Tag Archives: University Program Council

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.

Love Song for Joni


IMG_1407  Joni Mitchell was born in Canada in November 1943 so she missed being a “Baby Boomer” by a little more than a year. The influence she continues to wield on millions of Baby Boomers renders that trivial detail totally inconsequential.

My friends from the ‘70s in Tuscaloosa are likely to remember that my obsession with Joni was perhaps alarming at times. I once decided to see if I could reach her on the phone to wish her a happy birthday. Of course, this was an unsuccessful mission but during the course of the night I managed to contact somebody at Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s house in New York (his number was always listed and I had read that he had “everybody’s” phone number); her sound engineer’s babysitter in Los Angeles; and somebody in Saskatchewan who was very courteous but not very helpful (and who may or may not have been a relative).

I bought every album on the day it was released and listened to it until it was etched completely in my memory. If prompted, I might still be able to sing the entire Court and Spark album from beginning to end. Just hum “Love came to my door / with a sleeping roll …” to me and I’m off. When I was living in a tiny studio apartment near the campus in the mid-70s my neighbor June once knocked on my apartment door and said, “I love Joni Mitchell, too, but could you play something other than Blue for a few days?”

I became aware of Joni Mitchell as a songwriter and folkie in the late ‘60s and primarily through other singers’ covers of her songs. Judy Collins had major success covering Joni Mitchell’s songs, most notably “Both Sides Now,” and the Crosby, Stills and Nash cover of “Woodstock” was a generational anthem.

I first saw Joni herself and her inimitable style as a performer when she appeared on the first episode of “The Johnny Cash Show” in 1969. If she had the Cash imprimatur, I was on-board.

Blue, Joni’s fourth album, was the breakthrough album in 1971. Blue’s moody and reflective and achingly personal series of songs signaled the maturation, musical sophistication, and exploration that mark her entire career. The classic Court and Spark arrived in 1974 and was followed in the same year by the great live album, Miles of Aisles. This was the time in her career when Joni was most popular and receiving the most radio play. Whenever I hear or see the name of music and movie mogul David Geffen I start humming “Free Man in Paris,” which Joni wrote with him in mind.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released in 1975 and was the most recent album when Joni played a magnificent concert at Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa on February 1, 1976. That’s when my obsession became complete.

One of the highlights of my extracurricular undergraduate life (and a key part of my education) was volunteering for the University Program Council, a student-run entity that presented concerts, lectures, movies, stand-up comedy, touring theatre, and other events on the University of Alabama campus. I worked my butt off for the organization and I joke with friends that it was amazing what we would do to get a free t-shirt back then.

By the time Joni arrived on campus, I was most often working on “artist relations” and doing my volunteer duty backstage, making sure dressing rooms and catering were up to par and contract riders were fulfilled. But I didn’t plan to forego the opportunity to watch Joni perform and got assigned to “security” and a position in front of the stage. It was one of those transformative concerts that people who attended still remember vividly and talk about. She played songs we knew but also included songs from Hejira, her next album, which would hit later in 1976.

At the end of the show and after an encore of “Twisted” from Court and Spark, I moved toward the backstage area. One of the UPC “honchos” (Gary Weinberger, I think) intercepted me because I did not have a backstage pass for that concert. I said, “Who’s gonna stop me?” (Have I mentioned that I was a cocky kid back then? … 5’6” and 115 pounds with a smart mouth — Anybody could’ve stopped me). He smirked, laughed, and stepped aside.

One of the reasons that I often worked backstage is because it was known that I would leave the talent alone; I was back there to do my job, not to hobnob with celebrities. I didn’t want to bother Joni that night, but I felt the need for one more moment in her presence.

There was already a group of people with backstage passes gathered around the dressing room door. Finally, Joni emerged holding an armful of long-stemmed roses. The crowd began to crowd her and she was gracious as she moved toward her waiting car at the ramp leading out of the building. I stood out of the way as the crowd continued to vie for her ear and attention. As she slowly made her way through the crowd, she began to hand out roses to the people around her. Others began to reach out for a rose.

I stood quietly back against the wall as she passed. A moment later, she turned around, made eye contact with me, and said, “You look like you need a rose.” She walked a couple of steps back and handed me one of the roses … Bingo.

At that time I was a full-time student and worked part-time as part of the surly crew making sandwiches behind the counter at a sketchy deli on the Strip off the University campus. The day after the concert, I went to classes in the morning and showed up for my deli shift that afternoon. I still had a literal “contact high” from the events of the previous night’s show.

As I worked my shift, friends from the Program Council came to taunt me with the fact that they had managed to get into an informal after-concert get-together at Joni’s room at the Hotel Stafford downtown. Later, other friends rushed in to let me know that Joni had just been at The Dickery, a record store down the Strip, buying albums. I was fine with that; I felt I had gotten my moment already.

Joni Mitchell never stopped to rest on her laurels as a singer and I have continued to follow her the whole time. She has never stopped her artistic growth and experimentation as both a musician and a painter.

A burglary in 1990 wiped out my entire record collection and I no longer have a complete Joni collection, but I replaced quite a few of the older albums and continued to buy new recordings as they came out.

Her musical evolution has been constant and uncompromising. She has moved from folk to rock to jazz and more experimental sounds and has always defied labeling. Her voice frolics over lush and tricky wordplay and intricate phrasing; since she mostly sings the words she wrote, her voice truly becomes a versatile multi-faceted instrument full of meaning and deep emotion.

She speaks her mind without apology in interviews and in song. Her voice transformed over her career and she reached a point when the crystalline and aching high notes were unreachable but her smoky lower register serves her well and allowed her to re-examine and transform some of the early hits. Just listen to her re-recording of “Both Sides Now” in 2000; now juxtapose it with her 1969 version. In addition to vocal virtuosity,  she is also an amazing and innovative guitarist.

I recently pulled down an old college yearbook from my bookshelves to see if that rose still survives inside the front cover. The stem is still intact but I guess the petals turned to dust years ago.

Doesn’t matter … I still have the moment.