Tag Archives: Florence Alabama

Ferry Boats Sink

Chef Bill Smith, a legendary chef, of Crook’s Corner, a legendary restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has a museum-quality collection of vintage tee-shirts from mid-to late-20th Century rock bands reaching into the 21st Century (www.crookscorner.com). While making plans to attend a dinner prepared by Smith at the Alabama Chanin Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series, I considered wearing one of my own vintage tee-shirts, collected from years as an undergraduate volunteer for the University Program Council’s series of concerts and events at the University of Alabama.

I had settled on my most cherished tee-shirt (and one of the few that still fits) – the simple black tee from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 concert tour appearance in Tuscaloosa – but I chickened out at the last minute and opted instead for my college professor drag of open-collar dress shirt with jacket and slacks.

I was not the only one considering the tee-shirt gesture. John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, revealed the concert tee under his jacket during his virtuosic introduction of Bill Smith and Alabama Chanin’s inaugural Project Threadways Symposium (www.alabamachanin.com/project-threadways), which kicked off in Florence that night (www.southernfoodways.org).

John T. Edge, whose prodigious knowledge of southern foodways and culture is always impressive, tied together the Shoals music and textile culture, Smith’s food, and Alabama Chanin’s Project Threadways, in inspired fashion. Project Threadways, an Alabama Chanin outreach and research initiative, collects information specific to the Southern textile industry – which was a major player in the Shoals prior to NAFTA. In addition, Project Threadways explores the Shoals and the broader Southern community through oral histories and other relevant research.

I was only able to make it to Bill Smith’s opening night feast at the Factory but visitors from throughout the country joined the locals and regulars for an event that explored the ongoing pull and mystique of the Shoals.


Chef Bill Smith’s recipes often exalt the contributions of talented immigrants who have worked in his kitchen over the years. He cherishes his relationships with Crook’s Corner co-workers from Vietnam, China, the former Soviet republics, Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere. His recipes reflect the international flavors he’s learned in his kitchens from employees from throughout the world. He even, he writes, had a period when he employed “rockers” in need of employment between gigs. He learned from all of them.

“I realize that everyone in the world cannot come here to live in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who complain so loudly about immigration have had much experience with new immigrants. Getting to know people from all these places has been one of the great privileges of my life.”

I don’t often sport bumper stickers but this past winter I was compelled to order a bold bumper sticker that simply reads “FAKE CRISIS.”

I think Bill Smith would agree.


For those who haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Crook’s Corner (and that includes me), Bill Smith might be familiar from his regular appearances with Chef Vivian Howard in the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” where he memorably shared his preparations of persimmon pudding, corned ham, and – my favorite – his father’s family recipe for sunchoke relish.

Bill Smith, who retired from Crook’s Corner in January 2019,  absorbs all of the foodways of his Southern culture and his family, including his Southern grandmother’s “mean Yankee German” grandparents, to create his food. He also honors the traditions of Crook’s Corner founding chef Bill Neal, who preceded Smith and is credited with making shrimp and grits a Southern staple.

The food Smith served in Florence last week was real food – humble and authentic, quietly sophisticated, honest, and finessed without showing off. It was a suitable accompaniment to lively conversation punctuated by occasional gasps at the deliciousness of the bites being savored. Many of the recipes are featured in, or variations of, recipes in Smith’s essential book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006), a cherished touchstone for many cooks of the South and beyond.

Seasoned in the South has an introduction by author Lee Smith, one of the South’s most authentic voices. Bill Smith’s recipes and menus follow and honor each season’s harvest with evocative intervals such as “An Outdoor Supper after the Last Outing of the Season”; “Snowed In”; “A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass”; and “Big Picnic on the Fourth of July.” His “New Year’s Day” menu is very similar, amazingly, to the one I served to guests at my own house for many years in many places.

Smith’s Florence dinner was superb from the moment we walked into the Alabama Chanin Factory. Passed appetizers were circulating and each was a treat. The bread that accompanied three of the pass-arounds was delicious, but a little too chewy to accommodate conversation; that glitch, however, did not distract much from the fine and distinct flavors.

Alabama Chanin’s Anne Ryan Cavin curates the beverages for the Factory dinners and always presents with a unique and impeccable taste. For the Smith dinner, she selected local options from Florence’s Singin’ River brewery, a Sangria, two Spanish wines, and a Prosecco for dessert.

My first taste of the evening was a chicken liver mousse with onion jam. I love well-prepared chicken liver to begin with and Smith professes an affinity for “guts,” so that first bite was an automatic hit. I have my own strong affinity for pimento cheese, which my mother often served on celery when I was a kid, and I take pride in the pimento cheese I make myself; Chef Smith’s pass-around pimento cheese appetizer was perfectly spiced, as was the hot pepper jelly that followed. The fourth appetizer, unencumbered by the bread, was a very plucky and fulfilling deviled egg.

As the guests were seated, the first course was unexpectedly simple and superb. A white bean and turnip green soup arrived in a clear broth. Startling in its simplicity, the soup was magnificent. Before that initial bliss faded, a mixed salad second course was served with local spring greens coated with a subtle Crook’s house dressing.

 

The third course was a generous platter of braised pork shank with posole (hominy soup), chayote (a squash), and Salsa Ranchera. The plate’s flavors, distinctly Latinx, had the familiar sense of a Sunday dinner at any family table. Our table happily accepted seconds.

I suspect that the most talked-about dish of the night was the dessert course – “Atlantic Beach Pie” with freshly whipped cream. This dessert apparently sprang from Smith’s eastern North Carolina region’s conviction that one must never eat dessert after a seafood meal. The exception, it seems, was lemon meringue (or any citrus-based) pie. Our meal did not include seafood, but Atlantic Beach Pie is probably Crook’s Corner’s most revered dessert. Regardless of its evolution, the pie was a hit. Smith’s original adaptation used a saltine cracker crust but his published and Florence versions used more buttery Ritz crackers.

There is a kindness and decency that emanates from Bill Smith. These qualities are evident in his dishes and in his comments at the end of the meal. There was a serene tranquility while the chef interacted with guests at the conclusion of the evening. It moved me.


In the 1990s I was working at a theatre on Galveston Island, Texas. Because the thought of living in Texas had always been anathema to me, I was fond of telling folks that I lived “on an island off the coast of Texas.”

Crossing Galveston Bay with a good and trusted friend on a ferry one day, I was worried about the theatrical show I was currently directing. I had the usual problems – inexperienced cast, imperfect set, inadequate budget. I was stating – for neither the first nor the last time – my stress as a director.

“I want a low-pressure job,” I said. “Maybe I should be a ferry boat captain, going back and forth across the bay all day.”

My friend was silent for a while. Finally, he took a deep and significant breath and said, “Well, y’know, ferry boats sink sometimes.”

More recently, friends have told me I should have pursued a career in the culinary industry. They note that I seem to be comfortable with food culture and I like to cook when I have the opportunity. But I think – given my temperament – that I might spend my kitchen time worrying that I might have inadvertently poisoned a diner.

It’s too late to worry about what my culinary career might entail; it was probably a bad idea to begin with.

That thought provides even more incentive to admire and extol the fearless cuisine of Chef Bill Smith.

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Cedric Burnside: Blues in the Shoals Night

The brilliant October sunset was ever-changing heading west on another trip to Florence and the Shoals for the final 2018 Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin design factory (www.alabamachanin.com). This was the fifth season of dinners featuring guest chefs and benefiting Southern Foodways Alliance – a positive force for the study, understanding, and exaltation of southern food history and development (www.southernfoodways.org).

In her introductions, Anne Ryan Cavin, Alabama Chanin events coordinator, mentioned that the evening’s chefs – Kelly English and Camron Razavi – are the 21st and 22nd chefs of the series. That opportunity to sample the food offerings of so many chefs in one place a short drive away was initially the major draw of these dinners for me. After five years, however, an equally strong draw is the ambience of the place, the opportunity to reconnect with people who have become friends, and the new friends who have been made over the years at this inspiring venue.

Chefs English and Razavi presented a meal influenced by Mediterranean palates, heavy on spices and condiments originating in Italy, the Middle East, north Africa, and Turkey —  moving beyond the Mediterranean into Korea and east Asia. This diverse medley of tastes competed mightily for attention. English’s restaurant, Restaurant Iris, recently reopened in Memphis after a complete renovation which included an overhaul of the building and a radical rethinking of the menu under the leadership of executive chef Razavi (www.restaurantiris.com). Most appealing of the four courses were an Italian influenced andouille ‘nduja passed hors d’oeuvre on toast and a St. Louis lemon butter cake dessert – the alpha and omega of the meal.


Natalie Chanin, the regular host of these events, was out of town, so hosting duties fell to Reed Watson, the label manager for Florence-based Single Lock Records, and Will Trapp, one of Single Lock’s founders. Single Lock has developed an impressive roster of artists – many based in the Shoals – during its half decade of existence (www.singlelock.com).

For the Friends of the Café event, Trapp and Watson presented Cedric Burnside, a Single Lock artist who plays “Hill Country Blues,” a blues category – distinct from Mississippi Delta blues – that emerged from the hills and lumberyards of northern-most Mississippi (www.cedricburnside.net). Hill Country blues has a strong percussion influence, focused on the persistent drive of the “groove.”

Cedric Burnside, an award-winning drummer and guitarist, played four songs at the Factory. He sat with his guitar and sang and stomped the plaintive sounds of his distinctive brand of blues. Cedric is the grandson of R.L. Burnside (1926-2005), a preeminent artist of Hill Country blues. I was fortunate to see an intimate performance by R.L. Burnside in Jackson, Mississippi, around April 1999. It is thrilling to watch the continuation of that rich legacy with Burnside’s grandson.

Cedric Burnside’s short set was memorable and left one wanting more. Fortunately, his newest Single Lock release, Benton County Relic, was available at the event and became my driving music over the weekend. It’s a compelling compilation with one foot firmly planted in its Hill Country roots (just listen to the opening of “Death Bell Blues”) and the other sliding the genre confidently into its future.

Cedric Burnside’s music taps into the gritty, sexy belly of the blues, punctuating his lyrics with yelps and low groans in songs like “Typical Day” and “Give It to You.” “Life can be so easy / And life can be so hard” is the opening sentiment of the wonderful “Hard to Stay Cool.” It’s a simple statement, given new life and complexity in Cedric Burnside’s heart-felt delivery.

Other tracks, like “There Is So Much” and “Call on Me,” keep the down and dirty blues feeling intact while taking an almost flirty attitude. The final two tracks, “I’m Hurtin” and “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess,” are defiant, relentless anthems which caused me to step on the gas and pound the steering wheel on my weekend travels.

Cedric Burnside has already established himself. Keep watching him. If he’s new to you, find him.

As another Friends of the Café season ends, I cherish those evenings and look forward to new opportunities to spend an evening in the former tee-shirt factory in the Shoals – touching base, renewing inspiration, discovering bright new talent.

Big Bad Chef

In January 2006, four and a half months after the disaster in the aftermath of Katrina, I drove to New Orleans to join a crew of volunteers assembled by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) to work on the resurrection of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood place in New Orleans that was designated an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, less than four months before the storm. Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken is often declared the best anywhere (www.williemaesnola.com). Willie Mae passed away but her legacy is carried on by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton Stewart.

When I got to my hotel after an eight-hour drive, there was no room available. I produced a print-out of my reservation and confirmation number but the little French Quarter hotel – a place I had stayed at and enjoyed in the past – was full of construction workers who were working on the larger reconstruction efforts around the city. The desk clerk called a couple of places and declared there were no rooms in the area to be had at short notice. I was too tired to argue.

I blame myself. When I made the reservation in December, the staff Christmas party was going on in the background so maybe – confirmation or not – my reservation was lost in their revelry.

Despondent, I emailed my regrets to the SFA folks and drove back to Alabama that same night.

If I had figured out a way to stay and work, I would have been working with Chef John Currence, who headed up the Willie Mae’s restoration.


Currence, a New Orleans native who made his culinary mark in Oxford, Mississippi, may be as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his restaurant brand. City Grocery, his flagship restaurant on the Square in Oxford, is a fine dining restaurant with a famously rowdy upstairs bar. Snackbar and Boure are other Currence ventures in Oxford along with Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast also has locations in Alabama and Florida (www.citygroceryonline.com).

I’ve had a couple of great meals at City Grocery and was thrilled when it was announced that John Currence would be the guest chef for the August Friends of the Café event at Alabama Chanin’s Florence factory. He had been on my wish list of possible chefs for the series.

The Friends of the Café series of chefs and dinners is always announced in advance (www.alabamachanin.com). However, the August chef is kept secret until a few weeks before the event. This dinner always happens on the Thursday night before the opening of Billy Reid’s weekend-long “Shindig” the next day. I was happy when Currence was announced in July.

Currence’s dishes for the evening were paired with wines selected by Eric Solomon, a champion importer of French and Spanish wines through his European Cellars distributors in Charlotte. Solomon’s passion came through in his presentations and descriptions throughout the evening (www.europeancellars.com).

Passed hors d’oeuvres included a chicken liver pate with pickled egg mimosa on grilled bread. The hearty second pass-around was kheema pao, an Indian street food stalwart, with spiced lamb, soft scramble, cilantro chutney, and slivered serrano peppers served on a hefty sweet roll.

As the diners were seated, a first course of sweet corn soup with marinated blue crab arrived at the table. The course that followed was grilled summer vegetables served with spiced yogurt, smoked almonds, sweet onion, and a lemon vinegar. At the end of the night, Chef Currence touchingly revealed that the vinegar we were served was made from champagne that had been part of his mother’s cellar.

The third course was a perfectly prepared beef ribeye with celery root puree, vinegar-wilted arugula, and chimichurri. The dinner ended with the most elegantly presented Mississippi Mud Pie I have ever tasted. It was a soulful, well-paced meal, pleasingly complemented by Solomon’s pairings.


Currence’s food philosophy is on vivid display in his 2013 cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book is an enjoyable and colorful collection of profanity-laced insights on food and great recipes. Currence draws from his culinary training, international travel, a New Orleans upbringing, and long-time Mississippi residency for recipes that resonate and thrill. His culinary viewpoint is headstrong and provocative and his cookbook is a showcase for his culinary tastes and his opinions; I tend to agree with most of his takes on food, as I do with his takes on politics in his unbridled social media posts. The text of the cookbook, like the food Currence champions and serves, is honest and to the point.

This is not your grandmother’s cookbook.

After the dinner, Currence signed my copy of Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. As he signed, with a typical Big Bad Chef flourish, he blacked out a tooth on his picture on the facing page and gave himself a diabolical moustache.

It’s always hard to imagine how each Friends of the Café dinner might be topped. The parade of master chefs who present there seems to always come through. Add Big Bad John Currence to the list.

John Currence photo by Angie Mosier; photo defaced by John Currence

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

I love the heat and activity of summer – the long days, the unpredictable showers, living out-of-doors. I always like to mark the Summer Solstice with a special activity, including my annual reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel set over the course of a summer told in the conversational voice of Gatsby’s erstwhile sidekick, Nick Carraway. It is Fitzgerald’s most perfect novel.

I have known since last October that I would be spending the evening of the 2018 Summer Solstice in Florence. I have written frequently about the “Friends of the Café” series of dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). These usually serve as fundraising events for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and are among the most anticipated events on my annual calendar. They are an escape.

The June 2018 dinner marked not only the Summer Solstice but a reunion with old friends, the opportunity to introduce friends who’ve never met each other, and the first “Friends of the Café” dinner for several of the people at my table.

I rode over to Florence from Decatur with my friends Anne and Deborah. Deborah, a Mobile native, was visiting from New Mexico. At the same time, my friends Scott and Michelle, with Scott’s parents, Jim and Judy – who were visiting from Ohio, were driving over from Owens Cross Roads, just over the mountain from Huntsville. Carol, a friend from Chicago, was already ensconced in Florence where she was attending week-long patterning workshops at Alabama Chanin.

When we arrived at the Factory, we were greeted with a beverage called the “Summer Solstice” – a refreshing mix of mint and peach-infused tea and Prosecco, ideal for celebrating the official start of my favorite season and for launching an impeccable meal.

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

The chef for the evening was Rebecca Wilcomb, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef – South. Wilcomb is Executive Chef at Herbsaint (www.herbsaint.com), a favorite New Orleans restaurant (I have a few) that is part of Chef Donald Link’s family of restaurants celebrating Louisiana roots and foodways.

Chef Wilcomb strayed a bit from her typical Herbsaint fare for this special Factory dinner, paying homage to her mother’s Italian roots – and especially to food prepared by her Italian grandmother in her kitchen in Italy. The meal was sumptuous and generous with Italian-inspired takes on fresh local food.

As the tribe gathered, hors d’oeuvres were passed by the always amazing Factory staff. I made sure I tracked down at least one of everything. The crab melt was a buttery mini-sandwich filled with perfectly rendered crab filling. Chickpea fritters with caponata, a well-spiced vegetable blend, provided a rich mouthful. Skewers of large spice-forward shrimp were incredible, and my favorites were skewers of beef chunks with anchovy and olive.

Dark clouds were gathering as we took our seats at the intimate Factory table settings. Thunder and lightning began to herald a passing storm as Natalie Chanin made her welcoming comments. The noisy storm prompted Deborah and me to exchange glances to acknowledge that a storm was the ideal accent for this special meal to cap the longest day of the year.  As the lightning began to subside, the rain intensified, pounding an energetic percussive beat on the Factory’s metal roof. Just as quickly, the storm moved away.

There was a lot of rain in the spring and recently; it promises to be a good year for fireflies.

  The first course for the seated meal was “Giannina’s  Tortellini.” It was revealed that Chef Wilcomb had never before served these tortellini at her restaurants or at a public gathering. Her Italian grandmother’s tortellini recipe was a special start to the meal with the stuffed tortellini served in a subtly flavorful broth. I tilted my bowl at the end to ensure that I could spoon out every last drop.

photo by D. Brunson

That first course was a finely rendered tease for the hearty second course to come. Served family style, it included six beautifully prepared and seasoned dishes highlighted by both a meat and fish offering. Pork belly from nearby Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.grazecart.com) was passed around along with an Open Blue cobia (www.openblue.com) from the Caribbean, paired with Calabrian chilies. The delicate white fish was a unanimous hit at our table, with a subtle creamy taste. Italian rice salad, marinated lunchbox peppers, a dish piled high with whole charred okra, and a beautiful bowl of seasoned porcini mushrooms completed the course.

photo by D. Brunson

The feast ended with platters piled with summer fruit hand fries; fig, blueberry, and peach pies were available and most of my dining partners managed to sample one of each. I was pretty full by that time and only ate two – fig and, of course, peach.

This will be one of the most memorable of the Factory meals because of the friends – old and new – who congregated for a very special event. I realized that all of the people who were seated at my table were there – either directly or indirectly – because of me. I worried that everybody might not have a good time but that concern melted away as we all talked and laughed, enjoyed the food together, and toasted the promise of summer.

An added treat of these dinners is the opportunity to see a chef I admire in a new context. Chef Wilcomb always brings to mind a favorite table by the window at Herbsaint; now, Herbsaint will always remind me of Giannina, her Italian grandmother, and of a Summer Solstice that was celebrated with friends in a most memorable way.

As we left the factory, the rains had moved on and a steamy glaze danced across the pavement of the road on a hot summer night. 

Tribe

Regular treks to the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) in Florence have become a refuge and release from the everyday pressures of work and life. I notice that these events are among the most frequent topics of this journal. Often, I find myself wondering how I’ll work an upcoming Café event into a demanding schedule, but I almost always find a way and am always richly rewarded for the effort.

The April 12 Friends of the Café dinner, helmed by chef Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union (www.stevensatterfield.com), was the eighteenth in the dining series. I have missed only three. The dinners often benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and this was the case for the April event. Most – if not all – of the guest chefs for the series have been James Beard Award winners and nominees.

Satterfield, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, has been called a “vegetable shaman” for his celebration of fresh vegetables and his emphasis on season and terroir – that French word beloved by wine enthusiasts that is applicable to all crops. His palate is neither vegetarian nor vegan but his dishes emphasize the special seasonal character of vegetables and fruits.

Satterfield’s cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons (Harper Wave, 2015), is one of the most helpfully informative food books I have read. Not only does the chef take you through the seasons, with in-depth consideration accompanied by recipes of the fruits and vegetables that characterize each, but he includes invaluable information about shelf life, storage tips, and preservation.

When my friend Scott and I arrived at the Factory, hors d’oeuvres were already being served. There were several options including a cheese pastry and radishes with whipped feta. I always keep radishes on hand in-season and these were particularly tasty and beautiful but my favorite pre-meal taste had to be the deeply golden rye biscuits filled with country ham and sweet butter.

As we were seated for the meal service, I was delighted to find myself sitting across from my friend Carol from Chicago, with whom I have dined at several of these events now. She comes to Florence frequently for Alabama Chanin workshops and events and is always an entertaining dining companion. We laugh a lot.

Seated two seats down was Shelly, another friend from a previous dinner, with her son, Evan. I met Shelly and her husband, Andy, at a dinner a couple of years ago and it was good to catch up with Shelly, who now lives in Illinois, and to meet Evan, who remains in Indianapolis, their hometown. Shelly and Andy, Indy car enthusiasts, were looking forward to a trip back to Alabama the following weekend to catch the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park and Museum in Birmingham (www.barbermuseum.org).

A four-course meal with wine pairings was served. After welcoming comments and introductions, a first course of a spring pea soup with spinach dumplings was presented. It was followed by a spectacular and simple chilled spring vegetable salad served with fromage blanc and green garlic breadcrumbs. The first two courses were creative and delicious with an inviting presentation and wonderfully fresh tastes.

The main course, served family style, featured a perfectly prepared and crusted guinea hen with Dijon-herb jus. The hen was presented with bitter greens and polenta with nettles and mushrooms. The guinea was a big hit at my table with diners quickly reaching for the platter and second helpings. 

The satisfying meal ended with a strawberry and buttermilk cake trifle.

As the meal came to an end and the trip home loomed, I said my goodbyes and began to ponder the significance of these meals for me. I look forward to them; I miss them when there is too much of a lapse of time between them.

The food and the chefs are, of course, the draw – but the community and camaraderie are what truly beckon and compel me to return time and again.


I ponder the use of the word “tribe” in its contemporary popular culture iterations. The word is used more and more often to describe a group of like-minded people rather than in its traditional anthropological sense of communities sharing deeply embedded common customs and cultural ancestry.

It has become a prominent political trope to address the growing divides within the United States and throughout the world with essays and editorials that examine the “red tribe” and the “blue tribe” in American politics and an ever-growing set of more specific variations on the ideas of tribes and tribalism.

I think that Alabama Chanin and the Friends of the Café have taken on an apolitical tribal significance for me. Through these dinners, I meet like-minded people with shared interests and a diversity of styles and tastes. Politics rarely come up at these events and I harbor a suspicion that some of my companions might not see eye-to-eye with me politically.

That doesn’t matter. What counts is that we share common interests in so many other things – in food and creativity; in aesthetics and sustainability; in making lasting connections and new discoveries; in meeting, communicating, and learning about others.

Harvest and Rejuvenation

The cotton fields – which are still abundant between Decatur and Florence, Alabama – were peaking and startlingly beautiful with their fluffy and practical white yield as my friend  Anne and I made our way to the Alabama Chanin factory and the last dinner of the 2017 season (www.alabamachanin.com).

It was in this in-between area, around the community of Trinity, that I was one of many volunteers that helped out for a morning or a day with Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid’s 2012 experiment in growing organic cotton in north Alabama. With the industrialization and outsourcing of cotton harvesting, working the field was a “back to the roots” experience which helped me to recognize and honor the hard work of my own relatives who worked the cotton fields and harvests of their own Alabama farms in the first half of the twentieth century.

Inventive souls are finding new uses for local cotton these days, including downtown Birmingham’s Redmont Distillery which features an “Alabama Cotton Gin,” a spirit which is “distilled through Alabama cotton” and infused with other local product (www.redmontdistilling.com).

The most recent Alabama Chanin dinner was a celebration of the fall harvest, helmed by Ray Nichols, the new in-house chef for the Café at the Factory, who comes with an already impressive resume and who, before joining Alabama Chanin, was at Odette, a charming dining spot in downtown Florence. It was a rich season of Friends of the Café meals starting with Chef Scott Peacock re-emerging for an Easter season event and moving forward with the return of Chef Ashley Christensen for her second meal of the series. In August, in conjunction with the Billy Reid Shindig, Chef Asha Gomez presented a meal combining her American Southern experiences with her roots in southern India.

Chef Nichols’s dinner was a sold-out mix of locals, regulars, and new faces. Our friend Carol from Chicago showed up accompanied by a charming Chicago friend. We met guests from Hawaii and Colorado and a yoga master from Gray Bear Lodge in nearby Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have written before that there are times when the former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence seems like the center of the universe; chance meetings and serendipity abound.

Young Chef Nichols impressively held his own with his predecessors with a hearty dinner featuring the harvest of the region along with a couple of tasty imports, like Conway Cup oysters from Prince Edward Island. The mildly briny oyster was topped with a Harvest Roots kimchi from Mentone, a scenic village on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. The oysters on the half shell were pass-arounds at the start of the evening along with deviled eggs topped with a Harvest Roots curtido.

The pre-dinner beverage was served in a brown sugar-rimmed glass partially filled with cider from Florence’s Singin’ River Brewery. The cider was cut with Prosecco and the drink was finished with a splash of Sangria. 

When the guests were seated and the preliminary introductions were completed, platters of smoked chicken wings, pickled vegetables, and toasts topped with Bonnie Blue goat cheese were served family-style. The chicken was coated with a white sauce (this is, after all, north Alabama), and the goat cheese was from Waynesboro, Tennessee, just off the Natchez Trace.

A harvest salad with an abundance of greens and local harvest from area farms was served next with a burnt honey–sweet potato dressing. The main course featured Bear Creek pork served two ways. A large and tasty pork rib was presented alongside a ham steak. Both were accompanied by farro verde, turnips, and muscadine.

The dessert lived up to its preamble. A crumbly sweet potato cake and a creamy semolina pudding were garnished with cashews and citrus. 

Ray Nichols’s debut for an Alabama Chanin factory special dinner was a triumph with every bite, heralding a bright new presence in the Factory kitchen that will maintain and enhance an already impressive standard.

The yoga master asked me at some point during the evening if I spent my time going from one amazing dining experience to another. I wish … but no, I do not. Such evenings are few and far between in my schedule and each is anticipated with pleasure. I feel rejuvenated and ready to face the day to day challenges when I have the opportunity to eat an amazing meal in a singular place in the company of delightful people.

Sustenance

Sustenance does not come only from food and drink. In my own food memory, I am sustained by vivid recall of meals I had, with whom I had them, the service and the conversation and the ambience of the room; sometimes, though, when I remember such an event, I have only a vague recall of what I actually ate – only that the meal itself was an indispensable part of the memorable event.

Natalie Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” dinners at her Alabama Chanin factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) provide many levels of sustenance – only a part of which comes from the food and drink and the amazing chefs that create them.

My most recent Florence dinner was helmed by Asha Gomez, a native of India who has been in the United States for several decades and who has been creating food memories in Atlanta for most of the past ten years.

The Gomez “Friends of the Café” dinner on a Thursday in August anticipated the beginning of Billy Reid’s annual “Shindig” weekend. Reid, the other internationally acclaimed fashion designer based in Florence (www.billyreid.com), hosts a late summer event featuring his clothing line, concerts and screenings, and chefs and meals in various venues that create a “go to” weekend for arts, fashion, food, camaraderie, and innovation in the Shoals.

Alabama Chanin’s pre-Shindig dinner is always sold out and includes the regulars who travel from near and far for her dinner as well as fashion, food, and entertainment professionals in town for Shindig.

The sustenance comes from being in a place where forward-thinking Southerners and others are gathered together and one realizes that – despite the headlines and political turmoil and despite the international joke that Washington, D.C. has become – we are not alone.

The sustenance comes from the “Friends” events’ long-standing relationship with Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), which is the beneficiary of proceeds from most of the dinners. John T. Edge, Director of SFA, is a regular attendee at the dinners and his passionate introduction to the recent meal and to Asha Gomez was a masterful and positive statement on current events, a response to the “immigrant” issue as exemplified by Gomez, and a positive evocation of the forward-thinking and amalgamated South “just over the horizon – always just over the horizon.”

Gomez’s book on cooking, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen (Running Press, 2016), is an honestly detailed journey into her life and how her two souths, southern India and the American South, have created the sensibility of her aesthetic and cuisine. In her opening comments preceding the dinner, she balked at the word “fusion” – calling it “the other f-word.” Her food is personal, evolving from her roots in Kerala, India, and ever-expanding with the discovery of new foodways, new ingredients, and the commonalities contained therein. For Gomez, Southern fried chicken was nothing new; she brought her own strong tradition of fried chicken from Kerala.

Gomez claims both Southern India and the Southern U.S. as “home” and her food is a reflection and immersion into the rich compatibility of those shared homes, shared and unique flavorings, and Gomez’s personal interpretation of all of it.

Gomez understands why someone like me might be skeptical about Indian cuisine. I have been known to say that it is my least favorite of the international cuisines readily available in the States. I like the taste profile, the ingredients, and the spices of Indian cuisine well enough but have never been enchanted with its presentation in many Indian restaurants I have tried – usually at the urging of more enthusiastic friends. Gomez knows that the cuisine of her homeland is not represented by “the $4.99 buffets” and other iterations common to the American landscape and seeks to exalt it in a more authentically representative manner.

Sustenance comes in meeting new friends and getting better acquainted with others. My friend Cindy and I were seated at a table full of food professionals in town for Shindig. I was seated next to John T. Edge and across from Vanessa and Rick, a lovely Florence couple, and the conversation was lively and far-reaching. “I hear you’re in town to sign your 300th book,” I said to Edge. “Only 250, I think,” he blithely replied (actually, it’s over a dozen). John T. Edge’s latest, The Potlikker Papers (Penguin Press, 2017), is billed as “A Food History of the Modern South.”

Cindy was sitting beside a group of pastry chefs and other food professionals from New Orleans and the hilarity was pretty much non-stop off to my right side.

The evening commenced with hearty passed hors d’oeuvres including black pepper and black salt spiced roasted cashews, fry bread with mint chutney and quick pickled carrots, and curry chicken samosa pockets. The featured beverage, the “Muscadine Vine,” was a combination of muscadine wine, vinho verde. Prosecco, lime, and mint which successfully tamed and enhanced the tricky sweetness of muscadine wine. 

A first course of Sunday Vegetable Stew featured chunky vegetables in a lovely coconut milk base. A Kerala Fish Curry with kichidi grits and tempered mustard oil was the second offering. The fish beautifully rested on a lush bed of perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked grits and the sauce melded the flavors in a pleasing manner.

Beef Biryani was the third course, served family style. In My Two Souths, Gomez describes biryani as a “celebration dish” and describes the traveling biryani chefs of India as being similar to American barbecue pit masters. Her version for the recent dinner featured chunks of beef over rice with an intensely diverse panoply of spices and seasonings. Each course was accompanied by a complementary wine pairing.

After three very hearty and satisfying dishes, the undisputed star for the diners at my table seemed to be the dessert course. The Three Spice Carrot Cake arrived to a chorus of delighted responses and the first bite did not disappoint.

The sustenance of the evening came to fruition with the sustenance of the actual meal that brought us all together in a spirit of community and enlightenment. During Edge’s opening remarks about the Southern community being forged throughout the region by forward-thinking people of all stripes, Natalie Chanin quipped about it being found “in a former tee-shirt factory in the industrial section of Florence, Alabama.” She was right. The “Friends of the Café” events are forging that community three or four times a year at her factory and in events like Shindig.

I always leave these events with rejuvenated inspiration. I admit that I still have a somewhat wary relationship with Indian cuisine, but Asha Gomez has opened my mind and broadened my perspective. Indian restaurants may not become my first dining choice, but I will eagerly consume and find sustenance in the boundary-breaking cuisine of Asha Gomez.