Tag Archives: food

A Thanksgiving Dressing

 

IMG_2069  No Southerner I know stuffs the bird. In my experience we always serve dressing on the side. My Grandmother Harbison made a cornbread dressing and Grandmother Journey served a fancier oyster dressing, still using cornbread as a base. I like both but Mother is partial to a plain cornbread dressing without oysters so her cornbread dressing is what we have for the holidays.

Near Thanksgiving last year I shared memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s kushmagudi, a cornbread and potlikker dish which has become a staple of our cold weather holiday table. During my father’s extended hospital stay, Mother has often mixed up a quick kushmagudi when she gets home from the hospital at night.

As my Grandmother Harbison’s health made it more challenging for her to cook the holiday feasts, Mother began to make her own cornbread dressing from a recipe she found somewhere. It’s a very easy recipe, moist and rich, and even though it wasn’t exactly the same as Grandmother Harbison’s dressing, it got Grandmother Harbison’s seal of approval.

The celery in the cornbread recipe reminds me of another Thanksgiving tradition at my family’s house. In addition to using celery in the dressing, Mother has always put out a dish of raw celery sticks with our turkey. I grew up with raw celery as part of the Thanksgiving meal and never thought it was unusual until people from outside the family informed me that they had never heard of such a thing. Even so, it is a nice complement to turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. We put celery sticks on our turkey sandwiches on Friday and that is a crunchy and delicious addition to the Thanksgiving leftover tradition too.

Even though circumstances dictate a spartan Thanksgiving this year, I packed Mother’s cornbread dressing recipe just in case I find the time to make it. And remember that a proper cornbread recipe does not include sugar.

Simple Cornbread Dressing

4 cups crumbled cornbread
2-3 slices crumbled white bread
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 large eggs
Sage, to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken (or cream of mushroom) soup, undiluted

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or overnight) for flavors to blend. Pour into 2-quart baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Highlands Bar and Grill

IMG_1509  My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had and there was always an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. There are always a new attitude and a new swagger creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion when one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands last summer and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week because the 25th presentation of the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs will be held in Chicago on Monday, May 4, 2015. Highlands Bar and Grill is one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant for the seventh year in a row. The other four finalists this year are in New York.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.” I feel good about lucky 7.

A confession: I will be watching the James Beard Awards on Monday night. They are streamed every year on livestream.com and I am just enough of a food nerd to watch a couple of hours of restaurant awards. I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

(The photograph is of my mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, outside Highlands in June 2014.)

 

On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

Shopping for Cast Iron in South Pittsburg

IMG_1232   The first time I heard about the small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, I was living in Indiana and a friend mentioned that his mother’s family hails from South Pittsburg. I asked if there was a North Pittsburg in Tennessee and he was pretty sure there was not. Since then, I have learned that the closest thing they have to North Pittsburg is that Pittsburgh up in western Pennsylvania, one of my favorite cities.

IMG_1229Years later, when I found myself living in north Alabama, I discovered on my first trip from Huntsville to Chattanooga that South Pittsburg is on Hwy. 72 on the Tennessee River nestled against the Cumberland Plateau and the Alabama state line. It is a little over an hour from my house. Most interesting was the discovery that South Pittsburg is the home of Lodge Manufacturing Co., makers of Lodge cast iron cookware – the only cast iron cookware still made in the United States. I try to have plenty of it on hand.

IMG_1220Now, whenever I go to Chattanooga, I try to schedule a stop in South Pittsburg at the Lodge Cast Iron Factory Store near the foundry. For anybody who loves cooking with cast iron, this is a pilgrimage to take. The store is full of cast iron cookware in about any configuration one might imagine. I must show restraint in my purchases, but the place is filled floor to ceiling with shelves of cast iron temptation. The parking lot always has cars with tags from all over. On my recent visit, a Lodge cast iron hibachi grill was calling my name.

It should be no surprise that the home of cast iron skillets is also home to the National Cornbread Festival on the last full weekend in April. The calendar of events includes all kinds of cornbread cook-offs, “Cornbread Eatin’, Buttermilk Chuggin’, and Ice Cream Eatin’ Contests,” and the crowning of a slew of Miss National Cornbread Festivals from various age groups.IMG_1224

A short walk through the cozy downtown reveals a historical marker commemorating South Pittsburg’s baffling and sad “Christmas Night Shootout” of 1927. I am interested in the history of the labor movement in the South, and especially in the Birmingham iron and steel industry, but the South Pittsburg event is news to me. It stemmed from a labor dispute at a local stove factory and pitted local law enforcement officers against one another. According to one account, the county sheriff and his deputies supported the strikers and the town police force sided with the factory owners. At the end of the shootout, six officers were killed including the Chief of Police and the Sheriff.

On a happier note, down the street from the “Shootout” marker, I saw a coin-operated horse named Thunder on the sidewalk. I have not seen one of those in ages. It was in front of a music store (I think) that bills itself “The Most Unique Store in Tennessee.” I have to trust the sign since the store was closed when I was there. The fact that Jim Morrison was staring down at Thunder from an old Doors poster was delight enough and I’ll try to catch the unique store sometime when it’s open … perhaps at the next National Cornbread Festival. IMG_1227

Take time to discover small towns. There’s always something interesting to learn.

A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading

Gumbo

Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

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

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

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

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

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

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

Happy Mardi Gras!

IMG_1146

The Bright Star

 

     100_2314  Bessemer, AL It seems that every family has a restaurant where it convenes for special events and commemorations – the place where the family goes to celebrate graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries, and to gather after funerals and hospital visits and other more somber occasions. For my family, that restaurant in the Birmingham area is The Bright Star west of the city in Bessemer. The Bright Star, Alabama’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1907 and has been family-owned ever since. The Bright Star was awarded as an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2010.

Mine is a family of strong, vocal, and often divergent opinions on pretty much everything, including food. The Bright Star is one of the places that is in every family member’s “comfort zone.” In addition to being a safe choice, it also has a good and diverse menu with offerings for every taste. I always look forward to eating at The Bright Star, whether it is a quick lunch or a leisurely evening meal.

Frank Stitt triggered Birmingham’s ascent on the national culinary map with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill in the 1980s. But the culinary history of the Birmingham area is full of the stories of Greek families and immigrants who opened restaurants. Many of their descendants are still restaurateurs into the 21st century. The Bright Star is the anchor of that Greek-influenced dining tradition in Birmingham with off-shoots that range from fine dining establishments to fish markets, barbecue joints, and hot dog stands.

The Bright Star was started by Tom Bonduris and has been continuously owned by Bonduris and Koikos family members ever since. Jimmy and Nick Koikos, sons of long-time owners Bill and Tasia Koikos, are the current faces of the restaurant, along with a large and long-serving support staff. Much of my recent planning with the restaurant has been coordinated through the invaluable  and gracious help of Jimmy and Nick’s niece, Stacey Craig, and maître d’ Marlon Tanksley. The restaurant always bustles and the place is full of regulars as well as people who are traveling through or have made the effort to come to Bessemer just to check it out.

The Bright Star has grown over the years in its current building in the middle of downtown Bessemer. The vibe of The Bright Star reminds some of New Orleans’ Galatoire’s. (It is a lesser known fact that the first Galatoire’s was in downtown Birmingham before Jean Galatoire ended up in New Orleans and opened his iconic Bourbon Street bistro.) The Bright Star menu that features seafood and steaks in the evenings serves a classic Southern “meat and three” lunch menu each day. The shredded cabbage with the signature slaw dressing is a staple, as is a superior bread pudding and an array of fine pies. The Bright Star serves one of my favorite gumbos. Tipping its hat to the New Orleans influences on the menu, The Bright Star does an annual “Taste of New Orleans” event in August that usually features the executive chef of New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace.

Fresh seafood is delivered daily and Alabama Cattlemen’s Association has named Bright Star’s beef the best steak in Alabama. The large foyer entrance to the restaurant is full of memorabilia including awards, national magazine and newspaper articles, and archival photographs of the many celebrities and dignitaries who have enjoyed a meal at The Bright Star. One finds photos of Sandra Bullock and her father dining there among an array of celebrities and sports figures from earlier times.

The main dining room is flanked with highly varnished pastoral murals painted by an itinerant German painter in 1915. A century of varnishing and cigarette smoke creates a warm glow from the murals and the combination of the murals and the high wooden booth backs creates an intimate and cozy feeling in the large room, even as the aisles are full of servers and patrons coming and going.

Far in the back of the main dining room is the enclosed booth that was Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s favorite booth. For a recent birthday dinner, my mother reserved the Bryant booth and I dined there for the first time with a large portrait of “the Coach” looking down from the west wall.

When The Bright Star turned 100 in 2007, a book, A Centennial Celebration of The Bright Star Restaurant, was released. The book, a project by nieces of Jim and Nick Koikos with assistance from Niki Sepsas, is a compilation of history, memories, recipes, and photographs of the restaurant. IMG_1119

Bessemer, a vibrant industrial town in the early 20th Century, lost much of its industry in the 1970s and has suffered economic downturns and redefinition. Through it all The Bright Star has endured. I was in the restaurant this past weekend and am convinced that The Bright Star will be serving good meals to happy patrons for generations to come.

Note: The top image is a detail from Scott Smith’s assemblage, “Ensley” (2010), featuring the menu listing for The Bright Star’s “famous snapper almondine.” “Ensley” was a commission celebrating my parents’ marriage. Each pin represents a place they have lived during the marriage. Images of Ensley, the Birmingham neighborhood where they met, and other aspects of their marriage are represented, including images from The Bright Star menu.

“I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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