Tag Archives: Southern Foodways Alliance

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

Some things are worth the wait. Three years ago, Chef Adam Evans presented a dinner for Alabama Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” series that still ranks among my favorites of over two dozen meals eaten at that venue. Evans had just completed a successful run at The Optimist and other Atlanta restaurants, and, since I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to Atlanta, I had only admired him based on his press from afar. It was a pleasure to experience his menu and see that he lived up to his reputation. The course I most remember from that night was perhaps the simplest – a garden salad assembled with ingredients gathered from the chef’s grandfather’s garden that morning.

Evans is a Shoals native and the rumor in Florence that night was that he was working on a new restaurant concept for Birmingham. That rumor put Evans’s Birmingham restaurant on my radar and I began to do regular searches for “Chef Adam Evans Birmingham.”

My diligence did not yield much information until the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham in February 2018. The opening night reception was held on the loading dock of an abandoned factory on 5th Avenue S. in the Lakeview District. Chef Evans had grills set up off the loading dock and picnic tables were arranged for seating. It was a delicious, charming, and bare bones affair.

The theme for that symposium was “Narratives that Transform” and John T. Edge, SFA Executive Director, announced that the space where we had gathered for our opening night reception was the future site of Adam Evans’s new restaurant, and that the narrative begun that night would conclude at the 2019 SFA Winter Symposium with an opening night reception in the finished restaurant on that very site.

Now that I had a location, I drove past that corner of 5th Avenue every weekend to check on the progress. There wasn’t much to see for several months, but then windows began to appear and a restaurant began to take shape at what used to be the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation factory. Still, by January 2019, I was skeptical that there would be a finished restaurant in time for the symposium in February.

The SFA Winter Symposium 2019 held its opening night reception at Good People Brewing.


Automatic Seafood and Oysters (www.automaticseafood.com) opened in April. I was anxious to eat there as soon as possible but a good opportunity did not present itself until August, when my friend Christina drove down from Huntsville to join me for dinner during Sidewalk weekend.

If you ask about my favorite types of restaurants, my answers will be all over the map. I like any place where one can eat authentic and well-prepared food, whatever the price point and style, and where the ambience is warm and friendly. But one of my very favorites is an urban seafood place with a comfortable vibe and delicious and imaginative food. Birmingham’s Ocean (www.birminghamocean.com) on 20th Street S. has been a long-time favorite. Non-residents don’t realize that Birmingham is only about four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and trucks with fresh catches come into the city daily. I still won’t eat seafood in land-locked states, but it is always fresh and available in Birmingham.

With all of those points in mind, Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a new favorite to add to my lists. The interior, designed by Suzanne Humphries Evans, combines an open layout with furnishings that seem upscale and special while also recalling a seafood shack on the Gulf. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east facades add to the open feel. The restaurant is located in a transitioning neighborhood that still has an industrial feel, so the decision to put the main entrance off the street on the north side allows entry onto a terraced green lawn, away from the bustle and traffic of the street-side.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive and the menu is full of seasonal options. Christina commented that she’d like to order a bite of everything. Instead, our meal started off with crab claws and freshly shucked oysters from the large and beautiful oyster bar located in a corner of the room. For contrast, I ordered Canadian oysters from Prince Edward Island and Murder Point oysters from Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.murderpointoysters.com). The briny, buttery Murder Points were the best Gulf oysters I’ve ever had, and possibly the best oysters I’ve ever had, period.

My main course was a simply roasted grouper that was prepared, seasoned, and presented to perfection. Christina’s cobia dish was equally detailed. Conversation waned as we savored two beautifully prepared seafood dishes. Our generous shared side of basmati rice with smoked fish, curry, and peanuts was an ideal accompaniment to both dishes.

For dessert, there were several tempting choices but we chose brown sugar cake with peaches and cream. It was a perfect finale – a little decadent, but not too sweet.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a bright new jewel on an already vibrant Birmingham culinary landscape. After three years of waiting, I am happy to say my high expectations were met and exceeded. I look forward to my next of many visits to come.

Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

Ferry Boats Sink

Chef Bill Smith, a legendary chef, of Crook’s Corner, a legendary restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has a museum-quality collection of vintage tee-shirts from mid-to late-20th Century rock bands reaching into the 21st Century (www.crookscorner.com). While making plans to attend a dinner prepared by Smith at the Alabama Chanin Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series, I considered wearing one of my own vintage tee-shirts, collected from years as an undergraduate volunteer for the University Program Council’s series of concerts and events at the University of Alabama.

I had settled on my most cherished tee-shirt (and one of the few that still fits) – the simple black tee from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 concert tour appearance in Tuscaloosa – but I chickened out at the last minute and opted instead for my college professor drag of open-collar dress shirt with jacket and slacks.

I was not the only one considering the tee-shirt gesture. John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, revealed the concert tee under his jacket during his virtuosic introduction of Bill Smith and Alabama Chanin’s inaugural Project Threadways Symposium (www.alabamachanin.com/project-threadways), which kicked off in Florence that night (www.southernfoodways.org).

John T. Edge, whose prodigious knowledge of southern foodways and culture is always impressive, tied together the Shoals music and textile culture, Smith’s food, and Alabama Chanin’s Project Threadways, in inspired fashion. Project Threadways, an Alabama Chanin outreach and research initiative, collects information specific to the Southern textile industry – which was a major player in the Shoals prior to NAFTA. In addition, Project Threadways explores the Shoals and the broader Southern community through oral histories and other relevant research.

I was only able to make it to Bill Smith’s opening night feast at the Factory but visitors from throughout the country joined the locals and regulars for an event that explored the ongoing pull and mystique of the Shoals.


Chef Bill Smith’s recipes often exalt the contributions of talented immigrants who have worked in his kitchen over the years. He cherishes his relationships with Crook’s Corner co-workers from Vietnam, China, the former Soviet republics, Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere. His recipes reflect the international flavors he’s learned in his kitchens from employees from throughout the world. He even, he writes, had a period when he employed “rockers” in need of employment between gigs. He learned from all of them.

“I realize that everyone in the world cannot come here to live in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who complain so loudly about immigration have had much experience with new immigrants. Getting to know people from all these places has been one of the great privileges of my life.”

I don’t often sport bumper stickers but this past winter I was compelled to order a bold bumper sticker that simply reads “FAKE CRISIS.”

I think Bill Smith would agree.


For those who haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Crook’s Corner (and that includes me), Bill Smith might be familiar from his regular appearances with Chef Vivian Howard in the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” where he memorably shared his preparations of persimmon pudding, corned ham, and – my favorite – his father’s family recipe for sunchoke relish.

Bill Smith, who retired from Crook’s Corner in January 2019,  absorbs all of the foodways of his Southern culture and his family, including his Southern grandmother’s “mean Yankee German” grandparents, to create his food. He also honors the traditions of Crook’s Corner founding chef Bill Neal, who preceded Smith and is credited with making shrimp and grits a Southern staple.

The food Smith served in Florence last week was real food – humble and authentic, quietly sophisticated, honest, and finessed without showing off. It was a suitable accompaniment to lively conversation punctuated by occasional gasps at the deliciousness of the bites being savored. Many of the recipes are featured in, or variations of, recipes in Smith’s essential book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006), a cherished touchstone for many cooks of the South and beyond.

Seasoned in the South has an introduction by author Lee Smith, one of the South’s most authentic voices. Bill Smith’s recipes and menus follow and honor each season’s harvest with evocative intervals such as “An Outdoor Supper after the Last Outing of the Season”; “Snowed In”; “A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass”; and “Big Picnic on the Fourth of July.” His “New Year’s Day” menu is very similar, amazingly, to the one I served to guests at my own house for many years in many places.

Smith’s Florence dinner was superb from the moment we walked into the Alabama Chanin Factory. Passed appetizers were circulating and each was a treat. The bread that accompanied three of the pass-arounds was delicious, but a little too chewy to accommodate conversation; that glitch, however, did not distract much from the fine and distinct flavors.

Alabama Chanin’s Anne Ryan Cavin curates the beverages for the Factory dinners and always presents with a unique and impeccable taste. For the Smith dinner, she selected local options from Florence’s Singin’ River brewery, a Sangria, two Spanish wines, and a Prosecco for dessert.

My first taste of the evening was a chicken liver mousse with onion jam. I love well-prepared chicken liver to begin with and Smith professes an affinity for “guts,” so that first bite was an automatic hit. I have my own strong affinity for pimento cheese, which my mother often served on celery when I was a kid, and I take pride in the pimento cheese I make myself; Chef Smith’s pass-around pimento cheese appetizer was perfectly spiced, as was the hot pepper jelly that followed. The fourth appetizer, unencumbered by the bread, was a very plucky and fulfilling deviled egg.

As the guests were seated, the first course was unexpectedly simple and superb. A white bean and turnip green soup arrived in a clear broth. Startling in its simplicity, the soup was magnificent. Before that initial bliss faded, a mixed salad second course was served with local spring greens coated with a subtle Crook’s house dressing.

 

The third course was a generous platter of braised pork shank with posole (hominy soup), chayote (a squash), and Salsa Ranchera. The plate’s flavors, distinctly Latinx, had the familiar sense of a Sunday dinner at any family table. Our table happily accepted seconds.

I suspect that the most talked-about dish of the night was the dessert course – “Atlantic Beach Pie” with freshly whipped cream. This dessert apparently sprang from Smith’s eastern North Carolina region’s conviction that one must never eat dessert after a seafood meal. The exception, it seems, was lemon meringue (or any citrus-based) pie. Our meal did not include seafood, but Atlantic Beach Pie is probably Crook’s Corner’s most revered dessert. Regardless of its evolution, the pie was a hit. Smith’s original adaptation used a saltine cracker crust but his published and Florence versions used more buttery Ritz crackers.

There is a kindness and decency that emanates from Bill Smith. These qualities are evident in his dishes and in his comments at the end of the meal. There was a serene tranquility while the chef interacted with guests at the conclusion of the evening. It moved me.


In the 1990s I was working at a theatre on Galveston Island, Texas. Because the thought of living in Texas had always been anathema to me, I was fond of telling folks that I lived “on an island off the coast of Texas.”

Crossing Galveston Bay with a good and trusted friend on a ferry one day, I was worried about the theatrical show I was currently directing. I had the usual problems – inexperienced cast, imperfect set, inadequate budget. I was stating – for neither the first nor the last time – my stress as a director.

“I want a low-pressure job,” I said. “Maybe I should be a ferry boat captain, going back and forth across the bay all day.”

My friend was silent for a while. Finally, he took a deep and significant breath and said, “Well, y’know, ferry boats sink sometimes.”

More recently, friends have told me I should have pursued a career in the culinary industry. They note that I seem to be comfortable with food culture and I like to cook when I have the opportunity. But I think – given my temperament – that I might spend my kitchen time worrying that I might have inadvertently poisoned a diner.

It’s too late to worry about what my culinary career might entail; it was probably a bad idea to begin with.

That thought provides even more incentive to admire and extol the fearless cuisine of Chef Bill Smith.

Where I Am Now

I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, morning, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music of a farther room.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot

 

I measure the advent of spring by natural occurrences visible outside my windows. First come a few of the 90 crocuses planted at random in the front yard, followed soon after by the delicate rusty pink blooms of my neighbor’s front yard crabapple tree.

Next, that same neighbor’s large back yard cherry tree bursts into white blossoms and fills my back bedroom window. It’s filling it now.

When the neighboring cherry blossoms yield to leaves, my own front yard cherry tree begins to bloom with a display of delicate pink blossoms. By the time those blossoms drop, most everything else is blooming and sprouting and leafing and the herbs that plan to return have started to do so. So far, my chives have returned with a vengeance, but my mint, surprisingly, is missing in action.

The small redbud in my back yard is making me nervous again. Last year was its first year in the ground and it finally sprouted its heart-shaped leaves after a long period of acting as a dead stick. I trust it is bluffing again this year and will eventually bloom and grow as it did last summer.

These small occurrences cheer me up. The longer days and the promise of summer give me hope and energy.


Recently, at the end of a long conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was at table with four friends from various stages of my life. The conversation was lively and I must have fallen uncharacteristically quiet and pensive.

“Eddie,” said my friend, Patty (who has known me long enough that she still calls me “Eddie”), “what are you thinking? Where are you?”

“I’m just listening.” And that was true, I was listening to friends I have known for decades now and I see them annually in different places that host our convention. I was thinking carefully about their lives since we were last together … and about my own.


During the time that my father was so sick, leading up to his death almost three years ago, a counselor that I was seeing said, “It sounds like now’s the time to discuss any unfinished business with your dad.” I told him that I couldn’t think of a thing that was unfinished between Dad and me.

I was fibbing a little, because for several years I had been wanting to ask my father – whose health was on the decline in the years before he died – at what point he first began to contemplate his own passing. It was important to me because I had begun to think about my own mortality and was curious about when such thoughts normally set in.

But I never did ask Dad the question. That was the sort of topic that was uncomfortable in our family and I did not want to ask a question that might be misconstrued as peculiar in some way.


When I was a teenager, I became preoccupied with the far-fetched and unspoken notion that I would pass away at age 24, the same age as James Dean. Once I made it to age 24 and beyond, I had to assume I would most likely have a normal life span. If so, I have quite a few more years to navigate.

Still, all of the aging tropes are beginning to apply to me: realization of physical limitations; thinning and greying hair; occasional soreness and aches; discussing medications and ailments with my peers and colleagues; frustration with technology; the realization that younger people may be a tad condescending (partially due to my frustration with technology). I even occasionally have to deal with the death of a friend my age or younger.


I set conditions for myself when I purchased my first house a few years ago. I vowed that I would not own a house unless I was committed to keeping it up myself. I would take care of my own yard and I would clean my own house. I would take care of my own maintenance problems and, if there was anything I couldn’t take care of, I would hire a professional.

Today, I hired a new guy to take care of the yard; he was finishing up just as the woman who cleans my house was wrapping up her monthly cleaning.

“I had you figured all wrong,” said the yard guy when we met. “I thought you’d be young.”

Then he looked around the street. “But it makes sense now; most of the people who live around here are old.”


Looking at my current life, it’s sometimes hard to find the person I used to be. As time goes on, values and needs change. Things that were routine become more like luxuries, or slip away completely. Things that used to be important slip to the back burner and things I never thought about become front and center.

In the past – and for decades – I was the one who kept up with all of the current movies and theatrical events. I attended at least one and often two or more movies in an actual movie theatre each week and would often watch a rental on the nights I didn’t go out.

Now I only seem to see movies in a theatre during the annual film festival that I still attend religiously. I have a hard time carving out a couple of hours to watch something at home. My viewing habits are now mostly half hour – and mostly informational – shows that I don’t have to pay much attention to as I go about my tasks.

The day of the Academy Awards broadcast used to be almost like a holiday for me. I would invite people over and watch the red carpet and the interminable awards show and we would make snarky commentary. I haven’t watched an Oscar broadcast in years.

I used to always have at least a couple of books I was reading at any given time. They would usually be something fictional – a novel or collection of short stories – and something non-fiction – biography or history or issue-oriented volumes. Any non-work-related reading tends to be magazines now. I’ll read an article or two if I have a spare few minutes or before I go to sleep, but it’s sometimes hard to even work that amount of reading into the schedule.

I did spend the last six months of 2018 reading the first volume of Proust’s 3-volume Remembrance of Things Past. It was hard to find the time to read such a contemplative and obsessive novel but it was with a sense of accomplishment that I finished volume one a few days before Christmas. Volume two is sitting on my nightstand, but I haven’t opened it yet.

I was active at a local gym for a few years, averaging a 90-minute workout five times a week. When I stopped the workout regimen, I started hiking and was dedicated to frequent moderate hikes in various locations for a while.

Now, I try to figure out how I found the time to do that then. I have often said that one always seems to find the time for what one really wants to do, so maybe I don’t really want to re-launch a rigorous exercise regimen. But I know I need to.

A more recent new interest is food culture and foodways. As a dues-paying member of Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), I have learned a lot from their symposia, the magazine and podcasts of Gravy, and the dinners in Florence that have served to raise awareness of the organization and of southern chefs. It has helped me to connect and understand more about where I come from and what shaped me and my people. I look forward to trips to local farmers’ markets wherever I may be.

It does occur to me that my interest in food culture may not be the best response to my lack of time to exercise regularly.

I had always heard that a man’s politics become more conservative as he ages. I am pleased to report that I am an exception to that observation — and I’m sure I’m not alone. I am more progressive now than at any point in my life and, if things in our country don’t change soon, I may be on the way to becoming a full-blown radical. I am often reminded of visionary philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and his observation that “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”


There was a time when I loved my transient career in professional theatre and found the idea of retirement unimaginable. Lately, the prospect of retirement is a sweet one. I love to travel, and plan to continue to travel as much as possible, but I’m equally drawn to the prospect of staying at home. I am fortunate to be a person who never really gets bored or lonely. I like to be alone with my thoughts and my stuff and I think that will continue into my eventual – and, hopefully, inevitable – retirement.

For now, I try to grab as many moments of contemplation and observation as possible. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life by coffee spoons. I intend to measure out mine by the views outside my own window – or any window I happen to be near at the time.

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.


The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.


At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.


The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.


We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

Cedric Burnside: Blues in the Shoals Night

The brilliant October sunset was ever-changing heading west on another trip to Florence and the Shoals for the final 2018 Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin design factory (www.alabamachanin.com). This was the fifth season of dinners featuring guest chefs and benefiting Southern Foodways Alliance – a positive force for the study, understanding, and exaltation of southern food history and development (www.southernfoodways.org).

In her introductions, Anne Ryan Cavin, Alabama Chanin events coordinator, mentioned that the evening’s chefs – Kelly English and Camron Razavi – are the 21st and 22nd chefs of the series. That opportunity to sample the food offerings of so many chefs in one place a short drive away was initially the major draw of these dinners for me. After five years, however, an equally strong draw is the ambience of the place, the opportunity to reconnect with people who have become friends, and the new friends who have been made over the years at this inspiring venue.

Chefs English and Razavi presented a meal influenced by Mediterranean palates, heavy on spices and condiments originating in Italy, the Middle East, north Africa, and Turkey —  moving beyond the Mediterranean into Korea and east Asia. This diverse medley of tastes competed mightily for attention. English’s restaurant, Restaurant Iris, recently reopened in Memphis after a complete renovation which included an overhaul of the building and a radical rethinking of the menu under the leadership of executive chef Razavi (www.restaurantiris.com). Most appealing of the four courses were an Italian influenced andouille ‘nduja passed hors d’oeuvre on toast and a St. Louis lemon butter cake dessert – the alpha and omega of the meal.


Natalie Chanin, the regular host of these events, was out of town, so hosting duties fell to Reed Watson, the label manager for Florence-based Single Lock Records, and Will Trapp, one of Single Lock’s founders. Single Lock has developed an impressive roster of artists – many based in the Shoals – during its half decade of existence (www.singlelock.com).

For the Friends of the Café event, Trapp and Watson presented Cedric Burnside, a Single Lock artist who plays “Hill Country Blues,” a blues category – distinct from Mississippi Delta blues – that emerged from the hills and lumberyards of northern-most Mississippi (www.cedricburnside.net). Hill Country blues has a strong percussion influence, focused on the persistent drive of the “groove.”

Cedric Burnside, an award-winning drummer and guitarist, played four songs at the Factory. He sat with his guitar and sang and stomped the plaintive sounds of his distinctive brand of blues. Cedric is the grandson of R.L. Burnside (1926-2005), a preeminent artist of Hill Country blues. I was fortunate to see an intimate performance by R.L. Burnside in Jackson, Mississippi, around April 1999. It is thrilling to watch the continuation of that rich legacy with Burnside’s grandson.

Cedric Burnside’s short set was memorable and left one wanting more. Fortunately, his newest Single Lock release, Benton County Relic, was available at the event and became my driving music over the weekend. It’s a compelling compilation with one foot firmly planted in its Hill Country roots (just listen to the opening of “Death Bell Blues”) and the other sliding the genre confidently into its future.

Cedric Burnside’s music taps into the gritty, sexy belly of the blues, punctuating his lyrics with yelps and low groans in songs like “Typical Day” and “Give It to You.” “Life can be so easy / And life can be so hard” is the opening sentiment of the wonderful “Hard to Stay Cool.” It’s a simple statement, given new life and complexity in Cedric Burnside’s heart-felt delivery.

Other tracks, like “There Is So Much” and “Call on Me,” keep the down and dirty blues feeling intact while taking an almost flirty attitude. The final two tracks, “I’m Hurtin” and “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess,” are defiant, relentless anthems which caused me to step on the gas and pound the steering wheel on my weekend travels.

Cedric Burnside has already established himself. Keep watching him. If he’s new to you, find him.

As another Friends of the Café season ends, I cherish those evenings and look forward to new opportunities to spend an evening in the former tee-shirt factory in the Shoals – touching base, renewing inspiration, discovering bright new talent.

Big Bad Chef

In January 2006, four and a half months after the disaster in the aftermath of Katrina, I drove to New Orleans to join a crew of volunteers assembled by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) to work on the resurrection of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood place in New Orleans that was designated an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, less than four months before the storm. Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken is often declared the best anywhere (www.williemaesnola.com). Willie Mae passed away but her legacy is carried on by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton Stewart.

When I got to my hotel after an eight-hour drive, there was no room available. I produced a print-out of my reservation and confirmation number but the little French Quarter hotel – a place I had stayed at and enjoyed in the past – was full of construction workers who were working on the larger reconstruction efforts around the city. The desk clerk called a couple of places and declared there were no rooms in the area to be had at short notice. I was too tired to argue.

I blame myself. When I made the reservation in December, the staff Christmas party was going on in the background so maybe – confirmation or not – my reservation was lost in their revelry.

Despondent, I emailed my regrets to the SFA folks and drove back to Alabama that same night.

If I had figured out a way to stay and work, I would have been working with Chef John Currence, who headed up the Willie Mae’s restoration.


Currence, a New Orleans native who made his culinary mark in Oxford, Mississippi, may be as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his restaurant brand. City Grocery, his flagship restaurant on the Square in Oxford, is a fine dining restaurant with a famously rowdy upstairs bar. Snackbar and Boure are other Currence ventures in Oxford along with Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast also has locations in Alabama and Florida (www.citygroceryonline.com).

I’ve had a couple of great meals at City Grocery and was thrilled when it was announced that John Currence would be the guest chef for the August Friends of the Café event at Alabama Chanin’s Florence factory. He had been on my wish list of possible chefs for the series.

The Friends of the Café series of chefs and dinners is always announced in advance (www.alabamachanin.com). However, the August chef is kept secret until a few weeks before the event. This dinner always happens on the Thursday night before the opening of Billy Reid’s weekend-long “Shindig” the next day. I was happy when Currence was announced in July.

Currence’s dishes for the evening were paired with wines selected by Eric Solomon, a champion importer of French and Spanish wines through his European Cellars distributors in Charlotte. Solomon’s passion came through in his presentations and descriptions throughout the evening (www.europeancellars.com).

Passed hors d’oeuvres included a chicken liver pate with pickled egg mimosa on grilled bread. The hearty second pass-around was kheema pao, an Indian street food stalwart, with spiced lamb, soft scramble, cilantro chutney, and slivered serrano peppers served on a hefty sweet roll.

As the diners were seated, a first course of sweet corn soup with marinated blue crab arrived at the table. The course that followed was grilled summer vegetables served with spiced yogurt, smoked almonds, sweet onion, and a lemon vinegar. At the end of the night, Chef Currence touchingly revealed that the vinegar we were served was made from champagne that had been part of his mother’s cellar.

The third course was a perfectly prepared beef ribeye with celery root puree, vinegar-wilted arugula, and chimichurri. The dinner ended with the most elegantly presented Mississippi Mud Pie I have ever tasted. It was a soulful, well-paced meal, pleasingly complemented by Solomon’s pairings.


Currence’s food philosophy is on vivid display in his 2013 cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book is an enjoyable and colorful collection of profanity-laced insights on food and great recipes. Currence draws from his culinary training, international travel, a New Orleans upbringing, and long-time Mississippi residency for recipes that resonate and thrill. His culinary viewpoint is headstrong and provocative and his cookbook is a showcase for his culinary tastes and his opinions; I tend to agree with most of his takes on food, as I do with his takes on politics in his unbridled social media posts. The text of the cookbook, like the food Currence champions and serves, is honest and to the point.

This is not your grandmother’s cookbook.

After the dinner, Currence signed my copy of Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. As he signed, with a typical Big Bad Chef flourish, he blacked out a tooth on his picture on the facing page and gave himself a diabolical moustache.

It’s always hard to imagine how each Friends of the Café dinner might be topped. The parade of master chefs who present there seems to always come through. Add Big Bad John Currence to the list.

John Currence photo by Angie Mosier; photo defaced by John Currence