Tag Archives: Southern Foodways Alliance

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.

Victuals

 For Americans of my generation, the word “victuals,” pronounced ‘vi-dls and sometimes spelled “vittles,” conjures up images of Granny Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies” cooking up something for Jed and the family. My own Grandmother Harbison occasionally used the word to refer to the scrumptious real food she was always preparing.

The word comes to us, after some alterations through French and English, from the Late Latin victualia meaning provisions for human consumption. My grandmother’s use of it probably harks to her Anglo-Saxon roots filtered through Appalachia. Those Anglo-Saxon roots are also likely the reason she sometimes still used the word “poke” to refer to a sack or bag.

These memories were conjured by the book I just read. I enjoy cookbooks that read like a narrative and few cookbooks fulfill that purpose as beautifully as Ronni Lundy’s Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes (New York: Clarkson Potter / Publishers, 2016) with photographs by Johnny Autry.

Victuals explores and extols the foodways of the Southern Appalachians. The book has agendas: sustainable farming and environmental concerns come through loud and clear. But ultimately it is a celebration and explanation of a part of the country and a way of living that is sometimes undervalued and marginalized.

It is ironic that the trendiest chefs and food styles are discovering a way of food and living that has never gone away in the southern tangents of the great eastern mountain range. John Stehling of Asheville’s Early Girl Eatery observes, about southern Appalachia, “This place and its food have never died off, and it inspires me.” Indeed, a 2011 study declared southern and central Appalachia “the most diverse foodshed in North America.”

Lundy is among the founding members of Southern Foodways Alliance and has written extensively on Southern food, culture, and roots music over the years. With Victuals she digs deep into Appalachian roots in eight distinct, beautifully written, and well-documented sections which present stories, recipes, and individuals as well as document the threats that menace the noble and well-established way of living in the region. The sociology of Victuals is as compelling as its culinary focus in sections with titles like “Roots and Seeds,” “Apple-achia,” “Preserving,’ and “Husbandry.”

Victuals introduces the reader to a variety of farmers and butchers, chefs and cooks, purveyors, environmentalists, and food experts throughout the region. Many faces are new and others are familiar names like Chefs Sean Brock and John Fleer, and Chef Erik Neil of Chattanooga’s Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats. I was pleased to see a mention of Big Horse Creek Farm in Lansing, North Carolina, where a few years ago Suzanne and Ron Joyner were able to hook me up with some of the Hackworth apples that my mother remembered from her youth in Cullman County, Alabama.

Johnny Autry’s enticing photographs set one’s mouth to watering even before the text can be read. Soon after I received the book I casually opened it to a photo of English Pea Salad with Cream Dressing; it made me long for a taste and brought up memories of a long-forgotten dish. The recipe for Spiced Pickled Peaches makes my longing for the start of the spring Chilton County peach crop in a couple of months even stronger. There is even a mouth-watering section about chili buns and slaw dogs.

Other recipes inspire new ideas, such as “Buttermilk Cabbage Soup with Black Walnut ‘Pesto’” or “Ginger Bean Chowchow.” There is a piece on greens that is as informative as anything I’ve ever read about those Southern standards.

Lundy’s exploration of Appalachia extends from southern Ohio and West Virginia to northern Georgia. She does not include the southernmost Appalachian regions of northwest and north central Alabama but much of her reportage rings familiar to what I know and other segments, going deeper into the heart of the region, hold surprises.

Lundy is confronted with and explores the idea of “aspirational eating” – a foodways theory that suggests that the move from home-grown foods to convenience foods and commercial products was fueled not by convenience, availability, and taste but by the “aspiration” of the region to be more like the mainstream families seen in print ads and on television. This is apparently a new concept to Lundy (as it was to me) when she is first asked about it by an oral historian, but as she encounters the idea more she feels compelled to consider and address it.

Her best response comes from one of her book’s subjects, Walter Harrill, who owns Imladris Farm, near Asheville, with his wife, Wendy. Lundy says the Harrills have become the Asheville area’s premium suppliers of locally crafted jams and preserves. When asked about “aspirational eating,” Harrill muses:

“See, I think assuming ‘aspirational’ for a motivation assumes that those of us living here, in the mountains, are trying to be a part of the world ‘out there’. But the truth of it is, we look ‘out there,’ at the rest of the world, and then we kind of shake our heads and say, ‘Well, I just hate it for them’.”

Victuals is full of that kind of true and direct mountain wisdom.

Chef Sean Brock

sean-brock-photo I admit that there is very little that inspires me to make the two hour drive up I-65 to Nashville these days. I have lived there twice and used to visit fairly regularly but eventually I felt like I had gotten all of the sugar out of the Nashville gum – or perhaps all of the Goo Goo out of the Nashville cluster.

Now that I have finally sampled Chef Sean Brock’s food, I long to get back to Nashville soon to enjoy a meal at the Nashville version of his award-winning restaurant, Husk (www.huskrestaurant.com), which opened in Music City in 2013.

Sean Brock is the James Beard and multi-award winning chef most identified with the original Husk in Charleston. Heritage, Brock’s 2014 cookbook, is one of the most beautiful and certainly most readable cookbooks ever. Brock challenges himself to only use Southern indigenous ingredients in his restaurants – often from his own garden and herd of pigs – and the results are creative and special. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door” is my favorite Sean Brock quote. Heritage contains a recipe for “cornbread and buttermilk soup” that I will be making forever. It was inspired by the chef’s early habit of crumbling cornbread into a cup of buttermilk — a meal my Granddaddy Harbison ate regularly.

Sean Brock is humble and authentic.

I finally had my first Sean Brock meal at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence last Saturday evening when my friend Anne and I travelled over for the most recent Friends of the Café dinner. We got off to a bad start at the Factory when someone in the Alabama Chanin organization had misplaced our reservation and a staffer was a little rude to us before they found their mistake. It’s the first time I was ever made to feel uncomfortable at a Factory event and the lack of grace with which the situation was handled tainted the good feelings about the Factory that I have written about so many times in the past.

That early unpleasantness faded quickly, however, when Sean Brock’s food made its first appearance and a series of passed hors d’oeuvres circulated among assembling diners. Jimmy Red Johnny Cakes with pimento cheese, grilled oysters on the half shell with ‘nduja sausage and lovage, and beef tartare lettuce wraps were carried around accompanied by the first of the pairings from Grassroots Wine, a stalwart of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Southern Foodways Alliance was once again one of the beneficiaries of the dinner’s proceeds. A last minute decision was made to share those proceeds with victims of Hurricane Matthew which was bearing down on Sean Brock’s beloved Charleston as we gathered.

When it was time to be seated, Anne and I were reunited with our friend, Barbara from Tulsa, who we met at the Adam Evans Factory dinner in August, and introduced to Barbara’s friends, Cathy and Paul from Chicago, and to Cindy, a Florence local. A hallmark of the Factory dinners has always been the instant community that is formed. I quickly enlisted Jason at the table behind me to keep me posted on the Alabama-Arkansas score.

Before the first course arrived, each diner was presented with a benne-buttermilk roll accompanied by a smear of butter — a Husk tradition. The courses arrived amid oohs and aahs from those gathered and with enough time in between to cultivate conversation and camaraderie. When a tomato and okra stew was served as the first course, some people bristled at the grilled pig tail that garnished it but when they tasted it they were delighted. A gentleman at another table who introduced himself as “a Jew from New York who is not quite sure why I’m here” declared the pig tail “delicious.” dscn0525

The second course, a savory and exceptional shrimp and eggplant purloo, brought together a number of Brock’s influences. Purloo, a South Carolina Lowcountry standard, is reminiscent of Gulf Coast jambalaya, which is itself closely related to Spanish paella. The third course was a perfectly grilled Denver steak with black truffle and sweet potato. The portions, the flavors, and the aesthetic were perfection. dscn0527

Finally, a panna cotta made with Cruze Farm’s buttermilk, muscadines, and brown butter completed, once again, one of the very best meals I have ever tasted. Several of those meals have been consumed in Florence, Alabama.

I have regularly written about the magic and community that make the regular pilgrimages to the Florence Friends of the Café meals so special. Like an author with his books, it’s hard to choose a favorite among the Factory meals – it always seems like the most recent is my favorite.

Either way, Sean Brock is now one of my very favorite chefs. He signed cookbooks after the event and his courtesy and patience, his eagerness to talk about his food and how honored he was to be serving us, his pride and his passion for locally grown and sourced food – were infectious and inspiring. He is also the source of my favorite anecdote about Birmingham chef Frank Stitt.

This was the final 2016 dinner for the Factory series. May 2017’s line-up be equally inspired. And may Sean Brock keep exploring and teaching what Southern food really means. sean-brock-photo-2

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

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

A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading

Gumbo

Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

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

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

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

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

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

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

Happy Mardi Gras!

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