Tag Archives: Birmingham

Words, words, words … Eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

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Remembering Highland Avenue

 

Independent Presbyterian Church

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

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

Donnelly House

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

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

Avalon condominiums

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

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

Temple Beth-El

Temple Emanu-El

South Highland Presbyterian Church

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

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

Bottega Favorita

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

Galley & Garden restaurant with Vesta apartment construction behind

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

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

Highland Plaza

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

Peace and Justice

The Sunday morning church bells were pealing as I walked away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, but the words that were ringing in my ears were those of artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow Titus Kaphar:

We’re having a national conversation right now about public monuments. And in this discussion … we have this sort of binary conversation about keeping these sculptures up or taking them down. And I actually think that that binary conversation is problematic. I think there is another possibility, and I think that possibility has to do with bringing in new work that speaks in conversation with this old work. It’s about a willingness to confront a very difficult past…

Kaphar made that statement as part of a radio interview on NPR and I thought it was perhaps the most coherent and rational statement I’ve yet heard about our ongoing conversation about controversial history and what to do with the monuments that commemorate it.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known – unfortunately – as “the lynching memorial,” is an important project of Equal Justice Initiative (www.museumandmemorial.eji.org), founded by Montgomery-based attorney Bryan Stevenson. It is an outdoor memorial to over 4000 known African American lynching victims between the years 1877 and 1950. The names (or lynching date, if the name is unknown) are engraved on over 800 slabs representing each U.S. county in which a lynching is documented during those years.

The Memorial sits on a six-acre site overlooking Montgomery. The main structure is entered after taking a winding path up a hill with informational narratives at regular intervals. Upon entering the main structure, the first slabs sit at eye level. There are clearly visible names of counties and states and the victims and lynching date for each. Gradually, the floor begins a gradual rake and the slabs hang over the visitors’ heads, suggesting the hanging bodies of the victims. It’s not hard to recall Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, in which the wall starts slowly at your feet and gradually towers over the viewer as one walks deeper into the war.

At one end of the Memorial for Peace and Justice is a water wall with words of comfort and dedication. This, too, reminds one of the Civil Rights Memorial, a few blocks away at the Southern Poverty Law Center, also by Maya Lin, with its water rushing over the framing wall and the black granite table marking the deaths of Civil Rights martyrs (www.splcenter.org.what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/history).  

In the middle of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a peaceful grassy hill. Stopping there, one sees the skyline of modern Montgomery through the slabs – even catching a glimpse of the Capitol dome at times. Standing there, one is surrounded by the silence of the victims memorialized in the stark slabs hanging from every side.

As one leaves the memorial, there are rows of identical slabs for each county represented in the Memorial, waiting to be claimed by the designated county when it has documented its movement to rectify the issues that lead to the lynchings within its borders.

In my home city of Birmingham, a monument to Confederate veterans has stood for 113 years in the city’s Linn Park downtown. For the past several years, its base was blocked by a black plywood barrier erected by a previous city administration. The fate of that monument has been tied up in legal battles for years. Here’s my modest proposal: Take down the plywood box, keep the Confederate monument where it’s been for over a century, and hang Jefferson County’s slab of lynching victims beside it. Let them interact and let the observers begin to interpret and heal.

In downtown Montgomery, in the entertainment district now called “The Alley,” one may find the EJI’s “Legacy Museum,” which places our national lynching history in more context and documentation. Both the Memorial and the Legacy Museum are touching and transformative memorials to a history that is too often overlooked.

Too often, I find that our national history is narrowed down to the victimized and the guilty. The EJI’s well-documented and striking efforts seem to go beyond that — to spotlight uncomfortable history without placing blame on the descendants whose hands were not involved.

I hope for a day when we might remember our history without being forced to wallow in it.

Montgomery is a city full of history, museums, and memorials – to the Confederacy, to Civil Rights, … to Hank Williams. These latest powerful Montgomery memorials document a history that we must never forget. But neither should we wallow in the shame and guilt of it. We should – together – work toward a future in which the sins of the past may never be forgotten, but neither should they be exploited to expedite and fuel the sins of the future.

Artist Titus Kaphar has a powerful piece called “Doubt” in the Legacy Museum. He should have the last word:

I think one of our challenges is that we sort of consistently try to make public sculpture in a way that it’s a sentence with a period at the end. And inevitably it’s not — it’s a comma, and there should be a clause after that. 

“Peace, Be Still”

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Birmingham

The overly attributed quip, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there,” does not apply to me.

I remember the ‘60s very well but I was too young, at the time, to be “really there.” I remember the decade as energetic and often frightening with assassinations, bombings, riots, Vietnam, constant protests, and the birth and maturation of an array of social movements. It was also a time of great music and free-wheeling fashion. It was scary at times, but it was also hopeful with optimism, a desire for change, and a constant moving forward toward an idealistic place that seemed inevitable and just around the bend.

Now, we’re again in challenging times with mercurial instability and megalomania occupying the White House. I cringe with shame and embarrassment for my country at incessant narcissistic White House tweets from a cowardly bully that are mistaken for policy statements. We are in the midst of crises with an ongoing stream of mass shootings, a commander-in-chief who demeans women, environmental disaster, an embattled education system, the complicity of our congress with corrupt insurance companies threatening our health care, a growing racial divide, and a protective executive relationship with  a corrupt, repressive, and murderous Saudi regime. Authoritarian dictators are given respect and deference by a White House that insults our nation’s trusted democratic allies. The NRA has abandoned any lofty Constitutional goals it claimed to espouse and become, instead, an enabler of domestic terrorism.

These days, we seem lacking in the optimism and hope that characterized the ‘60s. Mass protests, which had an impact during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, now seem naïve and pointless in the current environment saturated with meaningless social media. I’m embarrassed when I hear the same tired chants and cheers – even when I agree with the sentiments that inspire them.

In Lanford Wilson’s great play, Fifth of July, June Talley – a former ‘60s activist – tells her daughter, “You’ve no idea the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”

Later in the play, one of June’s fellow sojourners from the activist days says to that same daughter, “How straight do you have to be to see that nothing is going to come from it? But don’t knock your mother, ’cause she really believed that ‘Power to the People’ song, and that hurts.”

As much as I try to be engaged in progressive change, I grow weary of the constant divide and the shouting from every side. The message with every issue seems to be Either you’re totally with us or you’re against us. There seems to be no acceptable middle zone anymore. Civility, compromise, and diplomacy are forgotten relics in contemporary social discourse. It’s trickling down from the top in our country.


As regular readers of this journal know, I put a good bit of thought into my annual holiday card – trying to find the best reflection of where my life and thoughts are each year when the holidays roll around. I have written in the past about the “brief meditation” of signing and addressing each card and remembering the recipient. My Christmas card this year bears a simple message: “Peace, Be Still.” It’s a quote from the Bible, from the Gospel of Mark’s version of Jesus calming the stormy sea.

I wanted to change up my Christmas card a bit this year. Instead of the exterior scenes I usually use (most often of small country churches), I used an interior from the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. The cathedral was empty on the Christmas Eve morning when I photographed it last year – a peaceful place to relax and retreat. As I moved around the space, taking photographs, a couple of women arrived to prepare for Christmas Eve mass.

In these times of stress, I seek quiet times and calm – a time to reflect. I try not to add to the raucous din that surrounds me.

At this holiday season, it seems more than ever that everybody needs to take a moment to regroup, to be still – to focus on the positive things in our lives and try to tune out the negativity that bombards us. In doing so, we may be better able to address the adversity and strife that surround us with clear heads and rational responses in the year ahead – a year for which I am reserving a great deal of optimism.

Current challenges may be resolved while new challenges inevitably emerge but we all need to step back and re-energize on occasion. The holidays seem the ideal time to pause and reflect.

May our holidays be happy and peaceful ones. May our new year be a time of hope and progress.

Peace on Earth. “Peace, be still.”

Cathedral of Saint Paul, 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. 

“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.