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.
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.
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.
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.