Tag Archives: Florence Alabama

Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

The first day of Summer 2017 ushered Tropical Storm Cindy up from the Gulf and energized the air farther inland in Birmingham, where I was helping to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It has been a few years since I experienced the typical effects of a tropical storm and – while I always hope there is no significant damage or injury – I always find the balmy air and windy bands of sporadic rain to be invigorating and energizing.

I reread The Great Gatsby as I have done for years on the Summer Solstice.

I was in my twenties when I began my annual reading of The Great Gatsby and the ritual has almost taken on a superstitious nature; if I missed a year, I would feel like something was awry. But I always manage to get in my June reading of the book and, after dozens of readings, I always find something new in Fitzgerald’s writing. And my heart always pounds in anticipation of the book’s inevitable ending.

On this most recent reading, I was struck near novel’s end by Nick Carraway’s account of a recurring West Egg nightmare – “a night scene by El Greco” in which a bejeweled drunken woman in a white evening dress is borne on a stretcher by “four solemn men in dress suits” to the wrong house. “But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.”  That particular paragraph had never stopped me in my tracks until this reading.

Perhaps that passage stood out this time because I read it while sitting in a car in the parking lot in Tuscaloosa in a steady tropical rainstorm, while Mother was in a beauty shop appointment. Those meteorological conditions just added to the gloom of Gatsby’s rain-soaked funeral in which he is laid to rest with only Nick, Gatsby’s father, a few servants, the local mailman, and the owl-eyed former party guest in attendance. I usually reread Gatsby outdoors in the sunlight so the weather definitely added a different perspective this year.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, the weather had cleared and the balmy weather turned blistering. Summer’s advent and Cindy dominated the days leading up to the most recent Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com). North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner and other Raleigh dining venues (www.ac-restaurants.com), was helming the meal. Once again, the event was a benefit for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org). I am proud to be a long-time member of the SFA, helping in a small way to support all of the good works the organization does.

Friends Anne, Michelle, Scott, and I traveled to the Shoals for the meal. Arriving at the Factory we were warmly greeted by Natalie Chanin, the creative force behind Alabama Chanin and the impetus for many community-building events, including an awesome schedule of Friends of the Café dinners.

The gathering was already going strong when we arrived. A delicious array of passed hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes topped with Alabama jumbo lump crab salad and Hook’s three-year cheddar pimento topping a cucumber slice. Along the serving table were shots of a sweet corn mousse with piquillo pepper.  The mousse literally melted in one’s mouth like a passing dream of sweet corn taste. A “Summer Cindy” libation was poured – Prosecco and Jack Rudy grenadine with a sprig of rosemary.

The seated meal began with a salad of local lettuces and vegetables dressed with buttermilk and roasted garlic. Next came a slice of heirloom tomato pie with spicy greens and sherry. My quest for the perfect tomato pie began years ago with the tomato pie competition that was an annual event at Decatur’s Willis-Gray Gallery (now Kathleen’s). The Decatur event hasn’t been held in several years but Ashley Christensen’s take on tomato pie is now the hands-down winner.

The third course was chargrilled Bear Creek ribeye steak cooked perfectly and served family style along with Poole’s macaroni au gratin and a room temperature marinated summer succotash which brought back vivid memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s take on hearty southern succotash.

The dessert course of a coffee panna cotta with Irish whisky caramel and North Carolina pecan granola crunch was served with a deep and earthy port.

I have never been disappointed in a meal at the Factory and Christensen’s recent menu continues to raise the bar.

Christensen seems to be as warm, down-to-earth, and authentic as the carefully selected ingredients she elevates. I think I have attended all but three of the Friends of the Café dinners and Ashley Christensen was the chef for my second in 2013.

When Natalie Chanin asked me recently which had been my favorite of the meals over the years, Ashley Christensen’s name was one of the first that came up. Now, Ashley Christensen is the first of the guest chefs in the series to come back for an encore. It seemed unlikely that she could top her first memorable performance at the space, but last Saturday night she did.

Copies of Christensen’s cookbook. Poole’s: recipes and stories from a modern diner (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016), were available for purchase and signing at the end of the event. It is a cookbook chock-full of exciting, well-explained recipes as well as a good introduction to the founding of Poole’s and to the James Beard Award-winning chef’s culinary aesthetic. It also provides the stories and impetus behind her restaurant empire of seven downtown Raleigh establishments. Chanin referred to her friend as “badass” and the book is full of Christensen’s warm and earthy takes on the food world (she refers often to an affinity for “beer flavored beer”).

For me, thanks to the friends who went with me, to Alabama Chanin, and, especially, to Ashley Christensen, that turbulent first week of summer 2017 ended on a high note indeed.

The Rosenbaum House; Florence, Alabama

 I am not sure when I became a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) but I suspect it had something to do with seeing a picture of Fallingwater, his 1935 house for the Kaufmann family built over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. As I learned about his myriad other buildings – the houses in Oak Park, the two Taliesins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, etc. – I was hooked on the style and philosophy of Wright architecture, and on the life of the prickly and headstrong architect. I love the buildings and the art of the man but I’m not sure I would have liked him much personally.

By the time I actually visited Fallingwater, in 1993, I was pretty well-versed in Wright’s architecture and biography. Seeing Fallingwater for the first time was a spiritual pilgrimage and when I left the house and ventured onto the grounds to look back at the 20th century masterpiece – which has been called the most famous private house ever built – it was hard to drag me away. The combination of the sounds of the creek and the waterfall and the magnificence of the architecture is mesmerizing.

The Rosenbaum House, located in Florence, is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in Alabama. Like all Wright buildings, Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum’s house had its flaws and challenges – leaky roof; dysfunctional heating system; doors, ceiling, and openings built to the scale of the diminutive Mr. Wright; defective chimneys – but it is still a work of a genius architectural vision and the Rosenbaum family lived in it for almost sixty years until Mildred Rosenbaum finally gave it up in 1999.

The Rosenbaums commissioned the house as newlyweds in 1939. It is the second house executed in Wright’s “Usonian” style – a utopian ideal of building practical, organic, and low-cost houses for American families. Some architecture writers consider the Rosenbaum house to be the purest example of Wright’s “Usonian” architecture.

The Rosenbaums agreed to a budget of $7,500 for their house and with construction delays and cost overruns the final building came out closer to $14,000. Problems with leaks and the heating system presented themselves early on and the Rosenbaums had to butt heads with the “old man” on many occasions.

The Rosenbaum house is sited on a pleasant and traditional residential street. It presents a fortress-like demeanor facing Riverview Drive with a brick and cypress wall interrupted by minimal glass at the front door and high windows along the low horizontal façade. There is a cantilevered roof for a carport. Carports were a Wright invention.

Once one steps into the interior of the house, there is abundant light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows and doors looking onto the back yard gently sloping to the Tennessee River. When the house was built, there was a river view. Now, with  tall trees going down to the river, the river itself is only sensed.

The original L-shaped house was 1,540 square feet. Wright’s built-ins – desks, shelves, tables – provide a distinctive Wright feel to the space. The narrow hall in the bedroom wing adds extra drama when one steps into the light and views from each bedroom.

Despite the design flaws, the Rosenbaums treasured their masterpiece and turned to Wright to build an addition when the family outgrew the original space. That 1,084 square foot addition, also L-shaped, incorporates a more spacious kitchen, a guest room, a “dormitory” with bunk beds for the four Rosenbaum boys, and a second cantilevered carport for Mrs. Rosenbaum. The L-shape of the addition embraces a walled Japanese garden.

The Rosenbaums budgeted $15,000 for the 1948 addition; the final cost was closer to $40,000. Such cost overruns are ubiquitous in Wright’s architectural history and homeowners were willing to pay them to live in a Wright house, flaws and all.

In 1999 when the city of Florence acquired the house from Mildred Rosenbaum, a city inspector recommended demolition. The house was overrun with damage from leaks and termites and restoring it seemed to be more than the city could handle. Led by Florence’s mayor and a dedicated group of civic leaders, the city took on the task of restoration and turning the Rosenbaum House into a house museum.

The restored house is now an integral part of Florence’s evolving cultural landscape, drawing thousands of visitors annually. Rosenbaum family effects are still in the house and as much of the Wright-designed furniture as could be retained or reproduced.

I first toured the house when it was newly opened as a museum and find that I return periodically to savor the feel of the place. There is a sense of tranquility and completeness that permeates the building and its grounds. It was a treasure for the Rosenbaums for decades and now it is a treasure for the Shoals.

The life of the house is beautifully chronicled in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House: The Birth and Rebirth of an American Treasure by Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Donald E. Lambert, and Milton Bagby (Pomegranate, 2006).

The Elusive Scott Peacock

 Every Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com) factory in Florence is special. I have not found its match in any other similar event I have attended. The sense of community and camaraderie is unparalleled and once one attends, one is hooked. When I was leaving the Factory this past weekend, Natalie Chanin, who hosts the dinners with her amazing staff, asked me what had been my favorite dinner so far (since I’ve attended most of them). I just started naming names and had no clear favorite. There is no clear favorite; each has been singular and memorable.

The April 15 dinner last week was especially noteworthy since Chef Scott Peacock was in the kitchen. In 2010, Peacock, the James Beard Award-winning Alabama native, left his position as head chef of Watershed in the Atlanta area, moved to Marion, Alabama, in the middle of the Black Belt, and became, for many who knew of him, a bit of a mystery man.

I first heard that Peacock was in Marion when a friend in Greensboro told me that Scott had contacted his mother to be interviewed for a documentary project about older Alabama cooks and their foodways. Over the past few years, I heard less and less about that project and wasn’t even sure if Peacock was still kicking around Marion. He has been a columnist for Better Homes and Gardens and I know he might occasionally be sighted at events such as a Rural Studio supper in the Black Belt.

His cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003), is a collaboration with Edna Lewis that is full of wisdom, information, and fresh takes on traditional recipes. It is an indispensable part of my kitchen library. Ms. Lewis, a Virginia native and expert on Southern food, gained fame as a cookbook author and in the kitchen at several New York restaurants. She and Peacock became close friends and she lived with him in Georgia where he cared for her in the last several years of her life.

In fall 2016 Natalie Chanin’s online journal did a piece on Scott Peacock’s experimentation with indigo and other plant-based dyes at his Marion home base and ended that fascinating conversation with the information that she and Peacock would be hosting a Friends of the Café dinner in Florence in spring 2017. Proceeds from the event would benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), one of Alabama Chanin’s favorite causes.

On the afternoon of the event I met my friend Cindy in Cullman and we made the trek to the Alabama Chanin Factory on a beautiful Holy Saturday evening in the Shoals.

As the passed hors d’oeuvres began to make the rounds among the assembling guests, there was much excitement about the varieties and tastes on display. In fact, the entire meal was a lesson in simplicity and finding the best flavors in the best ingredients. Most importantly, allow those ingredients to speak for themselves.

The hors d’oeuvres included iced oysters on the half shell with Edna Lewis’s spicy dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was simple and elegant with salt and vinegar, green onions and shallots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley. It was phenomenal, as were the Gulf oysters.

Other hors d’oeuvres included fresh radishes with a bowl of whipped butter for garnishing. One of the diners asked if it was a “Southern thing” to eat buttered radishes; I wasn’t aware that it was but after tasting those, it is now – at least at my house. Beautiful and delicious halved soft boiled eggs from Cog Hill Farm were passed around with a garlic-parsley sauce.

Beside the radishes were razor-thin slices of Pineywoods beef sausage from the Black Belt. The Pineywoods cattle are an endangered breed directly descended from cattle left on the Gulf Coast by Spanish explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. A renewed effort is being made to locate the breed, which lived for centuries in the wild, and replenish them (www.pcrba.org).

The final hors d’oeuvres to be passed were tomato and goat cheese toasts that had the crowd exclaiming. The goat cheese was rich and buttery and one of the servers said it was from Humble Heart Farm in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), I regularly buy my goat cheese and other products from the Spells at Humble Heart and was delighted to see them represented at this very special dinner.

As the diners were seated for the meal, the three-course menu sounded deceptively simple: salad, stew, and dessert. The simplicity of the menu allowed the fresh and carefully mixed ingredients to take center stage and the flavors built on one another as a seemingly simple meal created a complexity of tastes and discoveries.

The salad featured fresh watercress that Natalie Chanin had gathered from just down the road earlier in the day. The watercress was mixed with a number of other foraged greens dressed in a simple but perfect vinaigrette. It was noted later that Scott Peacock had assembled each of the several dozen salads himself.

The second course was a steaming “Straddle Stew” with chicken and ham broth, onion, garlic, peppers, turnips, carrots, tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice, peas, and collards. It was a hearty and delicious stew accompanied by servings of Peacock’s mother’s “hot water cornbread.” The recipe for Dorothy Peacock’s hot water cornbread is in The Gift of Southern Cooking and I look forward to making it soon. The stew was paired with a Z. Alexander Brown pinot noir; I knew the label but did not know until this dinner that the proprietor of this winery is Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band fame (www.zalexanderbrown.com).

The dessert course was a delectable strawberry shortcake with soft whipped cream. Sugared strawberries were generously paired with sweet cream biscuits topped with crushed sugar cubes and covered with a spectacular slightly sweet whipped cream.

The final offering was coffee and “three kisses goodnight” as the diners were presented with small plates overflowing with tiny tea cakes, benne brittle, and tiny chocolate truffles.

Finally, Scott Peacock emerged from the kitchen and shared thoughts and charm with the assembled diners. He introduced the staff that had helped him in the kitchen and talked about the good works of Heirloom Harvest (www.heirloomharvest.org), Will Dodd’s non-profit that cultivates a better and more sustainable connection between Alabama farmers and Alabama restaurants and consumers. Heirloom Harvest had gathered much of the food we consumed that night.

It turns out that Scott Peacock is not elusive at all. He was warm, funny, and giving as he met with diners and signed cookbooks at the end of the night.

In the past, I have praised Natalie Chanin and her cultivation of community. In gathering my thoughts about the Scott Peacock dinner, I realize how much she also cultivates education – about purveyors, products, movements – that her diners might not hear about otherwise. Heirloom Harvest. Cog Hill Farm. Pineywoods cattle. Z. Alexander Brown. These are things I had to research as soon as I got home from Florence.

The 2017 Friends of the Café season is underway with four more events to come between now and October; I am happy to be able to participate.

Chef Sean Brock

sean-brock-photo I admit that there is very little that inspires me to make the two hour drive up I-65 to Nashville these days. I have lived there twice and used to visit fairly regularly but eventually I felt like I had gotten all of the sugar out of the Nashville gum – or perhaps all of the Goo Goo out of the Nashville cluster.

Now that I have finally sampled Chef Sean Brock’s food, I long to get back to Nashville soon to enjoy a meal at the Nashville version of his award-winning restaurant, Husk (www.huskrestaurant.com), which opened in Music City in 2013.

Sean Brock is the James Beard and multi-award winning chef most identified with the original Husk in Charleston. Heritage, Brock’s 2014 cookbook, is one of the most beautiful and certainly most readable cookbooks ever. Brock challenges himself to only use Southern indigenous ingredients in his restaurants – often from his own garden and herd of pigs – and the results are creative and special. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door” is my favorite Sean Brock quote. Heritage contains a recipe for “cornbread and buttermilk soup” that I will be making forever. It was inspired by the chef’s early habit of crumbling cornbread into a cup of buttermilk — a meal my Granddaddy Harbison ate regularly.

Sean Brock is humble and authentic.

I finally had my first Sean Brock meal at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence last Saturday evening when my friend Anne and I travelled over for the most recent Friends of the Café dinner. We got off to a bad start at the Factory when someone in the Alabama Chanin organization had misplaced our reservation and a staffer was a little rude to us before they found their mistake. It’s the first time I was ever made to feel uncomfortable at a Factory event and the lack of grace with which the situation was handled tainted the good feelings about the Factory that I have written about so many times in the past.

That early unpleasantness faded quickly, however, when Sean Brock’s food made its first appearance and a series of passed hors d’oeuvres circulated among assembling diners. Jimmy Red Johnny Cakes with pimento cheese, grilled oysters on the half shell with ‘nduja sausage and lovage, and beef tartare lettuce wraps were carried around accompanied by the first of the pairings from Grassroots Wine, a stalwart of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Southern Foodways Alliance was once again one of the beneficiaries of the dinner’s proceeds. A last minute decision was made to share those proceeds with victims of Hurricane Matthew which was bearing down on Sean Brock’s beloved Charleston as we gathered.

When it was time to be seated, Anne and I were reunited with our friend, Barbara from Tulsa, who we met at the Adam Evans Factory dinner in August, and introduced to Barbara’s friends, Cathy and Paul from Chicago, and to Cindy, a Florence local. A hallmark of the Factory dinners has always been the instant community that is formed. I quickly enlisted Jason at the table behind me to keep me posted on the Alabama-Arkansas score.

Before the first course arrived, each diner was presented with a benne-buttermilk roll accompanied by a smear of butter — a Husk tradition. The courses arrived amid oohs and aahs from those gathered and with enough time in between to cultivate conversation and camaraderie. When a tomato and okra stew was served as the first course, some people bristled at the grilled pig tail that garnished it but when they tasted it they were delighted. A gentleman at another table who introduced himself as “a Jew from New York who is not quite sure why I’m here” declared the pig tail “delicious.” dscn0525

The second course, a savory and exceptional shrimp and eggplant purloo, brought together a number of Brock’s influences. Purloo, a South Carolina Lowcountry standard, is reminiscent of Gulf Coast jambalaya, which is itself closely related to Spanish paella. The third course was a perfectly grilled Denver steak with black truffle and sweet potato. The portions, the flavors, and the aesthetic were perfection. dscn0527

Finally, a panna cotta made with Cruze Farm’s buttermilk, muscadines, and brown butter completed, once again, one of the very best meals I have ever tasted. Several of those meals have been consumed in Florence, Alabama.

I have regularly written about the magic and community that make the regular pilgrimages to the Florence Friends of the Café meals so special. Like an author with his books, it’s hard to choose a favorite among the Factory meals – it always seems like the most recent is my favorite.

Either way, Sean Brock is now one of my very favorite chefs. He signed cookbooks after the event and his courtesy and patience, his eagerness to talk about his food and how honored he was to be serving us, his pride and his passion for locally grown and sourced food – were infectious and inspiring. He is also the source of my favorite anecdote about Birmingham chef Frank Stitt.

This was the final 2016 dinner for the Factory series. May 2017’s line-up be equally inspired. And may Sean Brock keep exploring and teaching what Southern food really means. sean-brock-photo-2

Friends of the Café Dinner: Adam Evans

dscn0460  I’ve stopped trying to rank the meals I’ve had at the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence. When I think a Factory meal can’t be topped, I travel over to the Shoals and have another meal that once again makes me appreciate food in a new way.

I have missed a few of the Factory events but I think I have now attended six or seven starting with an amazing dinner featuring the food creations of chef Vivian Howard in July 2014.

The Factory’s own executive chef, Zachariah Chanin, and his staff created a truly memorable Spring Harvest dinner in May 2016 that blew me away with its exquisite simplicity and low-key elegance. That meal was not long after the legendary Frank Stitt and South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott teamed up for an amazing spread featuring Scott’s savory whole hog and a slough of accompanying sides by Stitt and his crew. dscn0472

So it was with great excitement and anticipation that my friend Anne and I trekked back to the Shoals for a late-summer dinner featuring chef Adam Evans, a Shoals native, and benefiting Southern Foodways Alliance. Evans is transitioning now after several years in Atlanta with gigs at The Optimist and Brezza Cucina; exciting rumors were circulating at the dinner about where he may launch his next culinary venture and, if they are true, I may have many more opportunities to sample his exciting food.

I have written in more than one essay about how Natalie Chanin promotes community in her work and design and in her outreaches such as the Factory dinners. At Zach’s dinner in May we sat across from a charming couple from Indianapolis and at the Evans dinner our dining partners were another great couple from Tulsa.

Chef Adam’s meal was personal and full of surprises, telling his story of working in restaurants in many locales with the feast “beginning and ending right here in Alabama” as the menu note stated. Passed around hors d’oeuvres included grilled oysters and lemon butter, pork belly and watermelon, lobster roll bites, and tomato and bacon tea cake sandwiches. The big surprise of the hors d’oeuvres was a chicken stew soup dumpling which demanded to be downed in one satisfying bite. The savory dumpling had a filling of actual chicken soup that was a surprise and a unique treat. There were wine pairings with every course. fullsizerender-4

When the diners were seated, we were served a beautiful garden salad harvested from the garden of “Henry H.” – the chef’s late grandfather. Henry’s garden is still maintained by chef Adam’s father. The chef’s story of the garden was as moving as the salad was good.

The surprises continued with a second course of a seafood gumbo with a lot of heat. In lieu of the serving of rice that usually accompanies gumbo, this gumbo had a dollop of potato salad on top. It might not sound good but everybody was raving about the gumbo – potato salad combination. John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance was among the diners and asked for the chef to come out and explain the potato salad with the gumbo. It turns out Evans picked it up from the father of a friend when he was working in New Orleans. He said the man made a great gumbo and always put potato salad on top. It’s a touch I plan to remember and steal. Indeed, I think Chef Evans managed to introduce a southern food way that surprised even John T. Edge.

fullsizerender-4The third course featured pancetta wrapped guinea hen with chanterelle mushroom, husked cherry, and Swiss chard. Just when it seemed the chef couldn’t possibly top himself, the fourth course arrived with duckfat poached Gulf swordfish with Carolina Gold rice grits, corn, charred okra, and shrimp chili butter.

Finally, a muscadine and fig crisp was served for dessert, the staff was introduced, and fond partings were exchanged with the community that had assembled for the evening in the very special place that Alabama Chanin has built in Florence in the Alabama Shoals.

At some point during the evening, the people at our table were discussing careers and I said, “I’m a university professor but I’d rather be a ‘lifestyle guru’. I didn’t realize that was an option when I was coming up.”

If I had known that “lifestyle guru” would be a thing that people might make a living at, and if I had managed to become one, I’m sure I would be proselytizing for the Alabama Chanin aesthetic and, after the meal of a couple of weeks ago, for the homegrown and brilliant culinary aesthetic of Adam Evans.

As always, I can’t wait for the next Friends of the Café dinner in October. img_4211

Serenity Now: Reflections on a Weekend

(for Anne T.)

DSCN0316 (2) So here’s the deal: Because of family matters in Birmingham, I have not spent an entire weekend in my house in eleven months. On the weekend of May 20 through 22 I had a dinner engagement over in the Shoals in Florence  and planned to spend the weekend at my house and return to Birmingham on Monday (I am on a break until Memorial Day).

On Friday morning I began to cultivate a kitchen herb garden in my tiny back yard and re-pot and re-plant some things that have been neglected in the past year. I met with my friends Scott and Michelle and their two daughters for dinner at a favorite chili place on Friday night but the daughters preferred Mexican  with buddies so Scott and I were dumped and had to be bachelors for the night (well, Scott did – I’m always a bachelor for the night).

My friend Cindy, who was supposed to be my companion on Saturday night in Florence, was forced to cancel and I was suddenly looking at wasting a much sought-after ticket for a sold out dinner. These are amazing dinners, however, so I was going whether the other ticket was taken or not.

I immediately thought of my friend Anne who lives in Decatur – about halfway between Huntsville and Florence. I also remembered that my friend Anne is a very busy and active woman and would most likely be out-of-town for the weekend.

I sent a text with a somewhat embarrassed invitation and, to my surprise and delight, Anne texted back “Yes. What time?”

Just before I got to Anne’s house in Decatur, my “low tire pressure” warning came on and I pulled into the driveway with a tire rapidly deflating. Anne was happy to drive her car and I decided to deal with the tire after the dinner.

As we prepared to leave for the Shoals, Anne’s beloved 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Zeke, had a frightening seizure and Anne rallied to try to get Zeke through the crisis. Zeke’s seizure ended but he remained disoriented and Anne called upon a trusted friend to sit with him for the evening.

Slightly disoriented ourselves, Anne and I left Decatur in Anne’s vehicle and she said the only stop we needed to make was for “petrol.” We pulled into a station on the outskirts of town and suddenly were met with a Michael Jackson impersonator with full Michael Thriller-era wig and complexion performing full out to “Beat It” in the filling station parking lot. Anne assured me that he was a Decatur tradition and passing vehicles rolled down their windows and cheered him as they passed. Anne wanted to tip him but I wasn’t so sure. Now I wish we had because how many guys are committed enough to run around performing Thriller tracks in Decatur in full Michael drag?

Next time I see him, I’ll take a picture. He gets a tip from me next time.

When we got to the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence for the Spring Harvest Friends of the Café dinner, the place was already jovial and full and hors d’oeuvres were being passed.  We grabbed a devilled egg and headed toward the dining area and were greeted by Natalie Chanin, the acclaimed “slow fashion” designer and host for the dinner (www.alabamachanin.com).

Anne was her always charming self, as was Natalie, but as we moved away Anne muttered “I’ve wanted to meet Natalie Chanin for years and when I finally do I have egg in my mouth.” Not to worry – Anne had another conversation with the designer at the end of the evening and I don’t think there was any notice of the hors d’oeuvres incident.

I need to write an essay on the dinner itself, and I plan to (but I got no decent photos – was far too busy eating the food and chatting). The featured chef for the evening was the Factory’s resident chef, Zachariah Chanin, and it was one of my favorite meals ever at the space (I think I’ve made six of the ten Friends of the Café evenings). The amazingly fresh spring harvest ingredients were primarily from Bluewater Creek Farm in Killen, Alabama, an organic farm run by Collins and Liz Davis in partnership with Doug and Donna Woodford (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). I wrote about my tour of Bluewater Creek Farm in the essay “Sustainability and Soul” in November 2014. IMG_0837

Suffice it to say, the meal was brilliant. Each Friends of the Café event is a benefit and this one was no different. The honoree was Nest, a non-profit organization that supports artisans and makers throughout the world and with which Alabama Chanin is very involved (www.buildanest.org).

Incidentally, the dessert, a strawberry shortcake with local strawberries macerated in a thyme simple syrup with freshly whipped cream is assuredly the best and freshest I’ve ever tasted. Almost as good as the dessert’s taste was watching Zach Chanin and his staff assembling the dozens of desserts on the café bar.

As always, new acquaintances and friends were made at the family-style seating. Anne and I sat across from a couple from Indianapolis. “What brings you to the Shoals?” I asked. “We drove down for dinner” was the honest reply. A family next to me had driven in from Corinth, Mississippi, for their first Factory meal and assured me they’d return.

During dinner, a spontaneous conversation erupted at my end of the table about “Seinfeld” catch phrases.

“A Festivus for the rest of us.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” “The Bro.” “Sponge-worthy.” “Yadda yadda yadda.” “The Contest.”

And my personal favorite  – “SERENITY NOW!”

As always when I am at the Factory, the spirit of community and connection is palpable. In addition to the fine company in the room, Anne texted our friend Deb in Paris and we both wished she was with us. So the good feelings spread beyond Alabama and the Shoals and were truly international. After a thoroughly satisfying evening of food and sociability, we said our goodbyes and walked out under a bright and friendly full moon. When we got back to Decatur my tire was flat as a pancake.

It was late. Anne offered her guest room and I decided AAA could wait until morning.

By morning, I went downstairs to find Anne tending to a much calmer Zeke and my ruined tire was tended to by a particularly pleasant AAA tow truck driver. At last, I was back on the road and headed home.

A very wise woman once advised me that I should reserve a part of each week to be quiet, relax, and regroup. When my schedule allows, that time has always been Sunday night at my house. I cook a good meal, sit quietly, and listen to soothing music until time to go to bed.

I realized that this particular Sunday night would be the first chance I’ve had to renew that tradition in a long while. Inspired by Zach Chanin and Bluewater Creek, I surveyed my recent farmers market purchases to see what I could put together that was fresh and local and planned a healthy evening meal. I needed to run to the grocery store to supplement some things. In the produce section I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over two years. As we quickly caught each other up on what had been happening, I realized anew how hectic my life has been recently; no wonder I feel tired

Returning from the store I decided to sit in the back yard to savor the warm weather, have a cold drink, and observe my weekend’s progress before cooking commenced. As I sat quietly, I heard a plaintive voice in the back alley: “Se-REN-ity … here, Serenity.”

As the voice got closer to my back gate I saw a woman looking in every direction and calling for Serenity.

I went out the gate and into the alley. “What have you lost?”

“My dog, Serenity. We just moved in to the house down the street and somebody left the gate open and she got out.”

I told her I would keep an eye out for Serenity and asked what she looked like.

Serenity is a Jack Russell terrier.

As I write this, I am sitting in the tire store getting a new tire. The HVAC guy should be at the house by the time I get back, working on some outside conduits. I’ll pack to go back down to Birmingham where there seems to be a full schedule waiting for me, including a trip to Tuscaloosa, taking Mother and her neighbor to see the Cahaba lilies in bloom, this season’s first peach run to Chilton County, a Japanese steakhouse dinner to celebrate my nephew finishing sixth grade.

When I get time, I’ll have to make some cheese straws for those new neighbors – the ones who named their dog “Serenity.”

Makers and Others at the Alabama Chanin Factory

IMG_1991 I live in a high tech town full of engineers, IT, military, and rocket scientists. That is all well and good for them and they speak of the place as a mecca but I am a liberal arts guy from Birmingham who has lived and traveled all over the country working in the performing arts. I have lived in Huntsville for thirteen years now and have a difficult time finding my niche in that community.

So I was fortunate indeed to be able to travel over to Florence again to attend the most recent Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory on Saturday, October 24. This is a trying and stressful time for my family with my father in the hospital; my mother, bless her, knew I had reservations for the dinner and insisted that I travel up for the night. IMG_1993

I have attended several of these Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com) events over the past sixteen months. Natalie Chanin is doing great things to spark community from her design business based in the Shoals and she and her phenomenal staff always create a lovely and memorable evening of food and camaraderie. In addition to Chanin’s amazing hand-sewn fashion designs and clothing, the Factory store features books, pottery, art, and other products, most of them crafted by various makers from the South and beyond. The aesthetic of the place is flawless and I am always restored and inspired when I leave the Factory. When I attend the Alabama Chanin dinners I feel like I have found a place where I “belong.”

IMG_1995Chef Anne Stiles Quatrano of Bacchanalia (www.starprovisions.com) and other Atlanta food destinations was the guest chef for the evening. After cocktails and an assortment of passed hors d’oeuvres, diners sat down to a four course meal with wine pairings starting with a Georgia white shrimp cocktail. The second course was served family-style and featured a whole roasted Green Circle chicken in a large vessel with bitter greens and roasted chicken jus vinaigrette.

A simple and elegant cheese course featured Grayson cheese with hazelnuts and crispy honeycomb presented on a circle of fine wood. Finally, the dessert course was canales with a rich coffee cream and Revelator coffee (www.revelatorcoffee.com).IMG_1999

“Southern Makers,” an Alabama collective of artists and artisans (www.southernmakers.com), was a sponsor of the event and guests received a “Maker Box” of Alabama-made products introduced by Garlan Gudger of Cullman’s Southern Accents Architectural Antiques (www.sa1969.com). Oxford American magazine (www.oxfordamerican.org), another sponsor, is now partnering with Southern Makers to expand the collective to include artisans, artists, and makers from throughout the South. Lee Sentell of the Alabama Tourism Department took the opportunity to discuss the upcoming “Year of Alabama Makers” during which makers throughout the state will be featured in tourism publicity and events.

Finally, Chef Quatrano brought and signed copies of her gorgeous cookbook Summerland: Recipes for Celebrating with Southern Hospitality. This is one of the prettiest cookbooks I have seen with a long and varied collection of recipes and commentary.

During the comments throughout the evening, someone mentioned that even though people travel from faraway destinations to see Alabama Chanin’s operation and to have the Factory experience, many Alabamians have not yet heard about her business, what she does, and her wide-spread  influence. The word is getting out, however, and with the continued efforts of Alabama Chanin, Southern Makers, Oxford American, Alabama Tourism, and many other makers and supporters throughout the state more people will be aware of the hidden treasures to be found and nurtured throughout Alabama and the region.

A night at the Factory in Florence always gives me hope.

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