Tag Archives: Tuscaloosa

Old Dog, New Tricks … Sprouting

Sometime in the ‘70s, when Harmony Natural Foods opened along the University Boulevard Strip in Tuscaloosa, the store was a radical change from everything else on the Strip. It was close to my apartment and I would occasionally drop in for lunch – a sandwich or a salad. Harmony was really the only place in town to get the particular kinds of natural foods it was serving.

Harmony was an outgrowth of the hippy movement moreso than it was a harbinger of the food movements to come but it has managed to straddle both; it moved from the University Strip to Tuscaloosa’s McFarland commercial drag, changed its name to Manna Grocery and Deli, and is still in operation spanning five decades.

Back when I was a Harmony customer, I would dash across the street to Charles and Co. and grab a Coke before I went to have my “healthy” meal. I wasn’t always in the mood for the juices and herb teas that were the Harmony beverage options.

The food was generally good, but I remember an abundance of alfalfa sprouts on everything. I realized I am not a fan of alfalfa sprouts – they were fine as they were being eaten but had a metallic and lingering aftertaste that was and is unpleasant to me. Finally I started specifying “no sprouts” when I placed my order.

After all of these years, if I am ordering something that I suspect might have alfalfa sprouts, I will ask to have them left off.

Recently, though, while I was strolling through Pepper Place Saturday Market in Birmingham, one of the guys from the Iron City Organics microgreens stall motioned me over. “I want you to try something,” he said, and almost before I could say okay he clipped off a couple of tiny sprouts from a tray and I put them in my mouth.

The fleshy green sprouts popped with a burst of summer that was tangy and refreshing.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Sunflower sprouts,” he replied.

I had to have some and I took them home and used them in salads and as a garnish for various dishes. When I ran out of that first batch, I was anxious to get more.

Last week, when I went to Pepper Place, a visit to Iron City Organics was the absolute priority. There were trays of fresh sprouts still in the dirt and, after sampling, I came home with more sunflower sprouts, added wasabi microgreens to the mix, and am now thinking of all the ways I might use these and all of the other Iron City Organic crop. In addition to the variety of microgreen sprouts, Iron City also has full grown produce – kale, mustard, radishes, etc. – and a fine array from which to choose.

The guys at the stall are so passionate and take such pride in the product they are nurturing and providing that it’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm. They clearly know how to run a business and serve their customers; a search of their online presence backs up that perception.

I have recently become obsessed with accessing fresh watercress, which is hard to find, and now, thanks to the guys at Iron City Organics, I am embarking on a whole new sprouting angle to my menus.

But I’m still avoiding the alfalfa sprouts, thank you. 

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The Oasis

I woke up this morning craving a cheeseburger from The Oasis.

If you travel from west to east on University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa you will go through downtown and the heart of the University of Alabama campus. Continuing past Alberta City and the iconic neon sign of the Moon Winx Lodge (which survived the April 2011 tornado despite devastation all around it) you’ll pass through Five Points and a less populated area of Tuscaloosa’s edges. Eventually, University merges with U.S. 11 in Cottondale. Just past that merger point, one might almost miss The Oasis, a ‘50s-era roadhouse on the left.

If you’re in the neighborhood, try not to miss it. I haven’t been there in a long time but the place makes a vivid impression.

The Oasis is the kind of place that would have been referred to as a “beer joint” when I was growing up. It’s in a squat one-story red brick building with double neon zigzags across the top and “OASIS” centered up and left of the glass front door. Pick-up trucks are usually dominant in the front parking lot and motorcycles are often pulled around on the side. A free-standing neon sign tops a pole just to the right of the building. It is topped by the words “THE OASIS” flanked by saguaro cacti and a big neon “BEVERAGES” below. East Tuscaloosa along University Boulevard has long had some great neon.

The small entrance counter and cash register directly in front of you as you come in the door open into a basic dining room to the left with a few booths, tables, and a bar. Of course there was always a great jukebox.  A closed off barroom with a pool table is in the back with its own entrance near the rear of the building. I think I have peeked back there exactly once.

Be warned: Because the Oasis is out of the city limits (I guess) the place is still smoker-friendly and one dines there in a haze of stifling cigarette smoke. I guess it was always a smoke-filled room but I didn’t notice it so much in the days before strict non-smoking regulations. Now it hits you as soon as you open the door. I had recommended the cheeseburger to my parents a few years ago and they went in and immediately went out because of their health problems and the smoke (which I had forgotten to warn them about). The waitress came out and took their order and told them she’d bring it out to the car.

The Oasis has always felt to me like a place where one might go to cheat on a spouse. Maybe it’s the country music playing on the jukebox and the smoky atmosphere. Maybe it’s the clientele. I think it’s a combination of all of the above. Even if the waitress approaching the table doesn’t start off with “What’ll you have, darlin’?” you’ll feel like she did. The wait staff is friendly, experienced, and earthy. They have never suffered fools gladly.

The Oasis cheeseburger seals the deal. It’s a perfect old-style all-beef patty cooked on a flat-top grill with American cheese melted on the top. This is nestled beneath a pillowy top bun with the works – onions, tomato, lettuce, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. Some poll ranked the Oasis cheeseburger as among the top five cheeseburgers in Alabama; I find such rankings annoying but this one got it right by recognizing the Oasis (and I think the winning cheeseburger was Chez Fonfon in Birmingham).  Accompany your Oasis cheeseburger with a generous order of hot crinkle-cut fries. The Oasis was always the kind of place that would wrap a napkin around an ice cold long-neck beer to absorb the cold bottle’s moisture.

I passed The Oasis hundreds of times before I stopped and ate there. In the 1980s a jazz musician friend took me to The Oasis for the first time for lunch. (On that same afternoon, he convinced me how much better my life would be with a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses and I overspent on sunglasses for years after.)

I longed to be a “bad boy” back then but never really had what it took to pull it off. The Oasis, however, instantly spoke to my bad boy instincts and after that first trip I often looked for a good excuse to make the drive east on University.

I was directing a production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1986. Shepard is a favorite of mine and the twisted and longing love story of an emotionally damaged couple in a run-down motel room in the Mojave Desert is a great example of his singular aching vision. One night after a Friday night rehearsal I told Kitty, the actor playing the female lead, that we were going to do some research on her role after the Saturday afternoon rehearsal and that she should dress in character.

On Saturday afternoon Kitty showed up for rehearsal wearing a little too much make-up and with her honey-brown hair dyed jet black. She wore a low-cut red blouse, skin-tight jeans, and spike heels.

“Perfect,” I said. “Where to?” asked Kitty.

After rehearsal, Kitty, the stage manager, and I piled in the car and headed out to The Oasis. It was mostly a male clientele late on a November Saturday afternoon. I started handing Kitty quarters to feed the jukebox. Every eye followed her as she leaned across the jukebox and picked out the most plaintive cryin’ in your beer tracks.

Kitty, who was already a skilled actor, was finding her character with each sip of a cold one and with each quarter in the jukebox. We paid up and headed for the car. As Kitty was getting in the car, a group of women in a pick-up truck slowed down. One of them rolled down the window and yelled “Slut!” at Kitty. The truck and its women sped away, slinging gravel in the wake.

“Well that was fun,” said Kitty with a sly grin. “Where to next?”

We decided to go to Leland Lanes in Alberta City and bowl for a while.

The Chukker Nation

59343_10151206185029021_891945282_n  A girl I sort of dated in college told me that she thought I looked like “the love child of Mick Jagger and Jackson Browne.” This was the ‘70s. She was delusional; I was young and flattered.

I had forgotten the comment (really, I had!) until somebody forwarded this photo to me from Facebook. It was taken (as far as I can figure since I remember the shirt) by photographer John Earl sometime in the very early ‘80s. I am the skinny guy in the down right corner with a lot of attitude. The photo made me gasp since I had forgotten myself as that skinny, that young, and with that hairstyle. But then the Mick and Jackson love child statement came to mind. Or is that guy in that picture maybe “Zoolander-esque”? Or Zoolander-esque-ish?

The picture was taken in the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa fixture for 47 years from 1956 to Halloween 2003. It was a bar. It was a dive. And it was one of the great and legendary watering holes in the world (friends have reported seeing Chukker tee-shirts in Paris). I was born in 1955 so I was a minute older than the Chukker. But here’s the deal: My parents opened a typewriter business on 22nd Avenue in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1957 and their shop was around the corner from the Chukker, new at the time but already a dive. Back then, the Chukker was a lunch spot – a grill if you will – in the daytime and reverted to its bar status at night.

I know my parents would probably rather not admit to this, but I remember going to the Chukker as a young child to pick up coffee in the morning and sandwiches at noontime for Mother and Dad. So my personal memories of the Chukker go back to about 1958. It was a different time and toddlers could freely roam Tuscaloosa city streets. I was – I’ll admit it – too much of a spoiled brat to go to day care back then and my accommodating parents made a sort of nursery/playroom for me in the back of their business.

I had the run of the streets in many ways since the shopowners in the area knew me and would look out for me. My parents still have a small bookcase that I decided I needed back then. I spotted it and my 4-year-old self told Mr. McGraw at the furniture store to put it on my parents’ account. He did. I am pretty sure that my mother’s cedar chest still has a drawing of little me that was drawn by an itinerant artist who set up shop for a while in the Chukker in the ‘50s. And I vividly remember ringing the bell at the Salvation Army booth during the Tuscaloosa JayCee’s Christmas parade with my stuffed Coca-Cola Santa under my arm, making a haul for charity. As a toddler in Tuscaloosa I was a “street kid” in the purest (and most innocent) sense of the term

When the family moved back to Tuscaloosa in 1972, the Chukker was still there. And it was still there when I was an undergraduate in college. It was only after I finished college (the first time) and I was still living in Tuscaloosa that I went with friends back to the Chukker. Back then, it was much like I remembered it, but it was a full-fledged bar and its reputation seemed to change biannually. It was reputed to be, at various times, an “artists’ bar,” a “biker bar,” a “blues bar,” a “bohemian bar,” a “gay bar,” a “lesbian bar,” an “old hippy bar,” a “punk rock bar,” a “redneck bar,” a “writers’ bar” … I could go on.

What it was, though, was an inclusive community that happened to be a bar. One always felt looked after at the Chukker. One always found someone one wanted to talk to and get to know.

My friend Bill and I were at the Chukker when I heard that John Lennon had been killed. That was no small feat since the bar had no phone at that time. I directed my first, and unexpectedly successful, production of Gertrude Stein plays at the Chukker. Bruce Hopper, the owner at that time, asked me if I wanted to do a show in the bar’s performance space. I told him that I did but I couldn’t guarantee an audience for the avant garde plays of Gertrude Stein. He said “do it” and we sold out nightly.

A film student shot a short film of my friend Deb and me walking in a circle in the Chukker courtyard on the day that Andy Warhol died. We walked round and round and talked about Andy and Andy’s death. I never saw the finished product but someone told me, many years later, that they saw it at a screening somewhere. “You’re the guy walking in circles in that Warhol film.” Yes, I guess I am.

My friend Clay would spend hours, it seemed, glued to the Chukker’s Galaga machine. My Galaga attempts were generally over in under a minute. Clay and I played a lot of pool at the Chukker also. My pool skills were unpredictable at best; I chose to refer to them as “Zen-like.” Clay was one of the few people who had the patience to play pool with me; I even won a game on occasion.

An ersatz and quirky art collection was housed at the Chukker – mostly the work of artists who hung out at the place during their Tuscaloosa sojourn. Some was hanging on the walls and some was painted directly on the walls. “The Sistine Chukker,” Tom Bradford’s Michelangelo homage on the bar’s ceiling, was the most legendary piece of the Chukker collection. For many years, I would welcome newcomers to Tuscaloosa with a postcard of the Sistine Chukker.

The great Tuscaloosa-based Celtic group Henri’s Notions was practically the house band at the Chukker for a while. Forecast, The Indigo Girls, The Replacements, Johnny Shines, Richard Thompson, and Sun Ra all played the Chukker, as did any number of local bands trying to be R.E.M. during that band’s heyday. In fact, I took a long time to warm up to R.E.M. because of the English department “R.E.M. wannabe” bands that sprang up in Tuscaloosa at the time. The real R.E.M. itself adjourned to the Chukker after a concert on the University campus, bringing a substantial number of the concert-goers with them, when Michael Stipe announced to the audience that that’s where they were going after the show. I invited Billy Joel to the Chukker after one of his Tuscaloosa concerts; he declined. Jimi Hendrix may or may not have played there and Keith Richards may or may not have played pool there. Abbie Hoffman DID have a beer there because I was there when he did it. There was always a “Chukker Nation Reunion” on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years’s Day.

“Quarter beer night” on Mondays was a longstanding tradition. One could go on the roof of the building next to the place (the building, in fact, where the furniture store where I bought those bookshelves used to be) and watch the cars converge from every direction at 9:00 p.m. on Monday (remember that convergence scene in Field of Dreams?) and watch most of the same cars leave again at 10 when the hour of 25 cent beer was over.

I had not been at the Chukker for many years when I heard it was closing its doors on Halloween 2003. In fact, the closing was reported on CNN. It was ultimately the victim of a Tuscaloosa downtown renewal. There’s a park where the Chukker and my parents’ typewriter shop used to be, and a fountain nearby. It’s a nice enough place, but a little bittersweet if you remember what used to be.

I went down on Halloween 2003 to be a witness. So did many other people. I didn’t stay long that night, and I was disappointed that I arrived just as Henri’s Notions finished their final Chukker set, but the place was packed; it seemed that every time the door opened that night, it contained a face that I had not seen in ages. Truly, people flew from across the country to be present at the Chukker’s closing night. I visited with the guys from Henri’s Notions, Sandra and Michael, Fred and Jennifer, and other people I knew. I didn’t stay long; I didn’t even have a beer. But I was there.

And then I was not there anymore. It was all I could do not to turn around for one last look as I walked out of the Chukker door for the final time. But I didn’t. I just kept walking.