Tag Archives: Alabama

Breathe

On the day before I leave for my annual December pilgrimage to Point Clear, I notice an online horoscope for my sign that reads

A strong craving for solitude tempts you to ask people to leave you alone today. Many animals hibernate for the sake of rest and revitalization; you’re not purposely pushing anyone away to hurt their feelings … Let everyone know you are not vanishing from their lives; you just need more sleep. This is one of those occasions when cuddling with your individuality rejuvenates the beast within…

I do not put much stock in astrology, but occasionally a horoscope – like a fortune cookie – will hit the nail on the head (not sure how I feel about rejuvenating “the beast within,” however).

I have made this December trip so many times that there is no longer pressure. I’ve thoroughly explored the landscape down here and don’t feel a need to venture forth too much if I don’t want to.

On this drive down, I am weary.

There is a time in that drive when I exit I-65 South onto AL 225 toward Spanish Fort. Taking that exit, I breathe. I open the car window to breathe in that air “below the salt line.” The air is brisk and chill and I savor its tonic.


By the time I drive through the gates of the Grand Hotel (www.grand1847.com), I am calm and relaxed. After checking in at the gate, driving onto the grounds, I hear the gate attendant say “Mr. Journey is here. He’s driving a gray Ford.”

Although I have heard the prompt, it pleases me when the valet opens my door with a warm “Welcome back, Mr. Journey.” I used to be a professional director and stage manager and I appreciate that attention to detail.

The low pre-winter sunset is intense on my balcony as I unpack and settle in for the all too brief pre-Christmas respite. The afternoon cannon firing at bayside occurs just as I open the balcony doors of my room in the spa building.

On a late afternoon stroll around the lagoon, with holiday lights beginning to flicker on, the squawking ducks, clamoring for food, distract me from the great blue heron standing like a statue just a few feet away. I have just enough time to snap a photo of the stately bird before he glides across the water, landing on the other side with a fish in tow which he quickly ingests.

This year, the lighting in the lagoon area has taken on a theme of arches, with Christmas trees sprinkled liberally along the walkways. In addition to archways scattered throughout the area, the natural arches created by the dipping branches of the ancient live oaks are dramatically accented along the way. The three fountains that dot the lagoon spray up like magnificent sparklers. The effect at dusk, with the golden lights illuminating the dripping Spanish moss and the silver lights on the fountains, is as magical as any magic I’m willing to believe in at this stage of life.


My annual Christmas present to myself – a warm stone massage with Claudia – is scheduled for my first morning at the Grand. I arrive at the spa early to relax in the calm of the quiet room and to catch up on news of my favorite attendants; Al Agee retired a couple of months ago after many decades at the Grand, and J.C., who was off that day, is still around. Michael, the attendant on duty, is a charming character and – like Al and J.C. – he has good stories to share.

I have described my massage with Claudia as “the shortest eighty minutes of my year.” On several occasions during the session, I hear myself expel a deep breath, often as bundles of nerves and tension begin to fade away.

Is it any wonder that I spend my year anticipating this annual respite?


With the Grand resort’s recent upgrades and renovation, the new Southern Roots restaurant is a most welcome addition, providing an inventive, locally-oriented menu featuring locally-sourced produce, seafood, meats, and desserts. The mixologists provide an inventive daily inspiration in the adjoining 1847 Bar. Everything is exceptional. I normally go out for dinner when I stay at the Grand but will be taking more meals on-site now.

Down the road in Fairhope, Dragonfly Foodbar continues to offer an inventive menu of tastes fueled by Asian and Mexican influences. I seat myself in a dining room at Dragonfly that is between two more crowded rooms and amuse myself with the interesting juxtaposition of music coming from each side. As one room plays classic rock, the other plays upbeat holiday tunes. This results in vivid aural contrasts: “It’s Raining Men” competes with “Carol of the Bells” followed by Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer” on my left with “Sleigh Ride” bouncing along to my right.

I tell the server that the random musical contrasts are pretty trippy. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I kinda love it.”

The trippy music trend continues later in the trip as I am sitting at 1847. Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is playing in Southern Roots while, across the Grand Hall at the Bayside Grill, a live musician performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I would swear that I simultaneously hear The Supremes’ “The Happening” ghosting in from somewhere in the distance.

The Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), a long-time favorite just down the road from the Grand, is bustling with holiday and birthday celebrations on the night I am there. I decide at the last minute to dine at the more quiet bar tucked away to the side of the main dining room. Seafood is always fresh and local at the Wash House.

The next night, at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), I start my meal with a half dozen Isle Dauphine oysters from west Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island. These tasty oysters are harvested not far from where my current favorite Murder Point bivalves originate near Bayou La Batre.


Interspersed among my dining experiences are drives around the bay, the search for interesting landscapes and architecture, and the opportunity to photograph favorite spots, both new and old. The dock at one of the city parks along Scenic 98 has long been a favorite. Later, I pull up to Harrison Farms on the main highway for bags of satsumas, to B&B Pecan Co. for local pecans, and to Punta Clara Candy Kitchen for preserves to include in the traditional New Year’s Day meal.

The Sacred Heart Chapel, just down the road from the Grand, is a small church from 1880 facing the bay. It’s closed in the winter, but its grounds provide a pleasant stroll. It’s a quiet spot that has seen its share of hurricanes and battering weather over almost a century and a half, with a porch that is a good spot to rest and take a breath.


The final full day is a special one – although rain persists throughout the day. Early, I go down to Bucky’s, the hotel’s stalwart lounge in the main building, and enjoy West Indies salad, a Mobile original – a chilled salad of crabmeat, chopped onions, oil and vinegar, and seasoning. Later, I return to Bucky’s to join friends Deborah, Jeana, and Emily for a generous and delicious serving of fried crab claws that takes us all back to memories of Grand visits in the past. Emily, who manages a Mexican restaurant near Mobile, introduces me to the Paloma.

On that final evening, I join the Brunson family at Allison and Richard Brunson’s home on the bay. As soon as the front door opens, the aromas of homemade gumbo have filled the house. It’s lovely to sit at table with my friends and their family. As the only one around the table who is not a Mobile native, I enjoy hearing the reminiscences of long-ago days of a Mobile childhood. After an exceptionally delicious slice of Allison’s pecan pie for dessert, I go back to the hotel to rest for my rainy drive back to Birmingham in the morning.

All of these moments go into my storehouse of Christmas memories.


After checking out of the hotel, I have one more errand before I hit the road: I stop at Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) on the way through Daphne and pick up a shrimp po’boy to go. Back in the car, I put the open-faced sandwich on the passenger seat beside me and pop succulent fried shrimp as I drive. The sandwich is gone by the time I get to I-65, take a breath, and merge onto the crowded highway.

Breathe. And savor the holidays.

Christmas Card – 2019

For a university professor, there comes a feeling of freedom that is hard to explain after a college commencement. The stress of weeks of advising, calculating grades, assessing final exams, and fielding last-minute (and often questionable) excuses, yields to a few hours of everybody dressing in medieval robes and going through an ancient ceremony of finality and (hopefully) new beginnings. Commencement. And only one more faculty meeting standing between me and the short holiday break ahead.


My Christmas cards went out a few minutes earlier than usual this year. As a rule, I don’t want the cards postmarked any earlier than December 1. This year, I waited until later on November 30 to mail the cards from the main post office in downtown Birmingham; after they were put in the box, I saw that the last Saturday pick-up was 8:00 p.m.

It was approximately 7:45 when I noticed that.

I began to get text and email acknowledgements of my cards’ receipt on December 1 and, indeed, the postmark was November 30. Nobody but I would notice or care about that little trivia.

That annual Christmas card – usually with a photograph of an older Alabama church building – has become a year-long project which I have written about in the past. As soon as the cards go out around December 1, I start searching for another image to feature next year. That decision is usually made some time in January; the next few months are spent revisiting the image and thinking about messages when I have some free time and need a break.

The message changes over the course of the year, depending on what’s happening in the world. Some variation of “Peace” has been a constant since 9/11/2001.

In the first few years of the project, I usually stuck with a basic “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” type message. This year, the “Merry Christmas” was accompanied by “Peace | 2020 | Hope.” That means something to me, whether recipients get it or not. I feel like 2020 may be a watershed year for our world, not unlike 1968 was in my youth, and I look forward to it with both excitement and trepidation.

My Christmas card combines my interests in photography, history, ecclesiastical architecture, and architecture and nature in general. It is always a way to touch base with those I don’t always hear from during the year. The card “restores my soul.” I have written in the past about how each card I address (over 200 this year) becomes a “brief meditation” on that recipient.

My church this year is a 2018 photograph of St. Francis at the Point, a pretty white Anglican church in the charming village of Point Clear on Mobile Bay. It is just down the way from the Grand Hotel where I try to spend a few days each December between commencement and Christmas. On occasion, if my Point Clear trip coincides with a Sunday morning, I will attend an Advent service at St. Francis. On a sunny December morning, with sunlight streaming through the abundant clear glass windows, it is a perfect place for reflection, hope, and meditation. The building is actually a 21st Century structure, dedicated in 2001, but it captures the essence of a style of church architecture that inspires me to grab the camera. The little St. Francis at the Point Chapel, originally built in 1898, sits near the newer building; it adorned my card a few years ago.

My Christmas card is an act of celebration of the holidays and the season to come. It is looking forward to a freshly-pressed year hanging on the line and just almost, almost within our reach – with all of the potential that image represents.

Commencement.

Chapel – St. Francis at the Point

Waning October

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Proust. Or maybe it’s because I watched part of a Bob Ross marathon on public television over the weekend. Maybe it’s because I heard Prince’s “When Doves Cry” night before last. Whatever it is, as I began to winterize my back yard yesterday, I found myself more attuned than usual to detail and the melancholy of changing seasons.

October was more manic than usual in this Tennessee River Valley region of north Alabama. There were drought-like conditions for a while, accompanied by record-breaking heat. Now the weather is more seasonal, but there is minimal fall color on local foliage. This will be a year when it rains, leaves turn brown, wind comes, and leaves blow down.

I have watched the weather closely, wanting to keep house plants outside as long as possible before moving them indoors. With a first freeze forecast for this weekend, I decided it was time to pull the trigger and move things in.

Only a few things needed to be brought inside this year. The ponytail palm I have kept for twenty years still resides snugly in the concrete pot inherited from my grandfather. A philodendron, remaining from a memorial arrangement of plants sent to my father’s funeral, is being tricky; a few months outdoors seemed to be reviving the plant to its former glory but it has dwindled again. It’s hoped that a few months being pampered in a sunny spot just inside the back door will revive it.

The braided ficus now hovers over the philodendron, standing again in its cold weather spot welcoming anyone entering through the back door. It will probably shed leaves for a while due to the shock of being moved from outdoors to inside – a distance of perhaps eight feet – but it always recovers quickly, brightening up the indoors during the drearier months.

An unexpected import to my library was a container full of basil that has spent the warm weather just outside the back door. I usually allow nature to take its course with the backyard container herbs but the basil is still so healthy that it was moved in, taking a spot in a back window. It’s on the table where I like to eat my summer tomato sandwiches, dressed with basil from those same plants. I’m challenged to see how long into the chilly season I can keep home-grown fresh basil and pesto.

Most of the outdoor plants that will remain outdoors seem oblivious to the encroaching cold. My grandfather’s wild rose, planted along the back walk, has taken advantage of the milder weather to sprout a whole new bunch of blooms and buds. Based on weather forecasts, those may be gone by this time next week. The hydrangea is beginning to retreat. For several years now it has refused to bloom. Every year at this time I vow to do the needed soil amendments to help it flower again next year and every year at this time I regret putting it off for another year.

The redbud, which had such an impressive growth spurt over the summer, has already dropped all but two of its heart-shaped leaves. Based on the success of the little tree this year, I am finally confident that it will survive to flourish next year. Meanwhile, the camellia seems healthy and strong and should be showing crimson blooms within the weeks to come. A fragrant tea olive, planted outside the back gate, is putting on a final fall show of delicate white blossoms.

There was no time to pursue many of my desired garden goals this year, but the one I committed to was nurturing a pot-grown wild rose at my back gate (opposite the tea olive). Over the years, I have tried to train a flowering plant to climb over my back fence and gate. Jasmine never took the hint, but this wild rose, which has become a fast-growing and wildly prolific mainstay at the back gate, is taking well to being trained. It doesn’t look like much now, but I look forward to the two or three weeks in early spring when it blossoms and creates a sweetly fragrant welcome when I arrive home.

Even as the yard is made ready for cooler weather, I make mental notes of changes and improvements to be made come spring. These thoughts of next year propel me forward to face the long nights and dreary cold days ahead.

 

Fall Feast in the Shoals

The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.

It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.

Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.

James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.

The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.

After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to ­Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.

The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide  surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.

By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”

I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.

The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had  the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.

The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.

The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.

Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.

A Legacy of Cotton

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

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

Lincoln Mill #3

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

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

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

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


Holtz Leather Co. – exterior

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

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

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

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

Ian finishing a belt

Holtz Leather Co. – interior

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

Some things are worth the wait. Three years ago, Chef Adam Evans presented a dinner for Alabama Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” series that still ranks among my favorites of over two dozen meals eaten at that venue. Evans had just completed a successful run at The Optimist and other Atlanta restaurants, and, since I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to Atlanta, I had only admired him based on his press from afar. It was a pleasure to experience his menu and see that he lived up to his reputation. The course I most remember from that night was perhaps the simplest – a garden salad assembled with ingredients gathered from the chef’s grandfather’s garden that morning.

Evans is a Shoals native and the rumor in Florence that night was that he was working on a new restaurant concept for Birmingham. That rumor put Evans’s Birmingham restaurant on my radar and I began to do regular searches for “Chef Adam Evans Birmingham.”

My diligence did not yield much information until the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham in February 2018. The opening night reception was held on the loading dock of an abandoned factory on 5th Avenue S. in the Lakeview District. Chef Evans had grills set up off the loading dock and picnic tables were arranged for seating. It was a delicious, charming, and bare bones affair.

The theme for that symposium was “Narratives that Transform” and John T. Edge, SFA Executive Director, announced that the space where we had gathered for our opening night reception was the future site of Adam Evans’s new restaurant, and that the narrative begun that night would conclude at the 2019 SFA Winter Symposium with an opening night reception in the finished restaurant on that very site.

Now that I had a location, I drove past that corner of 5th Avenue every weekend to check on the progress. There wasn’t much to see for several months, but then windows began to appear and a restaurant began to take shape at what used to be the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation factory. Still, by January 2019, I was skeptical that there would be a finished restaurant in time for the symposium in February.

The SFA Winter Symposium 2019 held its opening night reception at Good People Brewing.


Automatic Seafood and Oysters (www.automaticseafood.com) opened in April. I was anxious to eat there as soon as possible but a good opportunity did not present itself until August, when my friend Christina drove down from Huntsville to join me for dinner during Sidewalk weekend.

If you ask about my favorite types of restaurants, my answers will be all over the map. I like any place where one can eat authentic and well-prepared food, whatever the price point and style, and where the ambience is warm and friendly. But one of my very favorites is an urban seafood place with a comfortable vibe and delicious and imaginative food. Birmingham’s Ocean (www.birminghamocean.com) on 20th Street S. has been a long-time favorite. Non-residents don’t realize that Birmingham is only about four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and trucks with fresh catches come into the city daily. I still won’t eat seafood in land-locked states, but it is always fresh and available in Birmingham.

With all of those points in mind, Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a new favorite to add to my lists. The interior, designed by Suzanne Humphries Evans, combines an open layout with furnishings that seem upscale and special while also recalling a seafood shack on the Gulf. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east facades add to the open feel. The restaurant is located in a transitioning neighborhood that still has an industrial feel, so the decision to put the main entrance off the street on the north side allows entry onto a terraced green lawn, away from the bustle and traffic of the street-side.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive and the menu is full of seasonal options. Christina commented that she’d like to order a bite of everything. Instead, our meal started off with crab claws and freshly shucked oysters from the large and beautiful oyster bar located in a corner of the room. For contrast, I ordered Canadian oysters from Prince Edward Island and Murder Point oysters from Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.murderpointoysters.com). The briny, buttery Murder Points were the best Gulf oysters I’ve ever had, and possibly the best oysters I’ve ever had, period.

My main course was a simply roasted grouper that was prepared, seasoned, and presented to perfection. Christina’s cobia dish was equally detailed. Conversation waned as we savored two beautifully prepared seafood dishes. Our generous shared side of basmati rice with smoked fish, curry, and peanuts was an ideal accompaniment to both dishes.

For dessert, there were several tempting choices but we chose brown sugar cake with peaches and cream. It was a perfect finale – a little decadent, but not too sweet.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a bright new jewel on an already vibrant Birmingham culinary landscape. After three years of waiting, I am happy to say my high expectations were met and exceeded. I look forward to my next of many visits to come.

Shotgun

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Shotgun Houses; Bessemer, Alabama,” Nick Gruenberg

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Shotgun House; French Quarter” (2007)

“Shotgun House; French Quarter,” (2007)