Tag Archives: Coca-Cola

“Iron Butt”

IMG_1822   When I am asked “where are you from?” my automatic response is “Birmingham.” I was born in a military hospital at Fort Benning across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama in the final days of my father’s military service. But my parents are from Birmingham, both sets of grandparents lived there, and I moved there when I was a month old.

My father’s work frequently moved the family while I was growing up so I left Birmingham three times in my growing up years and moved back three times between birth and age 15. During all my years in Tuscaloosa at the University, I was less than an hour away and was in town frequently. I also had one enjoyable stint living in Birmingham as an adult for four years in the early ‘90s. If the right opportunity presented itself, I’d gladly move back.

I’ve lived away from Birmingham more than I’ve lived in Birmingham but it is always “home” to me. And those of us who call Birmingham “home” are a strangely loyal and proud bunch. The allure of the city is not always apparent to people who don’t know the place but I am always intrigued by the affectionate responses I get from displaced Birminghamians around the country.

When I was young my parents would talk about being young marrieds in Chicago in the early ‘50s – Dad was military and Mother worked for an insurance company – and running into people from Birmingham in Grant Park and other Chicago locales. The energy of the talk would escalate if the Birminghamians happened to be from Ensley, my dad’s old neighborhood and the place where he and Mother met.

When I was working in Texas, I met an older theatre volunteer who had been born and raised in Birmingham and her eyes would glisten as she fondly recalled growing up in the city. She had not returned since she got married and stranded in Texas 42 years earlier. When I was going home to Alabama for the holidays, she asked me to bring her back a six-pack of Buffalo Rock, a strong and spicy dark ginger ale that originated and is still made in Birmingham.

IMG_1807These memories are sparked by a visit to Vulcan Park this evening (www.visitvulcan.com). Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, is the symbol of Birmingham and the representation of the city’s industrial history. A 56 foot tall iron statue of Vulcan overlooks the city from a 123 foot tall stone pedestal atop Red Mountain. Vulcan atop his perch is visible from locations throughout the city and whenever I return to Birmingham I always look for my first glimpse of Vulcan from the interstate. Vulcan means “home” to me.

Vulcan made his debut as Birmingham’s exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The city was only 33 years old at that time and had already become the industrial center of the South. Civic leaders commissioned the colossus from sculptor Giuseppe Moretti and it was fabricated with iron from the Birmingham area. Vulcan was a popular attraction in St. Louis, winning a Grand Prize.

Vulcan is a burly, bearded guy standing next to his block and an anvil with a hammer in his left hand. In his right hand he holds a newly forged spear point aloft. He is naked except for a blacksmith’s apron. The apron partially covers him in front but his back is bare with buttocks exposed. Before a recent restoration, he was angled on his pedestal so that his back side was aimed toward Homewood, a suburb just over the mountain from Birmingham, and Vulcan was affectionately called “Moon over Homewood.” His current angle finds his back side aimed more toward the television stations that share the mountain with him and The Club, an exclusive private dining club that looms over the city like an embedded spaceship. I like the idea that he moons The Club. IMG_1831

On his return to Birmingham after the St. Louis Exposition, Vulcan was homeless for a while and was reassembled at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Five Points West. The original spear point had gone missing and Vulcan at the Fairgrounds became an advertising tool, holding aloft such things as an ice cream cone, a Coca Cola bottle, and a pickle sign.

In the 1930s the WPA built the park and pedestal on the mountain where Vulcan has resided ever since. Starting  after World War II and continuing through my childhood, Vulcan held aloft a torch that was a safety beacon. It burned green if there had been no traffic fatalities in the city and burned red for twenty-four hours after a local traffic fatality. It was a kitschy idea but as a young boy I would always check the torch color.

As a child I liked to be on Vulcan’s observation deck around sunset when the sky around the city would turn golden orange as molten iron was poured into blast furnaces.  All Birmingham knows that on the 4th of July “if you can see Vulcan, you can see the fireworks” and thousands gather around the city on both sides of Red Mountain to catch the annual Independence Day fireworks display. As a kid, we usually watched from a hill in front of the Belcher house in the western section on Bessemer Superhighway. IMG_1833

In the ‘70s the park had a major overhaul that resulted in a lot of the original character of the WPA-built park and pedestal being sacrificed. The observation deck near the top of the pedestal was enclosed so one still had sweeping views of the city but couldn’t look up at Vulcan. The beautiful stone of the pedestal was hidden by cladding.

Finally, in the late ‘90s, the Vulcan Park Foundation was founded and money was raised to remove and restore Vulcan to his original design, including the restored spear point in the uplifted hand, and to reclaim the 1930s beauty of the WPA’s stone work and design on the pedestal and grounds. Vulcan was back on his pedestal in 2003 and the park reopened to the public in 2004. Vulcan looks better than ever and the park is a beautiful place with a visitors center and a museum with permanent exhibits as well as changing ones. A multitude of informational displays and narratives are placed throughout the grounds and it is a unique and special place to learn about Birmingham’s vibrant and colorful industrial history. There are still remnants of mine entrances and trestle beds in the park and along the paths.

In my house, I have hanging a framed triptych of black and white photographs of Vulcan that were taken by a Birmingham photographer while the statue was in pieces fifteen years ago. There is a shot of the disembodied but still noble head, one of a sandaled foot, and one of Vulcan’s buttocks. The photographer simply labeled that last shot as “Iron Butt.”

Any proud Birmingham boy or girl should know exactly to whom that label refers.

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Coke and Peanuts

IMG_0749 Back when I subscribed to Oxford American magazine, I would regularly threaten (to myself) to cancel my subscription if I saw one more picture of a snake handler in their pages. Snake handlers and alligators were a little too common as OA’s attempt to capture “Southern-ness” occasionally tilted a little too far toward surreal Southern Gothic.

So it is with some trepidation that I feel a need to address the very Southern taste for salted peanuts in Coca-Cola as a snack. This is something I remember from early childhood. We would take a bottle of Coke and a sleeve of salted peanuts. Take a couple of good swigs of the Coke to make room for the peanuts and then slowly pour the peanuts into the narrow top of the Coke bottle. The combination of the sugary Coca-Cola with the salty peanuts is really good. Trust me on this, but don’t ask me to explain why.

I had relegated peanuts in Coca-Cola to a distant childhood memory until this summer when Coach Jimbo Fisher of Florida State dumped some peanuts in his Coca-Cola during ACC media days. The non-Southern press in attendance was flabbergasted and felt the need to address this odd behavior in multiple columns which then led to a deluge of online responses, contradictions, and opinions. We Southerners who grew up with peanuts in Coke as a normal treat were a little bemused by the brouhaha. While I suspect that this tradition is more familiar to Baby Boomers and their parents than to younger generations, I asked a recent class of college-age students how many of them had heard of or had peanuts in Coca-Cola and was surprised at how many hands went up. A few of them opted for RC Cola instead of Coke. I can accept that.

The resurgence of peanuts in Coca-Cola as a topic of conversation in the 21st century surprised me as much as the emergence of one of my guilty pleasure road treats – fried pork rinds – as a healthier junk food choice (no carbs, high protein, low-fat and a high percentage of the same healthy unsaturated fats as olive oil – go figure).

There is a long tradition of Coke in recipes. “Atlanta Brisket” – brisket glazed with cola – has been around for a while and “America’s Test Kitchen” did a version of it fairly recently. “Coca-Cola Cake” is a mainstay of Southern cookbooks and I have seen a Coca-Cola cake with a peanut glaze inspired by the classic peanuts in Coke tradition.

Bartenders are constantly upgrading the football Saturday stalwart bourbon and Coke into more sophisticated renderings such as the “Reengineered Bourbon and Coke Cocktail” recently featured in Garden and Gun magazine. Even more to the point, I recently heard that a place in Birmingham has a cocktail called the “Tallulah” which is made of Coca-Cola, peanut syrup, and Jack Daniel’s. An investigation is in order.

North Carolina chef Vivian Howard, in an episode of her PBS show “A Chef’s Life,” explored the North Carolina tradition of putting peanuts in Pepsi. I have a lot of respect for Chef Howard and she is a wonderful chef, but this will not do. Howard’s Pepsi and peanuts exploration did, however, lead to what looked like a great recipe of Pepsi-glazed pork belly with country ham braised peanuts. I bet it would be even better with a Coke glaze.

After teaching a Saturday class in Huntsville this past weekend, I hopped in the car to drive to Birmingham for a quick visit. Stopping for gas outside Decatur, I spotted an 8 oz. Coke in a glass bottle in the drinks case. I grabbed it and a sleeve of Golden Flake salted peanuts and headed to the car. I downed a few gulps of the Coke, emptied the peanuts into the bottle, and headed south on I-65 listening to the radio and the pre-game shows leading up to the Alabama-Ole Miss game. It has been at least forty years since I indulged in peanuts in Coca-Cola. I was transported back to football Saturdays growing up and “The Bear Bryant Show” on television each Sunday after game days. Coca-Cola and Golden Flake potato chips sponsored the show (“’Great pair’, says The Bear”).

It was an exhilarating drive.