Tag Archives: Alabama

The Vine and Olive Colony

Demopolis, Alabama – the “City of the People” – was founded in 1817 at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers by French Bonapartist exiles and other French who had fled the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791-1803.

The founding Frenchmen’s original charter was to create a “Vine and Olive Colony,” growing olive trees and grapes for wine-making. They were misinformed that the Canebrake region around what is now Demopolis was suitable for those crops. The vine and olive experiment was short-lived and most of the French settlers moved on to other locations. The few who remained assimilated into the area’s plantation and agricultural economy and Demopolis, despite its shaky beginnings, went on to be a flourishing center of the Black Belt in the nineteenth century.

The story of Alabama’s vine and olive colony of French expatriates had “legs” and was reimagined and enhanced, becoming an integral part of Alabama lore and mythology. The Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis has been recounted in numerous ways in fiction and was even a climactic plot point of the John Wayne film, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949).

When I first met the artist Julyan Davis (www.julyandavis.com) in the 1980s, he was a recent art school graduate from England who had come to Alabama to learn more about the Vine and Olive colony. He had read about it in books from his novelist father’s library, particularly the fictionalized version found in Carl Carmer’s 1934 “creative non-fiction” novel, Stars Fell on Alabama.

Although Julyan is a painter, he is also a skilled writer whose earliest interest in the Vine and Olive Colony was literary; he travelled to Demopolis with plans to write about it and its unique and romanticized history.

I met Julyan at a New Year’s Eve party in Tuscaloosa that I attended with one of my good friends, Madeleine, whom Julyan later married. Julyan’s travels are far-flung but he more or less settled in the American South over the past three decades and much of his painting focuses on Southern landscapes, overlooked architecture, and abandoned interiors. As a painter, his interests often complement the interests of photographer and Alabama native William Christenberry, whose life-long work in photography, painting, sculpture, and assemblage chronicles a vanishing and overlooked South and southern landscape.

Like Christenberry, Julyan explores the beauty in the decay of the forgotten detritus. He paints proud buildings in disrepair and humble buildings that retain their dignity. He paints cascading Carolina waterfalls in their primitive majesty and Maine seashores in their rustic authenticity.

My favorite of his paintings is an early one that I first saw in a gallery in Birmingham. It is a traffic light at a desolate crossroads somewhere in Hale County, Alabama. I haven’t seen that painting in a long time, but I have it memorized, I think, and it’s always just at the edge of my memory.

Over the years I stayed in touch with Julyan and followed his art and career as he and Madeleine lived in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Highlands and Asheville, North Carolina. The marriage ended but Julyan and I have stayed in tentative contact over time.

Julyan’s literary vent did not ultimately tackle the Vine and Olive Colony but a story-telling sensibility informs his paintings.  Perhaps his most heralded project is his on-going “Appalachian Murder Ballads” series of paintings inspired by Appalachian folksongs of Celtic origin. He takes the ancient texts and places them in modern settings – trailer parks, abandoned factories, river beds and railroad trestles, burning buildings.

A few years ago, Julyan decided to return to his early infatuation with the Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis and Marengo County, but as a painter, not a writer. He began a series of “Demopolis” paintings focused on the Symbolist character of Madame Raoul, the Marchioness de Sinabaldi. The moody series of “Demopolis” paintings captures the loneliness of a European expatriate transported to a wild and foreign place. My favorite of the series, “Son premier soin,” shows a lone Madame Raoul from behind, wearing an Empire gown and dragging cane through a canebrake. She holds an axe to her side. It is an evocative painting of stoic solitude.

On the occasion of Demopolis’s bicentennial, Julyan Davis took his Demopolis paintings to be displayed in the town that inspires them. Lyon Hall, an 1853 Greek Revival mansion near the center of town, is a mansion that is maintained but not “restored” and was the ideal site for the exhibition of the “Demopolis” series.

Julyan gave a talk about his work and the history of the “Demopolis” paintings on Friday night of the bicentennial event to a packed house in Lyon Hall’s double parlors. The paintings were hung throughout the mansion’s first floor, providing a moody accent to the expansive rooms of the venerable house.

Julyan Davis is a fascinating raconteur with a dry wit who takes pleasure in discussing the impulses that fuel his art. He talked about how bringing these Demopolis paintings to the place that first inspired his Southern sojourn seemed to be a way of bringing his career “full circle.”  He talked about why the Southern landscape entrances him. 

I was only able to be in Demopolis for the opening of the exhibition and for Julyan’s talk but the next day Julyan set up his easel in Lyon Hall and painted in the house while visitors enjoyed the finished paintings and the place itself.

As I left Lyon Hall that evening, I walked the grounds, intrigued by the dependencies that surround the house. The rustic charm of these outbuildings competes with the grandeur of the stately main house, where the sounds of the gathering that had assembled for the art filtered out through a peaceful late-summer dusk.

Advertisements

Sidewalk 2017

“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”

That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.

I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.

The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.

Two screenings stood out for me.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.

Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.

Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.

“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.

“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.


A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.

45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.

I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).

The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.

One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.

Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.

The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.

Sustenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a Summer without Peaches

This year’s first trip down to Chilton County to get peaches at Jimmie’s Peach Stand on Highway 82 was delayed a couple of weeks; it usually happens on Mothers’ Day weekend but when I arrived at the stand near the end of May there were few baskets left for the day. Mrs. Harrison and her son, Lynn, told me their peach crop was going to be truncated this year.

According to news reports, the same sparsity occurred throughout the 2017 Southern peach crop.  I had worried about the effect that a late brutal cold snap might have on this year’s peaches but the Harrisons assured me that it had not been that but the lack of enough cold weather in the 2016-17 winter.

So, I bought all of the peaches the stand had left that day to try to satisfy the promises I had made to people in North Alabama.

For years, I have tried to save a Jimmie’s peach to have on Labor Day night. The people at Jimmie’s said this year’s crop would likely be finished by mid-June; it usually lasts until the end of July and has been known to go deep into August. I promised to make one more trip to Chilton County before the stand closed for the season; I never made it back down but the one basket of Jimmie’s peaches I had this year was as delicious as always and quickly gone.

In the meantime, I tried to satisfy my peach cravings with the offerings of the Tennessee River Valley closer to my house and by trips to the Saturday morning Pepper Place Market and the Alabama Truck Farmers Market in Birmingham. Often, when I got to Pepper Place, the vendors with peaches were sold out early in the day due to smaller than usual supplies.

And the prices went up – sometimes drastically – for what peaches there were.

My favorite Tennessee River Valley peach vendor, Isom’s in Athens, was a no-show this year at the Thursday evening Greene Street Market that I frequent in Huntsville. I settled for a couple of other Greene Street vendors with peaches but was disappointed in the product. So far I’ve had the best luck with Reeve’s Peach Stand on highway 36 outside Hartselle.

I haven’t seen a single local fig this year but that has become commonplace. My friends with fig trees have been lamenting the lack of figs for several years now.

My time spent in my own yard has been limited during the warm season due to travel back and forth to Birmingham but the drought ended this summer and my back yard, which is usually pretty hopeless by the heat of August, is still lush and green. The grass is being cut weekly and needs it more often than that.

That very late freeze in the spring killed off some of the house plants that had already been moved outside and many of the outside plants were already in bud and bloom when the freeze got them so the schedule has been off this year. The Brunson begonia, an ancient begonia that I grew from cuttings friends gave me several years ago, was a casualty of the freeze as were a schefflera and nine-foot ficus, but other things sprang back to life, I acquired new plants, and “volunteer” plants filled the gaps.

My grandfather’s wild rose took the freeze as a minor setback and then took off with a vengeance. Its blooms and buds have occupied my back yard and occupied a small bud vase on the coffee table in the living room all season. Another wild rose at the back gate that my friends Scott and his daughter Cecilia foraged with me from the lake across the street from their house has had to be pruned back several times already; it produced exactly one bloom this year, which is exactly three less than it produced last year – but it is still a welcoming and lively green and thorny thing outside the gate.

The small beds and containers in the front yard recovered quickly after the freeze and have reemerged more prolific than ever. A pony-tail palm that I have nurtured for almost twenty years in the same concrete container given to me by my Granddaddy Harbison almost thirty years ago lives in the house most of the year and had just been moved outdoors when the freeze hit while I was out of town. I had given up on it but now it seems rejuvenated by its near-death experience and is coming back even more elegantly than before.

The four crape myrtles outside the back door were flourishing until the freeze killed them back; they have only just now recovered and begun to bloom. The Rose of Sharon – which has become a tree – is still full of white blooms but is cowered by the neighbor’s towering cherry tree which encroaches on its sunlight. My Rose of Sharon seems to be dying away slowly. I sit and wonder how to address the situation: My neighbor loves her cherry tree and it puts on a magnificent show for the two or three weeks it is in bloom in early spring. I appreciate the opportunity to share the view and shade as it overhangs my back fence.

But it is becoming very evident that my Rose of Sharon can’t compete much longer and I contemplate how to fill in the gap in the back corner of my yard that its loss will create.

The season’s greatest surprise, though, is the redbud that I picked up at a plant giveaway at Mother’s church over a year ago. It was essentially a stick in the ground with one struggling leaf when I got it. I put it in my back room with a lot of light and nursed it through the winter with no success. I moved it outside and it was trying to bud until it became another of the casualties of that late freeze.

It sat there, in its container, in the corner of the yard by the house like a dead stick because I didn’t have time to get rid of it. The guy who cuts my grass assured me that there was no hope. By June the little redbud began to bud and now it’s flourishing. I think I’ll let it winter inside for one more year and put it in the ground next spring. 

My time enjoying my little postage stamp of yard has been limited this year, but it still has provided hours of stolen pleasure with many weeks to go. I’m already hatching plans for next year’s improvements and looking forward to next summer being one with an abundance of peaches to savor; I will have to make up for my summer without peaches.

Old Dog, New Tricks … Sprouting

Sometime in the ‘70s, when Harmony Natural Foods opened along the University Boulevard Strip in Tuscaloosa, the store was a radical change from everything else on the Strip. It was close to my apartment and I would occasionally drop in for lunch – a sandwich or a salad. Harmony was really the only place in town to get the particular kinds of natural foods it was serving.

Harmony was an outgrowth of the hippy movement moreso than it was a harbinger of the food movements to come but it has managed to straddle both; it moved from the University Strip to Tuscaloosa’s McFarland commercial drag, changed its name to Manna Grocery and Deli, and is still in operation spanning five decades.

Back when I was a Harmony customer, I would dash across the street to Charles and Co. and grab a Coke before I went to have my “healthy” meal. I wasn’t always in the mood for the juices and herb teas that were the Harmony beverage options.

The food was generally good, but I remember an abundance of alfalfa sprouts on everything. I realized I am not a fan of alfalfa sprouts – they were fine as they were being eaten but had a metallic and lingering aftertaste that was and is unpleasant to me. Finally I started specifying “no sprouts” when I placed my order.

After all of these years, if I am ordering something that I suspect might have alfalfa sprouts, I will ask to have them left off.

Recently, though, while I was strolling through Pepper Place Saturday Market in Birmingham, one of the guys from the Iron City Organics microgreens stall motioned me over. “I want you to try something,” he said, and almost before I could say okay he clipped off a couple of tiny sprouts from a tray and I put them in my mouth.

The fleshy green sprouts popped with a burst of summer that was tangy and refreshing.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Sunflower sprouts,” he replied.

I had to have some and I took them home and used them in salads and as a garnish for various dishes. When I ran out of that first batch, I was anxious to get more.

Last week, when I went to Pepper Place, a visit to Iron City Organics was the absolute priority. There were trays of fresh sprouts still in the dirt and, after sampling, I came home with more sunflower sprouts, added wasabi microgreens to the mix, and am now thinking of all the ways I might use these and all of the other Iron City Organic crop. In addition to the variety of microgreen sprouts, Iron City also has full grown produce – kale, mustard, radishes, etc. – and a fine array from which to choose.

The guys at the stall are so passionate and take such pride in the product they are nurturing and providing that it’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm. They clearly know how to run a business and serve their customers; a search of their online presence backs up that perception.

I have recently become obsessed with accessing fresh watercress, which is hard to find, and now, thanks to the guys at Iron City Organics, I am embarking on a whole new sprouting angle to my menus.

But I’m still avoiding the alfalfa sprouts, thank you. 

Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serendipity under a Strawberry Moon

 Bird song and the comforting sounds of barnyard animals filled the late Spring air as the first fireflies of the evening began to twinkle in the woods of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge amid the backwaters of the Tennessee River.

 A group was gathered for dinner under the open pavilion at 1818 Farms (www.1818farms.com) in the northwest corner of the quaint and historic town of Mooresville, Alabama (pop. 54), in Limestone County between Huntsville and Decatur. In the wildlife refuge, a canoe glided by in the distance, adding a magical moment to the dinner; I hoped the canoe party looked to their right and saw our gathering beneath the Italian globe lights and flaming torches so that a glimpse of the farm through the trees might add to the magic of their journey at dusk.

It is the rare weekend when I am not traveling so when my friend Anne contacted me on Thursday to see if I might be interested in attending the 1818 Farms “Farm to Table” dinner on Friday, it was serendipitous that I had already made plans to stay at home.

1818 Farms covers three acres in tiny Mooresville. It is owned and lovingly tended by Natasha and Laurence McCrary and their family. A stroll through the property includes visits with chickens, cats and kittens, goats, pigs, sheep, and a Great Pyrenees dog to guard the assorted livestock. All of the animals seem incredibly content. Anne and I visited with three tiny kittens; one was designated to remain on the farm and the McCrarys were looking for good homes for the other two.

The farm is beautifully curated and a sense of calm begins at the front gate. Everywhere one looks there is a place to rest the eye. The animals are friendly and accessible, the raised garden beds are lush and filled with bloom and beauty, and the woods and wetlands of the wildlife refuge provide the western boundary beyond the border fence. A mellow instrumental duo provided music at the edge of the pavilion throughout the evening.

This was my first time to attend one of the 1818 Farms dinners. The meals started a few years ago in collaboration with Chef Jake Reed, the charismatic owner of the charming Albany Bistro, a great neighborhood restaurant in Decatur (www.albanybistro.net). Reed is winding down the Albany Bistro business (which now is open for catering and special events only) and has recently opened the new Table in the Garden eatery (www.tblrestaurant.com) at Huntsville Botanical Gardens.

“Chef Jakob” is a committed devotee to the “farm to table” philosophy and every meal I had at Albany Bistro is evidence that he practices what he preaches in creative and dynamic ways. His modern takes on local ingredients are fresh and innovative but he frequently acknowledges the enduring lessons he learned in the kitchens of his mother and grandmother.

Passed around hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes with a horseradish sauce, wonton cups with herbed chevre and summer vegetables (the cheese was from Humble Heart Farms www.humbleheartfarms.com in Elkmont, my favorite goat cheese purveyor), and possibly the best sausage balls I have ever tasted.

After the assembled guests were seated and the meal was introduced by Natasha and Chef Jakob, the first course of a summer vegetable tart in a puffed pastry crust was presented. It was followed by green bean and potato salad with lemon terragon vinaigrette.

The main course was grilled chicken with a balsamic peach glaze, grilled peach, and arugula. For dessert, Chef Jakob presented a bacon and bourbon cupcake. As shocking as a bacon and bourbon cupcake might sound, the result tasted like a fairly traditional cupcake but with interesting notes and hints throughout; I especially liked the crisp bacon crumbles on the top.

Chef Jakob created a lovely dinner that was reserved and memorable – unmistakably fresh, local, and seasonal. The presentation and ambience of the event were lovingly executed.

By the end of the meal, the twilight had turned to deep darkness and the animals were settling in for the night. Natasha was gathering up provisions for a couple who had decided to adopt one of the kittens and photographs were being taken to commemorate the adoption. As we stopped to check in on the roosting chickens in their spacious coop, Natasha passed. “They don’t realize how lucky they are,” she said of her menagerie.

Indeed, I felt lucky to be able to visit their home for a few hours. During the dinner, I had noticed a full moon beginning to peek through the canopy of trees. Native Americans refer to the first full moon of June as the “strawberry moon.” That strawberry moon shone brightly as I hit the highway for home and a restful sleep.