Tag Archives: Bluewater Creek Farm

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

I love the heat and activity of summer – the long days, the unpredictable showers, living out-of-doors. I always like to mark the Summer Solstice with a special activity, including my annual reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel set over the course of a summer told in the conversational voice of Gatsby’s erstwhile sidekick, Nick Carraway. It is Fitzgerald’s most perfect novel.

I have known since last October that I would be spending the evening of the 2018 Summer Solstice in Florence. I have written frequently about the “Friends of the Café” series of dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). These usually serve as fundraising events for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and are among the most anticipated events on my annual calendar. They are an escape.

The June 2018 dinner marked not only the Summer Solstice but a reunion with old friends, the opportunity to introduce friends who’ve never met each other, and the first “Friends of the Café” dinner for several of the people at my table.

I rode over to Florence from Decatur with my friends Anne and Deborah. Deborah, a Mobile native, was visiting from New Mexico. At the same time, my friends Scott and Michelle, with Scott’s parents, Jim and Judy – who were visiting from Ohio, were driving over from Owens Cross Roads, just over the mountain from Huntsville. Carol, a friend from Chicago, was already ensconced in Florence where she was attending week-long patterning workshops at Alabama Chanin.

When we arrived at the Factory, we were greeted with a beverage called the “Summer Solstice” – a refreshing mix of mint and peach-infused tea and Prosecco, ideal for celebrating the official start of my favorite season and for launching an impeccable meal.

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

The chef for the evening was Rebecca Wilcomb, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef – South. Wilcomb is Executive Chef at Herbsaint (www.herbsaint.com), a favorite New Orleans restaurant (I have a few) that is part of Chef Donald Link’s family of restaurants celebrating Louisiana roots and foodways.

Chef Wilcomb strayed a bit from her typical Herbsaint fare for this special Factory dinner, paying homage to her mother’s Italian roots – and especially to food prepared by her Italian grandmother in her kitchen in Italy. The meal was sumptuous and generous with Italian-inspired takes on fresh local food.

As the tribe gathered, hors d’oeuvres were passed by the always amazing Factory staff. I made sure I tracked down at least one of everything. The crab melt was a buttery mini-sandwich filled with perfectly rendered crab filling. Chickpea fritters with caponata, a well-spiced vegetable blend, provided a rich mouthful. Skewers of large spice-forward shrimp were incredible, and my favorites were skewers of beef chunks with anchovy and olive.

Dark clouds were gathering as we took our seats at the intimate Factory table settings. Thunder and lightning began to herald a passing storm as Natalie Chanin made her welcoming comments. The noisy storm prompted Deborah and me to exchange glances to acknowledge that a storm was the ideal accent for this special meal to cap the longest day of the year.  As the lightning began to subside, the rain intensified, pounding an energetic percussive beat on the Factory’s metal roof. Just as quickly, the storm moved away.

There was a lot of rain in the spring and recently; it promises to be a good year for fireflies.

  The first course for the seated meal was “Giannina’s  Tortellini.” It was revealed that Chef Wilcomb had never before served these tortellini at her restaurants or at a public gathering. Her Italian grandmother’s tortellini recipe was a special start to the meal with the stuffed tortellini served in a subtly flavorful broth. I tilted my bowl at the end to ensure that I could spoon out every last drop.

photo by D. Brunson

That first course was a finely rendered tease for the hearty second course to come. Served family style, it included six beautifully prepared and seasoned dishes highlighted by both a meat and fish offering. Pork belly from nearby Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.grazecart.com) was passed around along with an Open Blue cobia (www.openblue.com) from the Caribbean, paired with Calabrian chilies. The delicate white fish was a unanimous hit at our table, with a subtle creamy taste. Italian rice salad, marinated lunchbox peppers, a dish piled high with whole charred okra, and a beautiful bowl of seasoned porcini mushrooms completed the course.

photo by D. Brunson

The feast ended with platters piled with summer fruit hand fries; fig, blueberry, and peach pies were available and most of my dining partners managed to sample one of each. I was pretty full by that time and only ate two – fig and, of course, peach.

This will be one of the most memorable of the Factory meals because of the friends – old and new – who congregated for a very special event. I realized that all of the people who were seated at my table were there – either directly or indirectly – because of me. I worried that everybody might not have a good time but that concern melted away as we all talked and laughed, enjoyed the food together, and toasted the promise of summer.

An added treat of these dinners is the opportunity to see a chef I admire in a new context. Chef Wilcomb always brings to mind a favorite table by the window at Herbsaint; now, Herbsaint will always remind me of Giannina, her Italian grandmother, and of a Summer Solstice that was celebrated with friends in a most memorable way.

As we left the factory, the rains had moved on and a steamy glaze danced across the pavement of the road on a hot summer night. 

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Serenity Now: Reflections on a Weekend

(for Anne T.)

DSCN0316 (2) So here’s the deal: Because of family matters in Birmingham, I have not spent an entire weekend in my house in eleven months. On the weekend of May 20 through 22 I had a dinner engagement over in the Shoals in Florence  and planned to spend the weekend at my house and return to Birmingham on Monday (I am on a break until Memorial Day).

On Friday morning I began to cultivate a kitchen herb garden in my tiny back yard and re-pot and re-plant some things that have been neglected in the past year. I met with my friends Scott and Michelle and their two daughters for dinner at a favorite chili place on Friday night but the daughters preferred Mexican  with buddies so Scott and I were dumped and had to be bachelors for the night (well, Scott did – I’m always a bachelor for the night).

My friend Cindy, who was supposed to be my companion on Saturday night in Florence, was forced to cancel and I was suddenly looking at wasting a much sought-after ticket for a sold out dinner. These are amazing dinners, however, so I was going whether the other ticket was taken or not.

I immediately thought of my friend Anne who lives in Decatur – about halfway between Huntsville and Florence. I also remembered that my friend Anne is a very busy and active woman and would most likely be out-of-town for the weekend.

I sent a text with a somewhat embarrassed invitation and, to my surprise and delight, Anne texted back “Yes. What time?”

Just before I got to Anne’s house in Decatur, my “low tire pressure” warning came on and I pulled into the driveway with a tire rapidly deflating. Anne was happy to drive her car and I decided to deal with the tire after the dinner.

As we prepared to leave for the Shoals, Anne’s beloved 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Zeke, had a frightening seizure and Anne rallied to try to get Zeke through the crisis. Zeke’s seizure ended but he remained disoriented and Anne called upon a trusted friend to sit with him for the evening.

Slightly disoriented ourselves, Anne and I left Decatur in Anne’s vehicle and she said the only stop we needed to make was for “petrol.” We pulled into a station on the outskirts of town and suddenly were met with a Michael Jackson impersonator with full Michael Thriller-era wig and complexion performing full out to “Beat It” in the filling station parking lot. Anne assured me that he was a Decatur tradition and passing vehicles rolled down their windows and cheered him as they passed. Anne wanted to tip him but I wasn’t so sure. Now I wish we had because how many guys are committed enough to run around performing Thriller tracks in Decatur in full Michael drag?

Next time I see him, I’ll take a picture. He gets a tip from me next time.

When we got to the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence for the Spring Harvest Friends of the Café dinner, the place was already jovial and full and hors d’oeuvres were being passed.  We grabbed a devilled egg and headed toward the dining area and were greeted by Natalie Chanin, the acclaimed “slow fashion” designer and host for the dinner (www.alabamachanin.com).

Anne was her always charming self, as was Natalie, but as we moved away Anne muttered “I’ve wanted to meet Natalie Chanin for years and when I finally do I have egg in my mouth.” Not to worry – Anne had another conversation with the designer at the end of the evening and I don’t think there was any notice of the hors d’oeuvres incident.

I need to write an essay on the dinner itself, and I plan to (but I got no decent photos – was far too busy eating the food and chatting). The featured chef for the evening was the Factory’s resident chef, Zachariah Chanin, and it was one of my favorite meals ever at the space (I think I’ve made six of the ten Friends of the Café evenings). The amazingly fresh spring harvest ingredients were primarily from Bluewater Creek Farm in Killen, Alabama, an organic farm run by Collins and Liz Davis in partnership with Doug and Donna Woodford (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). I wrote about my tour of Bluewater Creek Farm in the essay “Sustainability and Soul” in November 2014. IMG_0837

Suffice it to say, the meal was brilliant. Each Friends of the Café event is a benefit and this one was no different. The honoree was Nest, a non-profit organization that supports artisans and makers throughout the world and with which Alabama Chanin is very involved (www.buildanest.org).

Incidentally, the dessert, a strawberry shortcake with local strawberries macerated in a thyme simple syrup with freshly whipped cream is assuredly the best and freshest I’ve ever tasted. Almost as good as the dessert’s taste was watching Zach Chanin and his staff assembling the dozens of desserts on the café bar.

As always, new acquaintances and friends were made at the family-style seating. Anne and I sat across from a couple from Indianapolis. “What brings you to the Shoals?” I asked. “We drove down for dinner” was the honest reply. A family next to me had driven in from Corinth, Mississippi, for their first Factory meal and assured me they’d return.

During dinner, a spontaneous conversation erupted at my end of the table about “Seinfeld” catch phrases.

“A Festivus for the rest of us.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” “The Bro.” “Sponge-worthy.” “Yadda yadda yadda.” “The Contest.”

And my personal favorite  – “SERENITY NOW!”

As always when I am at the Factory, the spirit of community and connection is palpable. In addition to the fine company in the room, Anne texted our friend Deb in Paris and we both wished she was with us. So the good feelings spread beyond Alabama and the Shoals and were truly international. After a thoroughly satisfying evening of food and sociability, we said our goodbyes and walked out under a bright and friendly full moon. When we got back to Decatur my tire was flat as a pancake.

It was late. Anne offered her guest room and I decided AAA could wait until morning.

By morning, I went downstairs to find Anne tending to a much calmer Zeke and my ruined tire was tended to by a particularly pleasant AAA tow truck driver. At last, I was back on the road and headed home.

A very wise woman once advised me that I should reserve a part of each week to be quiet, relax, and regroup. When my schedule allows, that time has always been Sunday night at my house. I cook a good meal, sit quietly, and listen to soothing music until time to go to bed.

I realized that this particular Sunday night would be the first chance I’ve had to renew that tradition in a long while. Inspired by Zach Chanin and Bluewater Creek, I surveyed my recent farmers market purchases to see what I could put together that was fresh and local and planned a healthy evening meal. I needed to run to the grocery store to supplement some things. In the produce section I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over two years. As we quickly caught each other up on what had been happening, I realized anew how hectic my life has been recently; no wonder I feel tired

Returning from the store I decided to sit in the back yard to savor the warm weather, have a cold drink, and observe my weekend’s progress before cooking commenced. As I sat quietly, I heard a plaintive voice in the back alley: “Se-REN-ity … here, Serenity.”

As the voice got closer to my back gate I saw a woman looking in every direction and calling for Serenity.

I went out the gate and into the alley. “What have you lost?”

“My dog, Serenity. We just moved in to the house down the street and somebody left the gate open and she got out.”

I told her I would keep an eye out for Serenity and asked what she looked like.

Serenity is a Jack Russell terrier.

As I write this, I am sitting in the tire store getting a new tire. The HVAC guy should be at the house by the time I get back, working on some outside conduits. I’ll pack to go back down to Birmingham where there seems to be a full schedule waiting for me, including a trip to Tuscaloosa, taking Mother and her neighbor to see the Cahaba lilies in bloom, this season’s first peach run to Chilton County, a Japanese steakhouse dinner to celebrate my nephew finishing sixth grade.

When I get time, I’ll have to make some cheese straws for those new neighbors – the ones who named their dog “Serenity.”

Sustainability and Soul

IMG_0837 Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com) is a family-owned sustainable farm near Killen, Alabama, in the Shoals area of the far northwest corner of Alabama. It is run by Liz and Collins Davis in partnership with Liz’s parents, Donna and Doug Woodford. Today I drove over there for the first time to check out today’s farm stand and to join a tour of the farm led by Liz. The more time I spend in the Shoals lately the more I’m convinced that it may be the center of the universe.

I was unaware of Bluewater Creek Farm until August when I was in the Shoals — in Florence — for my second “Friends of the Café” event  at the Alabama Chanin Factory. We were lucky enough to sit across the table from Donna and Doug who enthusiastically told about their family and granddaughter Abby. They were thrilled that Liz, Collins, and Abby had recently returned from northern California to start Bluewater Creek Farm. Collins had run farms in California and other places and now they are back in Alabama.

Doug, who is a physician and advocate of holistic nutrition, spoke passionately about his and Liz’s work in nutritional therapy, and Doug and Donna enthusiastically shared news of the activities on the farm as well as pictures of Abby. Doug also had impressive pictures of chickens and bulls from the farm.

What impressed me most was the passion and commitment with which this couple discussed the work they and their family are doing.

I was happy to see Donna and Doug at the next “Friends of the Café” event in October, and this time Liz and Collins were there too. I contacted Liz to get on the farm’s mailing list and that led to the trip today. Bluewater Creek Farm’s stated mission is “to produce nutrient dense, clean food in a sustainable way… this means using farming practices that work with nature. This in turn shows respect for the living beings in our care, and makes a positive impact on our local environment.”

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This family makes a convincing case for their philosophy and seeing the labor-intense way in which they practice what they preach drives home the benefits and sanity of their cause. I, like most Americans, have only fairly recently become educated to the benefits of the “slow food,” “No Farms, No Food,” and “Eat Fresh, Eat Local” movements. It is this rising consciousness and education of the general public which has led to the emergence of great local farmers’ markets in virtually every community, to locally owned restaurants serving locally grown foods, to an understanding of why these issues increasingly matter, and to more sustainable farms like Bluewater Creek.

Previous generations knew this first-hand. Most Americans of the 21st century are learning it anew. Availability nurtures advocacy.

Liz’s tour included the planting beds, still full of lush greens and root vegetables on the first day of November (after the first truly cold night of the season); a visit with the farm’s heritage pigs, including a bunch of tiny piglets; cattle in the pasture, including the grass-fed, heat tolerant South Poll breed; and a bunch of happy grass-fed chickens, joined by a lone turkey (it’s close to Thanksgiving; I didn’t have the heart to ask).

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When the tour was over, I continued down the path to Bluewater Creek. I never lived on a farm and have spent minimal amounts of my life in the country and around farms. Yet I find, especially lately, that being alone out in nature gives me a peace and sense of ease that I don’t get in any other environment. It has become my best and most reliable form of release.

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On the walk back from the creek to the Barn, I met Liz on the road. We had a nice chat about future plans for the farm. “I’m not trying to preach organic farming,” she said. “I just want to show people what we’re doing and they can decide for themselves.”

Before leaving Bluewater Creek Farm I stopped by the Barn, a converted horse barn now used for events and classes, to visit for a minute with Donna. This was the location of the farm stand with the farm’s various products being sold. I bought some meat, peppers, beets, and beet greens to supplement what I had already gotten at my local farmers’ market a couple of days ago. I also got some honey that had been jarred today. I was too late for eggs. They had just sold out.

That’s okay. I’ll be back. IMG_0836

 

Community and Fatback

IMG_0753 Last night was another memorable evening at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabama.chanin.com) in Florence, Alabama. Natalie Chanin and her tireless staff hosted another “Friends of the Café” dinner event featuring executive chef Drew Robinson and Nicholas Pihakis of Birmingham-based Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (www.jimnnicks.com). The October 10 event was the fourth and final “Friends of the Café” dinner for 2014. I am already looking forward to the 2015 schedule.

My friend Cindy Edwards and I were lucky enough to attend three of the four 2014 dinners. The previous two were fundraisers for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), of which I am a “dues paying” member. Last night’s event benefits “The Fatback Collective Fund.” The Fatback Collective is an impressive array of “chefs, writers, and pig cookers” who are supporting a philosophy of sustainable and humanely raised pork, local ingredients, support of community, and sharing of knowledge. They fundraise for many compatible causes and provide assistance in their communities when tragedy strikes. For example, Fatback Collective recently sponsored a series of successful fundraisers for a South Carolina pitmaster who lost his pit to fire in 2013.

Last night’s meal was a juxtaposition of all of the elements that contribute to the Fatback philosophy. During the cocktail hour, featuring a “Donkey’s Daddy” cocktail, mushroom tamales were served to each table. That was followed by a four course meal featuring local ingredients including produce from the Jones Valley Teaching Farm (www.jonesvalleyteachingfarm.org) in downtown Birmingham, Gulf shrimp, Fatback Pig Project porchetta, and guinea hens from White Oak Pastures in Georgia (www.whiteoakpastures.com). Each course featured beer pairings from Birmingham’s Good People Brewing Company (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com).

Chanin is accomplishing her goal of supporting and sustaining her community in many ways and these dinners are just a part of that big and impressive picture. As a result of these events, a community of like-minded individuals is finding each other – sharing thoughts and energy.

Last night it was a pleasure to once again visit with Donna and Doug Woodford of Bluewater Creek Farm  (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). Bluewater Creek Farm is a family-owned sustainable farm in the Shoals area of northwest Alabama. Doug was proudly showing off pictures of a very handsome rooster and of a recent acquisition, a South Poll Grass Cattle bull. I learned that South Poll is an Alabama-based cattle breed that is bred to thrive on a grass-based diet and to tolerate the heat of the Southern summer (www.southpoll.com). I was also pleased to learn that Bluewater Creek’s most recent batch of chickens recently started laying.

Nancy Campbell and Charles Day, friends from Tuscaloosa, were also back at the dinner last night. We met at the July dinner and have remained in contact ever since. They shared news of a recent visit to a saltwater shrimp farm in Greene County, Alabama – 150 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. This was exciting news to me. Charles has also begun to cultivate domestic culinary mushrooms. The spores are shipped to him and it was fascinating and tempting to learn about the process. It also gave me a nifty idea for my food-minded nephew’s 11th birthday present.

A number of websites are referenced in this post. I hope that readers will be inspired to check out one or more of them and participate as their interests and means dictate. They are all causes that mean something to me and deserve our support and commitment.

An amazing and innovative meal. Camaraderie with a community of people with shared interests and values. New knowledge and understanding. The “Friends of the Café” dinners in Florence have quickly become an essential ingredient in the process of strengthening a commitment to culture, community, and the values that will help change our world and move us steadily forward.