Tag Archives: Eula Harbison

Birmingham’s Evocative Past

Coe’s “Down Town Birmingham” (c. 1935)

My father was born in the Employees Hospital in Fairfield in 1931. The hospital – which was later renamed Lloyd Noland Hospital in honor of its founding physician – was a company hospital of Tennessee Coal and Iron, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Dad grew up in Ensley, within sight of U.S. Steel’s mammoth Ensley Works, where my grandfather worked.

 

Lloyd Noland Hospital went through changes in ownership, was closed in 2004, and razed in 2009.

 

The mining districts and steel mills around Birmingham, and the communities that sprang up around them, hold an ongoing fascination for me. My mother’s family moved from Cullman County to Birmingham in the 1940s and her father transitioned from farmer to steel worker at a steel fabrication factory. Mother’s parents lived in west Birmingham throughout their decades in the city. The house I most attach to them was in Fairfield Highlands. The Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel was visible down in the valley from their back yard. I remember my grandmother taking a damp rag to wipe the factory soot off her clothesline when she hung clothes on the line to dry.

 

My ongoing interest in the industrial history of the Birmingham district was greatly satisfied by a new exhibit hanging in the Birmingham Museum of Art this spring (www.artsbma.org). “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” is a collection of over sixty pieces – mostly etchings and a few paintings – by Alabama native Richard Coe. The pieces were made during Coe’s residency in Birmingham during the Depression in the mid-1930s.

 

Sometimes, it feels like the only history of Birmingham that gets any attention began in 1963 but the place has a rich and fascinating 90+ year history prior to that watershed year of the Civil Rights Movement. Coe’s Depression-era works capture a moment of that history and make me feel closer to my own family’s Birmingham. His etchings capture urban images of downtown and hospitals and churches; industrial scenes of factories – in action sometimes, idle other times; and domestic scenes of neighborhoods and humble houses – often in the shadow of the factories. One of the paintings features a neighborhood “No Nox” gas station. 


The 1930s images of the downtown city center feature many of the same buildings that made up the core of the downtown when I was a young child in Birmingham in the ‘50s and 60s, before newer buildings in the ‘70s and ‘80s moved the city center a few blocks north and transformed the skyline.

 

Part of my mother’s family’s lore is evoked by a Coe etching of St. Vincent’s hospital on the city’s southside. My mother and her mother before her would recount how my great-grandmother, Dura Graves McCarn, was in St. Vincent’s when she was dying at a young age. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, my great-grandfather, John Houston McCarn, ordered her brought home. Aunt Bertha sent her car and driver to pick Dura up and transport her back to Cullman to be at home with her family in her final days.  

 

Coe’s “Saint Vincent’s Hospital” (c. 1935)

Four decades later, when I was quite young, my grandmother Harbison was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s; it was still in the same imposing old brick building pictured in a 1930s Coe etching. Nuns still walked the grounds in full traditional habit, just as they do in the foreground of Coe’s depiction. The St. Vincent’s of the 21st Century is very different – another megalith serving the city’s southside medical complex.

 

Coe’s Stilt Walkers (c. 1935)

Coe’s domestic images often feature humble houses and outbuildings, rickety fences, the inevitable clothesline. Most often, the people featured in these environments are African American – women talking off a front porch; children playing with a “Pet Possum” or walking on makeshift stilts; a birdhouse perched atop a roof. 

 


But it’s the industrial scenes that I find most pleasing and beautiful in the series. Sloss Furnaces alongside First Avenue North is pictured at its peak, before it was abandoned in 1971 and became today’s National Historic Landmark and industrial museum (www.slossfurnaces.com).  

Coe’s “Sloss Furnaces” (c. 1935)

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, 2018

Steel mills, steam plants, streetcar barns, railroad tracks, even the desolate landscape of a slag pile evoke a Birmingham of the past that I still find incredibly vibrant and rich in industrial-era history. As I drive through Birmingham now I still seek out the remains of that industrial past which wasn’t so long ago, really, but seems incredibly distant and almost quaint.


These are the memories that are inspired by Richard Coe’s art at the Birmingham Museum. And any sighting of a clothesline always brings a flood of memories to mind. 

Eula Harbison at Clothesline; Fairfield Highlands (c. 1960)

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Eat Fresh, Eat Local

IMG_1570  Somewhere in chef Jeremiah Tower’s very entertaining memoir, California Dish (2004), he repeats the snarky comment made by a French chef about the cuisine of Alice Waters, the 1970s pioneer in the California Cuisine movement: “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping!”

I love that quote and am wholeheartedly among the growing movement of people who know that the freshness and quality of the ingredients we use are just as important as what we do with and to those ingredients. This used to be the position of tree-huggers and the fringe but the crowds flocking to local farmers markets are evidence that the philosophy is now mainstream and still growing.

It’s not food snobbery. It’s just learning something anew that previous generations understood and accepted as a way of life.

My Grandmother Harbison always had good food warming in the oven and usually there was a pot of fresh-made vegetable soup on the stove. In addition to that, there was always a fresh cake of cornbread in an iron skillet and more often than not a cake or dessert of some kind. She continued cooking even when her health began to limit what she was able to do.

I always knew that whenever I dropped by my grandmother’s house one of the first questions would be “Are you hungry?” Even if I wasn’t particularly hungry, Grandmother would lay out a table full of food within minutes. And I would always find an appetite for it.

It used to amuse me when I would drop by and Grandmother would have plenty of food in the house but would say “Would you rather go pick up some ‘tacahs’?” referring to a Taco Bell down on the highway.

“No — I’d rather eat a bowl of your vegetable soup,” I’d reply. Sometimes she would insist on riding with me to pick up a bag of tacos anyway – neither she nor my grandfather drove. I realized that while fast food was nothing novel and special for me and I was craving home cooking – real food, my grandmother had been cooking for family and crowds for most of her life and rarely went to a restaurant or hamburger stand. It was an enjoyable change for her to have a fast food taco now and then.

Today I came in from work and surveyed my supply of food. It’s a hot and rainy day and I was in the mood for a salad. The first thing I spotted was a Cherokee Purple tomato on the kitchen counter that I picked up at Greene Street Farmers Market at Nativity a few days ago (www.greenestreetmarket.com). It was getting a little ripe and I needed to eat it before I traveled for the 4th of July holiday in a day or two.

My friend Judy Prince from Paint Rock Valley told me a few years ago that she planned to “bring back” Cherokee Purples, an heirloom tomato with a bruise of purple skin and a deep burgundy fleshy meat. Based on recent observations at a variety of farmers markets, I have to say to Judy, “Mission accomplished.” Practically everybody with tomatoes at the market had some Cherokee Purples in the mix.

With my Cherokee Purple as the centerpiece, I pulled out some lush green leaf lettuce from the local J. Sparks Hydroponic Farm (www.jsparksfarms.com), washed and tore it, and made a crisp bed of lettuce. I chopped up a purple bell pepper from the organic RiverFly Farms in Paint Rock Valley (www.lifeasweknowhim.com) and a pretty baby onion from another Greene Street stand. Fresh basil and mint came from pots in my back yard and I crumbled the “Garden Blend” of goat cheese from Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) on top of the mix. I finished it off with salt and pepper and drizzles of a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar that I have on-hand.IMG_1846

It was a lordly summer lunch made even more special by the fact that I know each purveyor (except for the oil and vinegar) by name and had bought all of the ingredients directly from the farmers who grew them. As we “re-learn” the benefits and pleasures of fresh local food, we are making a connection with generations before us who took fresh food from the area for granted. How lucky they were, if they only knew.

A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my family decided to forego the hassle of a restaurant and eat a farm-fresh Sunday dinner at my parents’ house as a joint celebration of Father’s Day and my mother’s birthday a couple of days later. On Saturday morning, I went to my personal favorite farmers market, Pepper Place Market in Birmingham (www.pepperplacemarket.com), and surveyed the prospects among the booths.

Pepper Place sprawls along the site of an old Dr. Pepper plant that has been transformed into a design center and dining district. Pepper Place Market takes over the exteriors on Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to noon and has over 100 vendors in three distinct areas. The Market started in 2000 and has gotten a little large and crowded but I find that if you get there by 8:00 a.m. it’s easier to navigate and there are fewer baby carriages to maneuver around. I came away with tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, and lady peas and made the next day’s meal of creamed corn, fried okra, and the lady peas cooked in chicken broth. Mother cooked a pork roast and cornbread. Once again, it was an exceptional meal which mostly bypassed the middle step by buying directly from the growers.

Sometimes, at the various farmers markets I attend, I look at the people around me and wonder if all the trendy people are an indication that the slow food and farm-to-table movements are merely a current and growing trend; I wonder if we will all go back to opting for “convenience.”

I think not. I think that as we have begun to re-learn food and as more and more local chefs and restaurateurs serve local food from local purveyors that is superior in quality, we will opt for the smart way and support the movement as we see how it benefits all of us in so many ways. Unless I am actually in California, I vow to never again eat another grocery store tomato from California that was chemically treated and travelled across the continent while infinitely better tomatoes were on a vine just steps away.

IMG_1569American Farmland Trust (www.farmland.org), the people responsible for those “No Farms No Food” bumper stickers, is doing good things in support of local farms. Their website includes great information about local farmers markets nationwide. Visit one soon if it’s not already a part of your routine.