopters regularly flying overhead. I’m not quite there yet.

Local lore has it that Native Americans referred to the location of present-day Huntsville as the “Valley of Death” because of its preponderance of allergens. I first heard that from my primary care doctor, who suffers from many of the same allergies as me. It is a questionable legend that has been attributed to other places. However, I can attest to the fact that I did not suffer from seasonal allergies until I moved to Huntsville; now, my “seasonal” allergies cover all four seasons. It is of interest to note that Monte Sano, the mountain that looms over downtown Huntsville, means “Mountain of Health.” Local legend says that name came about because the natives escaped up the mountain to get away from the valley of death. It makes sense to me.


I am constantly in search of my local “comfort zones,” and I have found several. Here are a few:

I was pleased recently with the opening of a sharp new gallery space – Burnwater Gallery – nestled far away from the hustle of Lowe Mill (www.burnwatergallery.com). Not far from Burnwater, Holtz Leather Co. is a family business specializing in fine leather goods crafted on-site (www.holtzleather.com).

I find culinary community at 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern (www.1892east.com) in Huntsville’s 5 Points neighborhood. 1892’s originally more adventurous menu has settled into routine in its near decade of existence and I suspect that’s to please its local clientele. The menu is still based on a farm to table philosophy and it’s a comfortable place to unwind, with a charming and knowledgeable wait staff. The Walt Whitman quote, “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough,” inscribed above the bar, seems to capture the spirit of the restaurant, which I have taken to describing as my own personal “Cheers.”

Anaheim Chili (www.anaheimchili.net) in Jones Valley is a casual place specializing in about a dozen chilis, other hearty menu items, and a variety of local brews on tap. The regular tastings at the local Wine Rack (www.winerackhsv.com), a neighborhood wine shop with a quirky assortment of regulars, provide another setting for lively community interaction. There are also some good food trucks to be found scattered throughout Huntsville. My favorite is Peppered Pig (www.pepperedpig.net).

I am currently excited about Purveyor (www.purveyorhuntsville.com), a new local restaurant in The Avenue multi-use development downtown. Based on word-of-mouth, I was worried that the place might be a little too pretentious and “precious” for my taste. Purveyor is a little expensive, but after dining there recently, I am a convert. Chef Rene Boyzo is providing an adventurous and ambitious menu, setting an exciting and desperately needed new bar for Huntsville dining.


In the middle of writing this essay, my mother, my nephew, and I were standing outside late on a cold and cloudless Sunday night in Birmingham watching the Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. The night was calm and peaceful and I re-encountered that awe that I had as a first-grader, that must have inspired the moon mission and its earliest explorations – that still inspires so many residents of the Huntsville area today.

A few days later, it was announced that a new rocket engine facility locating to Huntsville is negotiating with NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center to re-purpose and use the Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand that has stood abandoned since the days of the Saturn V rocket and development of the space shuttle. It’s an imposing structure, still one of the tallest buildings in the state, and visible from many parts of Huntsville – standing isolated and alone in the distance. I have often thought it was a shame that it’s no longer utilized. Now, perhaps, it will be.

Since moving to Huntsville in 2002, I have had the vague impression that the local aerospace concerns were constantly trying to justify their continued existence amid constant changes in the political climate and shifting allegiances to space exploration and its implications. With recent developments, there may be justifiable life in the old girl yet.

I have no intention or desire to remain in Huntsville past retirement, but my interest in the place and its future has been newly titillated. I plan to keep watching in the future … and from a distance.