Tag Archives: Birmingham

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. 

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“This makes me really happy …”

… said chef Rick Bayless on Monday, May 7, as he announced Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill of Birmingham as the James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant in America. This came after the restaurant was a consistent semi-finalist for the award for the past decade. To sweeten the deal, Dolester Miles — Highlands’ long-time pastry chef — won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Pastry Chef earlier the same night.

Highlands has been a point of pride for Birmingham and the Southern culinary scene since it opened in 1982 and this honor further cements its place in America’s fine dining profile. Here is a 2015 essay I wrote about Highlands Bar and Grill.

My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had with an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. A new attitude and a new swagger is always creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship, setting the standard. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion as one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients with the menu changing daily, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands in summer 2014 and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week as the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs is held in Chicago on Monday night. Highlands Bar and Grill is again one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.”

I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

My mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, at Highlands Bar and Grill (June 2014)

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. 

Pounding the Sidewalk, 2016

DSCN0490 When I arrived in Birmingham on Friday afternoon for the 2016 edition of the Sidewalk Film Festival it never occurred to me that of the eighteen movies I would see over 48 hours, I would drive home on Sunday night most pumped about a documentary that featured performances by high school color guards.

Contemporary Color is directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, the filmmaking brothers whose 2010 documentary 45365 about nine months in the life of Sidney, Ohio, is still one of my favorite movies to be screened at Sidewalk ever. The Ross Brothers’ latest, Contemporary Color, was conceived and produced by David Byrne, one of my musical heroes, and documents a one-night only event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Byrne invited ten high school color guard units to perform live performances set to original music written especially for the event by contemporary artists including David Byrne, Nelly Furtado, Devonte Hines, How to Dress Well, Lucious, and St. Vincent. Each of the artists performs their compositions along with the color guards live at Barclays.

It’s hard to explain, really.

The Ross Brothers take the live event and turn it into a hypnotic meditation on color guards, interspersing concert footage with individual profiles, backstage glimpses, rehearsal footage, artful segues, and, at one point, the voice of an enthusiastic New Jersey grandfather cheering in the arena. The cinematography, sound, and editing are stunning. Especially powerful are shots of a young color guard performer doing his routine alone in the garage of a house juxtaposed with his powerful performance at the actual event. Contemporary Color is a fierce and brave movie presented without irony. I kept being reminded somehow of Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi trilogy” of trance-inducing films scored by Philip Glass that were released between 1983 and 2002.

The thing that can be most frustrating about Sidewalk is also one of the things that I enjoy most about it. Nearly 200 titles of all lengths and genres are presented on ten screens at seven locations on the north side of Birmingham’s city center in a single weekend. With ten or more screenings running simultaneously from early morning to late at night, you must plan carefully to get the full benefit. Even with the most precise planning, one is always going to miss out on something he wanted to or should have seen. That is part of the charm of the event — keep them wanting more.

Contemporary Color was the biggest surprise of the weekend but there was plenty to enjoy and savor; I only walked out of one screening (which shall remain nameless).

A nice little character-driven narrative feature called Little Men, directed by Ira Sachs and screened at the Alabama, was my kick-off to a Saturday full of screenings. Sachs has the restraint to end his film at the exact right moment. Little Men is full of fine performances by grown-ups like Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle but the breakout performance is by a young newcomer – a kid named Michael Barbieri, playing “Tony.” I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

DSCN0513My Sunday screenings started off at the newly restored Lyric Theatre with DePalma, a talky documentary about Brian DePalma, one of my personal “guilty pleasure” directors. DePalma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is packed with scenes from DePalma’s classics like Carrie and Dressed to Kill, Scarface and The Untouchables, and a generous sampling of other directors’ movies that influenced the quirky and opinionated DePalma.

Sidewalk brings in motion pictures, audiences, and filmmakers from all over the world but it has always been notably generous in finding room to showcase Alabama filmmakers. I always work some of those screenings into the weekend. Clearly the most popular of the Alabama-centric titles this year was Gip, Patrick Sheehan’s award-winning documentary about gravedigger / blues musician Henry “Gip” Gipson. Gip, who cites his age as “somewhere between 80 and 100,” is the proprietor of the last remaining juke joint in Alabama

DSCN0488Birmingham’s central city core is undergoing a resurgence and that is partially a result of the efforts of Sidewalk at the festival and throughout the year. At opening night, it was announced that the multi-use refurbishment of the old Pizitz department store building (Pizitz was my favorite of the big downtown department stores as a youth) is set to include permanent offices for Sidewalk and two 100-seat movie theatres.  The new development will be “The Pizitz.”

Downtown Birmingham on the final weekend in August is an indie film lover’s paradise, full of memorable characters on the screens and in the streets. I always leave inspired. DSCN0493

The Farmers Market on Finley Avenue

  DSCN0456 Recently, when I didn’t feel motivated to navigate the hordes crowding into the more trendy local farmers’ markets, I headed out to Finley Avenue and Birmingham’s old Alabama Farmers Market (www.alabamafarmersmarket.org), a sprawling complex of open air sheds and rows of warehouses where truck farmers sell their seasonal harvests 24/7 and resident vendors display their agricultural products.

DSCN0449As far back as I can remember that big farmers market has been on Finley Avenue in Birmingham’s westside. The Jefferson County Truck Growers Association formed in 1921 and the Association’s Alabama Farmers Market moved to its Finley Avenue location in 1956.

When I was a child we would take Grandmother Harbison to Finley Avenue where she would stock up on fresh produce for the amazing meals she seemed to always be cooking. She would also can and “put up” for the winter in the big chest freezer down in the basement. Grandmother seemed to always have a large pot of homemade vegetable soup warming on the stove no matter the season. DSCN0450

I am an ardent supporter of local food and community farmers; I might hit three farmers markets over the course of any given week during the warm months. I’m talking about those weekly pop-up markets with farmers selling their wares in avenues of tented stalls for three to five hours.  If you pay attention, you can find such markets almost every day of the week at a church or parking lot near you.

These weekly neighborhood markets have become ubiquitous and popular– which is great — and many have expanded to include artisans and musicians, deejays and demos. I used to feel refreshed after a Saturday morning stroll through Birmingham’s Pepper Place Market but these days I mostly feel stressed and relieved to get away from too many people, too much noise, animals and their people hogging the pathways, and unnecessarily wide baby strollers. The carnival atmosphere begins to distract from the market’s original purpose to get local food to local residents.

So it was a refreshing change to go out to Finley Avenue after too many years away and get back down to just the basics of a farmers market with growers selling off the backs of trucks. The mechanical pea-shellers were cranking out bushels of peas in mere minutes. Some vendors featured rows of canned items with assorted pickles, local honey, chow chow, soups and such.  In August there are abundant mounds of watermelons, cantaloupes, and tomatoes. DSCN0451

The sights, sounds, and aromas took me back to a time when farmers’ markets were less abundant but the shoppers were probably more earnest about their fresh local food. The people who frequented these markets weren’t just seeking out the coolest heirloom tomato (I’m a fan of heirloom tomatoes, too, by the way) but were focused on the values of locally sourced food and finding ways to feed a family in healthy, sustainable, and economical ways.

The originals like Alabama Farmers Market on Finley will be around for a long time. DSCN0457

New Pioneers of Bessemer

DSCN0230 I have always been interested in the history of the postbellum industrial South. In fact, that history intrigues me far more than the antebellum South. Part of that interest probably stems from growing up in Birmingham – which did not exist during the Civil War and was founded in 1871, six years after the War ended.

The visionaries who brought Birmingham into existence as the first industrial giant of the post-war South were pioneers. As the city has evolved, the heavy industry which was its original raison d’etre has disappeared and been replaced by medicine and finance. Some factories still survive but there are large swaths of abandoned areas which once bustled with shift workers and 24-hour muscle.

I carry James R. Bennett and Karen R. Utz’s Iron and Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites (www.uapress.ua.edu) in my car. It is a handy reference to the industrial history of the region. My parents’ house sits on the side of Shades Mountain just above the site of the Oxmoor Furnace, Jefferson County’s first blast furnace. Oxmoor Furnace was tied to the Red Mountain mines, the site of which has been reclaimed by nature and is now the sprawling Red Mountain Park – one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

About thirteen miles southwest of downtown down I-20/59 is the postbellum industrial town of Bessemer which was incorporated in 1887, when Birmingham was sixteen.

Today, areas of Bessemer are blighted and most of the bustling heavy industry is gone. The Pullman Standard plant stopped manufacturing railroad cars decades ago and the iron and steel factories are long gone. Throughout Bessemer are reminders of its more thriving past — rusted relics of train trestles, factory sites, abandoned mines. During its heyday, when Bessemer was a town populated by shift workers, it was a 24-hour town – as were Fairfield and Ensley, industrial towns and communities between Bessemer and downtown Birmingham that are also reeling from economic challenges.

Bessemer has made an admirable effort to diversify and bring in business. Its location along the interstate is full of the types of businesses that one finds at any interstate intersection. The 109-year-old Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com) is still a popular restaurant in the middle of downtown and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) on the Bessemer Superhighway has continued to pack people in since 1957. The downtown area is full of interesting old masonry buildings – some still well-maintained and others in dire need of repair. It’s a fascinating small city with a rich history and an abundance of reminders of a more flourishing past.

Last week my mother mentioned that the Bessemer Historical Homeowner’s Association (www.bessemerhistoricsociety.com) was presenting a tour of historic Bessemer homes and gardens over the weekend and that she would like to go. We planned to go on Sunday afternoon and it turned out to be a miserably rainy and windy day but we decided we’d go anyway and see what we could see.

The first stop on the tour was in Bessemer’s Lakewood neighborhood. The Wilson House, nicknamed “The Abbey,” is a sprawling house from 1926 on top of a hill overlooking the lake and its assorted white swans and other fowl. I was interested in checking out a Lakewood home since that community was an annual part of my family’s tour of Christmas lights when I was a boy in Birmingham. I haven’t been to Lakewood to see Christmas lights in five decades, probably, but a Christmas tree frame still floated on a platform in the middle of the lake so I guess it’s still a holiday destination.

“The Abbey” was the only Lakewood house on the tour. The rest of the tour went deeper into the heart of Bessemer’s residential area near downtown and that is where the true meaning of the event began to coalesce. Many of the proud homes on the tour were in the middle of streets that were partially abandoned and dilapidated. Freshly renovated treasures were sitting next to vacant lots and houses that were falling in on themselves.

Some of the houses were true mansions in their time; others remain mansions now. There were grand houses with monikers like “The Castle” and “The Abbey.” It was interesting how many times I entered a house and the first words out of the tour guide’s mouth were how many fireplaces the house contains; the Shaw House on Dartmouth Avenue may have been the winner, I think, with thirteen.

DSCN0239Most of the houses on the tour were recently renovated or in the process. I enjoyed the elaborate grand houses but I was most struck by the smaller and more modest homes that I could imagine myself actually living in. Many of the houses are owned by young couples or singles that have made a commitment of time, trust, and money to come into Bessemer neighborhoods that others might overlook as being past their relevance. These new pioneers – and I find them in many communities these days – are gambling that they can help restore a vitality that has faded in communities that are still worth our notice.

Bessemer’s Clarendon Avenue is a street I have never traveled before last week. Two of the houses on the tour were along that boulevard with its wide grassy median. Sections of Clarendon are in extreme disrepair but a drive down it – even in a raging Sunday afternoon thunderstorm – leaves little doubt of its former grandeur. The imposing house referred to as the “Moody Mansion” is truly impressive but the “Clay-Green House,” the more modest cottage directly across the street, was where I wanted to linger. The young couple who owns and is renovating the place have updated it beautifully while retaining its historic integrity.

The next to last house on the tour, the Matthews House on Owens Avenue, was also across the street from a big grand house, but its charm and warmth attained in a still progressing renovation were what caught my eye and attention. Again, a young owner has taken on the challenge of helping to revive the house and its neighborhood.

The storm got progressively worse and we ended up skipping two of the eight houses on the tour. Even so, the afternoon was well spent and inspiring; there are new pioneers of Bessemer to admire. I wish them well. DSCN0241

Eat Fresh, Eat Local

IMG_1570  Somewhere in chef Jeremiah Tower’s very entertaining memoir, California Dish (2004), he repeats the snarky comment made by a French chef about the cuisine of Alice Waters, the 1970s pioneer in the California Cuisine movement: “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping!”

I love that quote and am wholeheartedly among the growing movement of people who know that the freshness and quality of the ingredients we use are just as important as what we do with and to those ingredients. This used to be the position of tree-huggers and the fringe but the crowds flocking to local farmers markets are evidence that the philosophy is now mainstream and still growing.

It’s not food snobbery. It’s just learning something anew that previous generations understood and accepted as a way of life.

My Grandmother Harbison always had good food warming in the oven and usually there was a pot of fresh-made vegetable soup on the stove. In addition to that, there was always a fresh cake of cornbread in an iron skillet and more often than not a cake or dessert of some kind. She continued cooking even when her health began to limit what she was able to do.

I always knew that whenever I dropped by my grandmother’s house one of the first questions would be “Are you hungry?” Even if I wasn’t particularly hungry, Grandmother would lay out a table full of food within minutes. And I would always find an appetite for it.

It used to amuse me when I would drop by and Grandmother would have plenty of food in the house but would say “Would you rather go pick up some ‘tacahs’?” referring to a Taco Bell down on the highway.

“No — I’d rather eat a bowl of your vegetable soup,” I’d reply. Sometimes she would insist on riding with me to pick up a bag of tacos anyway – neither she nor my grandfather drove. I realized that while fast food was nothing novel and special for me and I was craving home cooking – real food, my grandmother had been cooking for family and crowds for most of her life and rarely went to a restaurant or hamburger stand. It was an enjoyable change for her to have a fast food taco now and then.

Today I came in from work and surveyed my supply of food. It’s a hot and rainy day and I was in the mood for a salad. The first thing I spotted was a Cherokee Purple tomato on the kitchen counter that I picked up at Greene Street Farmers Market at Nativity a few days ago (www.greenestreetmarket.com). It was getting a little ripe and I needed to eat it before I traveled for the 4th of July holiday in a day or two.

My friend Judy Prince from Paint Rock Valley told me a few years ago that she planned to “bring back” Cherokee Purples, an heirloom tomato with a bruise of purple skin and a deep burgundy fleshy meat. Based on recent observations at a variety of farmers markets, I have to say to Judy, “Mission accomplished.” Practically everybody with tomatoes at the market had some Cherokee Purples in the mix.

With my Cherokee Purple as the centerpiece, I pulled out some lush green leaf lettuce from the local J. Sparks Hydroponic Farm (www.jsparksfarms.com), washed and tore it, and made a crisp bed of lettuce. I chopped up a purple bell pepper from the organic RiverFly Farms in Paint Rock Valley (www.lifeasweknowhim.com) and a pretty baby onion from another Greene Street stand. Fresh basil and mint came from pots in my back yard and I crumbled the “Garden Blend” of goat cheese from Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) on top of the mix. I finished it off with salt and pepper and drizzles of a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar that I have on-hand.IMG_1846

It was a lordly summer lunch made even more special by the fact that I know each purveyor (except for the oil and vinegar) by name and had bought all of the ingredients directly from the farmers who grew them. As we “re-learn” the benefits and pleasures of fresh local food, we are making a connection with generations before us who took fresh food from the area for granted. How lucky they were, if they only knew.

A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my family decided to forego the hassle of a restaurant and eat a farm-fresh Sunday dinner at my parents’ house as a joint celebration of Father’s Day and my mother’s birthday a couple of days later. On Saturday morning, I went to my personal favorite farmers market, Pepper Place Market in Birmingham (www.pepperplacemarket.com), and surveyed the prospects among the booths.

Pepper Place sprawls along the site of an old Dr. Pepper plant that has been transformed into a design center and dining district. Pepper Place Market takes over the exteriors on Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to noon and has over 100 vendors in three distinct areas. The Market started in 2000 and has gotten a little large and crowded but I find that if you get there by 8:00 a.m. it’s easier to navigate and there are fewer baby carriages to maneuver around. I came away with tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, and lady peas and made the next day’s meal of creamed corn, fried okra, and the lady peas cooked in chicken broth. Mother cooked a pork roast and cornbread. Once again, it was an exceptional meal which mostly bypassed the middle step by buying directly from the growers.

Sometimes, at the various farmers markets I attend, I look at the people around me and wonder if all the trendy people are an indication that the slow food and farm-to-table movements are merely a current and growing trend; I wonder if we will all go back to opting for “convenience.”

I think not. I think that as we have begun to re-learn food and as more and more local chefs and restaurateurs serve local food from local purveyors that is superior in quality, we will opt for the smart way and support the movement as we see how it benefits all of us in so many ways. Unless I am actually in California, I vow to never again eat another grocery store tomato from California that was chemically treated and travelled across the continent while infinitely better tomatoes were on a vine just steps away.

IMG_1569American Farmland Trust (www.farmland.org), the people responsible for those “No Farms No Food” bumper stickers, is doing good things in support of local farms. Their website includes great information about local farmers markets nationwide. Visit one soon if it’s not already a part of your routine.