Tag Archives: Birmingham

“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)

Advertisements

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.

On (re)Reading Walker Percy

IMG_1782  One of my assignments during graduate school was to assist the surly and pompous professor who briefly headed up the playwriting and dramaturgy program. He was a Boston native, out of Yale and Carnegie-Mellon, and some kind of Orson Welles scholar. His current assignment was at a Southern university but he made no effort to disguise his contempt for Southerners and the South.

I found him rude and offensive but tolerably amusing and treated him with a level of respect he had not earned. One afternoon we sat in his office discussing scripts that had been submitted to the department’s playwriting program and that conversation veered off onto a number of topics.

“Welles Scholar” leaned back in his chair, eyed me seriously, and said, “I like you, Journey. You’re that rare breed – an intelligent Southerner.”

I seriously eyed him back and said, “Y’know, that may be one of the most insulting things that’s ever been said to me.” I told him I had to get to a seminar and politely excused myself, fuming.

From that moment on, I detested “Welles Scholar” and was delighted to see him leave at the end of that academic year. I’m sure he meant the statement as a compliment to me but the cluelessness, arrogance, and stupidity which informed the comment made me angry and still makes me angry whenever I think about it.

I had not thought of the Welles Scholar story for a number of years but it came back to me this week as I was renewing my acquaintance with the writing of Walker Percy.

The great writer Walker Percy (1916-1990) is legitimately claimed by three states – Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He was born in Birmingham and lived there until he was 13. After the death of his father, his mother moved the family to Georgia. When she died, he and his brothers were taken in by a bachelor uncle in Greenville, Mississippi. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, earned a medical degree from Columbia, and contracted tuberculosis that lead to a lengthy recovery at a sanitorium in upstate New York. Percy spent the bulk of his adult years in the New Orleans area, eventually settling with his wife, Mary Bernice (“Bunt”), and children across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, Louisiana.

Percy’s writing is deeply probing and intellectual, mixing Existentialist philosophy and scientific inquiry with Roman Catholic theology and the search for spiritual fulfillment. He deals brilliantly with the South and the complexity of the Southern “character.” He writes with amused suspicion and insight about both the South and other parts of the country but the observations are always filtered through a sense of what it means to be “Southern” in all of its forms.

Percy’s novels often focus on a flawed protagonist who doesn’t quite seem to belong anywhere but continues the quest for meaning and belonging nevertheless. Percy’s books are challenging and they tackle some weighty issues with an underlying wit, compassion, and turn of phrase that make them compelling and entertaining.

Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), is still his most acclaimed. I discovered that book, and Percy, early in my college years and it is still a favorite literary discovery; I find new areas for focus with each reading.

Until this week, I had not read Percy in a while. I ran across an item about him recently and decided it was time to revisit him. Since I had never read his second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), I pulled it from my bookshelf and started to read. Here’s the odd thing: I began to run across passages that had been obviously underlined by me – they were the sorts of sentences and words that I would have underlined. The book was also full of evidence of previously dog-eared pages.

I still underline passages in books and frequently dog-ear pages. I was never one to write comments in the margins, although I occasionally do that too. This is one of the reasons I will always want to deal with the object of the book; I take pleasure in the tactile physical presence as I do in the words contained therein.

So I was quickly aware that I had already read The Last Gentleman at some point in time. At the beginning I thought Okay, it will start coming back to me as I read on. I read on. It all felt new to me and the last moment of the last page surprised me as if it were brand new. It was an eerie and enjoyable experience. The effect was heightened by the fact that the main character, Will Barrett (usually referred to, ironically, as “the engineer”), suffers from episodes of déjà vu and amnesia. My previously underlined passages were a form of déjà vu for me, the reader, and the fact that I had no memory of the story was my amnesia.

Another odd thing is that the city in which much of the book takes place is clearly based on Birmingham (Walker Percy confirmed as much) and a frequently mentioned landmark in the book is clearly a veiled reference to George Ward’s old “Vestavia” estate on the crest of Shades Mountain that gave Birmingham’s Vestavia Hills suburb its name. (That estate, by the way, is now the location of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church for those readers who know Birmingham geography.) I am surprised that I didn’t remember any of that from my previous reading.

Although I still don’t recall reading the book the first time, I’m sure that I thoroughly enjoyed it that first time just as I thoroughly enjoyed it this week. That certainty is based on the passages I underlined.

Buoyed by my rediscovery of The Last Gentleman, I grabbed The Moviegoer and had the opposite experience of total recall and recognition. It was like revisiting an old friend and I remembered and enjoyed each juicy detail. The Moviegoer is a New Orleans novel and Percy makes no effort to disguise the geography or the names of the actual places. The Moviegoer is the “Ur-text” for all of Percy’s concerns and themes in his novels, essays, and philosophical writings to come.

I wonder if any other writer uses the word “malaise” as often as Percy. The word peppers the text of The Moviegoer. Even so, I think Percy has an ongoing optimism tempered with realism that informs all of his writing. It is much-discussed in Percy scholarship that his early life was dogged by suicide – his grandfather and father committed suicide and he always believed that his mother’s fatal car wreck was a suicide.

The novels I read this week are at least half a century old but I still share the protagonists’ sense of displacement and mistrust in a modern world transitioning to post-modern (post-future? – where are we now?) modes. The changes seem large to the ’60s protagonists – how would the world appear to and discombobulate them half a century later?

The issues that occupy Percy and his characters never go away or find resolution; they just morph as the decades fall into place, one after another. How fortunate we are to have access to timeless writing that deals with these issues so searchingly, so entertainingly, and with such compassion and humor.

That Welles Scholar comment about the rarity of the “intelligent Southerner” came back to me while I was reading Percy, one of the most probingly intelligent of 20th Century American writers — as well as one of the most Southern. I fantasized a face-off between “Welles Scholar” and Percy.

Percy would have eaten him alive.