Tag Archives: Highlands Bar and Grill

Florence Recolte du Printemps

It is a happy coincidence that on the week that Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurant in America, the Spring Harvest Dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory Café in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) featured local ingredients with a French twist, a combination on which Highlands’ reputation was built.

It was never my intention for this journal to become a food site but I realize that an abundance of the 150 essays so far has focused on food. And many of those food-focused essays are inspired by the series of transcendent meals served in Florence at the Friends of the Café series and related events.

The search for knowledge of foodways and the understanding of what it means to be “at table” have been a source of pleasure and release for me in recent years. It has filled a need both for roots and better understanding of culture through food. And the Factory dinners are a huge influence. Many of them have benefited Southern Foodways Alliance and almost all of them featured James Beard Award winners.

Here’s a particularly telling example: In 2016, I attended a Friends of the Café dinner which featured a whole hog prepared by Rodney Scott, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. The other dishes for the event were prepared under the leadership of Chef Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant. The dessert was a chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries by Dolester Miles, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Dining doesn’t get much better than that.

This most recent Florence dinner was the annual Spring Harvest Dinner helmed by Chef Ray Nichols, the Factory’s impressive young house chef. Chef Ray, inspired by a recent trip to France, did a French-inspired menu using local ingredients from the Shoals and nearby environs. The menu was also in French so my tablemates and I were kept busy with translations in addition to the exceptional meal.

The dinner was amazing. Chef Ray pulled out all the stops in this latest French-inspired meal.

As diners were seated at intimate table settings in the expansive room, an hors d’oeuvres course was served. It included a pork pate with gherkins and Dijon as well as escargot with butter and finely minced herbs.

The salad course was a fresh mixed salad perfectly tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. It put me in mind of the elaborate mixed salads I used to make for every occasion and that I have tended to simplify in recent years (though mine were never so beautifully dressed). I may be inspired to go back to my more elaborate salad days, tempered by the food knowledge I’ve gained by savoring the delights of the many food artists and restaurants – both grand and humble — that I’ve experienced through the years.

photo by Anne Fletcher

After such a beautiful beginning, the main course that arrived was truly the belle of the ball. Generous portions of steak au poivre were served with potatoes and wilted chard. The steak was perfectly cooked and juicy. Each course was accompanied by an organic French wine not yet available in Alabama. These included choice selections from Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire and Rhone valleys.

A cheese course featuring cow and goat cheeses from Bonnie Blue Farms (www.bonniebluefarm.com) was presented. The finale was a pound cake with luscious local strawberries and tarragon on a bed of lemon crème.

Ray Nichols became the Factory chef almost a year ago and quickly made his impressive mark with his Fall Harvest dinner in October 2017. In the meantime, he has hosted guest chefs and provides the culinary leadership for the Factory Café’s daily dining activities. His presence is a welcome fixture and inspiration at Factory dining events.

photo by Anne Fletcher

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“This makes me really happy …”

… said chef Rick Bayless on Monday, May 7, as he announced Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill of Birmingham as the James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant in America. This came after the restaurant was a consistent semi-finalist for the award for the past decade. To sweeten the deal, Dolester Miles — Highlands’ long-time pastry chef — won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Pastry Chef earlier the same night.

Highlands has been a point of pride for Birmingham and the Southern culinary scene since it opened in 1982 and this honor further cements its place in America’s fine dining profile. Here is a 2015 essay I wrote about Highlands Bar and Grill.

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 with 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. A new attitude and a new swagger is always 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, setting the standard. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion as one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients with the menu changing daily, 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 in summer 2015 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 as the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs is held in Chicago on Monday night. Highlands Bar and Grill is again one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant.

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 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

My mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, at Highlands Bar and Grill (June 2014)

Narratives that Transform

Birmingham; Friday, February 23, 2018. The Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 winter symposium, “Narratives that Transform,” began its narrative on Friday night with a reception on a loading dock behind a chain-link fence at an apparently abandoned building in an industrial district near the edge of downtown Birmingham (www.southernfoodways.org).

Although it is late February, it was a balmy evening with temperatures hovering in the 80s all day.

I drove past the place twice to be sure I had the right address.

When I parked the car and got out, the aromas drew me in to what was already a bustling gathering in progress. Grills were smoking and guests were gathered around picnic-style tables, creating a convivial spirit that enlivened the surroundings.

The ragtag location is the future site of chef Adam Evans’s new Birmingham restaurant that will open later this year. I first had Adam Evans’s food at a Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence in August 2016; I still remember that evening as one of the best meals I have eaten at that venue. The rumor was already circulating back then that Evans, a Shoals native who had recently left The Optimist in Atlanta, was contemplating a “new concept” in Birmingham and I have been regularly checking for news ever since.

At the reception Evans’s pass-arounds included Gulf clam chowder, Gulf oysters, and salt-baked fish. It all lived up to my expectations.


Saturday morning, February 24, 2018: When I told my mother that I would be spending most of the day at a food symposium in downtown Birmingham, she asked, as she is wont to do, how much I was paying for the event.

When I answered her, she said, “That’s a lot of money to listen to people talk about food all day.”

When I told her that Dolester Miles was making breakfast, Mother – remembering past desserts from Highlands Bar and Grill — laughed and said, “Well, it may be worth it then.”

The symposium venue was WorkPlay, the southside multi-purpose entertainment and work facility where food professionals, writers, and enthusiasts gathered for a packed day of presenters and food.

As participants arrived early on Saturday morning, Royal Cup coffee was being served on the WorkPlay sidewalk and Dolester Miles was plating up her cornmeal cake with strawberry preserves in the lobby. Ms. Miles is the James Beard-nominated pastry chef for chef Frank Stitt’s family of Birmingham restaurants and her dessert offerings are things of beauty and exquisite taste.

I ran into my friend, reporter Bob Carlton, who introduced me to Rusty Tucker, the force behind Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, Alabama (www.rustysbarbq.com).The three of us sat together for most of the event. I have not been to Rusty’s, but I remembered him as one of the featured pitmasters in the documentary Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends that aired on Alabama Public Television and PBS. After hearing Tucker’s take on food and particularly barbecue throughout the day, I plan to make it a priority to drive over to Leeds to check his place out soon.

After breakfast, the gathering assembled in the WorkPlay soundstage for “Morning Corridos” – narrative protest ballads performed by La Victoria, a three-piece all-woman mariachi band based in Los Angeles. As they travel, the musicians meet with immigrants in each location, compiling stories and creating new corridos for each locality. With Birmingham-based Latino activists and residents on the stage, they performed “Heart of Alabama,” their newest ballad of Birmingham. 

It was a good way to wake the audience.

Two papers followed in the morning session. Moni Basu of CNN presented a powerful discussion of how narratives can influence change. She began with her memories of being a young Indian girl relocated to Tallahassee after living around the world. Later, she told of the homeless girl, Dasani, whose mother named her “after a bottle of water she could never afford.” The greatest takeaway for me of Basu’s presentation was her statement that we are “compelled to share our stories for our sake as well as yours.”

In the presentation “Whiskey and Credit,” writers Clay Risen of The New York Times and Fawn Weaver explored the story of Nearest Green, the African-American man who shared his methods for distilling whiskey with Jack Daniel in the 19th century. Green’s story was largely lost until Clay Risen published a recent piece about it in the Times. Weaver, influenced by Risen’s narrative, was inspired to buy a farm and move from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to dig deeper into the Green story. She shares an uplifting story of how the various families associated with the Jack Daniel saga – Daniel, Green, Motlow – have assisted and supported her in her undertaking. Most intriguing is Weaver’s conviction that Jack Daniel’s spirit is somehow behind the unearthing and renaissance of Mr. Green’s narrative. She asserted several times that “Jack wants this story to be told.”


Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2018: An appetizer, of sorts, before the lunch service, was a preview screening of Ava Lowrey’s short SFA film, “Dol,” about Birmingham pastry chef Dolester Miles. The lovingly shot film, to be released in March 2018, is deliberate and sumptuous in its presentation of Miles’s techniques and of her food that always looks as wonderful as it tastes. Among her many desserts over the years, I still particularly savor the memory of her Bastille Day cake I had at Chez Fonfon years ago. Miles has been with Frank and Pardis Stitt’s restaurants since 1982 when Highlands Bar and Grill opened.

After the “Dol” screening, a generous “Family Lunch without Tweezers” was served by Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile. Southern National is a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Best New Restaurant award. The meal included Kung Pao chicken breasts and a pea and Gulf shrimp salad along with a preponderance of other sides – a packed plate of delicious, hearty food. 

David Hagedorn, a Washington, D.C.-based writer on food and dining, was born in Gadsden, Alabama, and summered at his family’s house on nearby Lake Guntersville. His presentation, “The Thank You / Screw You Paradigm,” ultimately seemed to be questioning the efficacy of exploiting and exalting his Southern heritage in his food writing and expertise, when he is so ambivalent about the South as it relates to his identity as a gay Jew from a prominent Southern family. His narrative was hilarious and heart-breaking – sometimes simultaneously; his bitterness was tempered with affection, generosity, and clarity.

During the Q&A that followed the talk, an undocumented woman, also from Gadsden, asked Hagedorn about his prognosis for Gadsden’s future. His response was empathetic but grim, prompting SFA executive director John T. Edge to say, to Hagedorn, “I’ll claim you if you’ll claim me.”  Alas, Hagedorn sighed but had no ready response.

Writer, recipe developer, and activist Julia Turshen spoke about the process of putting together her new book, Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, in which chefs who are politically active provide suggestions for a synthesis of food activity with political activism. Chapter titles include “Easy Meals for Folks Who Are Too Busy Resisting to Cook” and “Feeding the Masses: Food for Crowds.”

Writers and scholars Ralph Eubanks and Tom Ward presented “Still, Still Hungry,” in which an upcoming reissue of Still Hungry in America, a 1969 book featuring photographs by Al Clayton and a text by Robert Coles, was discussed. The book grew out of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Clayton’s photographs provide stark evidence of the dire poverty of areas of America including Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.  The session was introduced by Clayton’s daughter and the presenters provided sobering contemporary evidence of the ongoing blight of American poverty and the government’s failure to confront it effectively.

The final presentation, by Rosalind Bentley, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was a master class in how to present transformative narrative. “Radical Hospitality” was a memoir of Bentley’s relatives and role models – Aunt Lucy, Cousin Carol, and Sandra, women who each participated in her own way in the Augusta, Georgia, chapter of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Aunt Lucy and Cousin Carol “fed the Movement” with home-cooked meals for the activists and their attorneys. Sandra “fed the movement” as a teenager jailed for marching, who shared care packages from her family with her fellow political prisoners.

Bentley built her narrative with care, seasoning it with the perfect amounts of humor and family stories, and building to a powerful climax and conclusion which provided the ideal resolution for a deeply felt and moving day of food-fueled activism.

As the day ended, Becky Satterfield and her crew from Satterfield’s, a Birmingham restaurant, were in the lobby serving a Conecuh County sausage gumbo as part of the event’s closing happy hour.


The 2018 SFA symposium is over, but its narrative, which began at the make-do reception on the loading dock, will end in a year at a reception at the same spot to launch the 2019 winter symposium. Next year, however, the site will have transformed into Adam Evans’s spanking new Gulf seafood restaurant and oyster bar.

The narrative of southern food and foodways is always, after all, a continuing saga.

I’ll be there.

Notes from Neutral Ground

  Thursday, 9/7/2017: As I cross from Mississippi into Louisiana, WWOZ – “the most indispensable radio station in the country” – plays the instantly recognizable opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and my spirits lift immediately (www.wwoz.org).

I am traveling to New Orleans to present a paper on Joan Didion’s California at the American Literature Association’s symposium, “Regionalism and Place in American Literature” (www.americanliteratureassociation.org).

I love the Stones and am rocking out and singing along behind the steering wheel as I pull into the Louisiana Welcome Center north of Slidell. However, since I am aware of criticism over the past several years that WWOZ has sometimes strayed from its mission of promoting local New Orleans and Louisiana music, I wonder how “Gimme Shelter” fits into the scenario.

I don’t much care at the moment since I am immersed in one of my favorite songs from arguably my favorite rock ’n’ roll band ever. I muse that it may be a reference to the fact that Texans and west Louisianans are seeking dry ground after Hurricane Harvey or that Floridians and others on the east coast are fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma. For either group, New Orleans is a place that is not in the crosshairs of the storm this time.

Instead of calling them “medians,” New Orleanians refer to the grassy strips between lanes on their broad streets as “neutral ground.”  On St. Charles Avenue, for example, the grassy area in the middle that the streetcars travel is “neutral ground.” I realize that in the current tropical storm scenario, the whole city of New Orleans is “neutral ground” with visitors coming in from all directions.

The Stones wrap up and immediately the track segues to Merry Clayton’s solo version of “Gimme Shelter” and it all makes sense. Clayton, a New Orleans native, provides the fierce back-up vocals on the Stones’ original of the song, challenging Mick Jagger’s dominance in the process. Her solo version, recorded a few years later with a shrieking horn back-up, is a skillful and equally naked vocal performance. You must give it a listen.

Getting out of the car, I am approached by an agitated man who tells me to give him gas money to get back to Beaumont. I am inclined to help him but I feel a need to engage him for a moment to see if he’s really a flood victim or if he’s scamming.

As soon as I start to talk, he says, “If you ain’t gonna help me, bye!”

“I just need to …”

“If you ain’t gonna help me, BYE!”

“But …”

“BYE!” and he’s gone, approaching another car just pulling up.

A half hour later I am at the Hotel Monteleone, check into my room (which happens to be across the hall from the Tennessee Williams Suite), and unpack.

There is a little time before the symposium’s registration and opening reception so I go to Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley off Jackson Square (www.faulknerhousebooks.com). The proprietor is talking to a group of European customers. One is particularly interested in reading Faulkner and asks what he should start with. I walk past and whisper “As I Lay Dying” to the proprietor and the conversation continues as I browse.

Outside, a bored young tour guide stops in the alley and I hear him say, “The writer William Faulkner lived here. Also, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here.”

“That’s not true,” the proprietor says to his customers. “Faulkner lived here, yes. Tennessee Williams, no.”

The ill-informed tour moves on.

“Should I chase him down?” I ask, joking.

“If I chased down every tour guide who gave false information in that alley, I’d never get any work done,” is the reply.

I find the book I am looking for at Faulkner House, pay, and am leaving as the European guy decides to try a book of Faulkner’s short stories (good move).

I stop by Napoleon House, one of my favorite spots in the French Quarter, and text my friend Deb that I am there; it is one of her favorite spots, too. Her response includes the terrible news that one of her good friends, a woman in her forties that I also know, has died.

I absorb that piece of sad news and move back to the Monteleone, symposium check-in, and the reception.

After a quick appearance at the reception, I get dressed for dinner. I am going to Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. It is my habit on New Orleans trips to try to have dinner at one of the New Orleans classics, at one of my favorites, and at some place new.

Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) is one of the stalwart classics that I have never dined at. After recently viewing a charming documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, I decided I could not delay a trip to Commander’s any longer so this will be my first visit to the turquoise landmark. 

Commander’s vaunted hospitality is alive and well and I am greeted warmly by every staff member as I make my way to my table in an elegant dining room. I have often said I would like to write a column or book about the “solo diner” and I always find that the best restaurants in New Orleans have no problem making a solo diner feel comfortable. I judge a restaurant partially by its treatment of solo diners and, with only one notable exception, New Orleans comes through splendidly.

The tempting menu is full of tasty offerings, making it hard to choose what to have from Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s selections. The waiter, upon learning that Birmingham is my home town, asks me if I know the Bright Star in Bessemer where the late summer “Taste of New Orleans” event features a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant. I tell him that I know the Bright Star very well and have attended Chef McPhail’s dinners there.

Finally, I order a group of “tried and trues.” As I choose a meal of turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, and bread pudding soufflé, the waiter smiles and says “a Paul Prudhomme meal.” Prudhomme sealed his reputation at Commander’s where his tenure preceded Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and McPhail. He introduced Cajun influences to Commander’s – making Cajun food a national sensation – before going on to open his iconic restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the Quarter.

The dinner is lovely and the ambiance is magnificent but I have a long day of presenting and listening tomorrow and, leaving Commander’s, I retreat to my room to practice my presentation one more time before sleep.


Friday, 9/8/2017: After the symposium’s opening plenary session, in which it is announced that a number of presenters cannot make it to New Orleans due to impending weather, I present my Didion paper at the “California” session at 10:30. It goes well, I think. I field a lot of questions during the Q and A that follows.

Lunch follows that, and then sessions that stretch to 7:30.  Papers on the “undead” seem to be trending; these I avoid. There is impressive scholarship at the symposium and I hear a lot of good papers, but by the time the day wraps up I am famished and have made no dinner plans.

I remember that I have time to get to Willa Jean (www.willajean.com), the new-ish restaurant (2015) in the Warehouse District that I learned about at a recent Alabama Chanin event in Florence. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Kelly Fields, who named it after her grandmother, and the general manager is Leah Richard, who I met and was terribly amused by at the Florence dinner. It is part of the ubiquitous John Besh Restaurant Group of New Orleans restaurants that impressively cover New Orleans like kudzu covers the South.

Willa Jean is a shiny spot, sleek and chic with wood accents. The menu is inventive and fun, with offerings like Cookies + Milk and a wo’Manwich and an impressive selection of juice-based drinks. An array of enticing pastries is available just inside. I opt for the WJ Burger, an Angus beef burger with herb/pecorino fries. The burger is offered with American cheese but I ask to substitute the menu’s pimento cheese for American. The dessert menu provides too many tasty options and I finally choose a chocolate pudding generously sprinkled with crushed pecans.

I notice how young the wait staff – the entire staff – is at Willa Jean. It’s not unusual to see older waiters in New Orleans where it is a career choice rather than a part-time job, but Willa Jean is full of attractive fresh young faces. Looking around the room, I realize that I am at least 25 years older than everybody in sight. As I leave, a three-some arrives that looks my age (or older) and I am relieved as I decide to walk back through the Central Business District and to the hotel.

Streets that used to be dark and somewhat deserted in the CBD are now bustling, with new restaurants and other establishments on almost every block. In a late summer evening, there are groups of people chatting and walking, going into lofts and coming out for a night in the city.

My first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans was a mere four and a half months after the flood when many areas were still without power and some places looked like the flooding had been days, rather than months, ago. It is heartening to see what much of the city has become (although there is still plenty of recovery left to do) on each visit back.

I get back to the Quarter and consider going in search of live music but I realize that the Quarter on a Friday night has become, for me, as depressing as a New Year’s Eve party – too many people too desperate to have too good a time. Maybe it’s my age. I retreat into the more staid Monteleone where the crowd at the Carousel Lounge is getting geared up for a late evening of carousing.


Saturday, 9/9/2017: It’s the final day of the symposium and I start the day at the second of two sessions on New Orleans regional literature with impressive papers by college students – one on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and another focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

At another session that I am looking forward to, I am disappointed. The session is supposed to deal with native cultures in the Americas and the four presenters have topics of interest to me. The first paper deals with Nahua structures in central Mexico and the presenter has time to give her entire presentation. However, the second presenter announces that she is an Elder of the Apache Nation and that she is going to use her status as entitlement to go beyond her allotted time.

It is a shocking moment and the moderator should step in but doesn’t.  Everyone sits politely as the Elder inserts lengthy asides and largely toots her own horn of accomplishments and vents her anger at the plights of the native cultures. It is the sole uncollegial moment in what is a very collegial symposium. When the Elder finally reels herself in, there are only minutes left for the final two presenters to sketchily synopsize what their work entails.

The last two papers – one about hymns written in indigenous languages and another about tribal performance as theatre – were of particular interest to me and I am sorry I am not allowed to hear them due to a brazen and unprofessional power play.

At a reception later, I have the opportunity to tell the presenter who was supposed to talk about her hymn research that I had wanted to hear her paper. “Thank you. I wanted to present it,” she graciously replies. I admire her calm in the situation. I am livid still.

After lunch, I sneak away to my favorite New Orleans gallery up the street from the hotel. Elliott Gallery (www.elliottgallery.com) is owned by Catherine Martens Betz, who is knowledgeable and pleasant. It is at Elliott Gallery that I first learned about and developed a great affection for the French abstract artist, James Coignard (1925-2008), who had a studio for a time in New Orleans. Elliott Gallery offers the largest collection of his work in the world and I must visit it whenever I am in New Orleans.

On this visit, Catherine is closely watching the weather radar since Irma has not yet made the predicted northward turn. If it doesn’t turn, it could make a beeline for New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast. I have noticed the same thing and we commiserate over that anxiety.

After my visit with Elliott Gallery, I return to the symposium and one of the sessions I most look forward to about “Rough South Regionalism,” including papers about Harry Crews and Larry Brown, has been canceled due to the participants being in the projected path of Irma.

The closing reception includes a session with the editors of four regional academic journals and the opportunity to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues. By this time also, Irma is making the predicted turn northward.

I am asked for restaurant recommendations for future trips to New Orleans and I highly recommend Upperline, among others.

“What sets Upperline apart?” I am asked.

“Well,” I answer, “the menu is outstanding but I’d have to say that what makes it unique is JoAnn.”

What I do not mention is that I have a reservation at Upperline tonight (www.upperline.com). JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline, is always present at the restaurant. It is full of artwork she has collected – most of it New Orleans-themed – and she circulates among the diners, seemingly interested in everyone’s story, throughout the evening. She glides through the restaurant as if it is her own private salon; in ways, I guess it is.  I try to make an Upperline dinner a feature of every visit to New Orleans.

Andrew Thornton is the Upperline chef, but the menu is very evocative of JoAnn. She is a fan of garlic so a “Garlic Festival” is a menu feature each summer (including garlic in the dessert). Thomas Jefferson is a hero so a Jefferson dinner is a recurring event and the menu is always peppered with dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. Dorothy Parker-themed cocktails are featured on the drinks menu. 

The menu is highly influenced by Creole cooking styles and I have never had a bad bite at Upperline. Tonight I stay traditional, ordering Oysters St. Claude as an appetizer. My entrée of Sauteed Drum Meuniere is on a bed of succulent cooked greens and cornbread. For dessert, I order a pecan encrusted Crème Brulee.

As I wait for my cab, a waiter asks me where I’m visiting from. I tell him I live in Huntsville but Birmingham is “home.” His immediate response is “Frank Stitt.” He’s a fan of the Birmingham chef and we discuss Highlands Bar and Grill’s perpetual James Beard nomination as Best Restaurant.

About that time, JoAnn walks up and I say, “And we also need to figure out what we need to do to get JoAnn the James Beard Restaurateur of the Year award.” She has been a finalist or semi-finalist many times but, like Highlands, she’s never taken home the prize. Anyone who has ever dined at Upperline knows she deserves it.


Sunday, 9/10/2017: I decide to check out early since I have a long drive ahead with a stop in Birmingham. The bellman who takes my bags down tells me that most of the new guests arriving since Friday are people from Florida, escaping Irma.

“I pray for them,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s not headed our way. We’ve had our turn with that.”

I tell him that maybe for those taking shelter in New Orleans, the way New Orleans has sprung back will be an encouragement for whatever they might be returning to in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“Takes a lot of time, lot of patience,” he says. “They’ve had it before, too.” 

It’s a glorious morning in New Orleans. I take a photo of the Esplanade neutral ground as I leave the Quarter. I drop by Willa Jean, grab an almond mini-bundt cake and café au lait for the road, and get onto I-10 east toward the lake, out of the city.

Shortly after I cross into Mississippi, WWOZ’s signal begins to fade away. The last song I hear is a jazz instrumental of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” I know the words and sing along:

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed,

Some forever not for better,

Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.

I turn off the radio.

By the time I get to Birmingham, Monday school closings are being announced. The remnants of Irma are headed our way. 

Tonic

DSCN0179 The restorative powers of the Friends of the Café dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence are palpable each time I go. At the most recent dinner I attended in March, walking through the factory doors had cathartic impact.

For those who have never visited the Alabama Chanin factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – which is the workplace for the artisans and craftspeople responsible for clothing designer Natalie Chanin’s line of organic hand-crafted clothing and other lifestyle products – the space itself has an instant sense of community and a tonic effect. The aesthetics of the place are in a harmonic balance and the products displayed in the retail area are diverse but somehow all work together. Art works and objects of interest are placed throughout; they are spare and do not overwhelm. DSCN0184

The Factory’s Café is helmed by Zach Chanin, executive chef (and Natalie’s son), and serves exceptional and locally sourced menus daily. Periodically, however, the Factory hosts guest chefs and special evening meals that provide camaraderie and splendid dining.

At the March event, the meal was the product of the unpredictable collaboration between Frank Stitt, Birmingham-based chef and restaurateur, and South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott. Stitt’s flagship Birmingham restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com), has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s “most outstanding restaurant” award for eight years in a row now. The 2016 winners will be announced in San Francisco at a ceremony on May 2. Scott’s Bar-B-Que (www.thescottsbbq.com) in Hemingway, South Carolina, is legendary among pork barbecue aficionados and gained new  followers when the original cookhouse burned to the ground in 2013 and The Fatback Collective, a project of Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), teamed up to sponsor a “Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Exile Tour” to raise money to get Scott’s home turf back in operation. The “tour” travelled throughout the South, introducing his singular barbecue to an even broader audience.

The combination of Stitt and Scott is an inspired pairing and the resulting meal at The Factory was masterful. Diners were greeted with a “Southern Apertivo Highball” featuring vermouth, Capelleti, citrus, bitters, and Birmingham’s Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale. Pass-around hors d’oeuvres were crudités and a tasty combination of pork rind and pimento cheese.

About twenty minutes before seating for the meal, as the diners assembled, Rodney Scott and Zach Chanin brought in the whole hog and displayed it on a table in the showroom. We all gathered like paparazzi to snap photos and take in the sight and the aromas.DSCN0182

Frank Stitt introduced the meal by saying that Rodney Scott prepared the whole hog while Stitt and staff conceived and prepared the side dishes. Stitt was charmingly persnickety about the correct way to pass dishes at table. Grassroots Wines did the wine pairings with the various courses.

After a beautiful asparagus salad with farm egg, “just dug” potatoes, and ham hock vinaigrette, the abundant second course was served family style. Mr. Scott’s magnificent barbecue pork was accompanied by a turnip gratin, a hearty salad featuring farro and barlotti beans with grilled red onion, and a Brussels sprout slaw with pecorino dressing. I recently told a vegetarian friend that even though pork was featured, she would have had no problem getting her fill from the side dishes. DSCN0188

Dessert was Dol’s chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries. “Dol” is Dolester Miles, the pastry chef at Highlands who is also nominated for a James Beard Award this year as outstanding pastry chef. If you have ever eaten one of Ms. Miles’s desserts, you will know that the nomination is highly deserved.

I have written previous essays about the sense of pride and community that permeates events at The Factory. Amazing meals by renowned talents only add to the aura of the place that Natalie Chanin’s singular vision has created. Each time I leave a Factory event, I look forward to the next opportunity to be there.  The next dinner at The Factory will feature in-house chef Zach Chanin. Can’t wait.IMG_0754

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.