Tag Archives: Natalie Chanin

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

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

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

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

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

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

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by D. Brunson

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

photo by D. Brunson

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

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

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

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

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Sustenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elusive Scott Peacock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends of the Café Dinner: Adam Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenity Now: Reflections on a Weekend

(for Anne T.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my personal favorite  – “SERENITY NOW!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenity is a Jack Russell terrier.

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

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

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