Tag Archives: Alabama

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.

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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.


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. 

 

Fear Not

My annual getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear just ended and I am here to report to all of the people that harbored trepidations about the resort’s recent overhaul that I think it will be okay for them to go back; they’ll be fine with the changes.

A Grand Hotel has been located on the “point” of Point Clear on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore since 1847. When I visited in December 2017, much of the facility was a construction site and I was told that “every inch” of the facility was being touched by a massive renovation. I was eager to see what the final results looked like and am happy to report that they are finished and the place looks great.

Driving through the gate, one is not aware of all of the work that has been done. The grounds are immaculate as always, the live oaks are decked out for the holidays, and what blooms this time of year is blooming in profusion. My recently planted camellia bush did not have a single bloom this year so I was a tad jealous of the profusion of camellias all around the lagoon.

Most of the renovation work is interior and the result is a fresher, lighter, and more open effect with calm shades of blues and greys predominant.

The most visible change in the main building’s lobby area is a new casual food option, Local Market, in the space once occupied by the gift shop. A gift shop boutique, Oak and Azalea, is now located off the Grand Hall. Bayside Grill and Southern Roots are new dining options flanking the Grand Hall, as is the new 1847 Bar. The Grand Hall itself is now the setting for an afternoon High Tea in addition to breakfast and Sunday brunch. On one afternoon as I passed through, groups of hat-wearing ladies were enjoying the High Tea service. Gone is the 4:00 p.m. community tea that was a beloved tradition in years past, but the warm aromas of a wood fire from the fireplaces still waft through the main building on a crisp December evening. 

Old traditions remain. The Sunset Bell still rings thirty minutes before sunset, summoning guests to gather for the usually spectacular Mobile Bay sunset. The historical salute to the Grand’s military history is still an afternoon tradition, culminating in the firing of the Civil War-era cannon on the edge of the Bay.

One of the first things I checked was if Bucky’s Lounge was still there. Bucky’s, a gathering spot overlooking the Bay, is named to honor Bucky Miller, a mainstay who worked at the resort in many capacities over sixty years from the 1940s to his death in 2002. A life-size statue of Bucky, right hand outstretched to greet a guest, has stood outside the lounge for years. A subtle new touch is Bucky’s image smiling on the guests from one of the lounge walls.  More patio firepits have expanded Bucky’s out and closer to the Bay.

I do have to register one gripe about the changes: One of the stalwarts of the Grand’s appetizer offerings has always been an order of crab claws. For some reason, crab claws are missing from the current menus. I asked one of the wait staff for confirmation that the popular appetizer is, indeed, gone from all menus. It seems like a slight omission, but it is also something that is so simple and popular that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get rid of it. If I have a complaint to register about the updates, it’s simply that I want crab claws back on the menu. 

Throughout the various buildings of the resort, the fresher theme persists. In my favorite room with a spectacular view in the Spa building, the footprint is the same but the furnishings are somehow more functional and comfortable. In my room, I spent a lot of time lounging on a corner chaise that was a perfect spot for reading, writing, and napping.

The Grand is still a great spot to relax, both indoors and out. Any worries about the changes should be calmed by how well those changes were handled. I hope to be going there for holiday retreats for years to come. 

Light in August

Friday, August 24

One of William Faulkner’s best novels is Light in August (1932). There is much speculation about the meaning of the title – a reference to a house fire, a reference to the pregnancy and impending delivery (getting “light” again) of the character Lena Grove. I prefer Faulkner’s explanation:

. . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times… It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .

I thought of Faulkner’s lambent light in Birmingham recently as I walked from the Redmont Hotel to opening night of the Sidewalk Film Festival at the Alabama Theatre. There was a cooling breeze and the late-summer sun was low in the western sky, casting a golden light on tall buildings and church steeples as I passed.

That was a quiet moment before I turned onto 3rd Avenue N., sighted the Alabama Theatre marquee, and saw the line of a sell-out crowd for opening night of the 20th annual Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com).

The opening night movie, White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, documents a bumbling real-life caper involving Floridian Rodney Hyden’s search for a legendary stash of cocaine buried in the Caribbean. Director Theo Love presents Hyden and other principals of the story to create reenactments and interviews.

The filmmakers, along with Hyden and his wife, Jamie, were brought to the stage for the post-screening Q and A. Afterwards, the Alabama Theatre hosted the opening night party featuring a treasure hunt. The party was tempting, crowded, and noisy. I made my way from the upper balcony to the lobby and out the door as I headed back to my hotel.

The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival began in 1999. My first was the 2003 edition; I was instantly hooked. Eventually I was on screening committees for the SideWrite screenwriting competition and this year, for the second time, I was honored to be selected as a Juror for the SideWrite screenplay competitions.

Sidewalk and its partner, SHOUT! festival of LGBTQ-themed films, present a couple of hundred titles screened in ten venues over three days with preliminary screenings and year-long events leading up to Sidewalk’s Friday night opening in late August.


Lyric Theatre

Saturday, August 25

Total immersion in movies begins on Saturday. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen, directed by Rasmus Dinesen (www.michelinmovie.com), feeds into my interest in food culture. It investigates how Michelin star ratings are determined and how chefs attain them. The movie was slow-paced, not as accessible as some of the memorable food-centric movies I’ve seen in previous years; I’m particularly thinking of the Ella Brennan documentary, Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com), and The Search for General Tso (www.thesearchforgeneraltso.com).

Feature length documentaries are my primary draw at this festival. I like the opportunity to see stories I might not otherwise see and to see them in an actual theatre with an audience. Three Identical Strangers (www.threeidenticalstrangers.com), by director Tim Wardle, documents the story of identical triplets who were separated as babies and raised in different households. A serendipitous movie about three carefree young men who find each other grows darker as the three learn the circumstances of their birth and separation.

A director friend came to Sidewalk several years ago to screen one of his films. He commented that the name of the festival makes sense since you are constantly pounding the sidewalk to get to the next screening. Steven’s comment came to mind as I rushed to First Church Birmingham’s screening of The Gospel of Eureka (www.thegospelofeureka.com), directed by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri. The Gospel … examines the coexistence of one of America’s longest-running outdoor Passion plays with the LGBTQ community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas – all under the stony gaze and outstretched arms of the Christ of the Ozarks statue.


In the early years of Sidewalk, one of the growing pains was the dearth of places to eat near the theatres. Lyric Hot Dogs in the old abandoned Lyric Theatre building was a godsend in those years and was always packed with festival patrons. Food trucks were often brought in to take up part of the parking lot along 19th Street.  Unfortunately, Lyric Hot Dogs was a casualty of the Lyric Theatre renovation – pushed out in the name of restoration. That loss is still felt.

In the meantime, with the resurgence of downtown, a host of dining opportunities have opened in the area. One of the best options for variety is the food hall at the Pizitz, a legendary Birmingham department store whose flagship location has been converted into a multi-use facility with retail, offices, and apartments (www.thepizitz.com). There are over a dozen dining options at the Pizitz, all centered around The Louis bar on the ground floor.  Even more exciting for me is that the Pizitz will soon be home to two 100-seat movie theatres, the Sidewalk Cinema, providing a year-round showcase for independent films.

Thomas Jefferson Tower, Birmingham

After three documentaries in quick succession, I was ready for a break and made my way to the newly renovated Thomas Jefferson Tower for a late lunch at Roots and Revelry (www.roots-revelry.com). The Thomas Jefferson is a 19-story hotel, opened in 1929 (www.tjtower.com). It was abandoned for years and has been restored for residential living and retail. A most notable piece of trivia about the TJ Tower is that it still has its zeppelin mooring mast rising from the roof. In 1929, the prospect of mooring airships on the roof of a high-rise hotel was a realistic and practical one. This was, after all, eight years before the Hindenburg disaster.


After a relaxing meal, I returned to my day of documentaries. Next up was Stephen Kijak’s If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film about Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was never a huge fan of Skynyrd although “Sweet Home Alabama” is ubiquitous in Alabama and many a late night was reenergized by “Free Bird.” I saw the band for the first time at the Georgia Jam, a stadium show in Atlanta, in 1974. They were one of several bands in a day-long event that ended with the Allman Brothers Band. Kijak’s documentary covers all of the high and low points of the band’s existence and brought back a lot of memories of the 1970s and my college years. I saw Skynyrd a couple more times before the 1977 plane crash.

My day concluded with Western Hills – Sarah Marie Orr’s “making of” documentary about Birmingham musician Dan Sartain and the process of recording his album, Western Hills. I was drawn by the movie’s title, inspired by a mall in the western section of the Birmingham metro. Western Hills Mall has fallen on hard times and has been the site of gang violence, but it was a prime shopping destination for my mother and grandmother when I was a kid.

Dan Sartain, star of “Western Hills”

Sartain, an erstwhile Piggly Wiggly butcher, previously released an album called Century Plaza, whose title is inspired by another defunct Birmingham mall. Western Hills is not about its eponymous mall, but is about the making of an album featuring Sartain’s remakes of “western” music. Orr’s documentary is the epitome of low-budget indie – quirky, personal, and odd. As the credits rolled, Sartain hit the stage with his guitar to perform a couple of songs from the album. I went to sleep that night with the “Theme from ‘Rawhide'” ringing in my ears.


Sunday, August 26

Skizz Cyzyk’s documentary, Icepick to the Moon (www.fredlanedoc.com), encompasses events I witnessed, some of which had their genesis in my own back yard. Checking out of the Redmont, I headed over to the Birmingham Museum of Art for the screening.

Raudelunas (www.raudelunas.com) was a 1970s artists’ collective in Tuscaloosa during my college years. It was highly influenced by Dada, Surrealism, and Alfred Jarry’s concept of “Pataphysics,” which is metaphysics on acid (but trippier). The talented Raudelunas artists came from all fields, especially music and visual arts. Two Raudelunas principals, LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams, founded TransMuseq, an improvisational music ensemble and record label, and are known internationally for their experimental music (www.transmuseq.com).

I knew many of the Raudelunas principals and its breakout act, Rev. Fred Lane – who performed in a tuxedo jacket and boxer shorts with his face liberally covered in bandages, lived in an upstairs apartment directly behind my four-plex in Tuscaloosa’s student ghetto. Rev. Fred Lane was the stage persona of artist T.R. Reed, who is now known for his elaborate and fantastical whirligig sculptures (www.whirligigman.com).

Arriving at the museum, I realized that there were people waiting in the lobby that I knew in the Tuscaloosa years but I decided I wanted to stay anonymous. I probably should apologize to anyone who might have recognized me. I wasn’t snubbing them; I just wanted to play the role of moviegoer.

Icepick to the Moon is a wickedly wacky evocation of a certain time of creative fomentation in Tuscaloosa. The documentary footage of events like the Raudelunas Marching Vegetable Band in the University’s homecoming parade – which I remember well – captures a sense of the creative lunacy that lurked around the University when I was an impressionable undergraduate. I attended a number of Raudelunas and Trans events at the time but was too naïve to appreciate the full impact of what was happening at their “Happenings.” Over time, I have begun to more fully appreciate what I was seeing. Rev. Fred Lane’s “(Having lunch with a) White Woman” was, and is, one of my favorite lyrics ever (right up there with David Johansen’s “Frenchette” from the same era).

Mapplethorpe, directed by Ondi Timoner, is a narrative feature about artist Robert Mapplethorpe starring Matt Smith. The film is sketchy and fragmented and doesn’t feel completely true to its complex title character. Mapplethorpe’s relationships with Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff feel oversimplified and at odds with what is known about both of those relationships from other sources (especially Patti Smith’s excellent memoir, Just Kids). Mapplethorpe’s mercurial nature comes across as one-note through much of the film. But, as Birmingham Museum of Art director Graham Boettcher said in his introduction, it was nice to revisit the 60s, 70s, and 80s in the film.


On a Sunday morning at Sidewalk in 2009, I saw a movie that I still regard as one of my most transcendent experiences at the Festival. 45365, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s meditation on a small Ohio town, is a moving piece of non-linear visual art in which all the elements come together to achieve a cinematic stunner. I still recommend it frequently to anyone who hasn’t seen it (www.45365movie.com).

When preparing for Sidewalk 2018, I had high hopes for my final screening of the weekend. I hoped that Hale County This Morning, This Evening (www.halecountyfilm.com), by director RaMell Ross (no relation, as far as I know, to the Ross Brothers), might live up to my memories of 45365. RaMell Ross’s documentary, set in Alabama’s Black Belt region, won a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance and has received well-deserved critical acclaim.

Hale County, Alabama, is a small rural county in an impoverished region of Alabama. Despite an out of the way location, the place, which flourished in the cotton economy and floundered in the 20th century, has lured writers, artists, and visionaries over the decades. Walker Evans and James Agee were based there while working on the book that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Artist William Christenberry’s life’s work focused on Hale County. Architect Samuel Mockbee chose it to be the home base for Auburn University’s innovative Rural Studio.

In many ways, RaMell Ross takes the buildings and landscapes that Christenberry photographed and immortalized and shows us some of the people who inhabit them today.

The movie focuses on two young men – Daniel and Quincy – and spans half a decade. Daniel goes to college as an aspiring basketball player; Quincy has a family and works in a catfish processing plant. The strengths of the movie, however, are in its acute reflections on place. A toddler runs back and forth through a room to exhaustion, never giving up on a quest known only to the toddler. A ball is dribbled and the camera focuses on the drops of sweat collecting on the gym floor. Car headlights are paused on a highway for deer that casually cross. We are at the conclusion of a baby’s funeral. A long sequence past cotton fields along a road is one of the movie’s most lyrical and memorable sequences.

A long shot takes us down a parade route on Greensboro’s Main Street. At one moment, later, the camera veers off Main Street and stops at an antebellum house. Archival black and white footage of pioneering early twentieth century entertainer Bert Williams, a black man who performed in black face, peers through bushes at the contemporary scene in one of the movie’s signature tropes.

Ross interrupts his movie’s flow with rhetorical text statements that add to the mystery. He asks us to look, to listen, and to decide what to take away. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a good movie, a compelling movie that never fully soars.

I don’t know. I want to see it again.

As I reflect on my Sidewalk #20, I realize that cinema – like politics – is local. Out of dozens of titles to choose from, I chose to see movies, sometimes inadvertently, that had some personal reference and connection. I guess I still seek definitions – for self, for experience, for art – in a dark theatre, watching a movie, on a late summer day. 

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

I love the heat and activity of summer – the long days, the unpredictable showers, living out-of-doors. I always like to mark the Summer Solstice with a special activity, including my annual reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel set over the course of a summer told in the conversational voice of Gatsby’s erstwhile sidekick, Nick Carraway. It is Fitzgerald’s most perfect novel.

I have known since last October that I would be spending the evening of the 2018 Summer Solstice in Florence. I have written frequently about the “Friends of the Café” series of dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). These usually serve as fundraising events for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and are among the most anticipated events on my annual calendar. They are an escape.

The June 2018 dinner marked not only the Summer Solstice but a reunion with old friends, the opportunity to introduce friends who’ve never met each other, and the first “Friends of the Café” dinner for several of the people at my table.

I rode over to Florence from Decatur with my friends Anne and Deborah. Deborah, a Mobile native, was visiting from New Mexico. At the same time, my friends Scott and Michelle, with Scott’s parents, Jim and Judy – who were visiting from Ohio, were driving over from Owens Cross Roads, just over the mountain from Huntsville. Carol, a friend from Chicago, was already ensconced in Florence where she was attending week-long patterning workshops at Alabama Chanin.

When we arrived at the Factory, we were greeted with a beverage called the “Summer Solstice” – a refreshing mix of mint and peach-infused tea and Prosecco, ideal for celebrating the official start of my favorite season and for launching an impeccable meal.

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

The chef for the evening was Rebecca Wilcomb, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef – South. Wilcomb is Executive Chef at Herbsaint (www.herbsaint.com), a favorite New Orleans restaurant (I have a few) that is part of Chef Donald Link’s family of restaurants celebrating Louisiana roots and foodways.

Chef Wilcomb strayed a bit from her typical Herbsaint fare for this special Factory dinner, paying homage to her mother’s Italian roots – and especially to food prepared by her Italian grandmother in her kitchen in Italy. The meal was sumptuous and generous with Italian-inspired takes on fresh local food.

As the tribe gathered, hors d’oeuvres were passed by the always amazing Factory staff. I made sure I tracked down at least one of everything. The crab melt was a buttery mini-sandwich filled with perfectly rendered crab filling. Chickpea fritters with caponata, a well-spiced vegetable blend, provided a rich mouthful. Skewers of large spice-forward shrimp were incredible, and my favorites were skewers of beef chunks with anchovy and olive.

Dark clouds were gathering as we took our seats at the intimate Factory table settings. Thunder and lightning began to herald a passing storm as Natalie Chanin made her welcoming comments. The noisy storm prompted Deborah and me to exchange glances to acknowledge that a storm was the ideal accent for this special meal to cap the longest day of the year.  As the lightning began to subside, the rain intensified, pounding an energetic percussive beat on the Factory’s metal roof. Just as quickly, the storm moved away.

There was a lot of rain in the spring and recently; it promises to be a good year for fireflies.

  The first course for the seated meal was “Giannina’s  Tortellini.” It was revealed that Chef Wilcomb had never before served these tortellini at her restaurants or at a public gathering. Her Italian grandmother’s tortellini recipe was a special start to the meal with the stuffed tortellini served in a subtly flavorful broth. I tilted my bowl at the end to ensure that I could spoon out every last drop.

photo by D. Brunson

That first course was a finely rendered tease for the hearty second course to come. Served family style, it included six beautifully prepared and seasoned dishes highlighted by both a meat and fish offering. Pork belly from nearby Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.grazecart.com) was passed around along with an Open Blue cobia (www.openblue.com) from the Caribbean, paired with Calabrian chilies. The delicate white fish was a unanimous hit at our table, with a subtle creamy taste. Italian rice salad, marinated lunchbox peppers, a dish piled high with whole charred okra, and a beautiful bowl of seasoned porcini mushrooms completed the course.

photo by D. Brunson

The feast ended with platters piled with summer fruit hand fries; fig, blueberry, and peach pies were available and most of my dining partners managed to sample one of each. I was pretty full by that time and only ate two – fig and, of course, peach.

This will be one of the most memorable of the Factory meals because of the friends – old and new – who congregated for a very special event. I realized that all of the people who were seated at my table were there – either directly or indirectly – because of me. I worried that everybody might not have a good time but that concern melted away as we all talked and laughed, enjoyed the food together, and toasted the promise of summer.

An added treat of these dinners is the opportunity to see a chef I admire in a new context. Chef Wilcomb always brings to mind a favorite table by the window at Herbsaint; now, Herbsaint will always remind me of Giannina, her Italian grandmother, and of a Summer Solstice that was celebrated with friends in a most memorable way.

As we left the factory, the rains had moved on and a steamy glaze danced across the pavement of the road on a hot summer night. 

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.