Tag Archives: culture

The Paint Rock Valley and “Green, Green Grass of Home”

IMG_1474  It was a soggy Earth Day 2015 event at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville on Sunday, April 19. It was raining when I arrived shortly after the noon opening and the early attendance was sparse with some exhibitors either absent or late for set-up.

IMG_1473Even so, my favorite local goat cheese purveyor, Paul Spell of Humble Heart Farms in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), was open for business and busy giving out samples. I bought my usual, Humble Heart’s Tuscan blend, and a package of the French blend. At another booth I picked up some herbs – chives, mint, and rosemary – to continue to pot up this year’s herb garden in the back yard. I already have some mint and lots of basil growing back there.

Despite the rain, I hit a few of the tables and booths that were set up and had a chat with Steve Northcutt of the Nature Conservancy. One of the reasons I made a special effort to get to the Earth Day event this year was because my friend Judy Prince from Birmingham planned to be there to recruit support for her initiatives and clean-up projects serving her native Paint Rock Valley in northeast Alabama along the Paint Rock River’s winding path to the Tennessee River. Because of health and the weather, Judy was not able to attend and in her absence Steve was handling a drawing for a Paint Rock River canoe trip. I am planning two canoe trips for this year — the Paint Rock River and the Cahaba River.

IMG_1483After leaving the Earth Day event, I wandered through the park, winding up at a scenic overlook that also has a small museum and memorial dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. At a time when Alabama’s Republican elected officials seem to be on the verge of closing down a number of state parks, it was a reminder of how much this part of Alabama owes to FDR and his Depression-era recovery policies. Every town in the Tennessee Valley should have a monument to Roosevelt.

As I left Monte Sano, there was a break in the rain and more people seemed to be arriving at the Earth Day festivities. Since the Paint Rock Valley was on my mind I decided to make the short drive to Jackson County and drive through the upper Paint Rock Valley for a while.

The Paint Rock River meanders for about sixty river miles from its origins in northernmost Alabama to where it enters the Tennessee next to a spectacular bluff known as Paint Rock. I saw the Paint Rock on a boating day trip along the Tennessee from Guntersville Dam to Decatur a couple of years ago. It is only accessible from the river and is worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

IMG_1506My Sunday drive, however, took me into the upper reaches where the headwaters come together and form the small but ecologically significant Paint Rock River and its surrounding valley. Due to recent rains and storms, the river was flowing fast with a lot of mud and debris and was beginning to overflow its banks. There are a number of places along the two-lane highway through the valley where the road goes alongside the river. The area is sparsely populated and there are abundant farmland and animals grazing in pastures along the river’s course. IMG_1486

Occasionally you pass through a more settled area. The towns of Princeton and Trenton huddle close to the road. My afternoon drive took me as far into the valley as the town of Estillfork. One of the things that struck me along the drive is the way most of the houses, stores, and churches are right on the road, even where there was space to build farther back.

My friend Judy Prince is a psychotherapist based in Birmingham but her roots are in the upper Paint Rock Valley and in Estillfork, where her family ran a country store for decades. Judy has been active with various projects to enrichen the valley and preserve and pay homage to its beauty, community life, history, and heritage. It is through visits to the area in conjunction with Judy’s Paint Rock Valley History Project and Connect UP (CUP) initiatives that I have been introduced to the upper Paint Rock Valley. There are multiple goals, part of which is building connections and community with the area’s Appalachian and Native American cultures. “Building community” has become a theme for me lately, it seems.

Judy has been active in using a “rolling store” to dispense heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings and seeds. The rolling store idea is in honor of her father, Pete Prince, who once operated a rolling store in the valley in addition to his stationary store in Estillfork. IMG_1491

Judy has ongoing plans for a History Store and Working Farm as a wellness and healing center to serve the community and people in need from the community and beyond including those with physical and mental challenges, veterans, the elderly, and youth. One of her goals is to utilize the projects to connect residents of the area with those from outside the community and to increase interaction and exchange from diverse communities. Judy speaks passionately about all of these projects and her enthusiasm is contagious. She wants to bring more visitors into the valley while also enabling those in the community to venture forth and seek broader exposure to other options of doing and living.

IMG_1500Highway 65, the curving road that follows the Paint Rock River through the valley, is named “The Curly Putman Highway” in honor of songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, the Paint Rock Valley native (Princeton) who wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home.” That song, written in the 1960s, was an often covered tune that was a country hit for Porter Wagoner and later an international hit for pop star Tom Jones.

As I drove through the Paint Rock Valley with Curly Putman’s plaintive song in my head, I was reminded of a road trip I took many years ago through another mostly rural area of central Alabama. I was with a friend who was visiting the area from Los Angeles. At one point, I veered off the main road to show her a quaint small town that was just off the highway. She was quiet and gazed out the window as we drove down the street that ran through the middle of the town, past neat little houses and a docile town square surrounded by a few small local businesses and a few shuttered storefronts. After a moment, she turned to me and said, “Why would anyone choose to live here?”

I was caught off-guard and didn’t have a ready answer at that moment but I have often thought about her question over the years. Why does anyone live anywhere? And how many of us have the luxury of choosing where to live? I have lived all over the country and I don’t think I ever really got to choose. You live where you were born and then you live where life, family, education, career, circumstances, and serendipity take you.

There are people who live in the upper Paint Rock Valley. Some stay there their entire lives and some leave as soon as they are able. Some return at some point and some never come back. Others come and stay or come and go. For some it is “home” and for others it’s just a place along the road. The country is full of communities like those along the Paint Rock River. They deserve our discovery, our attention, and our respect. They can learn from us; more importantly, we can learn from them.


(For more information about Joys of Simplicity Wellness Adventures and the Connect UP Program, and for contact information for Judy Prince, check her website at www.tinyurl.com/lutybme).

Iced Tea Digressions

IMG_1412 In December 1989 I was in New England traveling with a theatre tour. In a tiny joint near the waterfront in New London, Connecticut, I ordered iced tea with lunch. The crusty waitress eyed me suspiciously and said, “It’s December. We don’t have iced tea in December.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Now here’s a question: Do you serve hot coffee in July?”

She admitted that she did and laughed as she walked away. I channeled the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces for a moment but I let it go and had a glass of water with my meal.

There is always at least one pitcher of tea in my refrigerator at any given time. I have never been much of a coffee drinker but I mostly fit the Southern stereotype about iced tea; I drink it frequently and year-round. A glass of iced tea is the first thing I pour when I get up in the morning and the first thing I pour when I come home at the end of the workday. I bring a thermal tumbler of iced tea to my office each day and am usually able to nurse it until time to go home.

Iced tea is one of the many great things that was popularized during the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 but it goes back farther than that date. It is ubiquitous at Southern tables and in Southern restaurants and “sweet or unsweet?” is the standard question when iced tea is ordered in a restaurant in the South.

When I am out, I usually order “sweet” but the sweet iced tea in restaurants is often a little too sweet for my taste. I like it a little sweet and what I make at home tends to be much less sweet than what is served at many restaurants, especially the chains. As I have become more wary of processed sugars, I have begun to use alternative sweeteners, sometimes with a little honey added, to sweeten my home-made tea.

I was once given an electric iced tea maker as a gift. It seemed heretical at the time, but I got used to it, began to like the way I could easily add mint, orange peel, and other seasonal flavors into the mix, and even bought a new iced tea maker when the first one broke. My replacement broke a few months ago and I intended to replace it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I am enjoying the stove-top process again although I had to tweak my formulas just a bit to get it right.

Growing up, the teabags in our house and at Grandmother’s were usually Lipton and occasionally Red Diamond, a tea and coffee brand based in Birmingham, or Luzianne out of New Orleans. When I was out on my own, I gravitated to Lipton and that was my iced tea brand of choice for a long time.

That all changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when I heard on a television report that the Luzianne factory did not lay off any employees post-storm and, in fact, continued paying employees their full checks during the time that the operation was closed in the aftermath of the flood. I have not been able to confirm that story, but Luzianne became my iced tea brand of choice from then on. Such corporate loyalty to employees is rare these days and deserves our support.

A key to serving iced tea is to have lemon wedges and long-handled teaspoons nearby. Also, one must always have plenty of ice cubes on hand. In the days before most refrigerators had ice dispensers, I would go into friends’ kitchens and fill their ice trays upon arrival if I knew these were people who were negligent about what I consider to be the essential task of constant in-home ice production. I still keep full ice trays in the freezer in case of an emergency.

Last Christmas, friends who know my affinity for iced drinks gave me a gift of spherical ice — plastic contraptions that each produce one perfectly round and substantial circle of ice. They’re a modern miracle and a perfect gift – the ice globe is pleasing to look at, melts slowly, and just fits in an old-fashioned glass. Two will work for a tall glass of tea. At lunch on New Year’s Day, people were whipping out their phones like the paparazzi to photograph my drink with a round globe of ice sitting majestically inside.

After a brutal Winter, it’s finally Spring and warmer weather is settling in. Wherever we live or travel, we should all be able to drink our fill of iced tea without having to explain ourselves.

Back in 1989, during that same theatre tour that took me to New London, I was in a restaurant in downtown Burlington, Vermont, a few days before Christmas. The waiter asked for my drink order and I said “iced tea.” He wrote down my order and went back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, the owner of the restaurant came out from the back and introduced himself.

“Where are you from?’ he asked.


“I’m from South Carolina,” he said. “That’s why we serve iced tea in December.” It turned out that his wait staff had instructions to inform him whenever a patron ordered iced tea during cold months. He said that was always a signal that another Southerner was in the house.

Unexpected Repose at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

IMG_1318   My pick for one of the most unexpected attractions in Alabama is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. It’s near the town of Hanceville in Cullman County north of Birmingham. My mother’s family hails from Cullman County and for that reason I tend to think of the area as a Protestant enclave of Scotch-Irish descendants. In reality, though, the town of Cullman was founded by Germans and its German Catholic roots are deep. Indeed, the Cullman skyline is dominated by Sacred Heart Catholic Church; St. Bernard Abbey of Benedictine monks and the Saint Bernard School are prominent in the town. Ave Maria Grotto and its companion “Little Jerusalem” replicas of world religious destinations on the Abbey grounds have long been Cullman’s best-known tourist attraction.

A little farther south of “Cullman town,” past Hanceville, the Shrine is the vision of Mother Angelica, the doctrinaire nun who started Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), now the largest religious media network in the world, out of a garage in 1981. EWTN is headquartered in Irondale, a Birmingham suburb. I am not now nor have I ever been a Roman Catholic but curiosity and fascination with the scope of the network would drive me to occasionally look in on “Mother Angelica Live,” Mother Angelica’s daily show in the early years of EWTN. Mother Angelica has a certain charm, sharp wit, and charisma and is to be admired for her drive and commitment but sometimes her dogmatic proclamations and venomous rebukes made her sound a bit like a Christopher Durang creation. Still, it is an amazing thing that she started and the network continues to have massive global influence today.

As the network grew and began 24-hour non-stop Catholic programming, Mother Angelica began to search for a place to relocate the monastery away from the bustle of the network. IMG_1279 In 1995, she was able to acquire acreage to build a monastery and small working farm in Cullman County north of Birmingham. Soon, though, her modest plan exploded into a massive vision as she felt divinely called (by a voice emanating from a statue of the Divine Child in Bogota, Colombia) to build a Shrine.

The result is a mind-boggling and somewhat surreal achievement in the rolling hills and valleys of north central Alabama. One exits the interstate and passes through Hanceville and drives past farms and country stores. Eventually, at the turn to the Shrine, there is a long curving drive lined with white fences. There are small guest houses for those making an extended visit to the Shrine.

At the main gate, a sign advises visitors that the grounds are under video surveillance and that armed guards are on the premises (‘kumbaya,” right?). The farmland and pastures come into view and finally the buildings. IMG_1278There are substantial barns and farm buildings, and occasional religious sculptures, and then the main church, chapels, and related buildings are visible in the distance.

Currently there are a substantial working farm; the cloistered monastery for the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration; the main church, The Temple of the Divine Child; a Shroud of Turin Display and Lower Church; massive colonnades and Stations of the Cross on either side of the main piazza; a life-size Nativity inside a small chapel; a small castle, Castle San Miguel, containing meeting rooms and the Gift Shop of El Nino; the John Paul II Eucharistic Center; and a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France along the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. IMG_1295

It’s a Roman Catholic Disneyland.

And it is truly a magnificent and peaceful place. Standing in the middle of the huge piazza and looking at the large Romanesque-Gothic main church, the bell tower, and the surrounding colonnades inspired by 13th Century Franciscan architecture, one can’t help but be reminded of the great pilgrimage destinations of the world. The marble, limestone, and granite construction, the bronze doors, the gilding throughout, the magnificent statuary inside the various buildings and throughout the grounds, and the German-crafted stained glass windows add to the site’s sense of commitment and purpose, regardless of one’s spiritual stance. IMG_1292

There are regular reminders to “remain silent out of respect for those in prayer” and throughout the place there are opportunities for quiet reflection and meditation. On the occasions when I have visited, there have been vehicles from all over the country in the parking lot and tourists and pilgrims from all over the world but it never seems rushed, noisy, or crowded. IMG_1306

Walking down the path to the river and the replica of the Lourdes Grotto is probably my favorite part of the visit. The imposing rocky structure looms with the marble statues of Our Lady of Lourdes on high and Bernadette kneeling below. IMG_1305Votive candles burn on several levels against the curving back of the structure. The only sounds I heard were the waters of the Mulberry Fork rushing over rocks in the riverbed, birds singing in early spring, and bees busily buzzing among the spring blossoms.

Mother Angelica, who had the vision and doggedly plowed it through to fruition, is almost 92 now and lives in the monastery she envisioned. Reruns of “Mother Angelica Live” still air on EWTN but Mother Angelica is silent. She suffered a severe stroke in 2001 and her speaking ability was greatly impaired. According to her fellow cloistered nuns, she moves her lips in prayer, takes meals in her room, and often watches EWTN when she’s awake. IMG_1311

Shadows and Light: Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall

IMG_1244   Just off the Natchez Trace Parkway, near the place where that historic road moves from Tennessee into northwest Alabama near the Shoals, is a man-made wall commemorating a moving story of the “Trail of Tears.” The “Trail of Tears” was an aftermath of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the episode of American history which forcibly removed Native Americans from their homes in the east to the Oklahoma territories.

Tom Hendrix has built a monumental stone wall to honor his great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a member of the Yuchi tribe, who walked with her sister and others from her home near the Tennessee River – the Native Americans called it “the Singing River” – to Oklahoma. According to family lore, the young woman was disappointed to find that the waters of Oklahoma did not sing and resolved to walk back to Alabama and her “Singing River.” The journey home took five years.IMG_1254

Mr. Hendrix, who is now in his 80s, has been working on the wall for over thirty years. It is estimated that there are 8.5 million pounds of stones in the project. It is reputed to be the world’s longest memorial to a Native American and to a woman. It is the longest non-mortared rock wall in the United States. Mr. Hendrix, the maker, says that it honors not just his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay but all Native American women. IMG_1247

Mr. Hendrix, inspired by the stories and journals passed down through his family, began to build the wall with stones he had brought to the site at his home a few yards from the Natchez Trace. Each stone, he says, represents a step of Te-lah-nay’s journey. Now there are paths along well over a mile of wall, each stone placed by Mr. Hendrix. It is a spiritual and peaceful place with curves, benches, levels, and prayer circles. At some places the wall is high and at other places it is low enough to sit on. At some places it is tight and closed in and at others it opens out. People have sent stones to Mr. Hendrix from all over the world to be placed in the wall. Occasionally a seashell appears along the path. IMG_1246

When I arrived on a warm late winter afternoon in mid-March, Mr. Hendrix greeted me. From his driveway, there are paths going in either direction. He told me the path to the left represents Te-lah-nay’s walk to Oklahoma and that the path to my right represents her return home. I asked which one I should take first and he said it didn’t matter. I chose the path to the left.

IMG_1237That part of the path was closed in. At the end there was a bench. I sat at the bench for a moment but felt the need to move on. Upon arriving back at the entrance, Mr. Hendrix said “That was the dark path. The other side is completely different.”

Taking the path to the right, I soon moved along a wall of rocks with what appear to be spirits peering out. Continuing along the path, there are openings, areas of benches and congregation, a single gourd hanging from a tall tree. IMG_1248 I was a short distance from the first path, but the feeling was much lighter and more free. At times the wall meandered off and the sunlight through the still bare trees glistened and darted in the slight breeze. Again I sat on a bench in the path and this time I relaxed and stayed for a while. IMG_1241

The memorial is called “Wichahpi,” which means “like the stars.” The path’s symbolism comes from an elder who told Tom Hendrix that ultimately “all things shall pass. Only the stones will remain.”

When my journey along the wall was complete, Mr. Hendrix was there to answer questions and explain. He has written a book about Te-lah-nay’s journey called If the Legends Fade and copies are available for sale at the site (www.ifthelegendsfade.com). Also available are stone carvings by Mr. Hendrix including spiritual images, images of animals, and benches and birdbaths.

I asked him how far the site is from Te-lah-nay’s “Singing River” and he directed me nine miles southwest to the place where the Natchez Trace crosses the Tennessee. It is a lovely and peaceful spot and the river is wide there. IMG_1260_1Mr. Hendrix says that the song from the river is more faint now that the river has been tamed and industry crowds much of its shores. But there is no sign of these things at the spot where the Natchez Trace bridge crosses the water; Mr. Hendrix says he still hears the river’s song almost every day.

“Muscle Shoals”

IMG_0279    “You’re in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, man,” growls Keith Richards in an interview in Muscle Shoals, the documentary about the musical heritage of the Shoals area of northwest Alabama. The film focuses on the intertwined stories of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It is a compelling story that needs to be told and director Greg “Freddy” Camalier tells it with brisk pacing and verve using music recorded in the area and ample interviews with the makers of the magic that came out of the place in a specific time in American musical history.

IMG_0708I was fortunate to see Muscle Shoals on August 24, 2013, at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham and have viewed it a couple of times since. My first screening at the Alabama Theatre was as part of a packed house in advance of the film’s official release on September 27, 2013. Even for a viewer familiar with the musical heritage of the Shoals, the movie is full of new information and insights by interview subjects including Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Donna Godchaux, Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, and Steve Winwood.

The powerful conceit running through the movie is that there is music in the magical waters of the Tennessee River around the Shoals. The Tennessee curves through Alabama from its northeast corner to its northwest corner, cutting a crescent in the northernmost part of the state. The Native Americans’ word for the river meant “the river that sings” and the four towns of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia straddle the river in northwest Alabama in the area commonly referred to as “the Shoals.”

W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” and Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and other legends, were both from the Shoals. The movie spends time at the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall in Florence. Tom Hendrix built the mammoth serpentine wall as a memorial to his ancestor who was exiled to Oklahoma as part of the Trail of Tears and walked back to the Shoals to be near the “singing river.” The film even pulls Tuscumbia native Helen Keller into the mix, finding a connection with the fact that the deaf, blind, and mute child’s breakthrough word was “water.”

The film focuses on Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and “the Swampers.” “The Swampers” are the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who left FAME to open Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway and who are primarily represented in the documentary by “Swampers” Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson. Rick Hall’s biography alone includes enough tragedy to fuel any number of plaintive country ballads and his compelling and compulsive drive is the centerpiece of the film.

On occasion, Muscle Shoals may go a little overboard in its effort to tell a coherent story and the “singing river” idea might feel a bit stretched at times. Sometimes, liberal use of misleading stock footage is distracting. For example, when the documentary discusses the Shoals hospital where Percy Sledge worked before embarking on his musical career, the stock footage that is shown makes it look like a World War I-era European hospital.

Each time I watch the movie, I am confused as to which of Aretha Franklin’s hits were actually recorded in Muscle Shoals – the filmmakers are a little ambiguous there but a little research reveals that “I Never Loved a Man” was definitely recorded there (and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was brought to New York to record other hits with her). Based on the way the documentary presents the story, one might think that Rick Hall wrote the schmaltzy Clarence Carter hit “Patches” (he didn’t; he produced Carter’s cover – and this documentary manages to make me respect “Patches” in a way I never had before).

Even so, it is the actual footage of Shoals sessions, the Rolling Stones, and other artists in the recording studio, and the director’s passion for the sounds that came out of the place that propel the movie and make it indispensable. Fans of the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour and the disastrous Altamont Free Concert that ended it will recognize much of the Stones’ Muscle Shoals footage from that earlier film. The Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in Muscle Shoals.

Ultimately, it’s the music that supports the story that makes Muscle Shoals such a treasure and I challenge any Baby Boomer or fan of twentieth century American popular music to sit through Muscle Shoals without finding at least a few favorite songs that were recorded in those studios. Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman” there. Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Staples, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Traffic, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, the Osmonds, Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Cliff, … recorded there, and on and on; it makes your head explode that so much essential music came out of such a small town. The tradition currently continues with groups such as the Birmingham-based soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones whose recent album Half the City was recorded in the Shoals.

For me, an added treat in the movie is interview footage with Donna Godchaux, a Shoals native who, with her late husband Keith, was a member of the Grateful Dead in the ‘70s (the Dead never recorded in Muscle Shoals as far as I know). Donna got her start as a session singer in the Shoals and she lives there now. I very briefly met her when I was working backstage at the Grateful Dead concert in Tuscaloosa on May 17, 1977 (I also met Jerry Garcia that day). It was an amazing concert but my most vivid memory of it is hanging out in front of the stage for a bit during the show with the Godchaux’s toddler, Zion. We were rolling a toy Texaco truck back and forth. Zion would be in his forties now and is part of the band BoomBox.

If you haven’t seen Muscle Shoals yet, check it out. I promise it will leave you smiling.

A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

IMG_1134  My attraction to Mardi Gras is directly tied to my attraction to the Gulf Coast. Growing up inland, Mardi Gras always seemed mysterious and somehow “foreign” and like a place I’d rather be. I would see news reports of the activities in New Orleans and Mobile and other celebrations on a smaller scale along the Gulf and they seemed to be in stark contrast to the grey late-winter life around me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and we did not observe Ash Wednesday. When I realized the Christian tie-in to the revelry of Mardi Gras and better understood the season that begins on Epiphany and ends precisely at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, that knowledge gave the events of the season even more mystery and appeal.

Age, experience, and knowledge began to de-mystify the events of the carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras and more and more the events began to move farther inland. When I was living and teaching in Indiana in the 90s, I began to throw beads at the end of my Fat Tuesday classes to give myself a sense of connection to my home region. Huntsville, where I live now, had its 2nd annual Mardi Gras parade on Saturday, February 14, but it’s a sad substitute for the real deal on the coast.

I am a bit of a traditionalist and a purist when it comes to the proper way to do things and I bristle a bit at the fact that one can now stand beneath a New Orleans Bourbon Street balcony and be showered with Mardi Gras beads on virtually any night of the year. In my mind, Mardi Gras beads should only be thrown in the season. And then they should be packed away until the following January.

The appeal of tradition and the desire to recapture the mystique of “The Season” on the Gulf Coast of the Deep South is one of the reasons Joe Cain Day, observed in Mobile on the Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday (and the subject of my previous essay), has engaged me.

I hosted my first Joe Cain Day celebration this Sunday, February 15, and it brought some levity to a blustery February afternoon in north Alabama as still another cold front – “the weather of northern aggression” I call it – moved into the area. On the invitations I wrote “Masks and mourning attire optional.” My guests, some of them wearing masks and almost all dressed in some form of black in “mourning” for Joe Cain, enjoyed the respite before the cold and icy work week resumed.

IMG_1128One of my favorite images in New Orleans is that of Mardi Gras beads that never came down to earth during parades and got caught in the live oaks along the parade routes. They hang there throughout the year, gradually fading but always a reminder that the season has gone but will always come back again in January. I look for these stray beads on streetcar rides along St. Charles. With that image in mind, I threw beads from my second story bedroom window on the day before the party and let them catch in the cherry tree in my front yard so that my guests would have that image of beads in the trees upon arrival. (Now I will spend the rest of February retrieving Mardi Gras beads from the cherry tree.)

I designed the menu to reflect regional and seasonal tastes and as usual there was much more food than was needed. I made a lot of the food myself. I purchased other things from favorite vendors. Here’s my menu.

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading


Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

The gumbo was ordered from Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), a Mobile-based oyster house and restaurant that makes one of my favorite gumbos. The King Cake, a carnival season standard, came from Paul’s Pastry Shop (www.paulspastry.com) in Picayune, Mississippi. My friends G. Todd and Anita brought a couple of other dishes — a crawfish beignet with a savory sauce and crostini topped with shrimp, red pepper jelly, and sweet potato. The chocolates were from the Chocolate Gallery in Huntsville (www.chocolategalleryal.com).

IMG_1133“Mardi Gras Chicken” was a clear favorite of the day. When I was on the Gulf Coast in December, I was toying with the idea of a Joe Cain Day party. I asked my friends, the Brunsons – who are natives of Mobile, for a dish that their mother, Jean Brunson, would have made for Mardi Gras and Joe Cain Day. The response was unanimous – “Mardi Gras Chicken!” – and a recipe was produced. Mrs. Brunson was the caterer for the First Baptist Church of Mobile for many years and had a sizable repertoire. “Mardi Gras Chicken” is really an adaptation of a chicken tetrazinni recipe but Mrs. Brunson always made it around Mardi Gras and her children still refer to it as “Mardi Gras Chicken.”

I made my own revisions to the recipe and my adaptation of Mrs. Brunson’s adaptation is what I’m offering here. It’s a hit.

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

Cook rotelli pasta in chicken broth. Since it will be baked in a casserole, it is best to cook it until it is fairly limp. Drain pasta. Add chicken to pasta (chop chicken into fairly large bites). Add peppers, onion, celery, and pimento. Stir in cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and ½ cup cheese.

Place mixture in large casserole dish and top with ½ cup cheese and minced almonds. Bake at 350 degrees for I hour.

Happy Mardi Gras!


Joe Cain Day in Mobile


IMG_1124 On Sunday, February 15, I am hosting a pre-Mardi Gras celebration for Joe Cain Day. Joe Cain Day is an event that is unique to Mobile, Alabama. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. I have heard about it for decades but only got really intrigued with its origins and traditions in recent years. The more I learned the more fun it sounded. My little get-together is a way of sharing the tradition with my friends in north Alabama.

Of course, most Alabamians know and proudly assert that Mobile was the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the present-day United States. Mobile was founded in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans, and had established New World Carnival celebrations under French rule early on. There is still banter back and forth between the two cities about the legitimacy of Mobile’s claim to being the first. And a New Orleans friend once told me, “Well, Mobile may have started it, but New Orleans taught them how it ought to be done.”

There is no controversy, however, over the origins of Joe Cain Day.

Joseph Stillwell Cain (1832-1904) is credited with reviving Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War. It all started in 1866 when he paraded through downtown Mobile in fanciful Native American garb. This act is considered the rebirth of modern Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Joe Cain was a Mobile native and as a teenager was a charter member of the Tea Drinkers Society (TDS), a Mobile mystic society that paraded on New Year’s Eve. Prior to the Civil War, pre-Lenten celebrations in Mobile were customarily tied into New Year’s observances.

When the Civil War began, Joe Cain was a private in the Confederate Army. When his military service was over he lived for a time in New Orleans and participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras observances.

In 1866, when Cain returned to his hometown from New Orleans, he decided to revive Mardi Gras in the city. He and six other members of TDS decorated a charcoal wagon, dressed in Native American garb, and frolicked through the streets of Mobile. Cain led the procession dressed as a fictional Chickasaw chief, “Chief Slackabamarinico,” and declared an end to Mobile’s suffering and the return of pre-Lenten carnival celebrations.

Joe Cain’s actions had an impact and led to the city officially moving the culmination of carnival festivities from the New Year’s season to traditional Fat Tuesday. Cain was a founding member of the mystic society called Order of Myths. Order of Myths adopted the emblem of Folly chasing Death around a broken column. This is assumed to be symbolic of the Civil War, a Lost Cause for the rebel South.

Cain remained active in Mardi Gras. Later in life, he and his wife moved from Mobile to the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Cain died in 1904 and was buried near Bayou La Batre. After Cain’s death, Mobile’s Mardi Gras remained popular but exclusive. The mystic societies had closed memberships. Most of the citizens of the city could only participate as onlookers.

In 1966, Julian Lee Rayford, a local author, set out to honor Joe Cain and open Mardi Gras participation to more people. Cain and his wife’s bodies were moved from Bayou La Batre to Mobile’s Church Street Cemetery. Cain’s interment was accompanied by a Mardi Gras parade, jazz band, and mourners. His tombstone has a jester’s image and reads “Here Lies Old Joe Cain, the Heart and Soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.”

The popularity of Cain’s reburial inspired the creation of “Joe Cain Day,” observed on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day Parade, also known as “The People’s Parade” because anyone may participate (although it eventually became so big that the number of participants had to be capped), is led by a person chosen to dress as Chief Slackabamarinico. The parade concludes at Church Street Cemetery where revelers dance atop Cain’s grave.

Throughout the day, a mystic society of mourning-clad women known as “Joe Cain’s Merry Widows” wail over the loss of their beloved Joe Cain and declare “He loved me best!” The Merry Widows wail at the grave, toast the deceased from the front porch of his house on Augusta Street, and ride in a place of honor in the Parade. In 2003, another all-woman mystic society, “Mistresses of Joe Cain,” appeared. The Mistresses are also veiled, but dress all in scarlet and proclaim that “Of course he loved us best!” They parade alongside the vehicle carrying the Widows in the Parade, taunting them along the route and creating a general caterwaul.

Rumor has it that still another all-woman mystic society might be in the works that will be Joe Cain’s “ladies of the evening” – or some more earthy variation. In any case, Joe Cain Day in Mobile is a great representation of the silliness and release of the Mardi Gras season.

(The image is of the cherry tree in my front yard, bedecked with beads for Joe Cain and Mardi Gras.)

“I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

IMG_1114   I bought my first Gertrude Stein book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, at the late great Smith and Hardwick Bookstore on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham in the ‘70s when I was an undergraduate at Alabama. Smith and Hardwick was one of those amazing bookstores with an outstanding jumble of books on two levels in seeming disarray. It was owned by the Praytor sisters – Virginia and Anna – and by Anna Praytor alone when Virginia died in 1974.

If you were looking for a particular title in the store and couldn’t figure out where it might be in the dusty stacks, one of the Misses Praytor always seemed to know exactly where it was located. Here’s what great locally-owned bookstores were like back then: I was in school in Tuscaloosa and if there was a book I needed I would telephone Miss Anna Praytor in Birmingham. She would mail the book the same day and enclose a handwritten bill and thank you.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was Stein’s own autobiography told in the voice of Toklas, her long-time companion, secretary, cook, confidante, hostess, and handler. Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) met on Toklas’s first day in Paris in 1907 and were never apart until Stein’s death thirty-nine years later. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a huge hit and led to Stein and Toklas’s triumphant first tour of the U.S. that spanned seven months in 1934 and 1935. Stein captured the experience of the American tour and other events in a 1937 book titled Everybody’s Autobiography. Whatever else Gertrude Stein may have been, she was never modest.

Over the years I have been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and have directed and adapted her plays, delivered papers about her oeuvre and influence, and conducted acting workshops based on the enigmatic short ditties she referred to as “plays.”

And the more I have learned about Stein, the more interested I have become in Toklas and her quirky and ongoing influence. Eugene Walter knew Toklas (of course) in Paris in the ‘50s and “adored [her] because she had this little moustache, and I swear she waxed it.” He says that upon meeting her “Right away you could see cat and monkey” (his two favorite creatures). “She had a logical mind, but she also had the gift of the parenthesis.”

Walter and Toklas exchanged cooking ideas and recipes and it was The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) that brought Toklas a surge of attention after Stein’s death. The Cookbook is really a fascinating memoir with recipes presented in a witty, earnest, and distinctive voice. In a chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen,” Toklas discusses the unpleasant tasks of preparing live animals for the kitchen: “The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket … So quickly to the murder and have it over with.”

As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:

The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed ready for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.

Later in the same chapter Toklas describes her preparation of “Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done.”

In addition to being very readable, educational, and entertaining, the Cookbook continues to inspire into the 21st Century. A brief passage in Toklas’s chapter entitled “Servants in France” about the hiring of an Indo-Chinese cook named Trac inspired the creation of a beautiful and award-winning 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Truong’s seductive and meditative book explores a fictional Vietnamese cook, Binh, who comes into the Stein-Toklas household.

No doubt the part of the Cookbook which caused the most stir is a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” in a section of the book called “Recipes from Friends.” The marijuana brownie recipe “which anyone could whip up on a rainy day” was given to Toklas by Brion Gysin and is described as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” The chapter of recipes from friends was inserted to fill the book out and Toklas might have been clueless about what she was presenting with the fudge recipe. Even so, the American publishers left the recipe out of the first American edition but it was included in others and became notorious and sort of a code, especially when the hippie movement of the 1960s took hold.

That recipe is the reason that a fairly insipid and badly dated 1968 Peter Sellers comedy directed by Hy Averback is called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Sellers plays “Harold Fine,” a strait-laced attorney who falls in with a group of very stereotypical hippies and is especially enamored of one particular hippie, Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. Nancy, of course, bakes Alice’s brownie recipe that fuels much of the frolic. The title song, penned by Elmer Bernstein (who was no hippie) and performed by Harpers Bizarre, has the refrain “I love you, Alice B. Toklas / And so does Gertrude Stein.” Other lyrics evoke “Coriander baby elephants singing ‘Silent Night’/ Sweet cinnamon and nutmeg Che Guevara.” (The ladies would be so proud.)

Sly references to Toklas’s fudge recipe had a way of sneaking in to pop culture. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “Bewitched,” Samantha’s mother Endora is offered a cookie. Endora asks if it’s from an Alice B. Toklas recipe. When she’s told it’s not, Endora says, “… I’ll pass.”

My favorite recipe from the cookbook is “Oeufs Francis Picabia” from the chapter titled “Dishes for Artists.” Here it is:

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

I am no gourmet, and this recipe is too rich to serve a lot, but I have prepared it and can attest to the fact that it is delicious.

In 1963, needing money, Alice B. Toklas finally got around to writing her own autobiography. It is called What Is Remembered. Even though she outlived Gertrude Stein by over two decades, she chose to end her own life’s story with the death of Gertrude Stein.

A Menu for the New Year

IMG_1101  A couple of decades ago, when I stopped actively celebrating New Year’s Eve, I started cooking a big meal for New Year’s Day and use New Year’s Eve to prep the food.

It’s always a simple menu using the Southern good luck staples that we always had for New Year’s Day growing up – pork, greens, and black-eyed peas. If that’s your basic menu, cornbread is a given. Over time, I realized that such a healthy and hearty meal should be shared and began to invite friends and family over for the meal to celebrate the beginning of a new year.

In recent years it has become “a thing” and my menu constantly evolves while the basics remain the same. Since many of the same people attend regularly, I constantly make notes and look for ways to add new touches and tastes. In 2014, for example, I served baked grits from the recipe used at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham as a base over which to ladle the black-eyed peas. It was a delicious riff on traditional ingredients.

Around Thanksgiving of 2014 I was talking with a new colleague and friend and holiday plans came up. I asked her if she would be around for New Year’s Day and told her that if she was, she was invited to my house for lunch. She said she would like to come and I told her that it would be nothing fancy, “just the New Year’s staples.”

“Herring?” she asked.

That caught me off-guard. “Well, no, actually,” I said. “I meant pork, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens.”

The conversation ended soon after but I was intrigued and started researching and found that herring is a New Year’s good luck food in Germany, Scandinavia, and some eastern European locations. I resolved then and there to add herring in some form to my New Year’s lunch menu this year.


I decided to serve a herring appetizer. As guests arrived on New Year’s Day, in addition to various pralines, hard candies, and pecans, there was a serving dish with herring in white wine sauce with red onion slivers scattered around. Toasts and crackers were laid out on which to layer the herring. Sour cream was available at the side as a spread for the fish. It was a very tasty and popular appetizer. It may become a new tradition for the meal at my house.

After all the guests arrived and toasts were made, the lunch main menu was pretty standard for Southern homes on New Year’s Day:

Pork Roast with dry rub of coffee, brown sugar, seasoned salt, and orange zest
Seasoned Black-Eyed Peas
Seasoned Mixed Greens

The seasoning for the greens and peas included hog jowl. The ambrosia is adapted from a simple ambrosia from chef Scott Peacock. His elegant classic includes only orange, coconut, sugar, and sherry. Mine uses satsumas from south Alabama for the citrus and adds pecan pieces and cherry slices.

The pork roast dry rub is worth sharing. I had jotted down a recipe from somewhere for a meat dry rub using coffee, granulated sugar, and seasoned salt. I experimented with it until I came up with the one I used on New Year’s Day. All of my guests left the lunch with a jar of this rub and it’s one you can easily make.

Dry Rub for Meat
1 part ground coffee (I used Community Coffee)
1 part brown sugar
1 part seasoned salt
1/2 part orange zest

Put all ingredients into a jar. Seal the lid and shake to mix thoroughly. Rub the meat with a good olive oil and then generously rub the meat with the dry rub.

We were ten at table – seven adults and three young people aged 11 and younger. For dessert, each guest was served a single madeleine and reminded of how Proust’s madeleine was a trigger for memory in Remembrance of Things Past. Whatever…

The adults enjoyed the madeleines and the kids scarfed them down; I doubt that anyone was too concerned about Proust.

It was a lovely meal and a lovely afternoon. A soft rain began as the guests began to leave. As the last guest departed, we had a quick “post-mortem” of the event. “The afternoon was full of laughter,” she said. “That’s what I needed — an afternoon filled with laughter.”

May 2015 be filled with happy laughter.

Food Memory: Kushmagudi


IMG_0881     As the cold weather holidays roll in, I look forward to family food traditions. Going into Thanksgiving week and celebrations in Birmingham with my family, food memory kicks in bigtime.

There is a dish called “kushmagudi” (this is my own spelling; there is no official spelling) which is always on the Journey family tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is simple Southern food and its name (and my phonetic spelling) has no precedence that I can find.

My brother wrote a lovely essay about this dish a couple of years ago but since I haven’t been able to retrieve it, I will reintroduce the basics to “Professional Southerner” readers.

My grandmother Eula Harbison used to make kushmagudi and I always assumed that it was a known thing, like salt on watermelon, pepper on cantaloupe, and celery sticks served with turkey. As long as I can remember, kushmagudi was on the holiday table so I would mention it casually and be surprised at the blank stares I received. As I lived and traveled around the country, I realized that nobody outside my immediate family seems to have a clue what “kushmagudi” is.

Many might know some variation of the dish, I think, but not by that name.

Kushmagudi is nothing more than a tasty mixture of crumbled cornbread with the potlikker of turnip greens. I say “nothing more” but I am convinced that one needs a cook’s instinct to pull off the right mix. I have always heard stories about Grandmother feeding the masses of her family and crowds from church at short notice in the ‘30s and ‘40s and having family move into her family home between jobs and houses, during travel, etc. Based on what I know, I realize that Grandmother’s kushmagudi may have been invented as Depression food and a way to make the food in the rural house and garden go farther.

Based on what I know, I am sure that the word “kushmagudi” is Grandmother’s own coinage to name a dish she already knew but reinvented for her immediate and extended families. I have talked with Southerners who know a variation of potlikker and greens but, so far, none outside my own family have referred to it as “kushmagudi.”

After Grandmother died in December 1995, I was asked if I would make the kushmagudi for Christmas. I will admit that I was daunted. I had eaten it all of my life but I had never thought about it.

I relaxed and thought about the dish. I realized that it is a basic and instinctual recipe and that if one understands its components one should be able to make it in a satisfactory manner.

Here’s my basic recipe for my grandmother’s kushmagudi:

Eula McCarn Harbison’s Kushmagudi

  1. Make 1-2 cakes of cornbread or use leftover cornbread if you have it (remember that sugar is never acceptable in cornbread).
  2. Boil up a pot of turnip greens with your favorite spices and seasonings.
  3. Bring the greens to a boil and simmer on low for at least a half hour.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, crumble 1-1½ of the cakes of cornbread.
  5. Ladle the potlikker of the greens over the crumbled cornbread in the mixing bowl and mix to your preferred consistency and taste.
  6. Let the mixture meld for a while, keep it warm, and serve it.

I like to mix some collard greens with my turnip greens to vary the flavor of the potlikker a bit. Grandmother tended to use less spices in her greens than I do; she used salt and pepper. I like to add a little pepper sauce, sage, bacon fat, garlic powder, thyme, and other seasonings to the greens before I strain them into the cornbread. I also might add a small dash of sugar to the greens (but never to the cornbread). I also like to mix more of the actual greens into the mix. Grandmother generally just used the potlikker and served the seasoned turnip greens as a separate side dish.

This is truly a recipe that may be adapted to your and your family’s preference.

A bowl of kushmagudi with a glass of buttermilk is a perfect meal on a chilly night in late fall or winter.

Even though kushmagudi is cornbread-based, it is different enough that my family serves it alongside Mother’s traditional cornbread dressing. I think one must sprinkle pepper sauce over a good kushmagudi at table. This is a dish that is always on my family’s table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is often a side at my New Year’s Day luncheon.

If you have a variation of this dish, or a variant name, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve never tried it, you ought to. It’s easy and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving.