The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.
It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.
Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.
James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.
The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.
After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.
The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.
By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”
I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.
The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.
The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.
The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.
The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.
Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.