Tag Archives: the Shoals

Fall Feast in the Shoals

The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.

It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.

Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.

James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.

The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.

After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to ­Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.

The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide  surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.

By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”

I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.

The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had  the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.

The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.

The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.

Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.

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.

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.

Sustenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rosenbaum House; Florence, Alabama

 I am not sure when I became a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) but I suspect it had something to do with seeing a picture of Fallingwater, his 1935 house for the Kaufmann family built over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. As I learned about his myriad other buildings – the houses in Oak Park, the two Taliesins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, etc. – I was hooked on the style and philosophy of Wright architecture, and on the life of the prickly and headstrong architect. I love the buildings and the art of the man but I’m not sure I would have liked him much personally.

By the time I actually visited Fallingwater, in 1993, I was pretty well-versed in Wright’s architecture and biography. Seeing Fallingwater for the first time was a spiritual pilgrimage and when I left the house and ventured onto the grounds to look back at the 20th century masterpiece – which has been called the most famous private house ever built – it was hard to drag me away. The combination of the sounds of the creek and the waterfall and the magnificence of the architecture is mesmerizing.

The Rosenbaum House, located in Florence, is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in Alabama. Like all Wright buildings, Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum’s house had its flaws and challenges – leaky roof; dysfunctional heating system; doors, ceiling, and openings built to the scale of the diminutive Mr. Wright; defective chimneys – but it is still a work of a genius architectural vision and the Rosenbaum family lived in it for almost sixty years until Mildred Rosenbaum finally gave it up in 1999.

The Rosenbaums commissioned the house as newlyweds in 1939. It is the second house executed in Wright’s “Usonian” style – a utopian ideal of building practical, organic, and low-cost houses for American families. Some architecture writers consider the Rosenbaum house to be the purest example of Wright’s “Usonian” architecture.

The Rosenbaums agreed to a budget of $7,500 for their house and with construction delays and cost overruns the final building came out closer to $14,000. Problems with leaks and the heating system presented themselves early on and the Rosenbaums had to butt heads with the “old man” on many occasions.

The Rosenbaum house is sited on a pleasant and traditional residential street. It presents a fortress-like demeanor facing Riverview Drive with a brick and cypress wall interrupted by minimal glass at the front door and high windows along the low horizontal façade. There is a cantilevered roof for a carport. Carports were a Wright invention.

Once one steps into the interior of the house, there is abundant light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows and doors looking onto the back yard gently sloping to the Tennessee River. When the house was built, there was a river view. Now, with  tall trees going down to the river, the river itself is only sensed.

The original L-shaped house was 1,540 square feet. Wright’s built-ins – desks, shelves, tables – provide a distinctive Wright feel to the space. The narrow hall in the bedroom wing adds extra drama when one steps into the light and views from each bedroom.

Despite the design flaws, the Rosenbaums treasured their masterpiece and turned to Wright to build an addition when the family outgrew the original space. That 1,084 square foot addition, also L-shaped, incorporates a more spacious kitchen, a guest room, a “dormitory” with bunk beds for the four Rosenbaum boys, and a second cantilevered carport for Mrs. Rosenbaum. The L-shape of the addition embraces a walled Japanese garden.

The Rosenbaums budgeted $15,000 for the 1948 addition; the final cost was closer to $40,000. Such cost overruns are ubiquitous in Wright’s architectural history and homeowners were willing to pay them to live in a Wright house, flaws and all.

In 1999 when the city of Florence acquired the house from Mildred Rosenbaum, a city inspector recommended demolition. The house was overrun with damage from leaks and termites and restoring it seemed to be more than the city could handle. Led by Florence’s mayor and a dedicated group of civic leaders, the city took on the task of restoration and turning the Rosenbaum House into a house museum.

The restored house is now an integral part of Florence’s evolving cultural landscape, drawing thousands of visitors annually. Rosenbaum family effects are still in the house and as much of the Wright-designed furniture as could be retained or reproduced.

I first toured the house when it was newly opened as a museum and find that I return periodically to savor the feel of the place. There is a sense of tranquility and completeness that permeates the building and its grounds. It was a treasure for the Rosenbaums for decades and now it is a treasure for the Shoals.

The life of the house is beautifully chronicled in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House: The Birth and Rebirth of an American Treasure by Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Donald E. Lambert, and Milton Bagby (Pomegranate, 2006).

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.