Tag Archives: Mobile

The Drug Lord of Dauphin Street


Bienville Square; Mobile, AL

Mobile, AL. The annual Southeastern Theatre Conference convention (www.setc.org) is a rigorous event, typically drawing several thousand participants for auditions, meetings, workshops, and panels. Activities are scheduled from early morning to well past midnight and it can be exhausting. I have been regularly attending this event for thirty-five years now and, when I get home, a good bit of recovery is required.

SETC is held in a different city in the region each year; the 2018 version is in Mobile. It’s good to be in Mobile again. I travel to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay every year but don’t cross the bay into the city that often. Since my last visit four years ago, the place seems to have blossomed. There are fewer empty store fronts downtown and there seems to be more to do on a warm March week as the city’s vaunted azaleas are bursting forth wherever one looks. I am staying at the historic Battle House Hotel, part of and close to all of the convention events.

Battle House lobby; Mobile, AL

There are more dining options in downtown than in years past. To get a heightened feel for the geography of the place, I ate my first meal of the trip at Dauphin’s (www.godauphins.com), a fine-dining restaurant on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark building. It’s a beautiful dining spot with floor to ceiling windows revealing sweeping views of the riverfront, the city, and the bay.


Church Street Grave Yard; Mobile, AL

On a break between meetings on Friday, I strolled down Government Street to the Church Street Grave Yard to visit the final resting place of two particular Mobile legends – Joe Cain (1832-1904), who re-established Mobile’s Mardi Gras after the Civil War; and Eugene Walter (1921-1998), the author/editor, food expert, actor, and raconteur whose influence spans continents.

Joe Cain and his wife, Elizabeth, lie beneath a stone that declares “Old Joe Cain” as the “heart and soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.” Eugene Walter’s stone, adorned with his fanciful drawings and one of his many “monkey poems,” declares “Born in the land of lizard fever / in sweet lunacy’s county seat / this untidy pilgrim of the world / lived by the credo: When all else fails / throw a party.”

After paying my respects, I dashed over to Dauphin Street to eat at the original Wintzell’s Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). After a quick lunch, heading along Dauphin Street to the convention, a guy stepped toward me on the sidewalk and informed me that I looked “like a Colombian drug lord.”

I stopped and said “Excuse me?” and realized I had heard right the first time. I was wearing a pair of khakis, a dress shirt (tucked in), and a black blazer at the time. And aviator sunglasses. Hardly a drug lord look, I think. In fact, this is essentially how I dress for work most days. The specificity of the random comment is what startled me.

When the guy saw my startled look, he began to laugh, apologized, and said, “I just had to tell you that!”

Which begs the question Why? Why did you have to tell me that? 

I continued on my way, but detoured to the hotel to change clothes before making my way back to the convention’s keynote speaker.

Later, after a long editorial board meeting for Southern Theatre magazine, I remembered that I had been seeing signs for the LoDa Art Walk, a monthly event on the second Friday of the month on and around Dauphin Street. In lieu of scoping out a place for dinner, I decided I’d walk Dauphin and take in some art galleries. Eight galleries were participating and a dozen other venues were offering live music, art on display, and other walk-related offerings.

Part of the street was closed to motor vehicles and a sizable crowd made the rounds of the event on a pleasant pre-Spring evening. Celtic musicians played in Cathedral Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Jigs and reels were danced at the pre-St. Patrick’s Day event as giant puppets glided soundlessly past and down the street.

Inside the cathedral, baritone Xavier Johnson, accompanied by pianist Clinton Doolittle, performed a short program that ranged from the spirituals “Fix me, Jesus” and “By an’ by,” through Bellini’s “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” ending with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” with its memorable final lyric, “For I’ve had a taste of society / And society’s had a taste of me.”

Across the square, Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.org) presented a beautifully curated exhibition, “Back to Havana,” featuring fifteen contemporary Cuban artists. The Alabama Contemporary space is deceptively spacious and the various galleries surprised with visual stimulation at each turn. Baseball is an almost predictable recurring motif through the exhibit and it was intriguing to see the evocative ways Cuban artists were incorporating the symbolism and iconography of “America’s pastime.”

“Back to Havana”; Alabama Contemporary Art Center

A meandering line was filling the narrow hallway at a Mobile Arts Council (www.mobilearts.org) gallery space, viewing a group of sometimes dazzling miniatures in a national exhibit from the Spanish Moss Miniature Society. Works by Melissa and Richard Diegan, paintings of precious stones by Kristen Dunreath Harris, and the slightly disturbing “humanimals” of Joseph Smith completed the Arts Council exhibits.

Farther down Dauphin, at Cathedral Square Gallery (www.cathedralsquaregallery.org), a substantial stable of artists’ works was on display. Live music was presented by Bayou Rhythm, a quirky band playing classic and unexpected ditties, keeping the crowd moving and tapping its feet with brass and percussion, raucous vocals, and a washboard in tow.

Bayou Rhythm; Mobile, AL

Finally, I headed over to St. Louis Street to The Cheese Cottage (www.thecheesecottagellc.com), a really special newly opened cheese and wine shop with café. Located in an old gas station, the tiny shop has an old Pure oil sign in the front and a cozy dining pavilion adjoining the structure. I ordered a pimento goat cheese sandwich that was truly spectacular. The Cheese Cottage is clearly a project of entrepreneurial passion and heart. It was a perfect way to end a Friday night exploration of Dauphin Street.

The Cheese Cottage; Mobile, AL

Saturday is the final full day of the convention and I managed to take in workshops on vocal technique to share with my students.

Tonight, I will be joining my friends Janet, Kitty, Patty, and Russell for what has become our own SETC tradition – a relaxing dinner away from the hubbub of the convention’s closing night banquet and dance party. We all agree that the Saturday night dinner has become the part of the convention we most look forward to. It is a good way to relax, catch up, and prepare for the drives home tomorrow and the work week ahead.

Since we’re in Mobile, we’ll travel across the bay to Fairhope and Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), one of several of my Baldwin County favorites.

Another successful (and grueling) SETC convention is soon to be history.



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


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!


Joe Cain Day in Mobile


IMG_1124 On Sunday, February 15, I am hosting a pre-Mardi Gras celebration for Joe Cain Day. Joe Cain Day is an event that is unique to Mobile, Alabama. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. I have heard about it for decades but only got really intrigued with its origins and traditions in recent years. The more I learned the more fun it sounded. My little get-together is a way of sharing the tradition with my friends in north Alabama.

Of course, most Alabamians know and proudly assert that Mobile was the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the present-day United States. Mobile was founded in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans, and had established New World Carnival celebrations under French rule early on. There is still banter back and forth between the two cities about the legitimacy of Mobile’s claim to being the first. And a New Orleans friend once told me, “Well, Mobile may have started it, but New Orleans taught them how it ought to be done.”

There is no controversy, however, over the origins of Joe Cain Day.

Joseph Stillwell Cain (1832-1904) is credited with reviving Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War. It all started in 1866 when he paraded through downtown Mobile in fanciful Native American garb. This act is considered the rebirth of modern Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Joe Cain was a Mobile native and as a teenager was a charter member of the Tea Drinkers Society (TDS), a Mobile mystic society that paraded on New Year’s Eve. Prior to the Civil War, pre-Lenten celebrations in Mobile were customarily tied into New Year’s observances.

When the Civil War began, Joe Cain was a private in the Confederate Army. When his military service was over he lived for a time in New Orleans and participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras observances.

In 1866, when Cain returned to his hometown from New Orleans, he decided to revive Mardi Gras in the city. He and six other members of TDS decorated a charcoal wagon, dressed in Native American garb, and frolicked through the streets of Mobile. Cain led the procession dressed as a fictional Chickasaw chief, “Chief Slackabamarinico,” and declared an end to Mobile’s suffering and the return of pre-Lenten carnival celebrations.

Joe Cain’s actions had an impact and led to the city officially moving the culmination of carnival festivities from the New Year’s season to traditional Fat Tuesday. Cain was a founding member of the mystic society called Order of Myths. Order of Myths adopted the emblem of Folly chasing Death around a broken column. This is assumed to be symbolic of the Civil War, a Lost Cause for the rebel South.

Cain remained active in Mardi Gras. Later in life, he and his wife moved from Mobile to the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Cain died in 1904 and was buried near Bayou La Batre. After Cain’s death, Mobile’s Mardi Gras remained popular but exclusive. The mystic societies had closed memberships. Most of the citizens of the city could only participate as onlookers.

In 1966, Julian Lee Rayford, a local author, set out to honor Joe Cain and open Mardi Gras participation to more people. Cain and his wife’s bodies were moved from Bayou La Batre to Mobile’s Church Street Cemetery. Cain’s interment was accompanied by a Mardi Gras parade, jazz band, and mourners. His tombstone has a jester’s image and reads “Here Lies Old Joe Cain, the Heart and Soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.”

The popularity of Cain’s reburial inspired the creation of “Joe Cain Day,” observed on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day Parade, also known as “The People’s Parade” because anyone may participate (although it eventually became so big that the number of participants had to be capped), is led by a person chosen to dress as Chief Slackabamarinico. The parade concludes at Church Street Cemetery where revelers dance atop Cain’s grave.

Throughout the day, a mystic society of mourning-clad women known as “Joe Cain’s Merry Widows” wail over the loss of their beloved Joe Cain and declare “He loved me best!” The Merry Widows wail at the grave, toast the deceased from the front porch of his house on Augusta Street, and ride in a place of honor in the Parade. In 2003, another all-woman mystic society, “Mistresses of Joe Cain,” appeared. The Mistresses are also veiled, but dress all in scarlet and proclaim that “Of course he loved us best!” They parade alongside the vehicle carrying the Widows in the Parade, taunting them along the route and creating a general caterwaul.

Rumor has it that still another all-woman mystic society might be in the works that will be Joe Cain’s “ladies of the evening” – or some more earthy variation. In any case, Joe Cain Day in Mobile is a great representation of the silliness and release of the Mardi Gras season.

(The image is of the cherry tree in my front yard, bedecked with beads for Joe Cain and Mardi Gras.)


Discovering Eugene Walter

IMG_1111 During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.

“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?

The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.

“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:

  1. Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
  2. Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
  3. With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  4. Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
  5. Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
  6. Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
  7. Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
  8. While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
  9. Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
  10. Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.

He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”

American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”

His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”

In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)

His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.

Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”

In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen , you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”

I re-watched not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.

Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.

Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).

I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”

Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.

As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.

Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.

Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”

I wish I had known to meet him.