Tag Archives: Birmingham

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Want My Sidewalk 2019

 Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com) is always the final full weekend in August before college football season commences. Although the festival events begin several days before the weekend main event, Sidewalk, for me, always begins on Friday evening and ends late on Sunday night. During that time, there are several hundred screenings of every variety of shorts, documentaries, animation, and feature-length moving pictures at venues throughout the northside of downtown.

2019 marked the 21st edition of Sidewalk. In the early years, I would pride myself on how many screenings I could cram into a 48-hour period. Nowadays, I study the schedule carefully, curate a schedule that fits my time, and allow myself time to breathe. At Sidewalk, it’s impossible to see everything one might want to see; that’s part of the charm and mystique.

Sidewalk’s most exciting new addition to downtown Birmingham this year is the Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center, a two-theatre complex in the basement level of the Pizitz building that will screen indie films 365 days a year. With the two screens at the Pizitz, the Alabama, the Lyric, the Carver, Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret space, and the McWane Center’s IMAX, Birmingham’s downtown “theatre district” is once again living up to its name.

Friday, August 23

Traditionally, my Sidewalk weekend begins with lunch at Chef Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. My weekend pass is waiting at the Central Ticket Office at the Pizitz, around the block from the Alabama, Sidewalk’s most storied venue (www.alabamatheatre.com).

In the early days of Sidewalk, the Opening Night presentation was often a cutting-edge film which might open to mixed response. I remember the grumbling after John Sayles’s Silver City opened Sidewalk in 2004. It wasn’t Sayles’s best, but I was happy to catch a new Sayles movie on a big screen in Birmingham.

Since those days, the Opening Night film is most often a goofy documentary geared to a broad general audience. Although I enjoy being there for the opening festivities, I am sometimes likely to leave when the feature starts. A few years ago, when they opened with a documentary about some cat that was a sensation on the internet, I didn’t even bother to attend opening night.

This year, the opening feature is I Want My MTV. The 2019 documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, premiered in May at the Tribeca Film Festival. I Want My MTV is both informative and a great feel-good way to open Sidewalk 21. Alan Hunter, one of the original MTV veejays interviewed in the doc, is a Birmingham native, a founder of Sidewalk, and, for many years, was the very popular opening night emcee for the festival.

A short documentary, “Lost Weekend,” is screened prior to the feature. “Lost Weekend,” by Birmingham filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, chronicles the climaxes and misadventures of a young Pennsylvania man who wins a 1980s MTV contest in which the prize is a weekend for two to hang out in Detroit with Van Halen’s concert tour. Everything you expect to happen in that scenario, happens.

Alan Hunter is on hand to help introduce the feature film, which focuses on the genesis and early years of what was then a music video network that became a major force of 1980s popular culture.

As the Opening Night movie ends, the sell-out Alabama Theatre audience flows onto 3rd Avenue North in front of the theatre for the opening night street party. I have no doubt a good time will be had by all, but I walk through the festivities and straight to my room at the Tutwiler Hotel.

Saturday, August 24

When I arrive back at the Alabama on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, I don’t quickly comprehend why there are “cigarette girls” in the theatre lobby offering packs of candy cigarettes to patrons. However, I am there to attend a screening of the new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, directed by Avi Belkin, and am about to watch an hour and a half of on-screen smoking from a time when on-screen cigarette smoking was common, even for reporters on the job.

The life of Wallace, the legendary investigative news man who is best remembered for his decades on “60 Minutes,” is examined in detail in a fascinating no-holds-barred way that is reminiscent of the interviewing style of Wallace himself. His detailed examination into every story he covers is as incisive and prickly with Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand as it is with the Ayatollah Khomeini and John Ehrlichman.

After the screening, I grab a quick bite at the Pizitz Food Hall and head to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for a block of Alabama- and politically-themed documentary shorts. My favorite is Carroll Moore’s “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” an examination of Bey’s photography mission to capture images of children the same age as the “four little girls” of the Birmingham church bombing were when they were murdered in 1963. He also includes homage to the two young boys who were murdered later in the day during the bombing’s aftermath.

“Call Me,” directed by Megan Friend and Norris Davis, is a most entertaining exploration of the rhymes and reasons behind attorney Alexander Shunnarah’s ubiquitous billboards that cover the state of Alabama. The 9-minute short includes the full 48-second Alexander Shunnarah / Jurassic Park parody by Kelly Coberly.

Other documentaries in the block explore political activism to get out the vote (“Woke Vote”); emergency responders in Tuscaloosa (“Druid City Strong”); photographic documentation of abandoned buildings in Birmingham (“Walls of Jericho”); diversity and inclusion in a rural Alabama climbing expedition (“The People of Climbing”); student debt (“A Generation Drowning”); and a 70-year-old murder case that went unpunished (“Murder in Mobile”).

From the School of Fine Arts, it’s a short walk to Birmingham Museum of Art for Vita and Virginia (2018), a British film directed by Chanya Button. This is another biographical exploration of the tortured romance of Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). This latest one is adapted from the 1992 play of the same name by actor/playwright Eileen Atkins.

Vita and Virginia lingers over the cat and mouse game that leads up to the affair of Woolf and Sackville-West in the artistic communities of 1920s England – particularly the Bloomsbury group. The story is told realistically, but with the occasional inclusion of tangled imagery that seeks to capture Virginia Woolf’s mental instability and emotional confusion. There is a stilted, stagey formality to the dialogue at times, but one adjusts to the play’s pace and structure. Atkins based much of her play on the letters of the two title characters; there are some fine moments when the camera rests on a face speaking directly into the camera, delivering emotional and occasionally laughably over-the-top declarations.

Despite noble and occasionally brave performances, Debecki and Arterton seem miscast to me.

Among the supporting actors, Peter Ferdinando delivers an understated, complex, and compassionate performance as Leonard Woolf and Isabella Rossellini has a fine turn as Vita’s snarky mother, Baroness Sackville.

By the time Vita and Virginia is over, a passing thunderstorm drenches downtown and Museum maintenance staff is scrambling to deal with puddles and leaks outside the main entrance as I make haste to get back to the Tutwiler to change and join a friend for dinner.

Sunday, August 25

I will not go to church today, but I waken to the pealing of church bells throughout the city – not an unpleasant way to meet the day. And I plan to attend something equally spiritual and, to my tastes, more inspirational.

A few months ago, when I first heard the buzz about the new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace (1972/2018), I remember thinking I hope that’s scheduled to play Sidewalk this year.

It was.

In 1972, director Sydney Pollack and his crew filmed the two-night recording session of what would be Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live gospel album, Amazing Grace. The recording took place in the sanctuary of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was supported by legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and an all-star group of musicians. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are spotted in the audience.

For some reason, during Pollack’s recording of the two services, the audio and video were not synched, the footage was deemed unusable, and eventually the film was presumed lost.

Fast forward to the early 2000s: the “unusable footage” is rediscovered, producer Alan Elliott supervises a team of digital experts in the rehabilitation of the “lost” footage, and the resulting movie is a revelation. During her lifetime, Franklin kept suing to halt screenings of the reconstructed movie. After her death, the family consented to the release and it is finally being shared with audiences world-wide.

No real effort was made to mold the concert into something “cinematic.” Much of the footage is raw and immediate, with awkward camera movement, sloppy zooms, finding focus – all still there for the world to see.

So is raw emotion – James Cleveland breaking down in sobs at one point; the choir clearly overcome by the event they are witnessing and being a part of; Rev. C.L. Franklin – Aretha’s father – jumping up to wipe the sweat from her face and neck as she plays the piano. His handkerchief completely covers her face at one point just before she starts to sing. The audience, lost in emotion and awe, becomes a part of the power of the film and Pollack’s camera crew scrambles to capture it all.

You must see it.

As the Sidewalk audience gathers outside the Lyric Theatre for the screening, ladies distribute church fans on the sidewalk. When the audience is seated in the theatre, Birmingham-based gospel singer Belinda George Peoples emerges from the wings to sing “Amazing Grace” a capella. By the end of Peoples’s performance, the audience is singing along.

The event feels more like a church service than a movie screening as the audience claps and sways with Aretha’s powerful sound on songs like “What a Friend,” “Wholy Holy,” “God Will Take Care of You,” and the title song. There’s a very effective medley of the gospel standard “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

But the song that gets to me most is Franklin at the piano playing and singing “Never Grow Old,” with the camera closing in tight. It moves me to see a young Aretha Franklin (she was 29 when the album was made) plaintively repeating the phrase “never grow old” and its contemplation of eternity. Mick Jagger is there, also 29-years-old at the time, and, in the Lyric, I am sitting a few seats down from a friend I knew in college in the ‘70s.

When our work here is done and the life crown is won

And our troubles and trials are over

All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend

With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Never grow old, never grow old

In a land where we’ll never grow old

I leave the theatre and drive across town to have lunch with Mother. I have a list of movies I plan to see later on Sunday afternoon, but – blessedly assured that I have gotten what I came for – I actually feel a little sanctified as I hit the road for home.

Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.


Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.


The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.


Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019

That Lingering Burn

The preponderance of good and great barbecue joints in Birmingham is reaching overload. Every time I discover one, it seems that two or three more that I haven’t tried are recommended. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Alabama barbecue. Despite my effort to be as diplomatic as possible, a reader took me to task for having the audacity to make a less than glowing comment about Morgan County white sauce. She took the opportunity to challenge my taste and attack some of the places I had complimented.

If she had read the essay closely, she would have caught my point that taste in barbecue is personal and that there is no right or wrong opinion; taste is a factor, but also place and family and tradition. Here’s an example: I lived in Texas for two years and never found any of its much-vaunted barbecue satisfactory. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good (I know some of it was very good indeed); it simply means that I prefer pork and Texas brisket just did not meet my very personal taste standards.


With that said, I have to share my excitement – the whole city’s excitement, it seems — about Rodney Scott’s (Whole Hog) Bar-B-Que, which just opened in the Avondale neighborhood east of downtown Birmingham (www.rodneyscottsbbq.com).

Rodney Scott has become a star among pit masters in a relatively short period of time. He learned from his father in the Scott family’s general store in Hemingway, South Carolina. Every Thursday, Scott’s offered whole hog barbecue cooked over hardwood on a pit behind the store. Over the years, the reputation spread and demand grew, the family expanded to offering whole hog four days a week, and Rodney, the son, began to build a reputation in the national press and other media. John T. Edge’s New York Times piece about the Scott family barbecue was a seminal moment in the ascendance of Rodney.

That’s when I first noticed Rodney Scott. After a 2013 fire destroyed the Hemingway pits, Rodney’s signal was strong on the foodways radar as he toured the region, doing pop-up whole hog barbecue along the way.

Rodney Scott and Zachariah Chanin; Florence, Alabama; 2016

I finally sampled Rodney’s barbecue at a memorable Friends of the Café dinner at Alabama Chanin’s Florence, Alabama, factory in 2016. The evening’s imaginative concept was to merge Scott’s whole hog with sides and desserts from Birmingham fine dining chef Frank Stitt. My strongest memory of that evening is the moment when Rodney Scott and Chef Zachariah Chanin entered the factory showroom with a whole hog splayed across chain-link fencing. The gathering crowd turned into paparazzi with phone cameras spinning into overload.

The meat-centric homage that followed was an expert display of culinary expertise, harmony, and tact, culminating in one of the memorable meals of my life. I will remember forever the night that I dined at an event featuring the offerings of James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt (2001) of James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (2018), with a meat course from James Beard Award-winning chef Rodney Scott (2018), and dessert from James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles (2018). And, most memorable of all, this singular dinner occurred less than ninety miles from my house.

Rodney Scott has subsequently teamed up with Nick Pihakis – co-founder with his father, Jim, of Birmingham pacesetter and stalwart Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q – to open Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston in 2016. Rodney’s son, Dominic Scott, has taken over the pit master duties at the original Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway. Dominic still relies on the advice of his Scott grandparents, Ella and Roosevelt. Roosevelt Scott is the original pit master of the family’s whole hog tradition.

Avondale is one of Birmingham’s neighborhoods that was in a decades-long decline but is now having a renaissance. The new business ventures by and large seem to exalt the authentic spirit of the old neighborhood, revitalizing what were once desolate or deserted spots.  Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que joins SAW’s Soul Kitchen BBQ to make Avondale a mecca for barbecue aficionados. I hope that the neighborhood will continue to adapt to its growing popularity while avoiding the over-gentrification that might threaten its charm and character.

Rodney Scott’s Avondale location is fresh and minimalist with a cinder block smokehouse added to the former location of the Saigon Noodle House. It’s typically crowded, but the line moves fast, the service is good, and the parking – though tight – is plentiful. On the Saturday that I visited, an iron-clad smoker occupied one of the handicapped parking spaces at the front door. The hood was open and succulent, fragrant spare ribs were sending out an aroma that was far more effective than any advertising one might conjure.

It was my intent to sample as many of the items as possible on a first visit. I was ordering for myself and my mother. Since Mother has pretty extensive dietary restrictions, I observed the menu closely to be sure there was something to please both of us.

Mother can no longer handle spicy heat and is not a fan of smoky meats, so we opted for the chicken tenders as her meat. It was a wise choice since the fried tenders were generous, nicely breaded, and mild. The Carolina-style mustard sauce set the chicken flavor off with a distinctive flair.

Her side choices were “greens” and baked beans. Mother is not a fan of collard greens and was disappointed that the greens seemed to be entirely collards. I like any greens and thought the collards were splendidly prepared and generously seasoned with chunks of pork. I was happy to eat any leftovers. Her baked beans, seasoned with meat also, had a rich and smoky taste. Once again, there were more leftovers for me.

For myself, I ordered a two-meat combo with spare ribs and pulled pork from the whole hog. My ribs were lush and meaty with a rich burgundy hue. The succulent pulled pork included bark and skin pieces and was finely shredded. The cole slaw was spare and simple, seasoned perfectly, crunchy and cool. The potato salad, which had come highly recommended, was chunky and delicious.

I should state that everything I have described to this point (except the chicken tenders) has a rich, spicy heat to it. The throat remembered the meal long after it was digested. From me, that is an enthusiastic compliment; for more sensitive palates and stomachs, that is a warning.

Rodney Scott’s barbecue did not need a bit of sauce for my palate. There was plenty of taste going on without any augmentation.  However, I did use his two barbecue sauces for occasional dipping and was very pleased with both. The original sauce, the “Rodney Sauce,” is very thin (which has caused some debate in some circles). It consists of a white vinegar with cayenne and black pepper. On the side, as I ordered it, the peppers sink to the bottom and the sauce needs to be shaken or stirred to re-combine the basic ingredients.

The second sauce, “The Other Sauce,” is thicker and, thus, more traditional, with a base of apple cider vinegar mixed with ketchup and black pepper. Slices of white bread were included with each order to sop up the juices and the sauce. My Alabama-bred barbecue tastes have always favored vinegar-based sauces; I am not ashamed to say that after I had finished my meal, I had no hesitation about slurping down the remaining portions of each of the amazing vinegar-based Scott sauces.

For my money, that lingering burn in the back of the throat after tasting a great vinegar-based red southern barbecue sauce is one of life’s special pleasures.

A generous helping of banana pudding is the perfect dessert for any substantial barbecue meal. Scott’s uses Ella Scott’s banana pudding recipe; the happy result has hearty helpings of banana with a creamy pudding and vanilla wafer crumbles. The cool pudding is a lovely balance to the heat of the rest of the meal.


In my travels around the country, I made it a point to ask locals about the best barbecue in any given location. I have had people take me off the beaten path to share the barbecue that they have declared as “the best anywhere,” or, at least, “the best around here.”

These days, my travel is more restricted, but with the recent additions of Rodney Scott’s in Birmingham’s Avondale, and of Martin’s (another whole hog joint) in Birmingham’s Cahaba Heights, it seems that Birmingham is still my one-stop shop for superior barbecue.

Once upon a time, the quest for the best local barbecue was an ongoing part of my travels. Nowadays, maybe, there’s no place like home.

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.

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.