Tag Archives: The Great Gatsby

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.

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Waning Days of Summer

IMG_0726  When you live alone you develop routines and rituals. At least that has been my experience. I don’t know when I started the ritual of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on the first day of summer, but I know exactly why.

On page 11 of The Great Gatsby, during a dinner party fraught with marital mystery and tension, Daisy Buchanan says, “I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” Her friend Jordan Baker replies, “We ought to plan something,” and yawns.

I didn’t yawn. Like Daisy, I often watched for the longest day of the year – the first day of summer – and then forgot it until it was past. On my third or fourth reading of The Great Gatsby, that passage resonated with me and, following Jordan’s bored advice, I made a plan: I always read The Great Gatsby on the longest day of the year. I can’t remember exactly when I started that ritual – probably in the late ‘70s – but it continues to this day. And I have never missed the longest day of the year since.

William Faulkner is my favorite writer (good Southern boy that I am) but I think Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the most perfect American novel. It’s a short read; I can knock it out in about three hours. But it is so compactly and intricately structured that I never tire of it even though I have now read it upward of forty times. I always discover something new or respond to something I never responded to in previous readings. I first read the novel in high school and, unlike many young readers, I loved it immediately. I studied it again in college and then found myself drawn to it periodically after those initial readings. And then I developed my summer ritual.

I love summer. I love the heat and the sweatiness and the long days and the outdoor activities. In my part of the South, many people seem to relish complaining about the heat and humidity of summer but I cherish it. I’d rather be too hot than too cold any day. So not only does The Great Gatsby represent my literary tastes, it has also come to represent my favorite time of the year.

The reason I am talking about the beginning of summer at the end of summer is because I am winding down the summer of 2014 with a book that is about The Great Gatsby and that I am thoroughly savoring. Literary critic Maureen Corrigan has authored a new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, that is an extended meditation and exploration of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It amuses me that Corrigan’s book exploring The Great Gatsby is twice as long as the novel itself. It turns out that Corrigan may be an even bigger fan of the book than I am although she admits to not liking it in high school. I heard Corrigan tell an interviewer that she has read Gatsby at least fifty times and I knew I had to check her book out.

It was worth it. And reading it now, three months past the first day of summer, is giving me a nice way of transitioning to ever shorter days and ever dropping temperatures. I must admit that the only thing that bothers me on that first day of summer in June is the knowledge that the second day of summer will be a bit shorter, and the next shorter still as we take the plunge to the shortest day of the year in December.

The Great Gatsby itself takes place over a summer season. In the first pages the narrator, Nick Carraway, comments that “life was beginning over again in the summer.” Toward the end, he mentions that “there was an autumn flavor in the air” on the day that Gatsby is killed.

Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read On, has provided this reader with the perfect way to ease into the fall.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, …” Thanks, F. Scott. And thanks, Ms. Corrigan.