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Good Food That’s Good for Your Soul

Joy Smith made a name for herself with her creamy cheesecakes, but her new café offers plenty of savory treats, too. 

Smith is the chef-owner of Sorelle Café, tucked into Homewood’s close-knit Edgewood neighborhood. She opened her café in August of 2021, and the cozy and comfortable storefront on Broadway (where Lag’s Eatery used to be) is a dream fully and deliciously realized. It’s also the natural progression of a multifaceted business Smith started in 2017 with a single space in the West Homewood Farmers Market. 

She quickly built a name and a clientele and moved to the bigger, busier Saturday Market at Pepper Place. She found retail outlets in local Piggly Wiggly stores and at Smiley Brothers Specialty Foods in Pelham. She catered for friends and family. 

Smith still has the catering company—offering everything from pick-up and delivery breakfast, lunches and dinners to full-service big events like weddings “with servers and all the bells and whistles”—as well as the retail business, but now she also has a place of her own.

We sat down with Smith for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire store here and watch a cool video by my partner Brittany Faush.

“This whole thing has been a fantasy since I was seven,” she says. “When the space came open, I made the leap. It was a leap of faith, too. It’s definitely not lost on me that I’m on this side of the glass. … It’s a lot of work, but I’m fully aware of the blessings of it and I’m thankful.”

The café has been “very well received,” Smith says. “Walk in; look in the cooler; grab your breakfast, lunch or dinner; and leave happy.” Customers can eat at the café, inside or outside. “People can come and sit at my pie counter and enjoy a salad, sandwich or a slice of cheesecake. I’m working on a good cup of coffee and hopefully, eventually, a glass of wine.”

The café offers grab-and-go meals like grilled ginger-lime chicken with confetti rice and cilantro aioli, tenderloin medallions with creamy polenta and mustard-sage sauce, classic lasagna and a neighborhood favorite—meatloaf muffins and mashed potatoes. “They always say, ‘you can’t, please everyone,’ but I’m going to sure try,” Smith says.

Inventive dishes offer a variety of tastes and textures. Customers eat their fresh colors with a blue salad (baby spinach, blue cheese, blueberries, dried cherries and a cherry vinaigrette), a red salad (mixed greens, roasted red peppers, strawberries, goat cheese, sesame crunchies and sesame-red wine vinaigrette) an orange salad (romaine, carrots, oranges, grapefruit, toasted almonds and a ginger-citrus vinaigrette) and a green salad (baby spinach, cucumber, green grapes, goat cheese, currants, toasted almonds and a basil green goddess dressing).

Vegetarian options range from a veggie pot pie with rutabaga, russet potatoes and cannellini to mushroom enchiladas with spinach, peppers, onions and avocado cream to vegetable lasagna with spinach, squash and mushrooms.

Most meals are conveniently packaged for two, four or six people, so families have choices. “Another thing I think sets us apart is some of our dishes can be utilized in more than one way,” Smith says. “Like our roasted veggie pesto pasta is a little side dish that is great with our sliders for lunch. But also, you can heat that dish up. I’m the only one in my family that eats shrimp, so I’ll throw a handful of shrimp in, throw the pasta in, three minutes and you’ve got a beautiful dinner.”

Smith says she tries to buy from local purveyors as much as possible—fresh eggs from Bois d’ Arc Farm (aka BDA Farm)  in Uniontown go into her quiches and frittatas. She’s working with Birmingham’s Red Bike Coffee, and she cooks with organic produce and grains.

Her cheesecake deserves a few words. 

“It’s been in our family for a long time,” she says. “It’s not a New York-style cheesecake. It’s baked twice in two different layers. It has a sour cream layer and a cream cheese layer. Super light and creamy, not really sweet. It goes great with fresh fruit. It has a graham-cracker crust made with tons of butter and lots of love.”

The café space is inviting. Her pie counter is a beautiful, silky-smooth and huge live-edge piece of cherry wood. You might smell the aroma of homemade stock bubbling on the stove in the kitchen. Refrigerated cases (painted with flowers) hold grab-and-go cheesecakes, casseroles, entrees, sides and salads. Lush plants thrive among the upholstered wingback chairs and antique tables. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want metal seats. I don’t want cement on the floor. I don’t want hard surfaces.’ … I wanted it to feel cozy—a place where you want to hang out.” 

Be sure to take a look at the miniature kitchen diorama Smith’s sister created for her, and marvel at the tiny bowls and pans, the little dishes drying on a rack, the pies, the clock that looks like the clock Smith remembers from her childhood, the miniscule reading glasses scattered here and there.

It’s details like this that make Sorelle special. Even the name of her business is meaningful—Sorelle translates to “sister” in Italian. Smith says she relied upon the good advice of great friends when she was getting started. One friend, especially, would always encourage her to prioritize her goals. 

“When I was trying to come up with a logo, I was like, okay, ‘What is the most important thing to me?’ And it’s relationships. It’s your tribe; it’s your sisterhood. It’s family and friends. So, that’s where Sorelle came from. I wanted to build a place where (we) could gather and eat a good meal and have fellowship together.”

She shares her café space with a sister of sorts. Both Smith and Fanolua Gulas are members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which offers mentoring and scholarships and grants to women pursuing culinary careers. 

“I’m so excited,” Smith says about Gulas, who owns The Greek Kouzina, which lots of people know from Pepper Place. “She makes the best melt-in-your-mouth baklava and spanakopita—beautiful triangles of spanakopita.” 

Smith says, “What matters most in this world is relationships. And I’m going to brag a little bit. Most people say that they’re honored to have one good friend in the world. I am beyond blessed, because I have handfuls of good friends and support. Meeting other women—and we bond so quickly—I love to support other people and other women.  I’m so proud that I have a really good, big support system. That’s what it’s all about.”

Smith is self-trained with plenty of restaurant experience—back of the house and front, too.

“My mom was a single mom. … She was a nurse and worked all the time. But she cooked all of our meals—homemade bread, pies, all the good stuff. I just grew up next to her. She would often get dinner started and leave a note, you know, ‘the potatoes are in the water; just boil them and mash them.’ So I’ve been cooking forever.” She started sharing her love of food early, too, inviting friends over after school for a bite of whatever was left over from the night before.

Her first job was in a small-town bar. “I worked one night dishwashing and moved up so fast. They wanted me to be the manager in … three months at 16 years old. It was crazy.”

Until recently, Smith had been operating out of a commercial kitchen (which was hard for her customers to find); these days she makes new friends daily as she carves out her own place in the neighborhood. A water station out front draws runners who often return for lunch or dinner; there are dog biscuits and a water bowl there, too.

She says being in Homewood means a lot to her. “It’s my favorite, favorite thing. I’m so honored to be here and to serve this community. I’ve lived in Homewood for 23 years. … meeting the people walking in the door, and they say, ‘I live right up the street.’ Their kids come in; I have some games stuffed away for the kids. … I’ve had people come in on their lunch break and bring out their computer; a couple people that I know who are writers have used the space.” 

When asked what she does best, Smith simply says:  “Feed people. Yeah. Mind, body and soul. That’s what I hear. That’s what I feel.

“I love to take care of people. I love to feed people, so I don’t even have to make the beautiful … whatever, if I’m feeding you and you’re saying ‘ummm’ and we’re talking and you’re enjoying your experience, it fills me up.”  

Smith says she wants people to know the care she takes preparing their food—whether they get it from a grocery shelf, during a catering event or at her café.

“I want everybody to love the food. I want them to know that it was thoughtfully prepared with intention and love. I hope it’s more than just food, though. I hope it’s a connection because that, to me, is what it’s all about.”

Sorelle Café 

903 Broadway Street, Homewood, AL 35209

(205) 848-2818

https://www.facebook.com/Sorelle1000/

Hours

11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Closed Sunday

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Fox 6 Books: October

Fall for these great reads! Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I read this stand-alone novel by Jane Harper while waiting for her book, The Dry, which is part of a series. Not only is The Lost Man well written, but it’s also compelling from the very first pages when two brothers meet for the first time in months on the edges of their adjoining properties in the vast Australian outback to identify the body of their third brother. Cameron, the middle son who ran the family homestead, appears to have walked away from a working truck full of water and supplies; he died within 24 hours under the unrelenting sun. Why he did it is a mystery. But there are other mysteries here, too, and they quickly unfold when Nathan and Bub and Nathan’s son return to Cameron’s ranch and those he left behind—their mother, Cameron’s wife and two young daughters, a long-time employee and two new seasonal workers. This is a family full of secrets, and these secrets come to light in a clever, twisty plot. Harper’s setting is just as intriguing as the characters. When your nearest neighbor is a three-hour drive away and you herd cattle with helicopters, just reading about how people live here is absolutely fascinating. 

Behind the Magic Curtain:  Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days by T.K. Thorne

A lot has been written, of course, about Birmingham and its role in the Civil Rights moment that changed our city, our country, and the world. This new book by Birmingham writer T.K. Thorne, and published by NewSouth Books, goes beyond what we know to reveal little-known or never-told stories of progressive members of the Jewish, Christian, and educational communities. The book is filled with firsthand recollections of a newspaper reporter who embedded with law enforcement and witnessed secret wiretapping and intelligence operations. Thorne understands this perspective:  She served for more than two decades in the Birmingham police force, retiring as a precinct captain. She was the executive director of City Action Partnership (CAP) before retiring to write full time. This book about intrigue and courage offers a look at The Magic City that most of us haven’t seen before. 

Fix-It and Forget-It Mediterranean Diet Cookbook:  7-Ingredient Healthy Instant Pot and Slow Cooker Recipes by Hope Comerford

Easy? Check! Healthy? Yes! This book is full of good-for-you recipes that don’t take a lot of hands-on cooking time. With healthy, low-fat Greek and Italian meals and dishes from other Mediterranean countries, this cookbook part of the New York Times bestselling Fix-It and Forget-It series. The Mediterranean Diet is known for its health benefits—lowering cholesterol and improving heart health and increasing longevity.  Studies show this type cuisine of has anti-inflammatory benefits and helps with weight loss and weight maintenance. And good, clean food gives you more energy, too. The 127 recipes here require only a handful of ingredients and very little prep time when you use an Instant Pot or slow cooker or other multicooker. There’s something for every time of day—breakfast, lunch and dinner, even snacks—and for every taste. You’ll find recipes for Fresh Veggie Lasagna, Chicken and Chickpea Stew, Italian Frittata, Garlic and Lemon Chicken, Moroccan Spiced Stew, Zucchini Chocolate Chip Bars and more. 

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor

So much in one book! This anthology features 100 years of the very best in American storytelling from masters including Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin and more. To celebrate the centennial of this annual series, Lorrie Moore (herself a master storyteller) has chosen 40 stories from the more than 2,000 that have been published in previous editions.  Series editor, Heidi Pitlor, offers behind-the-scenes anecdotes (William Faulkner admitted in his biographical note that he began to write “as an aid to love-making.”). And she looks at writing and reading trends decade by decade. Ernest Hemingway’s first published story is here. Nancy Hale writes about the far-reaching effects of the Holocaust; Tillie Olsen writes about the desperate struggles of a single mother; James Baldwin depicts the bonds of brotherhood and music. From Charles Baxter and Jamaica Kincaid to Junot Díaz, Mary Gaitskill, ZZ Packer and Sherman Alexie, this is a carefully curated guided examination in stories of what it means to be American. 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit our local libraries in person and online.

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La Nueva Michoacana: One More Reason to Love Green Springs Highway

There’s a cool, sweet spot on the global culinary crossroads that is Green Springs Highway. But there’s much more than homemade ice cream and other frozen sweet treats at La Nueva Michoacana.

I recently visited La Nueva Michoacana for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video.

There’s ice cream, of course. Lots of it—scooped into cups, waffle cones, waffle cups and packed in larger containers to go. There’s a rainbow of homemade popsicles, too. But you’ll also find fresh fruit in a cup, spicy snacks in a bag, elote (Mexican street corn) on a stick as well as ice-cold juices, fresh chicharrones, and homemade potato chips.

And the flavors! Sweet, spicy, salty, sour, savory. Sometimes even all in a single treat! And, if you want more heat, there are bottles of Valentina hot sauce on the tables.

Juan Sanchez, the owner of La Nueva Michoacana and the person who makes the ice creams and popsicles and just about everything else here, says this combination of ice cream and snacks is typical of what you would find in a similar shop in Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico where his family is from originally. 

With Ady Lopez translating, Sanchez tells us that this kind of ice cream shop is very popular in Mexico but, of course, it’s not what you’d usually find in Alabama, so that makes his place different from other ice cream shops here. Also, he enjoys providing variety for his customers. 

It should be noted, and Sanchez says, there are thousands of Michoacanas all over Mexico and throughout the United States. (It has become a generic term, although there are lawsuits pending about this.) Like the hot dog stands owned by the first Greeks who came to Birmingham, a “Michoacana” can be a path to economic mobility, a foothold in a local food community, a way to build an independent (usually family-owned) business without a lot of capital.

With a 4.5 rating on Google reviews and a line out the door on the weekends, the bright, colorful La Nueva Michoacana in Homewood, with its shiny silver tables, family-friendly booths and Mexican music, enjoys a loyal following. Sanchez, who has been in business for five years this month, says his “customers are a variety of people. Every culture. The main audience is Hispanics, but we have a variety.” 

They seem to enjoy everything, but a quick glance at a Sunday afternoon crowd shows ice cream to be the main draw—especially for families.

There are some 28 different flavors of ice cream right now, but Sanchez says he’s planning to add 14 more in the next month or so. These flavors range from creamy white coconut with fresh coconut flakes to a vibrantly blue “cookie monster” ice cream filled with broken bits of cookies. There’s much more including mango; pistachio; chocolate; and an amazing caramel ice cream with cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel imported from Mexico. 

The treats are made in-house from natural ingredients (“es natural” is part of the store’s logo). Most of the recipes, Sanchez says, are family recipes. He learned some from his sister, and he also has friends in Mexico in the food industry who have shared their recipes with him. 

Gallons of icy fruit juices (aguas frescas) include mango, coconut, mixed fruit, cantaloupe, hibiscus, and more. The lime-and-cucumber version is especially refreshing.

A colorful variety of paletas (popsicles) offers familiar and exotic options. Some are made with cream; others are fruit based. There are a few versions of strawberries and cream; there are straight-up fruit paletas made with mango, coconut, lemon, avocado, strawberries and more. Many of the popsicles are loaded with big pieces of ripe fruit—as pretty as they are tasty. 

Sanchez says, “How they look brings the attention of the audience, and then the audience wants to buy the product.” He adds that when he makes them, he “puts a lot of thought and effort into it. It takes a lot of patience to do the small details.”

You’ll find popsicles here you’ll not find elsewhere. There’s a creamy fruit-studded, not-too-sweet paleta reminiscent of a traditional Mexican fruit salad. We loved the delightfully sweet-fiery mango-and-chamoy combination that is a popsicle version of “fruit in a cup.” 

Then there’s actual fruit in a cup—big chunks of fresh, mixed tropical fruits topped with chamoy sauce and chile powder. The mangonada is one of the most popular items here. Another fruit concoction is called gazpacho and features mixed fruit with cheese (and onions if you want). Also in a cup but savory:  Mexican street corn salad (esquites) topped with chile powder and lime.

A large rack holds dozens of flavors of chips offering countless options for easy, to-go snacks in colorful bags. You see Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, and Fritos in flavors you might not have seen before. There are bags of Sabritas, Rancheritos, Crujitos, and more. Pick a bag, and they will fill it with toppings like melted cheese, jalapenos, salsa, and corn sticks or cucumber, jicama, peanuts, and chamoy or corn, mayonnaise, jalapenos, and chile powder. Or any combination you’d like.

La Nueva Michoacana is only one of many Green Springs businesses offering global flavors. Sabor Latino serves up Peruvian dishes just steps away. There’s a small tienda (with imported Hispanic goods) in this shopping center, too. And the popular La Perla Nayarita Mexican Seafood & Grill is in an outparcel here. All along Green Springs, you’ll find a world of diverse dishes—Ethiopian, Korean, more Mexican, Salvadorian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and more—in restaurants and in a number of food trucks that come and go. 

Just down the street, Mi Pueblo Supermarket draws regional customers with its bounty of fresh produce and dried chiles; homemade tortillas and scores of pastries; meats and seafoods; Mexican soft drinks, snacks, and candies; and specialty housewares. There’s a daily buffet in the back, a snack station up front and mariachi music storewide. Mediterranean Food Market, known for its helpful, friendly service, is a popular place for halal meats; Middle Eastern foods; and specialty cheeses, breads, candies, and spices. The new Halal Supermarket International is a short drive away. Hometown Supermarket is one of the state’s largest Asian markets, and it also has impressive African and Indian and South American sections. Really, the place is huge, and Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant is inside the store.

Green Springs Highway is one of the busiest business roadways in Homewood, and the City of Homewood sees it as an important gateway between Lakeshore and Oxmoor Road. Also recognizing the increasing regional draw of the diverse businesses located there—and Birmingham’s growing appetite for global flavors—the city is making access to these stores and restaurants easier with a $2.25M revitalization project that includes beautiful green medians with trees. New infrastructure will make Green Springs more bike and pedestrian friendly while better regulating traffic. Eventually a bike lane will travel all the way to UAB. 

It’s an investment in the city, its residents, its businesses, its many visitors, and in good taste. From a food standpoint, there is no other place quite like this in our area.

The changes will most certainly draw even more new customers to the businesses here, and places like La Nueva Michoacana will welcome them. 

Sanchez says he feels proud of what he’s built here in Alabama; he’s proud to own a Michoacana. “We’re bringing a part of Mexico here,” he says. 

La Nueva Michoacana 

104 Green Springs Highway 

Homewood, AL 35209

205-703-4604

Connect with @LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm  

https://www.facebook.com/LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm/

Hours

11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday

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Fox 6 Books: September

Local flavor, y’all! Reading close to home with books by Alabama writers and another about a worldwide, homegrown topic. Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month.

The Speckled Beauty (on sale September 21) by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg has the amazing ability to tell stories that touch our hearts. He always has.  His books like All Over but the Shoutin’ and the more recent Best Cook in the World draw the reader in with just the right mix of tenderness and toughness and honest humor. He tempers sorrow with laughter, and somehow, we’re different and better when we put down his books. He’s back with a book about a dog, and it’s another winner. The Speckled Beauty:  A Dog and his People, Lost and Found goes on sale September 21. It’s a warm and laugh-out-loud funny story about how Bragg’s life was changed by a poorly behaved, half-blind stray dog “an illegitimate Australian shepherd” who wandered onto his rural property. He named the dog Speck. It seems Speck, who likes mayonnaise sandwiches and chasing all livestock, showed up exactly when Bragg needed … something. And so, this is the story of two damaged creatures who help each other heal.

Sweet Potatoes:  Roasted, Loaded, Fried, and Made into Pie by Mary-Frances Heck

Oh, the humble sweet potato! Is there nothing it can’t do? Apparently not, as Mary-Frances Heck, senior food editor at Food & Wine, shows us. Sweet Potato Ice Cream? Yes. Sweet Potato Galette with a just-cooked egg on top? Consider it done. Sweet Potato Leaf and Fava Bean Stew? Why not?

Some 60 bold and delicious recipes take us from appetizers to sides to dinner to dessert—and the flavors are from all over the world. Shrimp and Sweet Potato Kakiage is a Japanese dish; Huevos Rotos is Spanish; there’s Irish Fish Pie with a topping of sweet potato puree; Thai-Style Noodle Curry is an exotic way to up your sweet potato game. (A trip to the farmers’ market AND the fabulous markets on Green Springs Highway is in order; you’ll find everything you’ll need.) Some dishes will be more familiar.  There are sweet potato fries here and sweet potato chips and sweet potato biscuits. There’s even a sweet potato “Big Mac.” What’s more, Mary-Frances guides cooks in a conversational way that is comforting even before you put your comfort food on the table. 

Family Law by Gin Phillips

I’ve followed Gin Phillips for years now. Her first novel, The Well and the Mine, remains one of my favorites. It won the 2009 Barnes & Nobel Discover Award. And once, in a train station in Germany, I saw a poster for her book Fierce Kingdom, and I was just so immensely proud of this Birmingham writer! Her latest novel, Family Law, is just as well written and compelling as the others. It’s set in Alabama in the 1980s and follows the career of a young lawyer named Lucia who is making a name for herself at a time when women were more likely to be the ones represented—not the ones doing the representing. Lucia spends her days helping women and children get free of troubling relationships, and her work is not without its perils; she receives plenty of threats. One day, a teenage girl named Rachel, whose mother is divorcing, comes into Lucia’s office. Rachel is captivated by Lucia and her ability to successfully move in what is essentially a man’s world. The young girl sees a path for herself in what Lucia is doing with her life. But then the violence of a threat made good puts Rachel in danger, and Lucia has to decide exactly how much her work means to her. (The novel is inspired by the real-life career of a highly successful woman attorney from Birmingham.)

The Unlikely World of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:  Solidarity Across Alabama, the United Kingdom, and South Africa By Cole S. Manley

I spoke to Ambassador Andrew Young a few months ago, and he told me a story. He said he had told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the movement, “We probably will die before we are 40. But if we don’t, it’s up to us to change the world.” This book, published by the Montgomery-based NewSouth Books, looks at the global influences and lasting impact of the 1955-56 mass protest in Montgomery that many historians consider to be the start of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Cole Manley is a PhD student in History at the University of California, and he takes a world view of a movement that started here. He researches how the Black Montgomery boycotters thought about their movement as it relates to international struggles—from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the anti-color bar battles in the United Kingdom. Because what happened in Montgomery reverberated throughout the world. The Montgomery bus boycott was about much more than fair seating, of course. It remains an example of the power of protest and still inspires people in the ongoing struggles for racial and economic and social justice.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Bow & Arrow 2.0

David Bancroft is a quick study. 

The celebrated chef-owner of Acre in the university town of Auburn opened a second restaurant concept called Bow & Arrow in 2018. The vibe at his newer place is Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck, which is a lot; but it’s really a lot more than that. 

The restaurant is a life lesson about listening to customers, recognizing what they want, and doing what it takes to make them comfortable and happy. The Bow & Arrow that people visit today is not the Bow & Arrow that Bancroft and his wife, Christin, originally envisioned:  They changed that vision to accommodate their visitors.

We sat down with Chef Bancroft for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video from my partner Britney Faush.

Bancroft, who was born in Alabama and grew up in San Antonio, wanted to create a South Texas-style smokehouse at Bow & Arrow. The kind of place where you walk right in and straight up to a meat counter where your brisket and other barbecue is cut to order, weighed on scales, and piled on butcher paper-lined trays with white bread or tortillas. You can grab a dessert from the cashier, a soda from the fountain, an icy beer from a portable cooler. You get homemade pickles and chow-chow from a condiments table, pick up some plates and silverware, and then find a seat (probably next to a stranger) at a communal table. 

All the meats and some Southern sides photo from Bow & Arrow

No hostess. No wait staff. Just make a plate and make yourself at home.

But people didn’t really get that. The offerings were different from other barbecue joints. There was a brisket learning curve.

“All the families that were going through were just very stressed,” Bancroft says. “They would get up here … and would have what I call ‘line anxiety.’ There was a group of people that really loved what we were trying to execute at Bow & Arrow, but then, there were also the … families that were in a rush and hurrying back and forth and trying to get from gymnastics to the ball field to school to a meeting. The ordering style was a little stressful and it caused a lot of anxiety and people would get a little frustrated at the front of the line.” 

So, when the early days of the pandemic closed his restaurant to all but steady and profitable to-go orders, handed off at the drive-through window, Bancroft decided to make some changes.

“It was really an opportunity for us to either go big or go home,” he says. “If there was ever a time to make a change, it was going to be right then and there.” Bancroft prayed hard about it and then decided he “was sawing it all in half.”  

He drew plans on napkins and computer paper. He removed walls and built others. He took out the buck hunter video game (and sold it on Facebook Marketplace to a guy from Mississippi) and put in a server station. He built a hostess stand up front, a handsome bar in the back and cozy seating in the middle area that once was the meat counter line. He kept the bones of the place—the exposed beams, garage door walls, beautiful stonework, crisp whitewashed woodwork, chic lighting, and some of the leathered granite counters. He kept the sizable herd of trophy deer on the walls; each is labeled with the name of the hunter who contributed it—Bancroft, his friends and family, his dentist, his chiropractor, the guy who does pest control.  

But his entire business model changed:  He went from a handful of pit masters to a full-service wait and bar staff and today employs about 75 people at Bow & Arrow.

Elements of his original smokehouse remain. You’ll smell the smoke and hear the chop, chop of the butchers. You still can get slow-smoked ‘que by the pound served with white bread or tortillas. But the variety of dishes on the menu now allows this chef to show exactly what he can do and expand upon his Alabama roots and Texas upbringing.

Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers Bebe and Mama Jean cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart. Growing up in Texas, he remembers an abuela bringing tamales instead of orange slices for soccer game snacks. He and his baseball buddies, at age 16, would camp at the Medina River and cook cowboy breakfasts (tacos with chorizo and potatoes) over an open fire. 

That history and his homegrown love of food are interpreted here in various delicious ways that reflect Bancroft’s growth as a chef.

“You know, the beauty of this restaurant is that you can still see all of that influence of my Grandpa Kennedy who is the fish farmer, the cattle farmer, cotton, pines, peanuts, chickens in South Alabama, and everything that you would see at their table—at Mama Jean’s long farm table—with old Country Crock tubs and Cool Whip containers (filled with) zipper peas and collard greens. … Everybody had that grandma who literally recycled every plastic container she ever received.  … We’re still holding true to that style. 

“We’re still going as far into depth of technique as we can just to get to a very simple acceptable Southern product. We’re spending the time, the effort, the labor making these things from scratch.” 

But what guests find at Bow & Arrow is “a little bit more refined and has a little bit more technique” coming from all the things he’s learned at Acre. “It now has much more French technique, Spanish technique, German technique,” he says. “I mean, you name it, Mexican, obviously. All of that literally is the South. So now we’re not just drawing from influences from just grandmothers … All of what is the South—that is blended together now—is something that we’re honoring here.”

At Bow & Arrow, there are barbecue plates with Texas brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and jalapeno-cheddar sausage. There are platos of Creole-fried Alabama catfish, “chicken fried” chicken with sawmill gravy, and wood-grilled skirt steak and Gulf shrimp brocheta with pineapple pico. Appetizers include goat cheese guacamole, chili-lime wings with poblano ranch, and chips and house-made salsa. Sides range from green beans and hash brown casserole to sweet corn rice and smoky borracho beans. There are salads and sandwiches and a variety of tacos made with fresh flour tortillas.

The popular “beef ‘n’ cheddar” soft tacos (shaved brisket, homemade queso blanco, cheddar, crispy onions, and sweet rib sauce) are Bancroft’s cheeky take on Arby’s classic sandwich. 

Wood-grilled fajitas feature meats—skirt steak, chicken, and Gulf-fresh shrimp—basted with butter using rosemary branches. These come with sauteed poblanos and onions, guacamole salad, salsa de fuego, grill butter and flour tortillas alongside sweet corn rice and borracho beans. 

Enchiladas are inventive. The 30A version features two cheesy blue crab enchiladas, lemon-chipotle crema, salsa cremosa, avocado and crushed tater tots. Christin’s enchiladas are two chicken enchiladas with queso blanco, salsa cremosa, radish, cilantro, goat cheese, and pico de gallo. The “King George” enchiladas (named for George Strait, not British royalty) are two cheesy carnitas enchiladas with sliced brisket, queso blanco, chili con carne, hill country hot sauce, and tortilla strips.

The bar that anchors the back of this restaurant serves a variety of specialty cocktails (a cucumber mojito, kombucha lemonade, any kind of mule you’d like) as well as local and regional craft beers and more than a dozen variations and versions of margaritas. 

Four different barbecue sauces cater to just about any regional taste. There’s a Texas red sauce; a mustard sauce; a sweet rib sauce; and an Alabama white sauce that Bancroft made sure passed a taste test with his friend Chris Lilly, of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q fame.

It’s those personal touches that matter. 

They make their own bacon at Bow & Arrow (curing the pork bellies, pressing them into shape, slow-smoking and then hanging them to air dry). That bacon makes the collard greens some of the best anywhere; it takes the cheeseburger to a different level. A tortilla press cranks out fresh bread daily. Memaw’s eclair is the perfect way to end a meal. Christin’s grandmother’s recipe is that time-honored combination of graham crackers, Cool Whip and French vanilla pudding layered and shingled and topped with homemade fudge. “The kind of fudge that you’ve got to crack with a spoon,” Bancroft says. “When people get that first bite … I’ve had famous chefs come and get that with a scoop of ice cream, and they’re like, ‘What was that?!’” 

Memaw’s Eclair photo from Bow & Arrow

Bow & Arrow attracts a variety of customers—people in business suits, construction workers, teachers, moms, students, grandparents—and it’s family friendly. A thoughtful (and nicely priced) kids’ menu is printed on a page cleverly illustrated by Paulina Arroyo with a maze, a word search, a dog named Dolly, kids named Walker and Kennedy and lots of things to color. 

Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and Christin opened Acre restaurant in 2013. That restaurant—with its modern interpretations of traditional Southern cuisine—is on an acre in downtown Auburn, and it’s landscaped with edible plants; Bancroft and his staff pull seasonal produce from this garden for their guests. 

He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award, and he won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown competition in 2017. Bow & Arrow was named one of the “Best New Southern Barbecue Joints” by Garden & Gun magazine. 

Accolades, no doubt, will continue. Clearly, Chef Bancroft is doing lots of smart things here, but he’s especially happy that he got Bow & Arrow right.

“We want everybody to feel welcome,” he says. “We want everybody to enjoy the ambiance, the energy, the flavors, the aroma, but we also want them to know how much effort we put into the food. … I think people can see it right when it hits the table … and when they taste it, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. We get it.’ … Families get to really share now, with a little bit less stress of having to order at the counter. I think they’re leaving happy.” 

He says the thing that makes him most proud of this 2.0 version of Bow & Arrow is the team that got him to this point. “Just the adversity that we had to go through, the challenges that we had changing from one model to another after the first year of business. … We all came out stronger,” he says. 

“There’s always an opportunity to make a change. There’s always an opportunity to find improvement, and it’s hard to do, but this team did it,” he adds. “This team is successful now because they went through that. They will always know that they do have an option, that they do have a choice—to either sit there and suffer through things or find something that makes them passionate and happy.

“The number one thing that happened here is now we are truly connected to the … heartbeat of this business, and it’s so much more fun for us to share that story now having gone through all of that.” 

Bow & Arrow

1977 East Samford Ave.

Auburn, AL 36830  

Phone: (334) 246-2546

www.bowandarrowbbq.com

Hours

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To-Go Window/Online Ordering

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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Alabama Chef Competes on National Stage

Chef Scott Simpson, who brings a global approach to dishes at The Depot in Auburn, will be representing our state at the 17th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. The winner of this event will hold the title of King or Queen of American Seafood.

The competition is set for Saturday, August 7 in New Orleans, and Chef Simpson is ready.

“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”

I spoke to Chef Scott for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the complete story here.

In 2018, Simpson placed second at the 4th Annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. This past June, he took first place at the state competition, which led him to New Orleans where he will compete against 12 other chefs from around the country.

In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans. 

“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”

This is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Chef Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang BBQ sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.

His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that. 

Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School, (the first English language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.  

Then he ventured even farther afield. 

With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world— from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamacia and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become Executive Chef & Culinary Educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn), and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot. 

Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Chef Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in the state of Alabama. So, he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.

During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped Champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood) KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Chef Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.

Decerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal—on a stage or in the dining room. 

“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the far front of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you—quickly moving—that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.

“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”

Photo by Tristen Cairns

Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors, almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”

Perhaps a teacher at heart—and most certainly a lifelong learner—Chef Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation. … so, she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores).  … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour timeframe are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.  

“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel—because of a lot of preparation—no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team—front and back of the house—who’ve done such a great job to develop us. 

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds, “it’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So, I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”

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Fox 6 Books: August

Let’s hit the books! A learning frame of mind is a great place to be, and we’re never too old for it! Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month–a great work of historical fiction, a cookbook designed for young people headed off to college, a guide to meditation and a thoughtful work of fiction. 

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

This beautiful work of historical fiction from Kristin Hannah is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s timely in an alarming way.  So I think it’s a must-read. Set in Texas and then California during the years of the devastating Dust Bowl era, the story follows Elsa Wolcott who marries a man she hardly knows and ends up living with him and his parents on the family farm. It’s 1921 in Texas, and the bounty of the land is plentiful. By 1934, though, things are different. Millions are out of work; a drought has left the farm in ruins; dust storms pummel the plains; and Elsa’s husband, Rafe, just walks away. Elsa, in an effort to simply keep her children alive, heads to California with its promise of jobs and security. It’s a false promise, but Elsa—facing challenges she never imagined—finds an inner strength she never knew existed.  In the end, The Four Winds is a lovely tribute to the indomitable spirit of women of The Greatest Generation and how they held their families together in the most dangerous and dire circumstances. This is not an easy book to read. Hannah’s WWII-era The Nightingale was more of a page-turner. I say read both. 

The 5-Ingredient College Cookbook:  Easy, Healthy Recipes for the Next Four Years & Beyond by Pamela Ellgen

Most college students are short on time, money and counter space. This cookbook with more than 100 easy-to-follow recipes—requiring five or fewer affordable ingredients and taking about 30 minutes to cook—can help instill healthy eating habits and hone lifelong kitchen skills. The recipes are varied—classic French toast, vegan enchiladas, Greek pita sandwiches, Thai chicken ramen and more. Young cooks can brush up on fundamental cooking skills with tips and techniques things like on knife safety and food storage. What’s more, most of these student-approved recipes include alternate versions to accommodate a variety of tastes and diet requirements. 

Practicing Mindfulness:  75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Mental Health and Find Peace in the Everyday by Matthew Sockolov

In these continually stressful times, mindfulness is more important than ever. Mindfulness is an evidence-based way to reduce stress, enhance resilience and maintain mental well-being. So why aren’t we all practicing it? All the time? This book gets you past any excuses with gentle, practical guidance. The 75 mediations are of various lengths; some meditations are designed for specific situations or emotions, and Sockolov also offers tips on how to handle wandering thoughts and mental blocks. The early meditations here take just five minutes (science shows us that even short meditations can turn a day around). Then the exercises grow with the reader’s experience, building on previous lessons to cultivate a regular and transformative mindfulness practice for a calmer, more balanced life. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a powerful work of fiction about knowledge and lose and the fragility of innocence. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grew up at Hailsham, an exclusive and secluded boarding school in the English countryside, where they were constantly reminded of how special they are. Now, several years later, Kathy is a young woman, and her work reconnects her to Ruth and Tommy. This stirs memories of old hurts as well as moments of happiness—and they begin to realize the horror of what it is exactly that makes them special. Ishiguro is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day. His newest work, Klara and the Sun, reminded me how much I enjoy his stories. 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Green Acres is the Place to Be for Wings and a Side of History

For more than 60 years—through some of Birmingham’s most significant social and economic history—Green Acres Café has been a constant in the city’s downtown. This iconic eatery is a popular draw in the middle of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District, which grew out of the city’s segregationist past and remains a promising—and proud—part of its future. 

I recently visited Green Acres downtown for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story and see a cool video from Brittany Dunn here.

“Green Acres is a family business that is family-orientated,” says owner Greg Gratton. “All my family is involved in it. Even the ones … I have living out of town. When they come home, they want to pitch in and help. … There’s a nice, friendly atmosphere,” he says, adding that some of his employees have been with him for 15 or 20 years.

The customers are loyal, too. 

“When I’m up there in the front,” Gratton says, “people will come to me and say … ‘My father brought me up on this. I’ve been eating it. Now look: I’m bringing my children.’  It’s just generation after generation,” he says, “and I have people coming in town and this is the first stop they make.” 

On any given day—at just about any time of day—there’s a line to (or even out) the door at Green Acres for its take-out-only offerings.  The place serves hamburgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and plates, pork chop sandwiches and plates, chicken gizzards and chicken livers, fried green tomatoes and fried okra and more. 

But most of the customers are there for one thing: “They want chicken wings!” Gratton says. “All the way! That’s ketchup and hot sauce, salt and pepper.”

“All the way” is the way to go with these wings.

Specifically, “all the way” will get you wings served on a bed of fries, drizzled with that sweet-spicy sauce and topped with a piece of white bread. Those who know often order the “Managers Special,” which is five wings and fries plus fried green tomatoes for $8.40. This food comes on a cardboard tray in a brown paper bag, and that bag will sport a small grease spot. That’s on purpose; it’s part of the presentation.

“The greasy bag is just something that my father got on,” Gratton says. “He said, ‘That greasy spot just makes a presentation; it just sticks with people.’ So, I’ve never tried to change that.

The brown paper bag with a signature spot is how they do to-go at Green Acres.

“If you see anybody anywhere in this area with a brown, greasy bag,” Gratton says, “you know, they’ve been to Green Acres.” He says he was at UAB Hospital recently visiting a friend who had asked for some wings. He walked in with the signature bag of wings, and all the way down the hall he heard, “Why didn’t you bring me some? Why didn’t you bring me some of that Green Acres?” 

Green Acres is the place for wings because they were doing wings before wings were a thing. 

Gratton says it was his father, Charles, who came up with the idea. People were buying fried chicken by the half or the quarter, he says, and those buying the white meat didn’t want the wings. “So, my daddy said, ‘Let’s put two wings together, a few French fries and a slice of white bread for 25 cents.’ And that’s how the chicken wing business got started, and it’s just been off the chain ever since. We can’t keep up with the chicken.”

To this day, you’ll get the whole wing at Green Acres. “In a lot of the wing places,” Gratton says, “they come and cut the wing up. Well, when you get a six-piece from them, you’re only getting three wings. When you get a six-piece from us, you’re getting six whole pieces of wings.”

People associate the eatery with Birmingham, but Green Acres actually started in Chicago. William Gratton opened his first café there in 1946.  A few years later, after expanding the chain to six locations, he moved to Birmingham and brought the concept with him. 

The first Birmingham location was opened in North Birmingham in 1950. In 1958,  William’s brother Charles used his life’s savings to open a second location across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “It was a struggle back in 1958 for Black men to own a business, I can tell you that,” Gratton says, “but my father fought through it and he struggled and we survived.”

Gratton remembers his father working in the background with Civil Rights leaders to make sure they had places to safely meet and strategize. The late Charles Gratton shared his memories of that time and growing up in Birmingham in an interview conducted by Duke University. It’s part of the Behind the Veil collection of oral histories recounting African-American life during the years of legal segregation in the South. You can hear it here.

Charles Gratton relocated his café a few times before opening the current downtown location at 1705 Fourth Avenue North in 1990. He was encouraged by local revitalization efforts.

After his election in 1979, Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr., helped create the Fourth Avenue Land Bank, a nonprofit that would buy real estate in the area from white owners (most of whom had let the buildings fall into disrepair) and sell the buildings to Black investors and business owners. Many of the new owners got rebates when they made improvements to their storefronts.  

“My father bought this whole building,” Gratton says, “and it was just brick walls on the side, didn’t have a roof, and just a shell on the front. He renovated, and we opened it up.” In 2004, the Birmingham City Council named a stretch of Fourth Avenue in honor of Charles Gratton.  

In 1993, Greg Gratton returned home to Birmingham from Los Angeles, where he had raised his own family. Once home, he not only continued, but also expanded the generational business into a local chain through franchising.  Greg’s father was considering investing in a major, national fast-food franchise. Greg, understanding the value of Green Acres—in terms of food and history—convinced his father to invest further in his own business. 

Growing the business was the goal; Greg didn’t make any changes. “It’s always just like what my father started,” he says. “I kept the same concept. I didn’t try to add anything, and I don’t try to take nothing away because he had it—it was working for him. So, you know, why try to fix something that ain’t broken? I just made it more available for the different communities in the area.”

At one point, there were nearly a dozen locations across the Birmingham metro area. Today four survive and thrive. Gratton owns two—the downtown location and another in Ensley, which his wife runs. There are two franchise locations—one in Center Point and another in East Lake. 

Gratton personally trained the franchisees to make sure his brand stayed true. That matters, he says. “Green Acres has lasted so long because it’s got family love. And we enjoy what we’re doing. We enjoy pleasing the customers. And when you take an interest in something, you do the best of it.” 

The walls at Green Acres downtown are decorated with business awards, vintage photos, recognition from the NAACP and Birmingham’s city council, an autographed photo of Martha Reeves, certificates and plaques commemorating community service and several photos with a succession of Birmingham mayors. 

Green Acres won a Hoodie Award in 2007 and was a finalist for several other years.

In 2007, Green Acres was honored with a Steve Harvey Morning Show Hoodie Award for Best Fried Chicken. For that, Gratton traveled to Las Vegas. When his name was called and he went up front, he says he realized he didn’t have an acceptance speech prepared. “I’m very good. You can’t really catch me off guard. My father told me all the time, “Son, you stay prepared, because you never know when somebody might call on you.’ … So, I just grabbed the award and I told Steve Harvey and I told the audience, I said, ‘Thank God for making chickens, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.’ I think that just did it.”

All that reflects decades of history, but Green Acres downtown is surrounded by much more. 

The landmark café is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Located just north and west of Birmingham’s central business district, it includes a three-block stretch of Fourth Avenue North and the adjacent half-blocks south of Fourth along  17th and  18th Streets.

This is one of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses not only in Alabama, but also in the Southeast. Green Acres is just steps away from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel and other landmarks. 

Formally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Fourth Avenue Historic District serves as both a physical reminder of the Jim Crow era (and Birmingham’s racial history) and a retail and entertainment district catering to locals and visitors. It is an important part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is now a National Monument.  

The historic commercial district dates to the early part of the 1900s when Black businessmen, forced from other parts of the city by Jim Crow segregation laws, established their own retail, social and cultural center. 

In recent years, city leaders; area business owners; and organizations like Main Street Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and REV Birmingham have joined forces with Urban Impact Inc., a community- and economic-development agency dedicated to the betterment of this area, to revitalize the commercial district, strengthen its economic impact and preserve its important history.

The Civil Rights-centered parts of our city draw more than 350,000 annual visitors already (many going on tours like this one). And the future is looking promising for the Fourth Avenue Historic District, which is grounded in legacy and propelled forward by the vision of its minority-owned businesses. 

During its days as a movie theater, the Carver Theatre was known for being the place where African-Americans could see first-run films.

The Art Deco-style Carver Theatre, which houses the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, is being renovated. So is the seven-story Renaissance Revival-style Colored Masonic Temple Building that once housed the offices of Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals as well as the NAACP. The A.G. Gaston Motel, which housed the “war room” of Civil Rights leaders during the height of the movement, is undergoing careful restoration. And the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument continues to evolve.

The Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, which has showcased nationally recognized and home-grown artists since 2003, is set to return in 2022 after a COVID-19 interruption.

And Green Acres will be ready to serve all who come here.  

“The role of Green Acres,” Gratton says, “is to be where it needs to be to assist in the continuing development of the Fourth Avenue District. And not just the Fourth Avenue District, but the other areas around the city. So, I don’t just limit it to the downtown Birmingham location. My wife is very involved in the Ensley location out there, and I try to get the other two franchises to get involved in their cities, too.”

Regardless of the location, Green Acres will continue to follow the recipe for success that Gratton says sets his restaurant apart: “My love for my customers, the love for the food that I serve, and that we try to do it right each and every time.”

Green Acres Café in downtown Birmingham

1705 Fourth Avenue North (in the Fourth Avenue Historic District)

205-251-3875

Hours: Currently 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Other locations:

Green Acres Ensley

913 20th Street

205-786-7040

Green Acres Eastlake

8500 First Avenue North

205-838-2700

Green Acres Center Point

2405 Center Point Parkway

205-815-0949

Featured

Ready for Takeoff

We’ve been making Paper Planes this summer after we enjoyed them at Desert Bistro in Moab while on a hiking vacation in Utah. We even went to a local liquor store there to get the Utah amaro they used—Toadstool Notom Amaro No. 1 from Waterpocket Distillery. #greatsouvenir

This light, fresh, summer-ready bourbon cocktail is a modern classic. Mixologist Sam Ross, who worked at Milk & Honey in NYC before launching Attaboy on the city’s Lower East Side, created the drink in 2008 for a friend at a Chicago bar called The Violet Hour. 

Ross named the drink Paper Plane, after a song by M.I.A. (The song is actually “Paper Planes.”)

This cocktail (a perfect aperitivo) is straightforward with equal parts of four readily available ingredients. It’s easy to make and easy to drink. 

Paper Plane (makes 2 drinks)

1.5 ounces amaro (the drink calls for Nonino but we’re using Toadstool Notom)

1.5 ounces Aperol

1.5 ounces bourbon (we use Makers Mark)

1.5 ounces fresh lemon juice, strained

Combine amaro, Aperol, bourbon, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously until outside of shaker is frosty, about 20 seconds. Strain into 2 coupe glasses.

Featured

Fox 6 Books July

Summer is far from over! Here’s a book of poetry by a local father-son team, a perfect beach read, a summer-ready cookbook and an informative book about food for kids. I featured these today on WBRC-Fox 6.

Illusions:  Poetry & Art for the Young at Heart

by Charles Ghigna with illustrations by Chip Ghigna

Charles Ghigna, our own beloved Alabama author who often goes by the name “Father Goose,” teamed up with his artist son, Chip, for an especially beautiful book of poetry. Through thoughtful words and fanciful black and white images, they create a dream world that is anything but black and white. The poems and pictures blur the lines between imagination and reality in a way that is inspirational and heartwarming and even funny. 

Art

Art is undefinable,

A mystery of creation

Inspired by a pigment

Of your imagination.

The father-son collaboration is magical—sort of like how family members can harmonize better and more naturally than singers who are not related.  Charles’s poetry is accessible, as always, which I enjoy. There’s truth in his poems. And Chip’s illustrations are spare, yet thought-provoking. A perfect pairing. 

The Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion

I’m a little late to the Rosie situation. The Rosie Project was published in 2013 and there have been two other installments since then:  The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result. I must say, I thought there would be a film before any sequels; The Rosie Project is a very visual read. This international bestselling rom-com of a book is about a genetics profession named Don Tillman who is absolutely brilliant but socially challenged. He’s looking for love and approaching it as a scientific project. He designs The Wife Project, complete with an exhaustive, 16-page questionnaire, that he hopes will lead him to a life partner. Smokers, drinkers and late arrivers need not apply. Then, by chance, he meets Rosie Jarman who has all three of these “flaws.” Don quickly disqualifies Rosie for The Wife Project but is intrigued by her quest to discover her biological father. So, he embarks upon The Father Project, and his world is quickly turned upside down by the unpredictable Rosie.  The book is laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming and just plain fun. Don discovers that sometimes, despite the most diligent search for love, it sometimes finds you.

Summer, a Cookbook:  Inspired Recipes for Lazy Days and Magical Nights

by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson

Americans are ready to share dinner and drinks and lunches and brunches with friends and family. No doubt about that. This brand-new cookbook offers delicious, easy-to-follow instructions on how to do that. More than 100 seasonal recipes here advocate going with the flow (and not turning on the oven if it’s just too darn hot out). Even though the spotlight is on ease, the ideas are inspiring. Consider Spicy Pineapple Spears and Landlubber’s Lobster Rolls for your next beach picnic. Gather at the lake for Grilled Shrimp Louie salad. Host a paella party. There are tiki cocktails here as well as a Five-Minute Frosé. And you’ll even find tips on building a beach firepit. Welcome to the rest of your delicious and fun summer!

There’s No Ham in Hamburger:  Facts and Folklore About our Favorite Foods

by Kim Zachman with illustrations by Peter Donnelly

This new book is about the history, science and geography behind lots of foods beloved by kids (of all ages). That said, this book is written especially for young readers ages 8-12. Burgers and fries, chocolate and chicken, peanut butter and ice cream and cold cereal, Chicken McNuggets and hotdogs. They are all addressed here in a way that’s playful and informative. 

Author Kim Zachman, from Roswell, GA, is a history buff and an advocate for kids reading for pleasure. 

“I wanted to write history for kids, and I wanted it to be really fun,” she told The Associated Press. “I was trying to think of ideas, and I was out walking my dog one day, and I was like, why is there no ham in hamburgers? I’d always kind of wondered that. That’s when I found so many great origin stories.” Even something as everyday as vanilla and chocolate are not so straightforward:

  • It takes four years for a young vanilla plant to produce a flower, and the flower lasts for just one day. 
  • The tropical trees grown for chocolate can’t handle direct sunlight, need rain year-round and take three to four years to produce blossoms that can only be pollinated by tiny flies called midges. Out of 1,000 flowers, just three or four will be pollinated and grow into seed pods, which take about six months to ripen.
  • Cacao seeds were so valuable that the Aztecs used them as money.

This hands-on history lesson includes some simple recipes and one science experiment—learn how to extract iron from fortified cold cereal. 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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An Epic Road Trip in the American West

In early June, after vaccinations and a year of no traveling, my husband, Rick, and I hit the road and headed out West to visit the five big national parks in Utah—Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. We also found some state park gems like Dead Horse Point near Moab and Snow Canyon near St. George. And we visited some amazing BLM locations like Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail and others where we hiked through colorful slot canyons—Little Wild Horse Canyon and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch. We added the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the end of our trip, because why not?

Several friends have asked for our itinerary, and I’m happy to share. We started in Moab, Utah, and made our way down the state and into Arizona. We set a fast pace (nearly 70 miles of hiking over 10 days), because I like to see “everything.” 

I’ll organize this trip by area, and you decide how many days to spend in each place. 

Here’s how to do what we did:

Moab—Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park with a side trip to Little Wild Horse Canyon

Canyonlands is huge! There are four districts—Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, The Maze and The Rivers. The Maze is the least accessible unless you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle (and are fully prepared for self-sufficiency). Next time we visit, we will hire a guide and a big vehicle to see the ancient, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in stone) in Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze district; this is some of the most significant rock art in North America.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is easily accessible and especially beautiful early in the morning.

On our visit this summer, we hiked the Island in the Sky district. We started with an easy, short walk to Mesa Arch, then hiked about 2 miles round trip to view the impressive Upheaval Dome (the crater is 3 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep and there are conflicting views about why it’s there) and finally, we hiked 2 miles out and back along the mesa’s edge to the Grand View Point Overlook (with amazing views the entire time). We arrived around 9 a.m. and spent an entire day at Canyonlands.

Arches is busy! Go early. Like 6 a.m. early. They were shutting down the entry gate mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and it’s always busy until they do. So go early, take your breakfast, take your lunch, take your snacks and extra water and make a day of it.

We started with a three-mile out-and-back hike to Delicate Arch where we had a breakfast Clif Bar and then waited in a very civilized and organized line to have our photo taken under the arch. The way it works, everyone takes a turn, and you can get a good photo of the arch (with no people!) as one group leaves and the next comes up. Timing is everything at Arches!

There’s some cool Ute rock art near the beginning of the hike to Delicate Arch. Then we drove to Double Arch (just stunning!) where we parked once and saw a lot. We spent some time under the connected arches and then walked across the big parking lot where we hiked a primitive trail to see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.   Don’t miss Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world; this hike is 2 to 7.2 miles, depending upon how you do it). We started at 5:45 a.m. and spent an entire day at Arches.

Dead Horse Point State Park is near Canyonlands and is especially pretty at sunset. Go early (before tour buses arrive) and get a spot on the terrace just below the lookout point so you’ll not have other people’s heads in your photos. Then look to the rocks as the setting sun makes them glow with vibrant reds and oranges and pinks. The Colorado River snakes through the canyon 2,000 feet below. It’s a magical way to end the day. This park, a Dark Sky Park, sometimes has ranger-led stargazing events.

Where to Stay:

We rented a VRBO condo on a quiet side street near the busy downtown area of Moab (with lots of off-road vehicles on the road, it’s kind of like a scene from Mad Max). Our little unit was beautifully decorated, (loved the nice linens and custom sinks!) ideally located (out of the fray) and perfect for two.  Our host, Kimberley, offered an informative, insider’s guide to the area and helped us make the most of our time in Moab.

What to Eat:  

Y’all know I love a street taco picnic!

Get street tacos and elote at Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop in Moab (there’s a drive-thru) and go to Dead Horse Point for a sunset picnic; for a fancy dinner go to Desert Bistro (reservations required); Moab Brewery has burgers and nachos, and Johnny’s American IPA, Juicy Johnny’s Hazy IPA and the Dead Horse Amber Ale all are delicious.

Don’t Miss:  

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, sunrise or sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches, sunset at Dead Horse Point, stargazing at any of these International Dark Sky Parks

Little Wild Horse Canyon started our obsession with slot canyons. This one is suitable for all ages.

On the way to Capitol Reef National Park, we stopped off at Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park. Little Wild Horse is a fun slot canyon that’s suitable for just about anyone (including kids). There’s a trailhead (with a toilet and a good map), and the slot is easy to find. It’s narrow enough to know you are in a slot, but it’s not so narrow that it’s uncomfortable. And the colors are amazing!

It widens into a larger canyon and you can continue to a longer loop or turn around and come back the way you came.  Plan to spend 2-3 hours here.  NOTE:  Slot canyons are off-limits if there has been recent rain or if there is a chance of rain anywhere nearby; they are prone to deadly flash flooding.

We also visited Goblin Valley State Park, and although its hoodoos, like the iconic Three Sisters above, are significant and impressive, we didn’t stay long. The trails are not well marked at all; there were several frustrating moments when the trails just seemed to disappear. The one we did manage to stay on was like hiking through a sandcastle, and hiking through a sandcastle is not that much fun.

Torrey—Capitol Reef National Park with a side trip through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

You can see much of beautiful Capitol Reef simply driving through it, but this park with its cliffs, canyons, domes and natural bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles), is a hidden gem. An 8-mile scenic drive features breathtaking views, and there are 15 day-hiking trails here. Make sure to stop at the petroglyphs just off the main road near the visitor station. We did a moderate, 2-mile out-and-back hike to Hickman Bridge to get a feel for this lesser-known park, and we saw a golden eagle here.

You’ll want to be at Capitol Reef for sunset; it’s amazing. Then come back to anywhere in this International Dark Sky Park for some of the best stargazing you will ever experience. You can easily see this park in one day or even a half day.

Where to Stay:  

Red Sands Hotel and Spa in Torrey

What to Eat:  

Wingstrands for farm-fresh food; we got takeout to eat during sunset

Don’t Miss:  

Sunset at Sunset Point, stargazing anywhere in the park, the petroglyphs just east of the visitor center

Highway 12 and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Take the amazing, winding Scenic Byway 12 (UT-12) or just “Highway 12” to get from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. This All-American Road is more than 122 miles long, and it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You travel through a diverse and beautiful and rugged landscape of arches, mountains, slickrock canyons, red rock cliffs, aspen and pine forests, mountain meadows, national parks, state parks, a national monument and quaint rural towns.

Part of Highway 12 crosses various parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers nearly 1 million acres of public lands. There are three distinct units here: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon. It’s so remote and rugged that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped! We went there looking for a few specific slot canyons and we found them down Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM Road 200).

If you are adventurous and in fairly good shape with a relatively small frame and not claustrophobic(!), visit Dry Fork Narrows and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is a true adventure! The slots are down 26 miles of dirt road, but you can rent a Jeep in Escalante that can handle the trip. 

Once at the trailhead, just getting to the slot canyons requires a two-mile hike along the rim and down some short cliffs and across desert dunes following well-spaced trail markers called cairns. Next time, we’ll take the Upper Dry Fork trail 1.5 miles through Dry Fork Narrows. But Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, with their tight and twisty, beautiful and wavy, red and purple walls, are your ultimate goals, and they are worth any trouble. (They require almost zero technical skill or know-how other than some rock-scrambling skills.)

I call this a “Dugas pass” after my favorite shoulder surgeon. #grateful

Peek-a-Boo is a tight slot that corkscrews back on itself. Your photos will be fantastic! The hardest part was just getting into this slot; you climb about 10 (challenging) feet up a dry fall to the entrance using shallow hand and foot holds (go at it sideways and chimney up by bracing with your back and your legs or have your strong hiking partner haul you up). After that, it’s just awesome in the truest sense of that word, as you twist and turn through what feels like an adult playground. At the end of Peek-a-Boo, you’ll hike across about a half mile of desert to get to Spooky, which is an even tighter slot that narrows to about a foot wide in spots.

People with smaller builds do better here … just saying. If you take your backpack, you’ll need to take it off and carry it above your head at times. There are some tricky parts where you must work out how to navigate around boulders or short descents (wear clothes you don’t care about; they might get torn) and there’s a knotted rope you’ll use to get past a 6-foot drop. Other than that, it’s just thrillingly narrow and very beautiful. We spent about 4 (truly delightful) hours here. We hiked about 6 miles total.

Here’s a link that tells you how to find these slots. For current conditions on any of the slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, or other hiking opportunities in, or along the Escalante River and its side canyons, contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499.

Tropic—Bryce Canyon National Park

This was my bucket-list location—really the reason I wanted to head West in the first place—and it was more spectacular than I ever imagined! There is nothing on earth quite like Bryce Canyon with its many thousands of colorful and ancient hoodoos and cliffs that range from white to pink to orange to deep red. Fun fact: Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent, but Bryce has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.

We did the 8-mile Fairyland Loop (more than 1,700 feet of elevation change) that offers views you simply cannot get otherwise. There’s some climbing along uneven trails; boots are best. You’ll hike to the bottom of the amphitheater and then up again on the far side of the park above another valley of younger hoodoos. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon; the colors are best early and late. We also hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop (clockwise) and came up Wall Street, which is a short, yet awesome, slot canyon with terraced steps leading out of it at the end. So impressive! (It’s closed during the winter months.) We spent an entire long day at Bryce and logged 14 miles of hiking. I’d recommend at least a day, maybe two.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in a little log cabin at Bryce Canyon Inn in Tropic (this is about 10 miles outside the park). You can stay in Bryce Canyon City just outside the park or, with luck and advance planning, at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon (reservations are limited).

What to Eat:

Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic kept us nicely fed for two days straight and didn’t mind that we ran in about 30 minutes before closing both days. There’s a fantastic coffee shop—Bryce Canyon Coffee Company—at the Bryce Canyon Inn with great espresso drinks and fresh pastries.

Don’t Miss:

Anywhere you look in Bryce is absolutely beautiful. Stop off at Fairyland Point near the park entrance when you first arrive for a preview of what’s to come. Do the full Fairyland Loop if you are up for an 8-mile hike (We did this counter-clockwise and took our time, and the entire hike with lots of picture taking took us about 5.5 hours); Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop trail (do this 3-mile loop clockwise so you come up Wall Street slot canyon), sunset at Sunset Point, the short Mossy Cave hike just outside the park proper, the scenic drive to Rainbow Point, which at 9,115 feet is one of highest points in the park. (Drive up and then stop at the overlooks on the way down to avoid cross traffic.) Make time for stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park. With the right timing and some luck, you can enter a lottery to go on a Full Moon Hike.

St. George—Zion National Park and Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op) and Snow Canyon State Park

First of all, Zion is a zoo right now. Especially this summer when all of America wants to go somewhere and lots of them decided Zion is that place. Several of the popular trails were closed when we visited because of a big rockfall, so that meant even more people on the ones that were open. We could only access these trails inside the park via shuttle service, and that meant long lines and overcrowded shuttles. (The park opens the Scenic Drive to private vehicles January to mid-February only.) And unless you have good parking karma, you’ll need to take a different shuttle service in the town of Springdale just to get to the park entrance. (Also, the town shuttle stops running before the park shuttle ends, so plan accordingly.)

When we hiked The Narrows, there were always at least 50 people right around us; there were probably 500 on the watery trail that morning; it felt like walking out of a college football game – except mostly in knee-deep water. We skipped Angels Landing and opted for the less-traveled Canyon Overlook Trail, which was wonderful. This is the only trail within the park you can drive to via the Scenic Drive (which includes a mile-long tunnel), but parking is very, very limited; we went late in the day. The drive is awesome with lots of pullouts for photos of the monumental mountains and cliffs and a that long, scary tunnel through the mountain and we saw a family of bighorn sheep on the mountainside. 

Even with the crowds, this park is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the the scale of it all! I understand why it’s so popular.

NOTE: If you hike The Narrows, rent some water shoes and a thick hiking stick from Zion Outfitter in Springdale just outside the pedestrian entry to Zion. You can do this online and pick up your gear the night before (after 4) or walk up after 4 the day before your hike to rent them or even walk up the morning you arrive if you’re not a planner. You’re welcome!

We skipped a second day at Zion in favor of some less-crowded destinations. Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op), pronounced: tumpee poo oop, in Santa Clara was a great way to spend a few hours. This family-friendly hike winds through through the desert, past the ruins of an Anasazi farmstead (built about 1,000 years ago) to the top of a hill where we climbed amongst a tumble of boulders to see (up close!!) some incredibly well-preserved ancient petroglyphs.

These were carved into the desert varnish on the rocks by Ancestral Puebloans. Lots of the art—from small bear claw images to snakes to bighorn sheep and geometric shapes—is quite accessible without bouldering; you can just walk along the rim trail and see plenty, but climb down to find them everywhere! We spent about 2 hours on this 3.5-mile out and back.

Snow Canyon State Park is awesome! We spent most of the day (with a break for lunch) at this colorful park with its red petrified dunes and red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs and black lava flows. The park is located in the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established to protect the federally listed desert tortoise and its habitat.

The trails are well-marked with signs and cairns, and you’ll line up a series of shiny silver metal markers attached to the dunes to navigate those huge formations. So smart!

There’s a short slot canyon here, and you can climb into lava tubes from an extinct volcano. The landscape at Snow Canyon is so interesting, and a hike though the sagebrush-scented desert dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by soaring red cliffs is lovely in so many ways. There were times, we were the only hikers as far as we could see.

Where to Stay:

It’s more convenient to stay in Springdale just outside Zion or at Zion Lodge inside Zion if this park is your main/only destination But if you want to explore more of this part of southern Utah, Washington/St. George would be a good central location. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Washington.

What to Eat:  

We had our first In-N-Out Burger in Washington, and we loved Mixed Greens in a Chevron station in Santa Clara. There’s every kind of food you could want in the town of Springdale outside Zion.

Don’t Miss:

At Zion, The Narrows and Angels Landing are the iconic hikes; the Canyon Overlook Trail is less traveled than Angels Landing and offers spectacular long views. Make sure to rent those water shoes if you do The Narrows. And take time for the Scenic Drive at Zion. Venture down into the fallen boulders at Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail. At Snow Canyon, walk through Jenny’s Canyon (the slot canyon) and hike those petrified dunes. Do seek out a lava tube or two and climb in, because why not? 

North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closer and less crowded (only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors go here) and the views are still spectacular. We spent a day here, starting with the short walk to Bright Angel Point and doing a 4-mile round-trip hike along the partially shaded Transept Trail, which winds up and down along the canyon rim and through the forest. We drove up to Point Imperial, which at 8,803 feet is the highest point in the park. 

We were lucky to be at the Grand Canyon for a star party. A star party! It was actually held at the Kaibab Lodge outside the park. Three amateur astronomers set up huge telescopes (20- and 22-inch mirrors) and we just rotated from one to the other in the pitch-black dark looking at deep-space objects like globular star clusters and distant galaxies. Our own Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky and the occasional meteor kept us entertained along with a small band (2 or 3 or 4 people; hard to say—it was dark) playing mysterious desert music/sounds. So. Much. Fun. Check with each park for night-sky programs.

Where to Stay:

Kaibab Lodge is just outside the park and we stayed in a small cabin. There’s lots of lodging inside the park, including cabins and the beautiful Grand Canyon Lodge, but reservations are somewhat hard to get; there’s a booking schedule; start planning now.)

Where to Eat:  

There’s a lovely restaurant at the park Lodge, you’ll also find a deli, coffee shop and a saloon with cocktails and lots of local beer. Kaibab Lodge offered a buffet of homestyle foods, and we especially loved the wings that they smoke for hours. Go across the street to the convenience store to get beer or wine and bring it with you to dinner.

Don’t Miss:

Just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the Grand Canyon Lodge verandah with a local brew and enjoying the views, the Transept Trail, the amazingly dark skies (with or without an actual star party), animal sightings (the bison are right on the side of the road)

One final thing: We ended our adventure at Hotel Luna Mystica, a vintage Airstream trailer hotel and starlight campground in Taos, New Mexico. We stayed in a cozy 1962 Airstream named Ralphie. All the trailers have their own fire pits and porches. It was the perfect way to finish our two-week trip of a lifetime.

Before you go:

  • Create an account at recreation.gov so you can reserve lodging and campsites, buy passes and gain access to ticketed events.
  • If possible, stay in the park where sunrises and sunsets and starry skies are just steps away. 
  • Follow the parks you’ll be visiting on Instagram for updates and news.
  • Buy a US Park Pass. It’s $80 and provides free entry to all National Parks and other federal recreational lands for a year and allows you to bring three other adults. (Children under 16 are always free.) If you’re going to see more than two parks, it’s likely it will pay for itself.
  • Download the NPS app and find the parks you’ll visit. You can download your favorites to access offline (that’s important, as cell service is spotty at best!).
  • Make sure you get the park’s “newspaper” in addition to the glossy guide when you enter (or go to the visitor center and get it when they open if you enter before the gate is staffed; the national parks are open 24 hours a day). The newspaper is your key to the best experience, allowing you to make the most of your time there. You also can access this newspaper for some of the parks on the NPS app.
  • Most of these are certified International Dark Sky Parks; plan your visit around a new moon if you like stargazing (sometimes there are ranger-led programs with telescopes) or go during a full moon for ranger-led night hikes (if possible, register ahead of time for these at recreation.gov).
  • Load up on sunscreen and water. Always have a gallon of water in your car.
  • Hiking boots are best (especially in Bryce); mid height is fine. In any case, make sure you have shoes with excellent traction; Utah is covered in what they call “slickrock” that’s often sandy, too. For some of the ranger-led programs, you have to actually show that you have proper shoes.
  • Hiking poles made many of these trails easier. I used Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking poles
  • I carried an Osprey Daylite backpack with a 1.5 liter water reservoir nearly all the time.

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Hubbard’s Off Main is a Main Attraction in Oxford

Food brings people together. No question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in Historic Main Street Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.

Hubbard has served on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s 3-million-dollar revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a Designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market—with music and makers and food trucks and growers—that draws people from in town and beyond. 

Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.

I recently was one of them. I visited to write a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video from my partner Brittany Faush.

The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.” 

What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Company. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.

In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young—26—but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.

“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”

That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta.  There’s a burger and catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce rib eye and an 8-ounce filet, and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards. 

One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes, and cream. It is delicious. 

All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”

Hubbard’s also features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto, and Southern Comfort.  There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.

The restaurant itself, with its textured, century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food. 

It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger. “I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”

The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad M. Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.

Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of beautiful antiques including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of these things came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old ice box that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on Oxford’s City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces—one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant some eight years ago. 

The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on a small stage near the front door on Friday and Saturday nights. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says. 

She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area—Hubbard’s Out Back—to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make this happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.

Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, her community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week—or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and for some of the homeless people who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually would go for food.

There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.

Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here—from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”

Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.

Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and so has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.” There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main, and in the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market. 

Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. This kind of progress, she says, is exciting—and  great for her city.

Hubbard’s Off Main

16 Choccolocco St.

Oxford, AL 36203

(256) 403-0258

Hours

Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.

Dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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Fox 6 Books June

Let’s go back to the future! We’ll travel forward and backward this month with compelling fiction for all agesthis first one is a prose poem narrative for young readers written by a local writer.

D-39 a Robodog’s Journey by Irene Latham

This dystopian, yet heartwarming, novel-in-verse is by local writer Irene Latham. It’s a fable set in a civil war-torn future U.S. in an imaginary place called Worselands, and things are pretty awful there. Real pet dogs have been outlawed, freedoms are being taken away, too, and violence is everywhere. One day, 12-year-old Klynt Tovis is restoring artifacts in her Museum of Fond Memories when an intriguing antique shows up—a D-39 robodog (the Dog Alive™ company named it that because dogs have 39 chromosomes).  As the war makes its way closer, Klynt and D-39 must undertake an epic journey to survive. 

Irene says, “When I started this book it was in free verse, with jagged lines. But as I kept tinkering with the story—the same way main character Klynt likes to tinker with the objects in her Museum of Fond Memories, (which was named after the iconic Reed Books in downtown Birmingham). I wasn’t satisfied. I could hear the story whispering to me to try something different … and when the poems settled themselves into prose poems, I knew it was exactly what the book needed!” She adds, “Writing this book was FUN. Poetry is a playground, and this book allowed me to explore. And I got to make up words… A LOT of words! Like greenseason (spring), deathstretch (war), joyslammed (happy) and quirkface (smile). There’s a Glossary at the end of the book, but you probably won’t need it, as context reveals their meanings.”

In addition to being an accomplished poet, Irene is a fantastic teacher. She offers these activities for her young readers:  Explore the Discussion Guide that includes activities across the curriculum—and “Poem-Friends” for D-39! Invent Your Own Robodog Activity Sheet, Create Your Own D-39 Junk Journal and Invent Your Own Words Activity Sheet.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

This is the brand-new, New York Times bestseller by the author of The Martian (which was made into a 2015 movie starring Matt Damon). In Project Hail Mary, a junior high school science teacher becomes an unlikely hero when Earth is threatened by a microscopic lifeform that is draining the Sun of its energy. Dr. Ryland Grace awakens from a medically induced coma lightyears from home—he’s alone on a spaceship except for the corpses of his two crewmates. As his memories slowly return, Dr. Grace realizes that the fate of his planet depends solely on him  … or does it? He soon discovers he has company in deep space. Full of cool facts and fun science, this page-turner of an interstellar adventure novel ultimately is a story of friendship and courage and redemption.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

This highly anticipated new novel did not disappoint. With three heroines and two timelines, this is a tale of poison and empowerment. In the twisted alleys of 18th century London, a dark apothecary shop caters to a certain clientele—women who need to get rid of the abusive, oppressive men in their lives. A shadowy figure named Neila compounds what they want—poisons of all sorts. Her business is steady and stealthy until her newest client—a precocious 12-year-old girl makes a grave mistake. Meanwhile, in the present day, an aspiring historian named Caroline is spending her 10th wedding anniversary alone in London, having discovered her husband was cheating on her. While looking for artifacts along the River Thames one day, she stumbles onto a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that took place in the city 200 years ago. Suddenly ,her life and those of the two women from long ago are intertwined in ways she never could have imagined.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

This is an older novel (2016), but it reads like it was written last year. Told in intimate first person, it’s a creepy, apocalyptic story of a young mother named Anna who is fleeing her cold and controlling and unfaithful husband, a successful businessman who is now running for public office. Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to a dingy motel in Maine so the three can appear as a normal, happy family for his campaign. But not much is normal here—certainly not Ned, who becomes more and more threatening, and unpredictable, not the other motel guests who are united by more than their desire for a relaxing seaside vacation, and not even Anna who has a history of hearing voices. When Ned’s efforts go from creepy to criminal, Anna begins to lose her grip on reality. The kindness of strangers is the only thing that will ultimately save her and her daughter. Millet is the bestselling author of a dozen award-winning books including A Children’s Bible.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Lots of Things are Brewing at Bizarre: The Coffee Bar

Bizarre:  The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses.  The café, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.

I visited Bizarre for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video by my partner Brittany Dunn.

Bizarre was started in 2018 by two women, Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October of 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”

How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.

“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months. 

“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.” 

But that’s only a piece of it. 

To increase foot traffic—and get people back downtown—Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre. 

“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands—people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad—some of the best you could ever get—we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.” 

There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit.  “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.”  It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.

“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanali Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.” 

On the counter next to a stack of My Sweetheart Bakery’s enticing sweet potato cakes, you’ll find Will’s mama’s whipped shea butter and Tae Lee’s financial literacy board game called Game of Fortune:  Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt! 

Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke, Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night. 

Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership. 

Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.

“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”

Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. …  Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”

So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.

They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chow chow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls; and they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation. 

Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs—folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.” 

At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details. 

They serve locally sourced spirts like Redmont Distilling Co.’s Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin and Campesino rum. 

And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”

These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence—a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers—but they also keep Bizarre interesting.

“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.

“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.” 

The past year has seen Bizarre—and Harvill—take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses. 

A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied healthcare workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”

When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings. 

“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business—be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store—and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”

Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC. 

Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard, Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.  

“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, DC calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.” 

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December of 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses. 

Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.

“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar 

217 22nd St. N. in downtown Birmingham

205-538-7100

https://www.facebook.com/Bizarre.TheCoffeeBar

Hours

Monday—Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Sometimes, just depending, the party extends past 11 p.m.

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(Grand) Mothers and Suns and Stars

Here’s what I shared on WBRC Fox 6 this month. A hot-now cookbook that celebrates grandmothers, brand-new fiction, an older but important book to read right now and a new children’s book about stars. It’s a lot!

In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen

The subtitle of this cookbook—The recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean—tells readers we are in for a lot of tasty treats and some armchair travel with a side helping of enduring wisdom. Hassan is a Somali chef, and together with renowned food writer Turshen, she gives us 75 home-style recipes and engaging stories gathered from bibis (grandmothers) from Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar and Comoros. With personal narratives and beautiful photos shot on location in their homes (some still live in Africa; others left during difficult times and now live in the U.S.), these women share recipes (and the stories behind them) that have been handed down through generations. The easy-to-follow recipes for things like kicha (Eritrean flatbread), matoke (stewed plantains with beans and beef), kachumbari (tomato, cucumber and onion salad) and even straightforward mango chile sauce will expand your culinary horizons, and these women and their stories will touch your heart. 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This brand-new book is the eighth novel published by the Nobel Prize-winning British author of The Remains of the Day. It’s set in a dystopian future where some children are genetically engineered (“lifted”) to excel academically. All learning is online, so to provide social interactions, wealthy parents buy their children an Artificial Friend (AF). This story is narrated by one such AF, Klara, who becomes a friend for a girl named Josie. Klara is very observant and intelligent even though her worldly experience has been limited to what she could see outside the store window. As a solar-powered machine, Klara is always aware of the sun (which she refers to as He and considers a living, conscious entity with the ability to heal). When she realizes that the lifting process is a dangerous one (Josie’s sister, Sal, died and Josie herself is quite sick), Klara decides to enlist the sun’s help to heal her friend. This book is profoundly moving. And it ultimately asks the important questions, “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to love?” The answers might surprise you. 

The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkson also is the author of the No. 1 bestselling book Caste:  The Origins of our Discounts. In this older (2010), beautifully written and equally important book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author chronicles the decades-long migration of Black Americans who fled the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life for themselves and their families. From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million people made this journey, and this exodus changed the social and economic face of America. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people, researched official records and mined new data to bring this important part of our history to light in a way that is dramatic and hard to put down. The story is told, with stunningly intimate detail, through the lives of three people:  Ida Mae Gladney, who left sharecropping in Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago; George Starling, who in 1945 fled the orange groves of a horrifyingly violent Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, who, in the early 1950s, left Louisiana for California to pursue a successful medical career (he was the personal physician to Ray Charles. Wilkerson traces their exhausting, frightening journeys across the country and then their lives where they landed—where they and other transplants like them changed those cities with their culture, food, faith, hard work and personal drive for a better life.

The Secret Life of Stars (on sale today, May 4!) by Lisa Harvey-Smith with illustrations by Eirian Chapman

The stars, they are just like us! Stars, nebulae and other deep-space phenomena take on personalities and human-like emotions and frailties in this new book for young readers. The author easily explains, in a fun and engaging way, why the sun produces heat and light, what happens when a star blows up and even the secrets of black holes. It’s astrophysics for everyone; and that’s the book’s subtitle. As Harvey-Smith, an award-winning astronomer, writes, “… we see stable dwarf stars, unpredictable giants and many in between. We see kind stars, devious stars, selfish and just plain weird stars. … Some live in families … yet many destroy their relationships. … During a midlife crisis, a star can disappear completely, or reincarnate in a colorful cloud of gas. Stars are born and they age, just like us, before slowly succumbing to the inevitable, their ashes returned to the cosmos.” 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Yo’ Mama’s only Alabama restaurant to receive James Beard Foundation grant

Yo’ Mama’s, a homegrown lunch and brunch place in downtown Birmingham, has long enjoyed a loyal local (and regional) following. Now the eatery has attracted some welcome, timely national attention, too.

Yo’ Mama’s is one of about three dozen restaurants around the country – and the only one in Alabama – to receive a James Beard Foundation (JBF) grant through the organization’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.

Crystal Peterson, co-owner and the general manager of Yo’ Mama’s, says they are thrilled with the grant. “It’s really cool to be included in something that is considered so prestigious in the food industry.”

These grants are part of JBF’s efforts to recognize and provide financial resources for food and beverage businesses that are majority-owned by Black or Indigenous people.

The foundation notes: “Black and Indigenous people often have portions of their cuisines and cultures appropriated, their hand in creating major American food and beverage items and dishes erased, and their images exploited and racialized to the benefit of their white counterparts. We recognize these facts and seek to highlight the merits and contributions of Black and Indigenous people.”

Fish tacos—grilled or fried—are served with Yo’ Mama’s signature POE sauce, salsa fresca and slaw. There’s a gluten-free corn tortilla option, too. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Peterson says one of the many contacts she’s made through the years forwarded an email to her about the grants. “I sent it to my sister, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just try out for it. You never know, but the fact that we are Black, and we are women-owned, we’re pretty much a double minority, and we may be able to get this thing. The least we could do is just try.’”

She says the grant money – $15,000 – will help cover payroll, but it’s more impactful than that. The additional money will help them help others.

“It’s gonna alleviate pressure on us on the financial side, sure. But it also frees you up to be creative. As a business owner when you’re stressed about the income and cash flow, it takes you away from other things. … By having that financial freedom, it helps us stay … involved in the community.”

Yo’ Mama’s employs women from Jessie’s Place as well as people with autism. They feed families at the Ronald McDonald House. They feed Birmingham’s homeless. “Street homeless,” Peterson says, “not just the homeless who stay in the shelters. We’ll go to the people who are actually street homeless.”

They also work with community-focused nonprofits. “It’s hard enough for the 501(c)(3)s in the area already,” Peterson says, “because so many businesses are seeing losses, they’re not spending money on the giving side. Because they already have so much loss, they don’t have it to give. So, we still try to stay active in those things because we know that they need the money now more than ever.

“We firmly believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Every time we are given something, we definitely give back.”

The grants are part of the JBF commitment to be more inclusive overall, and “to recognize, celebrate and support the efforts of all types of food and beverage businesses, not just those that have been acknowledged for decades at the James Beard Awards.” This includes lunch places like Yo’ Mama’s as well as pop-up supper clubs, food trucks and brewpubs. “In speaking with the foundation,” Peterson says, “they’re saying that they’re about to change how they award the James Beards; it doesn’t have to be fancy food anymore. They’re going to try to actually include all genres of food that are just good food.”

Yo’ Mama’s has been in business since 2014, when Crystal, along with her father (who does the finances) and her sister (who handles the website, digital media and online interface) helped her mom, Denise Peterson, realize a longtime dream of owning a restaurant. The place was popular from the get-go. They specialize in homestyle cooking with Southern roots and are perhaps best known for their fried chicken and waffles and the daily specials that, Peterson says, are dishes her mom cooked for the family when she was growing up. With the exception of a few Meals of the Day, everything is gluten-free or has a gluten-free option.

But there’s more than that at Yo’ Mama’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Yo’ Mama’s is the fried chicken wings with Belgian waffles. The waffles are topped with homemade syrup and fresh fruit or not. Photo by Tan Crowder.

“We have a lot of people who think that all we sell are soul foods,” Peterson says, “because most of the time, when it comes to Black people, we only are referred to as ‘soul food.’ But I always tell people, ‘It depends on where your soul goes.’ Because, if you want tacos, we’ve got it. If you want shrimp and grits, we’ll take you to a little bit of New Orleans. We got it. Where’s your soul going? We can take you there.”

Yo’ Mama’s is currently open for curbside pickup and takeout, with some seating outside. Peterson says during the pandemic, they did research and started using vented to-go boxes so the food travels well whether you pick it up yourself or use a delivery service.

According to JBF, the fund uses the most recent census data to help disburse grants equally across Black and Indigenous populations throughout the United States. The foundation identified six regions of the country, each containing 16% to 17% of the total Black and Indigenous population in the U.S. Yo’ Mama’s received its grant in the second round of funding; other recipients in the region that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma were Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine and Food Friends Catering, both in Florida.

The grants are part of the JBF Open for Good campaign, launched in April “to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient when it re-opens post-COVID-19.”

The aim is to lift up Black and Indigenous business owners within the food and beverage industries during these difficult pandemic times and keep supporting them moving forward so they can survive – and thrive – into the future. To that end, JBF is enlisting other organizations and industry experts to provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts.

“What James Beard found out is that money is not the biggest problem; sometimes it’s education,” Peterson says. If you can educate and finance at the same time, you can really help people cope with something like going from 200 customers one day to 20 customers the next, she adds.

Peterson says her family has been thinking about franchising Yo’ Mama’s and expects that the various Zoom meetings, forums and expert advice offered by JBF can help make that dream a reality.

“It helps when you know that information,” she says, “when you’re trying to make a deal versus letting a lawyer talk you to your deal.” Peterson is looking for guidance on a business model that best suits their homestyle, gluten-free niche. “Between all the contacts they have and the mentorship I can gain from them, they also connect you with other business owners who are chefs or people that are in the business areas – not necessarily the food side. And they also have help with the food side … recipes, calorie counts … all the kinds of things you are required to have as a franchise.

“We’re ready to get all the information, because I’m ready to start negotiating contracts to franchise.”

The JBF grant Yo’ Mama’s received is a kind of personal affirmation, too, Peterson says.

“To me – to us – it’s really just a blessing. And we know that we’re running our business right simply because we keep getting blessings. … It’s just awesome.”

For more info about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/investment-fund.


Savory shrimp and grits is a mixture of cheesy grits (cheddar, Asiago and cream cheese), fresh shrimp and spicy sausage. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Yo’ Mama’s
2328 2nd Ave. N.
Birmingham, AL 35203
205-957-6545

Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Twice-monthly brunch (the second and last weekends each month) will resume in June.

Yo’ Mama’s is on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Yelp.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

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A Fresh Approach to Every Day

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy in downtown Tuscaloosa is a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s because the offerings and the ambiance change from hour to hour—all day, every day.  

Photo by Jen Brown.

The place starts early each morning as a juice bar and transitions to a bar bar at night. It seems seamless; it’s certainly clever, with some of the same healthy ingredients morphing into different dishes and even drinks. For instance, the fresh-pressed juices that fuel an easy, quick breakfast or provide a mid-afternoon pick-me-up are mixed with compatible spirits for a healthy happy hour to wind down the day. And in between, there’s a full-on lunch with wraps, grain bowls and paninis. 

I visited Sage for Alabama NewsCenter recently. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video, too!

Ken Cupp, who owns Sage with his wife, Cheyenne, says, “For me, Sage is a lifestyle.” The multi-concept juice bar, lunch spot and cocktail lounge offers a lot of fun options, he adds. “My wife and I are both passionate about healthy foods, and that’s something that started this journey. But we also like to have a good time.”

Photo by Jen Brown.

The two built out their space in Tuscaloosa’s Temerson Square to be a changeable place.  

As breakfast segues into lunch, it’s a light and airy cafe where sunlight from the big front windows illuminates the exposed brick walls, comfortable counter seating, the colorful fruits at the juice bar. When afternoon slides into evening, they turn the lights down, change the music and the soft sofa seating begins filling up. While you can get a cocktail whenever you want (Ken says he’s not judging), at night the juice bar becomes an intimate speakeasy where signature cocktails, a variety of gin drinks and several martinis are made with house bitters and syrups and other fresh ingredients and served alongside wines by the glass and bottle and local and regional craft beers in bottles, cans and on tap. There are non-alcoholic drinks available, too, including kombucha on draft and Sage’s signature lavender lemonade.

The entire menu at Sage—the fresh juices, smoothies, paninis, wraps, grain bowls and signature cocktails—reflects the couple’s personal experience. Ken, an Alabama native who went to the University of Alabama, is a mixologist as well as restauranteur. In upstate New York, he had an Italian restaurant with his father-in-law, who is an Italian executive chef. Cheyenne, who studied marketing and graphic design at the University of Buffalo, went to yoga school and was inspired to start juicing. So, they opened a juice bar on the side. 

They moved to Tuscaloosa in 2019 and opened their new place in June 2020 and called it Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy. You don’t have to surreptitiously knock on a door three times to get in, even with the Prohibition-themed name. “We liked the way the word sounded,” Ken says, “and it just flowed a little bit better to me than ‘Sage Juice Bar & Bar.’”  

Even so, they opened during a trying time. 

“It definitely was a journey,” Ken says, “but we made it through all the obstacles and we’re still afloat. I’m proud of that and confident that we’ve been able to be a stable point for Tuscaloosa and a rising star in a market where I’ve seen a lot has changed since I went to school down here over a decade ago.”

Besides, Ken says, “The time is always right to be healthy.” And at Sage, that time is all day long and long into the night.

During juice bar hours, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they serve a variety of bright, good-for-you combinations like Immunity (romaine, spinach, kale, cucumber, apple, lemon, pineapple and ginger) and Saving Grace (pineapple, apple, mint, coconut water and cayenne) and Sage Punch (watermelon, apple, pineapple and orange). These juices also are blended with frozen fruit into nutrient-dense “hybrids”—a cross between a juice and a smoothie. 

The traditional smoothies, blended with frozen fruit instead of ice, are popular, too, especially the Cabana-Berry with banana, strawberry, pineapple and coconut water and the Heavy Metal Detox with wild blueberries, banana, cilantro, orange juice, barley grass powder, spirulina and Atlantic dulse.

These same smoothies become more of a meal when made into smoothie bowls with the addition of crunchy, colorful toppings. “Our smoothie bowls are works of art,” Ken says.

Photo by Jen Brown

He named the beautifully composed smoothie bowls after the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl is especially popular with its rolled oats, blue spirulina, vanilla and almond milk topped with granola, banana, blueberries, kiwi, coconut flakes, local honey, chia seeds and almond butter. The Rose Bowl has an açai berry base with granola, strawberries, raspberries, mint, coconut flakes, local honey and chia seeds. 

For lunch, there are toasts like classic avocado amped up a bit with chili flakes, black pepper and sea salt. The Botanical Boost salad is a mix of kale, spinach and arugula with feta, strawberries and candied pecans. 

Heartier lunch options include paninis like The Heart of Dixie with sliced turkey, garlic aioli, roasted red peppers, gouda and arugula on ciabatta. The grilled cheese is a popular combination of gouda, American cheese and cheddar on sourdough bread with dill pickles and homemade garlic aioli. 

In fact, all the sauces and drizzles are made in-house, Ken says. The sweet-savory homemade peanut sauce is what makes the Thai chicken wrap, with its cashews and kale and cilantro, so popular. A chipotle aioli complements the Carnivore wrap, which features salami, pepperoni, ham, provolone, evoo and oregano.

The pretty grain bowls all start with a base of brown rice and quinoa, but toppings range from sweet potatoes to lentils to chicken to black beans and more with sweet ginger, creamy Italian or cilantro-lime drizzles. You also can create your own grain bowl by choosing a protein, two vegetables, a cheese and a drizzle. 

A “boosted brunch” on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. features a breakfast panini; powered-up classic toast with avocado spread, lots of pepper and scrambled egg; and a Sunrise grain bowl with feta and scrambled eggs and Italian drizzle.

Ken sources his fresh ingredients locally whenever possible; he gets free-range eggs and more from Jason Waits of Black Sheep Farms out of Coker.  “Jason and I sit down once a season, and he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’  He’ll pull out his notepad … and I’ll say, ‘I can use this or that,’ and he’ll plant rows and bring it to me.” It doesn’t get much fresher than that, he adds.  

And that’s important, because even the 4-7 happy hour is healthy at Sage when fresh juices are spiked with liquors to create vitamin-rich signature cocktails. You’ll get things like the Intoxicated Immunity made with Tito’s and the Immunity juice combination or the Blurred Optics with pineapple vodka and the Optic Boost juice of carrots, apple, kale and ginger. During Sunday’s brunch, the Saving Grace and Sage Punch juice combinations become mimosas with the addition of prosecco.

Open seven days a week, Ken employees between 15 and 20 people who are as important to his success as the food and drinks. All are well versed in the ingredients of the healthy lifestyle they fuel each day. Ken says everyone at Sage can explain the benefits of the products “in a way that’s not intimidating; they can go as in-depth as you’d like.”  

When asked what Sages does best, Ken says it’s a combination of things:  an inviting ambiance; a consistent product; and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. “As an entrepreneur, I call it the ‘trifecta of the restaurant industry,’” he says.

“I tell that to my staff all the time. ‘Those are the three controllables.’ You can go to a lot of places that maybe have one or two out of the three. I’m like, hey, why not strive for all three? I’m passionate that we do do all three of those.” The restaurant business can be a tough industry with its high moments of intensity, so it’s important to be passionate about what you do, Ken adds. “If we can control that, and the customers are happy because of those three intangibles, then, ultimately, my day-to-day is going to be happier and I’m going to have staff that’s happy. I hear it all the time from my staff. They love coming to work, and that’s just a really cool thing to create in the restaurant industry.”

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy

2324 4TH Street
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401

(205) 737-7663

https://www.sagejuicebar.com

Hours

Juice Bar:  Monday—Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Lunch:   Monday—Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Cocktail Lounge:  Monday—Wednesday open to 10 p.m.

Thursday—Saturday open to 12 a.m. 

Sunday Hours:   7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Featured

Fox 6 Books April

Let’s get wrapped up in a great novel. Here’s what I shared on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Fiction, brand-new and older, that will captivate you from page one.

In the Company of Men by Veronique Tadjo

This book draws on the terrible facts of the widespread 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and it’s a fable about the strength and the fragility of humans. Of course, it’s especially timely right now during the pandemic. The story (only 160 pages) is told from the point of view of villagers, traditional healers, nurses, doctors, patients as well as the baobab tree, a bat and the Ebola virus itself. Tadjo weaves conversational narrative with poetry and traditional songs and day-to-day life before and during a frightening and devastating period. It’s difficult to read at times, but it’s beautifully written. A few voices stand out:  the grandmother who took in an orphaned boy; the young girl sent away from her dying village; the man in charge of the disinfecting spray; and the insidious virus, which is chillingly pragmatic. But the ancient and wise baobab, who mourns the state of the earth where man increasingly encroaches on the forest, has seen all this before. And he’s the one who ultimately, sees the strength of those suffering and offers hope for the future.  

Stoner by John Williams

This might be the best American novel you haven’t yet read. Stoner was written in 1965 but reissued a few times since then and it’s received a surge of popularity since it was republished in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics. It Set on a college campus in the Midwest, it’s the story of William Stoner and his undistinguished career as an assistant professor, his troubled marriage to his wife Edith, a short affair with a colleague and his lifelong love of literature. That said, it is absolutely riveting. Born on a small farm in 1891, Stoner goes to the University of Missouri on scholarship to study agriculture and, in his sophomore year, during the required survey course in English, he falls in love with literary studies. And he never leaves. Decades pass. Stoner teaches through two world wars (at times brilliantly); marries an absolutely hateful woman who uses their daughter, Grace, (Stoner’s single joy) as a weapon; navigates cutthroat academic politics made more complicated by a vicious enemy on the staff; and finds love for a short time with a colleague, Katherine. The book is about a quiet life—an unremarkable life, really—but it is beautifully written and will stay with you for a long, long time.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

This brand-new novel is told in various voices of people staying at a collection of vacation cabins on a Scottish loch. They rarely talk to each other, but they always notice what the others are doing.  And most have noticed that one family does not seem to belong. The story begins early in the morning when a young mother goes on a solitary run. We join an older couple lamenting the changes that have come to their family vacation place. We see a young woman trying to find a little time away from her attentive boyfriend, a young boy escaping the scrutiny of his family when he takes a canoe too far out on loch, a small group of children playing where they shouldn’t. In the course of this single rainy day, they’ll go from being strangers to allies. Against the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world, there’s a subtle (and building) sense of menace throughout the narrative, so when something terrible happens, the reader is not really surprised. But what exactly happens is surprising in this short, twisty novel.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Named one of the best books of 2019, this Pulitzer Prize finalist has been on my list for a while. It’s the story of a remarkable house, the siblings who lived there and lost it and the hold it has over them for their entire lives. At the end of WWII, Cyril Conroy parlayed a single good investment into a real estate empire and suddenly his poor family is enormously wealthy. So, he buys a house—The Dutch House—on a huge estate outside Philadelphia. The house is meant as a surprise for his wife, but it eventually tears the family apart. The story is told by Cyril’s son, Danny, who with his older sister, Maeve, lived in the house with their father after their mother left them. Cyril eventually remarries and after his untimely death, the stepmother exiles the siblings from the house and sells the business. Danny and Maeve are suddenly poor again, but they have each other. The story plays out over five decades, with the siblings returning again and again to sit in Maeve’s car outside the house and talk (with humor as well as anger) about their lives past and present and all that they lost. When their mother reenters the picture, their relationship is finally tested, and forgiveness is the only way forward from a past they won’t easily let go. 

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Celebrating Women & Science at The Lumbar

Your first clue that The Lumbar is a bar like no other is the row of beers on tap. They are situated on what owner Rylie Hightower calls the Spinal Tap, and there are 26 of them—the same as the number of vertebrae in a human spine. Then there’s the giant (16-foot) microscope that’s actually a load-bearing wall. Colorful pop-art posters celebrate female scientists like trailblazing mathematicians Vivienne Malone-Mayes and Ada Lovelace, laser pioneer Donna Strickland and Claudia Alexander who specialized in geophysics and planetary science. Old medical textbooks, a LEGO racecar, a vintage oscilloscope and a Brownie Target Six-16 box camera line shelves above comfy velvet sofas.

This is the kind of thing that happens when a scientist walks into her own bar.

Hightower just (a couple weeks ago) earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she conducted research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the laboratory of Matthew Alexander, Ph.D., in the Department of Pediatrics and uncovered a key signaling pathway for Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients. 

This work, in a way, led to The Lumbar. 

My partner Brittany Dunn and I visited The Lumbar for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see Brittany’s fun video.

When Hightower started her graduate courses, she had a nursing degree, but most of her classmates had degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. “I was not doing well in class,” she says, “so I traded help with school for drinks. That’s how I made all my friends, and I ended up passing my classes the second time I had to take them.” 

Knowing that lots of good can come from people gathering over cold drinks to talk about their passions, she wanted to make a place for that to happen.  

“I really wanted to create a space where people could … be inspired by those sorts of collaborative conversations that are happening around the world of science,” she says. “Or, it doesn’t have to be science, but if people leave here inspired to do something in the world, my goal has been met for the day.”  

So, she contacted her dad, Tim, a structural engineer who could build almost anything. He was in their hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he traveled to Birmingham to help his daughter build out The Lumbar space in the historic Pepper Place district. They opened for business on November 30, 2018.

“We are a science-centric bar that uses food and creative drinks to inspire the community to go out and change the world,” Hightower says. “But that is not enough to describe us at all. Probably the number one comment I have gotten is that people come back because they feel comfortable, welcome, accepted and they always leave happy. So, I think outside of trying to educate and inspire and catalyze community change, the only other thing that matters more is that people can come and be themselves and be comfortable and safe and happy. They may or may not learn something before they leave, and that’s great, too.”

The Lumbar has a diverse and loyal following, from “adjustment hour” regulars to Saturday morning Pepper Place marketgoers who line up for the tasty Bloody Marys.

“We do get a lot of scientists and physicians and nurses from UAB and a lot of respiratory therapists,” Hightower says. “We have a ton of people who actually come thinking that we are a chiropractic office and then they realize we can’t really do that, but we can adjust you with some liquor if you’re feeling like tequila today. And so, a lot of people come here for rehab and then they leave probably not getting the rehab they were thinking they were going to get, but hopefully we make them feel better anyway.”

If you’re into beer, they’ve got your back with brews ranging from a Guinness Nitro Stout to the Elysian Space Dust IPA, from Einstok Icelandic White to Blake’s Hard Cider—all lined up on the Spinal Tap that Tim spent weeks designing.

The cocktails at this cocktail bar are carefully crafted to pay homage to scientific principles and theories and the people behind them. They currently are celebrating Women’s History Month (and will continue that celebration into April because one month is not enough).

“One of the cocktails that I contributed to the (Women’s History Month) menu is Photo 51, and Photo 51 is actually the name of the picture—the first-ever picture—that was taken of DNA. That picture was taken in the lab of Rosalind Franklin. … Most people have heard of Watson and Crick being credited with the discovery of DNA. However, Rosalind Franklin’s lab was the first lab to actually image DNA. So, I am trying to give Rosalind Franklin credit for her discovery.” Photo 51 contains blanco tequila, orange curacao and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic. It comes with a stick of crystal blue rock candy because Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer. 

The Adjustment Hour (Tuesday-Saturday from 2 to 5 and all day Sunday) features $2 off local craft beer cans and bottles and wines by the glass (including bubbles) from all over the world. There also are specially priced cocktails like Good Ol’ Fashioned Chemistry with bourbon, Rylie’s sugar and Angostura bitters; the Francis Collins (a riff on a Tom Collins that’s named for the director of the NIH); and a signature blue margarita called a Heisenmarg. 

You’ll see those New Mexico Hatch chiles incorporated into lots of the dishes, too—from snacks to burgers to colorful bowls. These menu items play on the science theme with clever names like Tetris Tots (Tetris-shaped tater tots) and crispy String Theory Fries both served with green chile ranch that is more savory than spicy.

The green chile cheeseburger was The Lumbar’s original signature dish, Hightower says. “When anybody asks me what they should get, I say green chile cheeseburger with Tetris Tots every time.” 

They started with seven items on the menu—now the burger lineup alone is bigger than that. There are ten different choices ranging from a jalapeno gochujang burger with homemade slaw to a Southwest veggie burger made with quinoa, brown rice and black beans and topped with American cheese and avocado to a Smash Burger with spicy, pulled barbacoa beef and green chile aioli. Other sandwiches include the LGBT sandwich, The Lumbar’s take on a classic BLT with the addition of green chiles and the house-made green chile aioli, and there’s a grilled cheese with homemade green chile pimento cheese and bacon.

Snacks include pepper jack mac bytes (mac and pepper jack cheese battered and fried) and smoked chicken wings with a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce served with cool green chile ranch. 

Hearty bowls include a Fiesta Bowl with sweet potato waffle fries topped with roasted street corn and a scoop of green chile pimento cheese and a Frito Pie bowl with corn chips, house-made beef chili and shredded cheese. 

There’s no phone number for The Lumbar, but you can place a to-go order on the website. Otherwise, you’ll order at the front window and find a seat inside or outside on the patio surrounded by Tim’s planters full of seasonal flowers and lit by the festive lights strung across 29th Street.

The Lumbar is known, as Hightower wanted it to be known, as much for what you can experience as what you drink and eat. 

The Lumbar offers spirited celebrations of scientific feats like the historic Apollo 11 mission and meaningful science-focused events like Earth Day (coming up April 22). These science-centric events are “part of the whole driving factor behind inspiring the community,” Hightower says.

The 2019 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was an initial jumping-off point. 

“It was a huge deal,” Hightower says. “We had astronomy groups come and set up telescopes out here in the parking lot. And so, people could grab a beer and check out the planets and their moons.”

Last April, they were celebrating Earth Month when the pandemic shut everything down. So, Hightower and her team pivoted to take-home cocktail kits with drinks like Bee’s Knees and a Queen Bee cocktail. Each cocktail kit also had a bag of potting soil and some seeds for pollinator plants so you could enjoy a drink and do something nice for the planet, too. 

Photo from The Lumbar

This May and June will see The Lumbar become The Lost World:  Jurassic Bar with dinosaur-themed everything.  Shark Week is so popular here that it will be the focus of two months—July and August—because “one week of Shark Week is not enough,” Hightower says. Look for signature cocktail menus, special beers on tap and themed dishes. 

Hightower is quick to say that all this is possible because of the team she has in place—from the young, professional women who make the drinks to Tim who runs the kitchen and is the general manager. “None of this would be possible without everybody pitching in, working doubles, working for me when I have to be at school. … Everyone’s learning on their own when I can’t provide training … attending virtual cocktail conferences so that they can learn more. Just the amount of dedicated effort from everyone who works here and how that effort has turned us into a family that does not function without each other is probably what I’m most proud of about The Lumbar.”

She’s going to need this family moving forward. 

Hightower has been a standout at UAB where she was awarded a F99/K00 grant from the National Institutes of Health, becoming the fifth student from UAB to be named a recipient of this predoctoral to postdoctoral transition award. The five-year grant funded a year of her Duchenne muscular dystrophy research and will continue to fund her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Matthew Might, a computer scientist, biologist, educator and public health administrator, who is the director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute

“The Precision Medicine Institute here at UAB is incredible,” Hightower says. “It’s new. It’s only a few years old, and they have a team of clinicians and scientists and computer engineers who come together to try to solve undiagnosed health cases. It’s kind of like real-life House but a lot less dramatic and with no music. It’s really important work, and they take patients from all over and try to provide a genetic or a molecular diagnosis for patients who are really, really sick but they’ve never had an answer for why. So, I’ll be joining their team.”

Hightower will continue her day job and her bar job because both are fulfilling in similar ways. 

She says conversations with The Lumbar staff have led some customers to grad school, helped others learn the steps to buying a house or encouraged them to do something entirely different with their lives. “We empower the people who come in to follow their dreams and to do the things that they’ve always wanted to do,” Hightower says. “That’s what I want people to say about The Lumbar—that because I went there, I tried something I’ve always wanted to try, or I did something I’ve always wanted to do, or I learned something I’ve always wanted to learn … or I started moving in the steps of my dreams.”

The Lumbar

212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham

https://www.lumbarbham.com

No business phone; you can send an email through the website

Hours

Tuesday-Thursday noon to 7 p.m.

Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Closed Mondays

Featured

Fox 6 Books March

Let’s celebrate Women’s History Month! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. I shared a great book for young readers about global and personal perseverance, a memoir by RBG, a collection of timely and funny essays about feminism in the modern world and a beloved book worth revisiting. 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This powerful story of an African American girl’s journey through adolescence is told through poetry. Growing up in South Carolina and New York, she experienced both the remnants of Jim Crow and the promise of the Civil Rights Movement. Her eloquent poetry is a celebration of spirit and life and perseverance—in the larger world and personally. The author overcame childhood struggles with reading and found the amazing power of words, and they changed her life. This book is for ages 10 to 14 (but adults will enjoy it, too). It’s a National Book Award winner as well as the winner of the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. And it was a pick in President Obama’s O Book Club.

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The late RBG, certainly one of the most influential women in American history, had so much wisdom to share! In this collection of essays, she touches on everything from her early career to, of course, her time on the Supreme Court. She writes about gender equality, the inner workings of the Supreme Court, interpreting the U.S. Constitution, being Jewish and being a woman. The pieces in this book were chosen by Justice Ginsburg and her authorized biographers, Mary Harnett and Wendy W. Williams, who introduce each chapter with biographical context and quotes from the hundreds of interviews they conducted with Justice Ginsburg.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This New York Times bestselling book about feminism in the modern world is thought-provoking and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Writer, activist and cultural critic Roxane Gay writes about gender, race, body image, politics and more. “These essays are political, and they are personal,” she writes in the introduction of Bad Feminist. “They are, like feminism, flawed, but they come from a genuine place.” The book also is a look at how the culture we consume—everything from Sweet Valley High to The Help to Django in Chains—shapes who we are. This book was named Best Book of the Year at NPR.

The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank

The haunting story of Anne Frank still resonates in today’s world—even though it was first published more than 70 years ago. Anne, of course, kept a diary during the two years she spent in hiding with her family (and another family) during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was captured in 1944, and Anne died (probably of typhus) in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, just weeks before it was liberated. Anne didn’t just keep a diary, she wrote stories—including fairy tales she made up—and, after the war, planned to publish a book about her time in the Secret Annex. She also had a Book of Beautiful Sentences filled with sentences and passages copied from books she read in the Annex. The diary and Anne’s notebooks were found and kept by one of the family’s helpers Miep Gies, who later gave them to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the only member of the family who survived. He was the one who fulfilled Anne’s wish to share her words. The diary has been published in more than 70 languages. It is perhaps the single most compelling account of the Holocaust. It remains one of the most read and most inspiring books in the world.

Head’s up: The Hill We Climb and Other Poemsby Presidential Inaugural Poet (and first-ever U.S. Youth Poet Laureate) Amanda Gorman is available for pre-order (delivery Sept. 21).

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Feeding Body and Soul

Jake’s Soul Food Café was created to satisfy a personal longing for a certain kind of comfort food. For the past six years, the small restaurant has attracted a large, loyal fan base who apparently find the Southern soul food and Caribbean dishes comforting, too.

photo from Jake’s Soul Food Cafe

In 2014, newlyweds Dawn and Sean Simmons moved to Birmingham from New York and North Carolina. They missed the thriving Caribbean food scene in New York and also had an affinity for good Southern soul food. The Caribbean flavors they craved, in particular, were missing in the Magic City, so they decided to open their own restaurant.

My partner Brittany Dunn and I visited Jake’s for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the story here and see Brittany’s cool video, too.

Jake’s Soul Food Café started in Pelham and about a year later moved to its current location in Hoover near the Riverchase Galleria. It’s been a family-centered business from the very beginning.  

The café is named after Sean’s father, Jake Simmons; the Caribbean recipes come straight from Dawn’s father, Bayne Walter, who lives in Trinidad. Sean’s sister Teresa McLaughlin, who gained corporate food experience from 14 years with Chick-fil-A, is the executive chef. Known as “Ree Ree” to co-workers and customers alike, McLaughlin already knew her way around a Southern kitchen, and she quickly became proficient at the Caribbean dishes with their curry bases and jerk seasonings. General manager Sherrell Moore is McLaughlin’s son. And Moore’s daughters work here as well.

While soul food is part of the restaurant’s name, the menu is divided pretty evenly between Southern soul food favorites and bright, spicy Caribbean cuisine. And Jake’s is a place where you can get both kinds of food on the same plate. 

This mix of familiar foods and exotic flavors makes for a tasty combination, Moore says. He’s right.  

We paired the Port of Spain’s curry chicken (which was falling-off-the-bone-tender) with a side of delicious collards slow-cooked with smoked turkey. We added a side of spicy “cabbage with soul” to our saucy jerk shrimp. You can get white or Caribbean rice with your fried catfish and enjoy salmon croquettes with a side of plantains.  If you stuff the Jamaican beef patty inside the coco bread (it’s like a dense Hawaiian sweet roll), Moore and his team will note that you know what you’re doing.  

The opportunity to mix and match also is part of the restaurant’s commitment to making customers happy. 

“Our menu is set up like that because sometimes people just want to taste a piece of this and they also want to be able to taste a piece of that,” Moore says, “and … it actually ends up going good together.”

The most popular dishes also reflect this duality, with customers’ preferences, like the menu, pretty much split down the middle. As far as a best-selling dish, “it’s probably going to be between the (Caribbean-style) oxtails and the (Southern-fried) pork chops,” Moore says, adding that the wings (available marinated in jerk seasonings and also fried Southern style) are popular, too. 

The oxtails happen to be a favorite of Charles Barkley (of Auburn and NBA basketball fame) who—pre-COVID—used to come in fairly regularly to sit at the café’s counter and quietly enjoy the dish. “What I’ve seen is there are not many places around here where you can get oxtails,” Moore says, “and a lot of people haven’t really had them Caribbean style.”  The oxtails, flavorful and tender from a 24-hour marinade, are truly a special dish, Moore says. “Some food, you know, you can go home, and you can cook it, and it’s easy. It takes a bit more for the oxtails to get them cooked just right to where they’re tender.” Also, he adds, they are expensive, and people are sometimes hesitant to experiment with such pricy ingredients. 

The pork chops at Jake’s deserve more than a mention. They serve two tender center-cut pork chops, smothered with homemade gravy and caramelized onions, with your choice of two sides. Moore says they sometimes sell more than 100 pork chop dishes in a single day. 

In addition to Sir Charles, the customers at Jake’s include people who followed the restaurant from Pelham, longtime customers from throughout the Birmingham metro area and, recently, more new people every day. Moore says, “As of lately, we’ve actually had a new influx of people who have never heard of us before.

“We have some Alabama (football) players that come through,” Moore says. “Some that have gone on to the NFL that will come back.” And quite a few comedians who come to perform at the StarDome Comedy Club stop by, too. 

They all come to Jake’s for scratch-made food that is made to order. 

“One thing I think people need to know about our restaurant is our food is prepared fresh,” Moore says. “The cooking process doesn’t start until you order it, and so you just have to give us time to get your food cooked properly. … Know that when you get it, it’s going to be fresh because it was just prepared.”

The folks at Jake’s closed in-person dining at the café last March, but they already had a brisk to-go business happening right next door at Jake’s Express. So, they pivoted immediately and successfully to Jake’s Express only where they continued operating with takeout, curbside and delivery. There’s an easy online ordering process that makes pick-up safe and as contactless as you’d like. And now they have a new Jake’s Soul Food Café app available for free in the App Store. “It really is very, very easy,” Moore says, “and that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to do through this whole COVID situation:  make things easier for the customers as well as for the employees.”

Moore says they will continue like this for a while longer. Even when it was operating at full capacity, the café only had 16 tables. Safe social distancing would take that count down to eight, and that’s too few to allow for profitable, distanced dining. “Our biggest concern is safety—safety of the customers, safety of the employees,” Moore says. “We really just didn’t want to take a chance with our customers or our employees, but, definitely, we would definitely love to get back to some normalcy.”

Meanwhile, they try to make the customer experience as positive and regular as possible. Friendly service, upbeat music and a Cheers-like welcome are the norm, Moore says. An interesting view straight into the bustling kitchen is always nice, too. 

Ultimately though, people come back to Jake’s for the food—food that’s good for body and soul. 

“For me, soul food is comfort food,” Moore says. “… it makes you feel good. A lot of people get a little dance on, you know, while they’re eating, and you know they’re happy. That’s what I think we do for a lot of people that come in. Some of our foods take them back to, ‘Hey, I remember my aunt or …. my grandmother … or my great-grandmother used to cook this.’ … So, I think we provide great food and a great experience.” 

Jake’s Soul Food Café

3075 John Hawkins Parkway, Hoover, AL 35244

205-438-6340

HOURS 

Monday—closed   

Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.   

Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Featured

Fox 6 Books February

Let’s celebrate Black History Month! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. There’s something significant and timely in these pages for readers of all ages and all backgrounds. Also, one of these books is by a Birmingham writer.

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Birmingham author Randi Pink (who wrote Into White) brings us Angel of Greenwood, a young adult historical novel (for ages 12-17) that takes place during the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 in the area of Tulsa, OK, known as “Black Wall Street.” (This has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history.) The book is about 17-year-old Isaiah Wilson, a young man who hides his poetic side behind a tough-guy façade and believes Black people need to rise up and take their place as equals, and 16-year-old Angel Hill, a studious young woman who follows the teachings of Booker T. Washington, who advocated education and nonviolent means toward equality. They hardly know each other when their English teacher offers them a job on the mobile library (a three-wheel, two-seater bike). When an angry, violent white mob storms the Greenwood community on May 31, 1921—leaving the town destroyed, dozens dead and hundreds injured—their lives are forever changed. 

It’s In the Action:  Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior (Available March 9) by C.T. Vivian with Steve Fiffer and a foreword by Andrew Young

NewSouth Books, based in Montgomery, collaborated with the Vivian family and the C. T. Vivian Library to publish It’s In the Action, the memoir of legendary, late civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the greatest preacher to ever live.” 

(The book will be released on March 9.) Vivian’s nine decades of service and wisdom inform this book about his life and time in the movement. Vivian helped John Lewis and others integrate Nashville in the 1960s. He was imprisoned and beaten during the Freedom Rides. He helped lead the integration and voting rights campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine and Selma. Over the next half century, he became internationally known for his work for education and civil and human rights and against racism, hatred, and economic inequality. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vivian passed away peacefully in Atlanta last July. The late civil rights leader’s inspiring stories from a lifetime of nonviolent activism come just in time for a new generation of activists who are responding to systems of injustice, violence and oppression. The memoir is an important addition to civil rights history and to the understanding of movement principles and strategies.

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold with illustrations by Suzanne Kaufman

This book is a lovely lesson in diversity and inclusion for very young readers ages 4-8. 

In our classroom safe and sound.
Fears are lost and hope is found.


Discover a school where all young children have a place, have a space, and are loved and appreciated. Readers will follow a group of children through a day in their school—a place where everyone is welcomed with open arms. In this school, where all young children from various backgrounds enjoy a safe space, they learn from each other and celebrate each other’s traditions. It’s a fictional school, yes, but also perhaps a microcosm of the world as we’d want it to be.

This Book is Anti-Racist:  20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell with illustrations by Aurélia Durand

What is racism? Why does it exist? What can you do to disrupt it? In this practical how-to for ages 10-17, author Tiffany Jewell, an anti-bias, anti-racist educator and activist, offers a book that empowers young readers to thoughtful action. (The book is a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and recommended by Oprah.) The chapters invite introspection as Jewell presents the history of racism and anti-racist movements, teaches about social identities, and shares inspiring stories of strength and hope. Jewell also offers real-world solutions to difficult situations young people face in today’s society such as what to say to a racist adult and how to speak up for yourself and others. There’s also a companion This Book is Anit-Racist Journal, which offers more than 50 guided activities to support your anti-racism journey.

Head’s up: The Hill We Climb and Other Poems by Presidential Inaugural Poet (and first-ever U.S. Youth Poet Laureate) Amanda Gorman is available for pre-order (delivery Sept. 21).

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.” 

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. And it really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite. 

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit. 

I visited recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story (and a cool video by my friend Brittany Dunn) here.

Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere. 

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.” 

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining. 

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite. 

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steamtable line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do. 

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit—the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham—people come from all over to eat—they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.” 

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo. 

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s:  You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices. 

Everything—from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread—is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down. 

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food. 

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room. 

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic delt the restaurant a blow; but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.  

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started,” Gregg says, “we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.” 

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The (Alabama) Secretary of State was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act. 

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday

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Celebrating Girls with GirlSpring

Friends,

I am on the host committee of GirlSpring’s Winter Party. GirlSpring was founded by my friend Jane Stephens Comer in 2010, and its mission is to empower girls by giving them access to accurate information, inspiring events, and positive female role models.

Their largest program is https://www.girlspring.com, an online magazine run and managed by GirlSpring’s teen leadership group, the Springboarders. Girls use the digital platform to create content and express themselves via blog-style articles, videos, poetry, and artwork on the topics they feel most passionate about, and as a way to connect with peers in Alabama and across the globe!

On average, 15,000 girls per month visit the website and now, with a newly launched app, we anticipate even more girls will be reached! Their website and app have been a wonderful space for girls to stay connected, even when schools were closed and in-person contact wasn’t possible.

Instead of GirlSpring’s annual Winter Party, in the spirit of safety, this year will be a “grazing box and wine delivery” direct to your door! Each grazing box and wine package feeds 2 people and comes with a specially created music playlist!

I hope you’ll consider supporting GirlSpring this year by clicking here!

XOXO,

Susan

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Fox 6 Books: A Fresh Start

Here we go! A new year, a new year of great books! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Let’s escape with a strange and beautiful debut novel set in Columbia, train our brains with some expert advice and then learn some new stuff.

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

This debut novel is set in Medellin, Columbia, and the vivid setting will satisfy armchair travelers. The writing—honest and beautiful and, at times, brutal—will satisfy lovers of literature. The tale, a ghost story, really, is thrilling and told by an unreliable narrator, which makes it even spookier and quite hard to put down. Lina has come home to Columbia after being away for 20 years in England where she grew up, and she’s looking for her childhood friend Matty—and for answers to her hazy early memories. Matty runs a day-care refuge called The Anthill for Medellin’s street children, and Lina begins volunteering there. But she doesn’t really recognize her city, which has become a tourist destination; Matty isn’t the friend she remembers; and there’s something sinister about The Anthill—especially the mysterious small, dirty boy with the pointy teeth. As Lina comes to terms with what happened when she and Matty were very young children, the city’s bloody and traumatic history is the backdrop for a novel about privilege, racism and redemption.

Keep Sharp:  Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

The television commentator and practicing neurosurgeon shares a 12-week program designed to keep our brains healthy and elastic with new nerve growth and wiring. As a child, Dr. Gupta watched his grandfather struggle with Alzheimer’s, so his lifelong dedication to understanding the brain is personal. The ideas he puts forward in this science-driven book are practical and easy to incorporate into daily life. First, exercise. Aim for moderate movement every single day, and change your habits to incorporate more movement (take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator; park farther away from the door of the grocery). Eat healthy: less meat and processed foods, more fresh veggies and fruits; berries are especially good for the brain, he says. Try to get a good night’s sleep because that’s when the brain refreshes itself by removing toxins and sorting experiences into memories. Take up a new hobby. Crossword puzzles are fine, but learning something new is especially good for the brain. Challenge yourself every day. For example, if you are right-handed, eat dinner with your left hand. Finally, turn to family and friends as much as you can right now. Social interaction is critically important. “We are social creatures,” he told an interviewer recently. “We know that there are certain neurochemicals that are released when we actually have touch and look someone directly in the eye.”  In short, a brisk walk with a friend when you spend time talking out problems (exercising and exercising empathy) checks a lot of boxes for a healthy mind and body. 

What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley

How about birding for a new hobby this year? It really takes little more than an interest to get started, since birds are everywhere. A new book by bird expert David Sibley is perfect for birders and non-birders alike, because it’s a guide to what birds do and why they do it. Sibley answers some frequently asked questions like, “Can birds smell?” “Do robins ‘hear’ worms?” while sharing information about how birds nest, fly, sing and eat and delving deeper into how birds adapt to environmental changes. The large-format book covers more than 200 species of birds and features some 300 illustrations by the author (many of them life-sized). The focus here is on backyard birds like cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and robins, but other easily observable birds like shorebirds at the beach are included, too. Sibley is the celebrated author and illustrator of several guides to nature including The Sibley Guide to Birds.

The Complete Air Fryer Cookbook by Linda Larsen

This book is not new, but since air fryers are the new Instant Pot (judging from holiday sales), there’s tons of interest and lots to learn. This cookbook shows you how to not just fry, but also bake, grill and roast with your new versatile kitchen tool. There are 101 recipes here ranging from mixed-berry muffins to spicy Thai beef stir-fry. They are easily identifiable as “fast,” “vegetarian,” “family friendly” and “meat-centered.” You’ll also learn air-fryer basics about cooking temperatures, oil options and more.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen: a Date-Night Destination in Hoover

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen is a family-owned business, but it’s the family that owners Brian and Erin Mooney have gathered together that is key to its success. From the partners who helped make the restaurant happen to the staff and the regular customers who keep it going, Tre Luna is a delicious destination. 

Seven years ago, the husband-and-wife team bought an established catering company and rebranded it Tre Luna.  Tre Luna, meaning “three moons” in Italian, is a nod to Erin’s heritage, the very early days of Brian’s restaurant career, a play on their last name Mooney and a reference to their three children. 

The full-service catering business, which they run with manager Sara Walker, has been a successful part of Birmingham’s exciting food scene ever since. Tre Luna Catering does large events like weddings as well as smaller gatherings like business breakfast meetings. The company also offers gourmet, chef-prepared, single-serving meals delivered to your home—something that has been especially apropos and welcome right now. 

But Brian, who started in the food business when he was 14 years old working at an Italian restaurant within biking distance of his home, longed for his own establishment.

“I wanted a home base,” he says. The challenge with catering is “you’re making this delicious food, but sometimes you’ve got to pack it up and carry it out to the middle of a field somewhere with no running water. You learn to adapt. But here, I’m making it in the back, we’re bringing it out and serving it 50 feet away. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. This is where my heart is.” 

The Mooneys partnered with longtime friends and supporters Rick and Christine Botthof to open Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen in May 2019. 

I went there for Alabama NewsCenter recently. You can read the entire story and see a cool video here.

Christine’s eye for design created a space that is sophisticated and comfortable, upscale and fun, transforming part of the recently constructed Village at Brock’s Gap shopping center in Hoover into a delightful culinary destination for the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond. 

Walk in and find yourself somewhere else.

A striking chandelier (the first thing she and Erin picked out for the space) is likely the first thing you’ll notice, too. A handsome marble bar anchors one wall, and a beautiful, handmade Acunto Mario pizza oven commands the back corner. This serves as a second bar and an entertaining chef’s table, too, and adds a spot of color to the restaurant’s stylish neutral palette. 

“I wanted it to look like a bistro,” Christine says. “When we were discussing the restaurant, we wanted something completely different from everything that exists here in the city of Hoover. We wanted to be a date night spot, and we did win Hoover’s Best Date Night Spot last year.” 

Christine’s design also proved to be incredibly practical.

When the restaurant had to shut down indoor dining at the beginning of the pandemic, a passthrough that served an outside bar on the patio became a convenient, socially distanced, walk-up window for to-go orders. 

“After a while,” Christine says, “we had people who just sat out on the patio with their to-go food and felt like they were having a night out. People socially distanced themselves. We even had people bring their own tablecloths and come for their standing Friday-night date and eat their takeout outside and bring their own wine glasses. We really have had a tremendous amount of support.”

The patio remains popular; heaters and a centralized fire pit will extend the season of full-service dining out there. Inside, tables are spaced out and there’s room between diners on the comfortable banquettes with their shimmering fabric and fun throw pillows. Both options feel good. And the restaurant does a brisk takeout and delivery business, too.

The food at Tre Luna is “Italian-inspired.” 

“(Brian) is very talented with Italian food, but we didn’t want to stick ourselves into a box with just that,” Erin says, “because we like to experiment. We wanted to have raw oysters, which are my favorite. We wanted to have fish specials and experiment with appetizers.” 

“Everything’s from scratch,” Brian says. “We hand make our own pastas, our own doughs for pizza and focaccia.” They grind the beef themselves for the bistro’s popular burger, and serve steaks, Italian-American comfort foods, seafood fresh from the Gulf and daily specials.  

The restaurant is a variety of different things, Brian says. “It’s a place especially for the community that we’re in. You could come here one day and grab a burger or pizza and come the next night … and have something like a great seafood risotto or a filet.”

Some of the most popular starters are bestselling favorites from the catering company—things like the cheesy spinach and artichoke dip, citrus-herb Gulf shrimp, slow-braised boneless beef short rib sliders on house-made buns with horseradish cream. “We knew it would be a home run,” Erin says. “We had fed … hundreds of people braised beef short ribs, and everyone seemed happy.” 

Pizza making, using a dough recipe that Brian spent weeks perfecting, becomes performance art as the cooks stretch the dough, artfully top it and then cook the pies in the wood-fired Acunto Mario pizza oven. These pizzas range from a simple Margherita with fresh mozzarella, basil and San Marzano tomatoes to a shrimp scampi version with Gulf-fresh shrimp, roasted garlic, spinach, cherry tomatoes, Grana Padano and mozzarella. The pie with house-made Italian sausage; ricotta; whole, fiery Calabrian chile peppers; spinach and mozzarella is popular, too.

Classic Italian pasta dishes include penne with wild mushrooms, spinach, roasted tomatoes and white-wine cream sauce; braised pork shoulder orecchiette with mushrooms, spinach and bechamel; lasagna Bolognese; and linguini shrimp with pesto cream, oven-dried tomatoes and spinach.

It all reflects a simple approach to cooking honed by classical training and years in kitchens, including Frank Stitt’s Bottega Restaurant. “I like to let the food speak for itself,” Brian says. “My job as a chef is just to … let the product be what it is. So, you source great products (from local purveyors like Evans Meats, Greg Abrams Seafood and Ireland Farms), and then it’s just really letting the food speak for itself and not overcomplicating it.”  

Brian trained at Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, and he and Erin met working together at Dancing Bear in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—he was a line cook and she was a server. 

Erin says she plays a support role at Tre Luna, but, really, she is the friendly face of the place, as she makes her way around the dining room, bar and patio, refilling glasses, greeting old friends and making new ones, too. 

“We live down the street,” Erin says. “This is our neighborhood. So sometimes I walk in the back door after I drop off at cheer or karate and then walk around the restaurant for 45 minutes with water and greet everyone and ask them how they are. Then I’m out the back door.” 

Her graciousness, even between carpool duty, is genuine. “I would say I have a servant’s heart. There’s nothing that makes me happier than for someone to be … fulfilled …  with food and also just with joy,” she says. “I love that feeling of knowing that we’ve done a good job and that we’re bringing happiness to someone’s life.”

Tre Luna, the restaurant, had hardly gotten started when the pandemic hit, but the Mooneys lost little ground.

“I think Brian and I both have an entrepreneurial spirit about us and always have. We have big dreams,” Erin says. “Brian and I are both dreamers; we’re both very hard workers. We like to do what we do. I feel like we’re on the right path, and I feel like we’re survivors. … You know, I’m proud that we stuck to that dream and didn’t give up, because we easily could have given up a bunch of times.”

“We really wanted to work for ourselves,” Brian says, “because we wanted to be able to do this for our children. We wanted to give them something, a better life, give them the life we’ve wanted for them. 

“They’re getting to see that the hard work has paid off,” he adds. “My oldest daughter, who’s 16, has really seen the transitions from, ‘OK, Dad’s working at this job to this job’ and now, ‘I’m watching Dad build this business.’

“I think that the proudest thing is for our children to be part of it,” Brian says. “They know all of the staff here; the staff … has become family. Especially through the Covid part, we’ve really become a tight-knit family. We take care of each other. This isn’t just a restaurant to me. This is a family of people, and it’s been really beautiful to experience it.”

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen

1021 Brocks Gap Parkway
Suite 145
Hoover, AL 35244

205-538-5866

Closed Sunday and Monday
4-9 Tuesday-Thursday
4-10 Friday-Saturday
Happy Hour Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 5 p.m.

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Fox 6 Books December

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. It’s been a long, long year. Here are a few books to see us through to 2021. A little self-help, some comfort food and armchair travel and a great thriller. Yes, that should do it.

The Book of Moods:  How I Turned my Worst Emotions into My Best Life

by Lauren Martin

Positive theme of this year:  self-care. This book (release date is December 8), by blogger Lauren Martin, grew out of the author’s own search for answers and happiness. Martin had lots of great things going for her:  a good job, a nice apartment, a loving boyfriend, and yet she struggled with anxiety, irritability and feelings of insecurity. She started to blog about her feelings, and that outreach quickly turned into an international community of women (Words of Women) who felt like she did—lost, depressed and moody. This book is funny and honest and relies upon cutting-edge science, philosophy, self-care ideas and witty anecdotes to examine the nature of negative emotions, what triggers them and how you can use knowledge about this to your advantage. 

Modern Comfort Food by Ina Garte

Comfort food seems more important now than ever. In this new Barefoot Contessa cookbook, celebrated chef Ina Garten offers 85 new soul-satisfying and delicious recipes to nourish and calm. Many are inspired by childhood favorites but with a twist:  cheddar and chutney grilled cheese sandwiches or smashed hamburgers with caramelized onions or a lobster BLT or chicken pot pie soup. Garten’s directions are easy for home cooks to follow, and, personally, I’ve learned I can count on her recipes always. With everything from cocktails (pomegranate gimlets) to appetizers (outrageous garlic bread) to main dishes (crispy chicken with lemon orzo) to dessert (banana rum trifle), these are recipes to make you (and those you cook for) happy.

Hidden Places:  An Inspired Traveller’s Guide by Sarah Baxter

Travel is difficult and curtailed right now, but we still can dream. This book will take readers to 25 of the world’s most obscure places. Some are so remote visitors must trek and wade to get to them. Others are more accessible—if you know where to look. Still others are hidden on purpose as sanctuaries from persecution. There’s an ancient gateway to the Mayan underworld, a prehistoric village covered by a sand dune and underwater treasure in these pages. Travel the world from your sofa to Menlo Castle, Galway, Ireland; Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe; Curio Bay, Southland, New Zealand, Spirit Island, Alberta, Canada; and The Green Mill in Chicago. Hidden Places is part of a series of inspiring travel books that includes Spiritual PlacesLiterary Places, Mystical Places and Artistic Places (coming in March 2021).

The Searcher by Tana French

For pure escapism, it’s hard to beat Tana French. I’m a huge fan of French who is the author of seven tightly crafted, atmospheric thrillers including In the Woods The Witch Elm and The Likeness. Her novels have sold over three million copies and won numerous awards, including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry awards, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. Often, French brings characters along from book to book, but this latest thriller offers a new protagonist. Cal Hooper spent 25 years on the Chicago police force, but now divorced and retired, he’s intent on building a new and simple life in a pretty place with a good local pub. So, he travels to the west of Ireland (which looked good on the Internet) and settles down in a small town where nothing much happens—until something does. Cal is reluctantly drawn into investigating the missing brother of a local kid, and he soon realizes that his picturesque, small-town retreat harbors some deadly secrets.  

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

 

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Fox 6 Books November

More Opportunities for Smart Gifting! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month, and they are perfect for gifting—a little something for just about everyone.

The Five Capitals of Alabama:  The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery by Tom Bailey

The story of Alabama’s capital cities—from St. Stephens to Huntsville to Cahawba to Tuscaloosa and finally Montgomery―is not just the story of politics and power, it’s also about people (famous and not) and the towns that sprang up around these seats of government. Between 1817 and 1846, the capitals crisscrossed the state from north to south and east to west before settling (in a practical manner) near the center of the state. 

The book is well and carefully researched by Tom Bailey, who has written about our state for decades. And it’s beautifully illustrated. Plus, there’s lots of usable information here for tourists if you’d like to trace this historic journey in person. 

It’s fascinating, really. The buildings are long gone and the streets of St. Stephens disappeared, too, but you can trace their paths through the trees that still stand. Alabama Constitutional Village in Huntsville is a living history museum to show glimpses of life when the capital was there. There’s not even an image that dates to when the Cahawba statehouse stood; an archaeological dig in 2016 uncovered some walls and a number of wine bottles. Excavations in the late 1980s uncovered building foundations in what is now Capitol Park in Tuscaloosa, and you can see a partially rebuilt rotunda. Today, of course, the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery is famous for its elegant twin circular staircases attributed to Horace King, a free black carpenter and builder known for his covered bridge designs.

The Five Capitals of Alabama is the perfect gift for history lovers and those who simply love our state. Also here’s a bonus:  The inside cover actually is a series of beautiful maps—from 1818 to 1826 to 1855. You can unfold this and frame it to create a smart and interesting piece of art.

Knowing the Name of a Bird By Jane Yolen with illustrations by Jori van der Linde

Jane Yolan has written more than 300 books for young readers. This newest one is for children ages 2 to 6 who are fairly new to language. “A bird’s name is not what it is, but what we call it:  robin, hawk, peacock, swan,” Yolan writes. That name usually offers few clues to the bird itself and fewer still to the shape of its nest, what it eats and how it flies. We can know its name and know absolutely nothing about it. This is the kind of book to encourage young readers in further exploration of our natural world. That’s a great thing.

Tequila & Tacos:  A Guide to Spirited Pairings By Katherine Cobbs

Think you know tacos? Think again. And then consider how far we’ve come from the traditional frozen margarita. This brand-new book by Birmingham author Katherine Cobbs (with plenty of gift-ready copies at a’mano in Mountain Brook Village), draws on exciting offerings in taco stands and bars across the country. You’ll find authentic classics like Tacos Al Pastor and Baja-style fish tacos, but Tequila & Tacos also includes fried Brussels sprout tacos, spicy cauliflower tacos in Indian paratha shells and tempura-battered seaweed tacos with ahi tuna. And the cocktails, crafted with the finest agave spirits, are just as exciting—a traditional tart Paloma cocktail rimmed with spiced salt or a Mezcal Manhattan, anyone? 

Cozy White Cottage:  100 Ways to Love the Feeling of Being Home By Liz Marie Galvan

Cozy is cozy, whether you live in an urban apartment or a country farmhouse or a suburban cottage. In this book with beautiful house and garden photography, you’ll find simple DIY projects for every part of your home. In fact, there are more than 100 tips and tricks in these pages, and many are budget-friendly to make changes affordable. Galvan’s creativity and encouraging voice can help you discover new things to love in your own space. Create a warm and inviting living room, get more productivity from a well-organized home office, create quiet spaces for reflection and prayer. If you follow Galvan’s blog (https://www.lizmarieblog.com) of design ideas and DIY inspiration, where she also shares stories of life with her veteran husband, Jose, in their 1800s Michigan farmhouse, you’ll enjoy spending time with this book.  

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Conversation is on the menu for Southern Foodways Alliance Fall Symposium

Here’s a clever pandemic-year pivot: Instead of having your annual symposium in one place, have it everywhere. Then make sure everyone has something special and delicious to eat so you can continue – and expand – the conversations you started.

The 2020 Fall Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Symposium: Future of the South has been happening throughout October, and lots of the related articles and presentations are published online at the SFA website. But SFA wants to keep the meaningful conversation going – and make it personal and involve tasty food.

Because food is such a vital ingredient of what SFA does, on Saturday, Nov. 7 for dinner and Sunday, Nov. 8 for lunch, folks in the Birmingham area can pick up some gourmet grab-and-go Community Meals prepared by chef-owner Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters and Timothy Hontzas, chef-owner of Johnny’s in Homewood. Both men are James Beard-nominated chefs who are shaping the future of food in our part of the country.

Each year, the symposium features a boxed lunch by a chef who has an important voice in regional food. (Last year, it was Maneet Chauhan’s “Working Woman’s Lunch,” with sweet potato chaat and collard green curry.) This year, it’s different everywhere with the Community Meals prepared by chefs in celebrated restaurants all over the country – from JuneBaby in Seattle to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin to The Second Line in Memphis to Miller Union in Atlanta to here at home.

“This moment,” according to SFA, “when in-person dining is unpredictable but takeout options have never been better, feels like the perfect opportunity to carry on that tradition with new purpose.”

“We all look forward to sharing meals each October,” said Olivia Terenzio, marketing and communications strategist for SFA. “Obviously, we can’t do that this year because of safety concerns, but we still wanted to foster a sense of community and engage people around the questions and ideas posed during the symposium this year – that is, what are our hopes and visions for the future of the South. We really hope to encourage people to pick up meals that build on these questions and gather in ways that feel safe to them to continue the conversation.”

The meals might, themselves, be conversation starters.

“I want to serve a box that uses as much of the whole fish as possible,” Evans said. He’s known for his creativity and commitment to sustainability. So, on Nov. 7, he will offer a “whole fish box” featuring smoked fish dip with fish-eye crackers; braised fish cheeks with farm pickles; fried fish collar with chili butter; grilled, dry-aged fish ribs with lemon and olive oil; sweet potatoes with XO sauce; shaved kale salad with fish-belly bacon and farm vegetables; and fish scale and tapioca coconut pudding. This gill-to-tail feast is $50 per box and serves two people.

On Nov. 8, during lunch, Hontzas of Johnny’s will showcase his fine-dining skills and Southern-Greek heritage with Mavrodaphne-braised lamb tips drizzled with a Tsitalia olive oil and citrus vinaigrette, toasted cumin tahini grits, cucumber-mint tabouleh stack, sumac-marinated feta, and cayenne and garlic Tabasco cornbread. It’s $14.95 per box and available for pick up during Sunday lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Famous for his popular “Greek and three,” Hontzas said, “It’s my twist on beef tips and rice but with lamb and tahini grits. I just love taking something Southern and making it Greek; we’re so similar in cultures.” (Fun fact: Mavrodaphne, a sweet, fortified wine made with dark-skinned grapes from the Greek Peloponnese, is what they use for communion wine in the Greek churches in that part of the world.)

For ordering and pick-up information, visit each restaurant’s website: https://www.automaticseafood.com and http://www.johnnyshomewood.com.

The Community Meals are open to everyone, not just people who attended the fall symposium. If you fill out the RSVP form by 5 p.m. on Nov. 4, they will put you in touch with other respondents in Birmingham on Nov. 5.

Then, make plans to gather safely (or remotely), enjoy your meal together (or online and apart) and talk about things like journalist José Ralat’s exploration of Sur-Mex, the integrated cuisines of the American South and Mexico, or cookbook author Chandra Ram’s ideas about how a celebration of Indian and Southern food connections might lead to social action.

“We wanted to create a way for them to organize where they want to meet and how. So, it’s about giving people the tools to figure that out amongst themselves,” Terenzio said. “We have printed postcards that I just mailed out yesterday for the chefs to include with their meals. The postcards have some conversation starters on the back that relate to the future of the South and the programming that we shared during October.”

The Oxford, Mississippi-based SFA is known for hosting workshops; sponsoring internships; and contributing to the academic study of regional foodways of the changing South through films, articles, literature, art and podcasts. Birmingham has had its fair share of attention from the organization.

“We reached out to Automatic Seafood and Johnny’s because Adam and Tim are both SFA members and they’ve worked our events in the past, including the symposium,” Terenzio said. “We knew their restaurants are open and that they would be able to offer an exciting and insightful boxed option that speaks to their visions for the future of the region.

“Everyone at SFA has just a tremendous admiration for Birmingham,” she added. “We’ve done a ton of work exploring the different food histories.” A few examples are “The Birmingham Greeks” and “Birmingham at Work,” a series of portraits and vignettes about restaurant labor in our city, and a profile in memory of Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs.”

SFA produced a short film by Ava Lowrey on Hontzas and some of Birmingham’s Greek-Southern dining traditions.

“This goes back to (Birmingham’s) inspiring history,” Terenzio said, “but also the people who are doing the work now to recreate and continue creating the city’s food culture.”

For more information on the Community Meals and SFA, visit the site.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

Featured

Greek Soul

Ted’s Restaurant has been a fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for nearly 50 years, serving Southern classics and Greek favorites to generations of customers. It’s one of those restaurants that has shaped the city’s culinary history. For the past 20 years, Tasos and Beba Touloupis have owned Ted’s, keeping an important—and tasty—tradition going and looking to the future. 

We sat down with Beba and Tasos for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video by Dennis Washington.

The restaurant was started in 1973 by Ted Sarris (Mr. Ted), who was one of several Greek immigrants who came to Birmingham from the tiny Peloponnesian village of Tsitalia to work in the city’s restaurant industry. In early 2000, Mr. Ted started thinking about retiring. While planning his 70th birthday party at the Hoover Country Club, Mr. Ted met Tasos Touloupis, who was working as the club manager. Mr. Ted made Tasos an offer he couldn’t easily refuse.

He also included a stipulation, insisting that Beba be a part of running the restaurant much like his own wife had done. As Beba recalls: “He said, ‘Litsa and I worked together; we built this restaurant. You need to work with Tasos.’’’

The Touloupises had no previous restaurant experience, but they liked the idea of working together. And because the restaurant was only open during the daytime on weekdays, they figured it would afford them quality time with their growing family. 

It was a big and life-changing decision in lots of ways. Both Beba and Tasos quickly realized, “We didn’t buy a restaurant, we bought a clientele.”

But actually, what they bought into was bigger than this hardworking couple, larger even than a successful restaurant with generations of loyal customers. The Touloupis family bought into a longstanding, beloved tradition of Greek-owned restaurants in the Magic City. It’s a food history that dates back to Birmingham’s earliest days. 

There’s some pressure in that, Beba admits. “It’s our responsibility to honor and to be able to carry on that tradition. And that’s what we felt even just taking over from Mr. Ted. It was about a couple years into it, because when we first started, we were like, ‘Oh, we can do this!’ And we just kind of immersed ourselves in it for two years. Then, after a while, we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ We didn’t understand the depth of the responsibility that we had and the tradition and the longstanding community … presence. We’re (saying), ‘Wow! We have a responsibility here.’ So, it took us into another level of appreciating what we’re doing.”  

When the Touloupises took over Ted’s they didn’t change much. The restaurant is a classic Southern meat and three with a Greek twist. The recipes mostly date back to Mr. Ted’s time. “We were farm-to-table before farm-to-table was a thing,” Beba says. They still shop at the local farmers’ markets for fresh vegetables like squash, okra, tomatoes, pinto beans, black eyed peas and collard greens.

The steamtable changes daily and includes favorites like fried grouper, beef tips and rice, chopped steak, fried chicken and mac and cheese. But people also come here for the baked Greek chicken; tender, tangy souvlakia; and savory pastitsio (Greek-style lasagna).  

There’s a framed photograph of Mr. Ted and his wife, Litsa, near the front door; there’s one of Tasos and Beba, too, and you can trace the Touloupis children’s childhoods in the family photos behind the cash register. But Ted’s has a bigger place in the heart of Birmingham, and Ted’s customers come from all walks of life.

“We have white-collar customers, blue-collar customers. We have UAB supporting us tremendously and Children’s Hospital,” Tasos says. “There are students, a lot of professors, and a lot of politicians and judges. It’s kind of funny when the judges come here, all the attorneys go to the table and pay respect.

“We love our customers, and the customers love us … They know my story. They know my family. I know their story, and that’s the kind of environment that we have built up. So, everybody knows everybody here. Often I make the joke: ‘It’s not a meat and three. It’s a meet and greet.’ … The people make the restaurant.”

 A few years ago, Tasos and Beba restored the vintage Ted’s Restaurant sign out front and asked Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins to paint murals on the outside of the building, making it even more of a local landmark. 

“Ted’s has been in the heart of Birmingham since 1973,” Beba says, “literally in the city and in the hearts of Birmingham’s people since 1973.” The murals, she says, are a tribute to the city. “We just wanted to highlight our city and how much we love it—how much we appreciate what they’ve given to us.”

One mural features a stylized rendition of nearly every beloved aspect of Birmingham’s skyline—from Vulcan to Sloss Furnaces, from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, from Railroad Park to Regions Field and Children’s of Alabama, and it reads: “… Where Friendly Gets Downright Fresh!” Those who visit Ted’s even one time will know that phrase is a play on Tasos’s outgoing and engaging personality. A self-described “hot mess,” Tasos delights in making customers feel like individuals. Everyone who visits—from weekly regulars to folks who Google “food near me” while traveling on Interstate 65—receives the same warm, friendly (and sometimes cheeky) welcome. 

“I think we do a great job with the food,” Beba says, “but I also think what we do best is make people feel at home. And when they come in, they know Tasos is going to mess with them. The girls are going to know they’re there and what they’re drinking.” 

While 2020 has been difficult, Beba and Tasos recognize and appreciate the bright spots.   More and more, they’re seeing regulars become regulars again. They are back to serving on real plates rather than to-go containers. And in response to Birmingham’s growing downtown housing market, Tasos and Beba will begin a Saturday brunch service in mid-November. 

Early in the pandemic, Yellowhammer Creative made limited edition “local series” t-shirts featuring some of Birmingham’s hippest places, and so Ted’s joined The Atomic Lounge and Battle Republic and Queen’s Park and Mom’s Basement for a short run of cool shirts that quickly sold out and also gave money back to the local businesses. 

Lately, Ted’s has branched out into serving the state’s film industry. In spring of 2019, they catered for the crew of the film Inheritance. They quickly made a name for themselves—accommodating the changeable schedules of a film set. 

Like so many Greek restaurant owners before them, the Touloupises came to Birmingham from elsewhere and made the place their own. 

“Our Greek-Southern hospitality is the combination of both,” Beba says. “It’s a good combination—the Southern hospitality and the Greek is a perfect mix. I think that’s why our restaurants do so well, because it’s very similar—the love and the support and the warmth of walking into a place. You don’t find that often.”  

She calls it “philoxenia,” which translates as “friend to a stranger.” 

“It’s bringing people in and taking care of them and nourishing them,” she says. “That’s what we do. I think that’s why Greeks gravitate towards the restaurant business, because it’s in our nature to take care of people and feed them.” 

And Tasos can’t resist adding: “The Southern hospitality is the child of the Greek hospitality, because we’ve been in existence for three thousand years. Without the Greeks, we wouldn’t have the Southern hospitality. Well, I’m sorry. I’m a little proud, you know, to be where I’m from, but we invented that.”

All teasing aside, the two take their ownership of Ted’s seriously.

Beba says, “Before Covid, I was most proud of the fact that we were able to honor Mr. Ted and Litsa for 20 years, and we survived. But I think now we’re so proud of the fact that we were able to keep our doors open and we were able to keep some employees with us. We just wanted to hang on … we understood what Ted’s means to the community. We’re not just a restaurant. Our little corner on 12th Street means something to people. We love this place. So, we’re proud of the fact that we’re working really, really hard to keep this place going.  That’s our 100 percent commitment. It’s for Ted’s to be here another 50 years.” 

Ted’s Restaurant

328 12th Street South

Birmingham, AL 35233

http://www.tedsbirmingham.com

205-324-2911

Serving lunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday

Saturday brunch service begins in mid-November.

Featured

Fox 6 Books October

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Celebrate Fall with a children’s book about Black American heroes, a horror novel set in the Mexican countryside and two of fall’s most anticipated cookbooks. All are great reasons to celebrate. Some will make great gifts, too!

The Undefeated By Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

This book won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, was named a 2020 Newbery Honor Book and won the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. It’s a poem about Black American triumph and tribulation. Originally performed for ESPN’s sports and pop culture website, The Undefeated, as a love letter to Black America, it was redone as a children’s book for ages 6 to 9. The work is about the trauma of slavery, the faith of the civil rights movement and the perseverance of some of our country’s greatest heroes. Intertwined are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Langston Hughes; Gwendolyn Brooks; and others. It’s about the past, to be sure, but it’s also about people making a difference in the present and for the future. 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is an engaging (read page-turning) suspenseful horror novel set in the Mexican countryside. Perfect for right now! A glamorous—and brave—socialite gets a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her. She says her husband, an English aristocrat, is poisoning her. Although Noemi is an unlikely hero, better suited for Mexico City’s cocktail party circuit than amateur sleuthing, she travels to High Place to help her cousin. What she discovers is strange family with a history of violence and madness. The house also has its own dark secrets and soon begins to haunt Noemi’s dreams. It’s all pretty scary.

The Rise:  Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food By Marcus Samuelsson 

This cookbook was years in the making but feels especially relevant right now. The book celebrates the diversity of Black American food and the Black chefs and cooks who make it. Marcus Samuelsson (the award-winning Ethiopian and Swedish chef, restaurateur, author and food activist) teamed up with Osayi Endolyn, a James Beard Award-winning writer; Yewande Komolafe, a professional chef, recipe developer, food stylist and photographer; and Atlanta-based chef Tamie Cook of Cook Culinary Productions to spotlight stories and dishes from Black chefs and writers from across our country. Edouardo Jordan from Seattle, Nina Compton in New Orleans and Devita Davidson in Detroit are a few of the people featured in this cookbook that is as much fun to read as it is to follow. The foods are comforting, and the writing encourages reflection. 

The Flavor Equation:  The Science of Great Cooking Explained By Nik Sharma

This cookbook is written by a guy with a background in molecular biology. Don’t worry:  There are 100 recipes here along with lots of beautiful photography! Go beyond the elements of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) to discover how textures and aromas and visuals and even emotion affect the flavor of a dish and how we perceive it.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Helen Pays Homage to Family

Helen is a food memory made real.

The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of Chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.

“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob says. “I’ve always had that memory with me—of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”  

These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.

And they were there when he began to yearn for something different—something of his own.

“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he says. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘you’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’  The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”  

Emily adds, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live … He said he wanted to do something, (and) he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.” 

photo by Cary Norton

Helen opened in mid-August. 

I visited with Rob and Emily for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read it here and see some video, too.

The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming. of a restaurant that is simply elegant and warmly welcoming.  

In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection—from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored. 

The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo his philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Chef Rob, who wears a belt with the subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability. 

“My food has always been pretty simple,” he says. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he says, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”

photo by Cary Norton

The menu features items from the land, air and sea—prime meats and fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pinecone syrup, grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.

Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients from the soil. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery and blue cheese slaw, kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing. 

“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob says. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door—whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”  

For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm and BDA Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.

“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob says, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”

So the tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, which has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks, will soon leave this seasonal menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt will probably always be there.

Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.

“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she says. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”

Helen, they both say, is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain their friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to …  have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she says. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”

The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metalwork is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.

The couple also pulled artful details from their own home—a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stunning stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.

And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, SC, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor here. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.

Since it opened on August 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob says.

Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction. 

They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced six feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time—especially right now,” Rob says. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”

Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. There are temperature checks, hand sanitizer and contactless payment. Making sure his staff stay safe is a huge priority, Rob says. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”

Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he adds. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of—I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is:  If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’” 

When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob simply says, “my family.” He chokes up a little when he answers and so stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next. 

Turns out that was enough. The word family clearly encompasses so much—from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome as family each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all. 

Helen

2013 2nd Avenue North 

Birmingham, AL  35203

205-438-7000

www.helenbham.com

Featured

So Sweet

The spotlight is on some of Birmingham’s top women in food, beverage and hospitality again this Saturday at Pepper Place Market! From chefs and bakers and mixologists to dietitians and restauranteurs and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food-related industries. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

This was last week at Pepper Place Market! Cristina Almanza is the cutest taco ever!

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent near Homewood Gourmet’s popular space. This week, we’re sharing sweets of all kinds from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants.

Our tables will be full. Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Creamy vanilla cheesecake by Dame Joy Smith of Sorelle 

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes bite cups from Dame April McClung

Dame Brooke Bell’s apple butter Bundt Cakes

Dame Pam Lolley’s Brown butter Chocolate chip cookies

Dame Telia Johnson’s regionally famous classic chocolate cake

Brownies, giant cookies and Ashley Mac’s signature strawberry cake from Dame Ashley McMakin

Crestline Bagel Co. granola from Dame Jennifer Yarbrough

Pizzelle cookies from me (one of the only pretty desserts I can make!)

Big Spoon Creamery ice cream sandwiches from Dame Geri-Martha O’Hara

Dame Maureen Holt’s Kentucky Butter Cake with Bourbon glaze

Dame Cheryl Slocum’s ginger-white chocolate cookies

Dame Sonthe Burge’s homemade baklava

Best-Ever Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Dame Stefanie Maloney

Rosemary shortbread from Kristen Farmer Hall of The Essential and Bandit Patisserie

When you’re done visiting with us, turn around and grab a breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, selling these homemade goodies, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating what’s sweet about Birmingham’s food scene. 

That fundraiser deserves another mention. 

Each year, we have a big party to raise money for our scholarship and grant giving. Since we were organized in 2013, we have awarded nearly $60,000 to women of all ages all across our state who are pursuing their culinary dreams.  

Our Southern Soiree in-person event is not possible this year, so we’ve pivoted to a Champagne and Fried Chicken drive-through pick-up picnic on Sunday, Oct. 18. (There will also be a vegetarian option.) Each basket will serve two people and will come complete—naturally—with a bottle of Champagne.

Additionally, we will have a virtual store with gift certificates, books, art, virtual cooking classes, a virtual wine tasting, a year of dinner playlists on Spotify, Southern Living’s Christmas Big White Cake and lots more. 

And we’ll have TWO different raffles each with TWELVE $100 gift certificates/cards to some of Birmingham’s best restaurants including Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar & Grill, Blueprint on 3rd, Helen, Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine & Bar, The Bright Star, The Essential, Chez Fonfon, OvenBird, Sol y Luna, Satterfield’s, Ashley Mac’s, Urban Cookhouse, Iz Cafe, The Garden’s Cafe by Kathy G, Village Tavern, Troup’s Pizza and much more!

Go to www.ldeibirmingham.org/fundraiser/ for details.

Tickets for the basket and raffle as well as our online storefront will go live on Saturday, September 26, at 7 a.m.

Featured

Latin Week with the Dames

Every Saturday in September, Pepper Place Market is spotlighting top Birmingham women in food, beverage and hospitality. From chefs and mixologists to dietitians and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food, beverage and hospitality. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent on 29th Street (near the chef demo area). This week, we’re sharing Latin flavors from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants. (And we’ll be talking about our upcoming fundraiser, Champagne & Fried Chicken, set for Sunday, October 18.)

Our Latin food favorites are all freshly made and authentic and a great way to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Fiesta Birmingham and Taco Fest! 

Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Restaurateur Dame Becky Satterfield will offer two fresh house-made salsas – Salsa Veracruzana and Salsa Verde – and bags of fresh tortilla chips from El ZunZun in Cahaba Heights (did y’all know they’re open for brunch?). 

Dame Aimee Castro will have fresh guacamole, and margarita mix kits from beloved dining spot Sol y Luna, which reopened earlier this year in Mountain Brook Village. 

Samford University culinary professor Dame Pat Terry will bring slices of Pan de Jamon, a traditional festival ham bread from Venezuela.

Village Tavern Corporate Chef Dame Mary Grace Viado will share caramel flan; she makes it according to her mother’s recipe! 

Dame Cristina Almanza of Buffalo Rock, a longtime Market sponsor, will keep folks hydrated with chilled bottles of Jarritos, (PRO TIP: That’s the key ingredient in a refreshing cocktail called a “Paloma,” and I believe Cristina will have the recipe available.) Cristina and her friends from Fiesta Birmingham will also be introducing and selling the brand-new Fiesta Boxes, filled with crafts and games to benefit this year’s festival.

Another TIP:  When you finish visiting with us, walk around and find a  breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating Birmingham’s international food scene. 

The market is full of late-summer deliciousness! Be sure to bring your market bag/basket like these smart (properly masked!) women pictured below!

Featured

Fried down but not out!

One of my favorite organizations, the Cahaba River Society is moving forward in a fun, inventive way with #FryDown2020: Our Hot Mess.

The Cahaba River Fry-Down is a beloved celebration of the Cahaba River – the heart of America’s Amazon and our region’s primary drinking water source.
This annual competitive cook-off is usually a huge community party, and it is the primary fundraiser for the Cahaba River Society. I’ve been a judge for the past few years and am thrilled to join Kathy G. Mezrano and George Sarris to judge again this year.

It will be different though. This year, since our community can’t be together in person, the CRS will offer a unique, interactive and FREE experience that everyone can enjoy!

Each day, starting on Tuesday, Sept. 29th at noon and leading up to the Big Day on Oct. 4th, they will reveal something new on the Fry-Down website.
You’ll be able to watch as your favorite teams teach YOU how to cook those incredible dishes to “wow” your friends and family. You can even get your own complimentary Fry-Down Cookbook with all of this year’s recipes when you donate.

You’ll be entertained by featured acts and performers of Fry-Down so you can “taste” a little of what exciting things are to come. (This, too, shall pass!) You’ll explore your wild and wonderful Cahaba River through a virtual series of adventures, get fishing tips, and learn how to cook fish on a campout.
Finally, you’ll get to vote on YOUR FAVORITE team to win this year … all from the comfort of your home!


Join me and join in the fun while doing your part to help us protect, conserve and restore our treasured River for future generations!

Featured

Celebrate Mediterranean food with Birmingham Les Dames d’Escoffier

The Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization that supports professional women in food & hospitality, is coming to Pepper Place Market every week in September to spotlight some of Birmingham’s female culinary superstars.

This week, we’re celebrating women food leaders who keep us connected to our culinary roots in the Mediterranean.

Quite a few members of Les Dames do this, and they’ll be at a tent in the Walk-Thru Market on Saturday, September 12 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find: Dame Kathy Mezrano (Kathy G. & Co.) will be bringing her stuffed grape leaves. Dame Sherron Goldstein of Fresh Fields Cooking School will have veggie couscous to go, along with her cookbook. Dame Stacey Craig will bring cheesecake baklava from The Bright Star, and copies of The Bright Star cookbook, too. Dame Sonthe Burge will bring Greek salads, tapenade, taziki and koulourakia (those addictive Greek butter cookies).

You can pre-order Italian dishes of all sorts from Dame Linda Croley (Bare Naked Noodles) in the Drive-Thru Market, or pick up some of her dried homemade pasta at the Dames’ tent. Also in the Drive-Thru, you can pre-order an array of authentic savory and sweet Greek specialties from The Greek Kouzina. Wow!

Meanwhile, my fellow Dames and I will be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions and celebrating how truly international our cooking heritage is–right here in Birmingham, Alabama.

Featured

Take Me Away

Get to a better, more mindful place. Then enjoy some brand new and not-so-new (but so worth your time!) fiction. These are the books I talked about this month on WBRC Fox 6.

Radical Compassion:  Learning to Love Yourself and your World with the Practice of RAIN, by Tara Brach Ph.D., is perfect for right now. I have been listening to Tara Brach’s podcasts while I walk, and I’m better for that. Brach is a clinical psychologist and one of the most beloved and respected mindfulness teachers in America. In this book, she gently guides readers—with compassion and heartfelt stories—in healthy ways to deal with difficult times. Has there ever been a bigger need for this? Stress can make us operate on autopilot, cut off from our feelings and, in turn, from those we love. Brach has an easy-to-learn, four-step meditation called RAIN that quickly loosens the grip of difficult emotions. Each step in the practice (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) is explained in detail and made memorable with stories from Brach and her students. 

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, is one of the most-talked-about books right this minute. This novel is about race, during racially charged times. It’s also about family and history and how those determine our decisions and paths in life. This is the story of twin girls—Desiree and Stella—raised in a Southern town inhabited by lots of light-skinned Black people. They run away at age 16, and their lives take very different paths. One embraces her Black heritage and later returns to her hometown with her dark-skinned daughter. The other secretly passes for white and marries a white man who knows nothing about her family. The sisters are separated by miles and many lies, but there’s still a connection and their lives come together in unexpected ways. 

Ali and Nino:  A Love Story, by Kurban Said, is not new, but it has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. And set in exotic Baku, it satisfies the armchair traveler in me right now.  East and West collide here, so do cultures and religions—Nino is Christian; Ali is Muslim. But these childhood friends share an abiding love. The story takes place in the Caucasus in the early 20th century. It’s a place of blood feuds and war and revolution. In this historical fiction, the story of the lovers follows the formation of countries—Georgia, Azerbaijan and modern Iran. So there are a lot of memorable moments between these pages.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Turning Over a New Leaf

When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start. 

The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes. 

Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.” 

Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States.  For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager. 

“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”  

I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.

Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India. 

This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants. 

He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”

Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.

There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry. 

The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries:  a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.

Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies. 

Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.

Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice. 

Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.

Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.

“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar

bayleaf@thespicelibrary.com

https://www.bayleafbham.com

Five Points South location

1024 20th St. S. Unit 101

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-777-3070

Lunch served daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.

Valet parking available

Highway 280 location

5426 Highway 280, Suite 14

Birmingham, AL 35242

 205-518-0208

Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and weeknights and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Reservations strongly suggested.

Featured

Fox 6 Books August 2020

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. From a children’s book about a young John Lewis to a close look at the power of a street address to delicious and different Southeastern Asian barbecue recipes to a book about eels–get ready to be informed and entertained.

Preaching to the Chickens:  The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim with illustrations by E.B. Lewis

This beautifully illustrated book for grades 2-5 tells the story of the childhood of one of America’s most respected Civil Rights icons:  the late Congressman John Lewis. As a child, Lewis was tasked with taking care of the many chickens on his family’s farm, and he took care of them in his own way:  emulating his church’s ministers by preaching to the hens. When they fought over their meal, he’d tell them: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” When a hen wouldn’t want to share, he’d tell her: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The future Freedom Rider and U.S. congressman would even baptize newly hatched chicks. E.B. Lewis’s luminous, sun-dappled watercolor illustrations—perfectly capturing the light of an Alabama morning—are as captivating as the story.

The Address Book:  What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race Wealth and Power by Deirdre Mask

The author travels the world and looks back in time (from ancient Rome to modern-day Kolkata) to discover how our addresses (or lack of an address) influence our politics, culture and technology. Addresses, she says, are about identity, class, race and (mostly) power. They are even critical to our health—shown on a map by 19-century British physician John Snow that illustrates the spread of cholera cases during an 1854 outbreak in London. The book is filled with interesting and entertaining information on people and places.

The Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill by Leela Punyaratabandhu

Fire up that charcoal grill! There are 60 mouthwatering recipes in this new book that show that Asian roadside barbecue is as delicious (and easy) as any of our American backyard versions. The recipes are from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and more. Learn techniques, flavor profiles and spices of each area as you use your smoker, grill, or even open flame to cook. Consider Chicken Satay with Coriander and Cinnamon, Malaysian Grilled Chicken Wings and Thai Grilled Sticky Rice. The author maintains that Southeast Asian-style barbecue translates easily to the American outdoor cooking style, so don’t expect these recipes to be Westernized or altered. The integrity of the recipes honor the people who created them as well as their traditions and cultures.  

The Book of Eels:  Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson

Life and science come together in this highly informative book that is part memoir, part natural-world nonfiction. The author grew up fishing for European eels with his father, and that led to a lifelong fascination with these creatures. Little, really, is known about the European eel. Where do they come from? What are they, anyway? Fish? Something else? Scientists have plenty of questions about how they breed and give birth, too. And why, after living for decades in freshwater, do they swim back to the ocean at the end of their lives? Svensson draws on history, literature and modern marine biology to create a book that explores our own place in this world—as humans, as animals ourselves.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Moving Forward: Chef Raquel Ervin Pivots to a Food Truck

On a Sunday in March of 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered together nearly 100 friends and family at the Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party—to see Ervin and her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad. 

Team Raquel did not win. 

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room that night was if those brothers hadn’t started crying—well, then, things would have turned out differently. 

Ervin certainly didn’t cry. 

Chef Raquel’s ribbon-cutting for her new food truck drew a few hundred people.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge, and even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. 

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she says. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’” 

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally. 

I wrote about Chef Raquel for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story and a cool video here.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders.

The PB&J burger features smooth peanut butter and blackberry-habanero jam.

One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a house-made blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg. 

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crab cake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli. 

The 12-hour brisket slider is one of the most popular menu items on the truck.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3rd ribbon-cutting.

People came for the food and found a block party, too.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distant line. They watched the news crews. They did The Dougie and The Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved to do so. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day—there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. 

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked for her family when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she says. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles. 

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. She says she did everything there “including quit several times.” She was 12 when she started there.

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.” 

The crab cake slider is delicious, and the homemade chips are a must-have.

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided upon specialty sliders topped with lots of things. She based the variety on what has proven popular with her regular catering clients during the past six years. Two of those items are the 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes, and those are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch—homemade,” she says. “All of my sauces, even on the truck, I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she says. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan, and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she says. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.” 

Eat at Panoptic

www.eatatpanoptic.com 

205-319-1611

info@eatatpanoptic.com

Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations for dinners from 4-8 and Saturday lunches will vary. Follow the truck on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for specific location information.

You can access the food truck menu here.

Featured

Save the Restaurants We Love

I just got a text from my friend George Sarris who owns The Fish Market Restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. George’s restaurant has a special place in my heart.

When our kids were young, Rick and I had a weekly date night there. That was at the old place–the one that looked like a big styrofoam box. We’d crowd around a table with friends and strangers. It was not unusual for people visiting Birmingham from around the world to realize they knew someone at that table.

When George moved across the parking lot to his current location in a wonderful old warehouse with a custom bar and centuries-old timbers, my friend Lisa DeCarlo and I went with him and a small group to Greece (and then Lisa and I went to Turkey) to gather furnishings and decor (including genuine Greek fishing boats) for the place.

Our oldest child got her first job at The Fish Market and worked there as a cashier for years through high school and during summers home from college. To say she learned a lot about life there is a huge understatement.

Freshly shucked oysters and ice-cold local beer at The Fish Market bar are two of my favorite things in this world.

So, yes, this restaurant means something to me. And I’m not alone in this. So I want you to read what George sent me. Then do whatever you can to save the independent restaurants we love.

Here is George’s message in his own words:

Restaurants are the common ground of life in the United States. During my 50 years as a restaurant operator, I have watched customers grow up, get married, have kids, pass away – and now their kids are regular customers. If someone dies, gets married, has children, or a birthday party – we go to  a restaurant. In my home country of Greece, we have the coffee shop – the roundtable of the community – but here, it is restaurants. Not everyone likes to drink at bars, or dance in clubs, or even go to church, but everyone eats. If something happens to restaurants in the United States, then the way of life that we have come to cherish is at risk of changing irrevocably.

Without substantial help, I do not see 80% of independent restaurants surviving into 2021. 

My Name is George Sarris and I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 50 years. I immigrated through New York on April 1, 1969 from Tsitalia, a small village in the Greek Peloponnese. Our voyage was with the 2nd-to-last passenger ship that ferried immigrants to the United States from Europe.

My village consisted of mostly subsistence farming, and our 9-person household family struggled to make ends meet, with  5 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents. We had a “modest” house: 2 rooms reserved for the grandparents, parents, children, a bedroom for the goats and sheep, and the last bedroom was for our donkey and Truman, a Missouri Mule. 

Our mule was given to us under the Marshall Plan, a $700 million aid package provided by the United States to assist Europeans in the wake of World War II. There were 28 Missouri mules given to families in Tsitalia, and we named ours Truman. Most everyone in the village gave their mules American names. 

At the age of 12, the children left the mountainous village to begin high school in the plains down below. Our parents stayed above, tending to the small groves in the terraced rocky hills, while we lived amongst ourselves. By necessity, we were self-sufficient: cleaning, washing clothes, cooking,  all handled by kids no older than 15 . We were taught to take care of ourselves from a young age–as long as you can work, everything else will fall into place.  

At the age of 18, I started working in restaurants. I paid my dues in every position of the business. I worked a stint in New York to learn a little bit about delis, so I went with what I knew.  I opened a “Kosher Style” deli in downtown Birmingham. Of course back then in Birmingham, “Kosher  Style” might even include a little pork.  I have owned  restaurants for the last 48 years and have always applied the same model that I learned back then: work hard, keep cost low, and appeal to blue and white collar clientele alike. 80 hour work weeks are the rule, not the exception, and that remains true to this day. 

For the last 37 years I have owned The Fish Market Restaurant on the Southside of Birmingham. When we opened in 1983, there were 8 seats in the dining room; today there are 375. I have been fortunate to have a long-lasting restaurant, and it all goes back to what I learned in the beginning of my career: work hard, save your money, and be fair to customers. If you can do those three things, then you can make a living. 

For the first time in my life, that is no longer true. My business’ future is no longer in my hands. 

My son Dino has worked with me from the age of 9 years old. He is 32 and now, I don’t even know if the restaurant business will be for him over the next four decades as it was for me.   

The US employs over 11.5 million people via the restaurant industry, with countless others whose jobs are directly tied to the industry via farming, manufacturing, importing, shipping, transporting, etc. At the Fish Market, we employ some of the most marginalized in our community: those who have been afforded minimal education;  persons who have been previously incarcerated (and, in some cases, currently incarcerated), and those experiencing homelessness. These Birmingham residents can find a career at our restaurant.  And, more importantly, they can grow from that position. The restaurant industry thrives on giving people chances, and sometimes second (or third) chances. 

Additionally, independent restaurants are behind community events, fundraisers, helping local schools and churches, and any worthwhile cause. Because we are a big part of everyday life and we live among our customers. We stake our future in our communities. 

As an independent operator, I wear many hats with my staff: preacher, therapist, policeman, social worker, banker, and, above all, a friend. Personally, I see restaurants as a way to teach those of us, like myself, who grew up without some of the basics – personal hygiene, social etiquette, promptness, self control, and stress management. There is a learned art to keep smiling in the face of a customer who is having a bad day. It seems to me that if you learn these basic principles then you can handle most of life’s difficulties. 

So now, more than ever, our country’s independent restaurants need help. After Fish Market’s initial closure on March 17, we received the Payroll Protection Plan/CARES Act (PPP) money to cover 8 weeks of operational costs. We were able to pay all critical expenses:  rent, staff salaries, utilities, interest on existing loans, etc.. But, once that all was paid, we were back to square one. There was nothing left to keep the business going beyond those 8 weeks. The CARES Act did not address the actual problem that business owners were facing: the pandemic (and restrictions placed on businesses) were not going away anytime soon. 

The newly proposed “Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act”, seems, on its face, to have improved from the previous bailout. Businesses will have to show, through financial records, that their business is still being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the spring, numerous businesses receive grants who were thriving yet still remained eligible for huge amounts of money that could have helped those of us who are genuinely in a crisis. The P4 Act could provide funds to those who truly need it, and will allow us to keep our industry afloat through the end of the year. 

Truman, along with 28 other mules, was instrumental in the survival of our small mountain village in Greece. 70 years later, the community is still there, preserving the way of life that they hold dear. If the airlines, farmers, hospitals, bankers, carmakers, insurance companies, Wall Street, and multinational corporations can get a caravan of mules, when will the independent restaurant industry get theirs?

The restaurant business has never in the history of this country needed help from the government. We were able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to make it. This time, all we need from the government is a mule, and we can take it from there.

Featured

Farm Market Easy Dinner

What to do with our beautiful abundance of farm-fresh peppers and tomatoes? Add some potatoes and fragrant green curry broth to them. Then put an egg on it.

After doing the fantastically easy drive-thru farmers’ market at Pepper Place, I was looking to make something special with my plump, beautiful cherry tomatoes from Penton Farms in Verbena. I wanted to cook them just a bit so I could still really taste how fresh they are.

This recipe for Fried Eggs with Tomatoes, Peppers and Potatoes in Green Curry Broth sounded perfect. It’s from Chris Weber, the chef at a restaurant called The Herbfarm just outside of Seattle. You should know that Chef Weber is the youngest chef overseeing any of America’s 47 5-Diamond restaurants.

We found Chef Weber’s recipe and story in the Wall Street Journal–in that paper’s Slow Food Fast series.

During the past few months, this fine-dining chef has had to pivot and then pivot again. When The Herbfarm closed, Chef Weber provided free three-course dinners for area front-line workers, sending out more than 44,000 boxes to these heroes. When that funding dried up, he turned to a nearby hotel and started cooking high-end dishes for the guests there. He says he’ll restart the free meal program if the need arises.

Chef Weber says this dish is a “good late-night. When you’re tired and need something really good and fast but not too heavy.”

I think it’s a great (and quick and easy) summer weeknight dinner that takes full advantage of our wonderful, fresh local produce. I also think you’ll enjoy it.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic,thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons green curry paste

3 cups chicken stock

10 baby or fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise

Kosher salt

4 eggs

1 cup shishito peppers

1 cup Sungold tomatoes

3 tablespoons butter

½ cup roughly chopped basil


Directions

In a large, high-walled pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. Add curry paste and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in stock, potatoes and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook potatoes until fork-tender, 15-20 minutes.

Once potatoes are halfway through cooking, set a large sauté pan over high heat. Once very hot, lower heat to medium-high and add half the butter. Crack half the eggs into pan. Once whites begin to set, arrange half the peppers and half the tomatoes around eggs. Salt yolks and vegetables. Roll vegetables around and once they blister in spots, after about 2 minutes, transfer eggs and vegetables to a plate. Repeat with remaining butter, eggs, tomatoes and peppers.

Distribute potatoes and some broth among four shallow bowls. Spoon in tomatoes and peppers, and top each serving with a fried egg. Scatter basil over the top.

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Featured

Fox 6 Books July 2020

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. You can see the segment here. One eerily mirrors the time we are in right now. We also have a fascinating look at Winston Churchill from bestselling author Erik Larson, a book prescription for children and a way to breathe easier.  

The End of October by Lawrence Wright was published in April with uncanny timing. This medical thriller is a page-turning novel about a flu pandemic that mirrors much of what’s happening in our world today. When the World Health Organization sends Henry Parsons, a microbiologist-epidemiologist for the CDC, to Indonesia to investigate some mysterious deaths in a refugee camp, he knows pretty quickly that there’s a problem. But when an infected man joins the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca, a global pandemic begins. As Henry tries to save the world, his own family is struggling to simply survive back home in Atlanta. This novel takes us from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the White House to African and South American jungles and to illicit labs where the disease might or might not have started. The novel is rooted in facts, and Wright weaves in information about historical epidemics like the 1918 flu, modern Russian cyber- and bio-warfare and the evolving science of viruses. That makes this story even scarier.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson is a portrait of courage and impeccable leadership and a close-up look at Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz. It takes place in the course of one year. On Churchill’s first day in office, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. During the next twelve months, the Germans would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together, teach his people “the art of being fearless” and persuade the Americans that Britain was an ally worth helping. The book relies heavily on a great many wartime diaries and, with almost day-to-day focus, takes readers inside 10 Downing Street and the prime minister’s country home, Chequers. It is an intimate look at Churchill and his family, including his wife, Clementine, and their youngest daughter, Mary; his “Secret Circle” of friends and advisors and some of the citizens who lived through the bombing.

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly and James Dean is a book about positivity for young readers! Pete the Cat wakes up feeling grumpy—nothing seems to be going his way. But some magic sunglasses—and some selfless sharing—teach Pete that a good mood has been inside him all along. This book is being distributed by pediatricians to some of our state’s youngest and most underserved children during Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s 11th annual Rx for Summer Reading campaign to encourage families to read aloud together.  For 14 years, Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s partnerships with pediatric practices and clinics across our state have placed more than 1.7 million brand-new books in the hands of Alabama’s youngest and most underserved children. Currently, 52 of Alabama’s pediatric practices and clinics serve as Reach Out and Read-Alabama program sites in 30 counties, impacting 40 percent of the state’s children under the age of five.  “Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses seems to be the perfect book for this summer,” says Polly McClure, statewide coordinator for Reach Out and Read-Alabama. “This book, in particular, promotes positive thinking, which is so important in these uncertain times.” Go to http://www.roralabama.org to learn more about the Rx for Summer Reading program and how you can help get books to children.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is premised on this fact: There is nothing more essential to our health and wellbeing than breathing, but most of us don’t do it correctly. Nester is a journalist who traveled the world to figure out why we (as a species) have lost that ability. He visits ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, walks the streets of São Paulo and spends time with choir schools in New Jersey. He talks to men and women who are exploring the hidden science behind ancient breathing practices like Pranayama and Sudarshan Kriya and sits down with scientists doing cutting-edge studies into pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry and human physiology. Modern research shows that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can enhance athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; effect snoring, asthma and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. Breath will get you thinking about this most automatic and basic biological function. You’ll never breathe the same again.  

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Prescribing Books

Lots of Alabama’s pediatricians are prescribing Pete the Cat. 

We’re talking about Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, to be exact. It’s a children’s book by Kimberly and James Dean, and it’s being prescribed by pediatric healthcare providers statewide as part of Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s 11th annual Rx for Summer Reading campaign to encourage families to read aloud together.  

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses is the featured book for Rx for Summer Reading.

For 14 years, Reach Out and Read-Alabama’s partnerships with pediatric practices and clinics across our state have placed more than 1.7 million brand-new books in the hands of Alabama’s youngest and most underserved children. Currently, 52 of Alabama’s pediatric practices and clinics serve as Reach Out & Read-Alabama program sites in 30 counties, impacting 40 percent of the state’s children under the age of five. 

Actor and Alabama native Clayne Crawford reads Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses. Through his Clayne Crawford Foundation, he partners with organizations across our state to help children, women and veterans.

Even as clinics adjust to new safety measures and logistics to keep families and children safe during the pandemic, well-child visits are still highly encouraged to prevent more disease and to keep children on track with regular vaccinations, says Polly McClure, RPh, statewide coordinator for Reach Out and Read-Alabama. “We remain committed to supporting families with young children, continuing to provide books and encourage reading aloud at every checkup from six months through five years of age.” 

The evidence-based Reach Out and Read-Alabama program builds on the ongoing relationship, beginning in a child’s infancy, between parents and medical providers to develop critical early reading skills in children. The idea is to give parents the tools and knowledge to help ensure that their children are prepared to learn when they start school.

With more than 15 peer-reviewed studies and a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Reach Out and Read is an effective intervention that incorporates early literacy into pediatric practice. During regular, one-on-one visits with the doctor, families grow to understand the powerful and important role they play in supporting their children’s development. 

Parents gain the confidence and skills that enable them to support the development of their child, early language and literacy at home. And the children get books of their very own.

Teaming up with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, the lead agency for Alabama’s Early Intervention System, Reach Out and Read-Alabama practices and clinics are hosting events throughout the summer that give parents practical information about building moments and routines to help their families manage during these anxious times. In addition, information about services and support through Early Intervention referrals and Child Find (1-800-543-3098) will be available for parents and caregivers at each event.  

Using Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses as a basis to explore new feelings and emotions as well as the world in which we live, each event provides one simple reminder to families that spending time together with books can offer a safe harbor, even if only for a few moments each day.

 “We are excited about our partnership with Reach Out and Read-Alabama and the summer reading campaign,” says Betsy Prince, coordinator of Alabama’s Early Intervention System/Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. “This provides a great opportunity to get the word out about early literacy and about the importance of Early Intervention in supporting infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities and their families.”

According to the Urban Child Institute, children’s experiences in their earliest years affect how their brains work, the way they respond to stress, and their ability to form trusting relationships. During these years, the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, setting the stage for social and emotional development. Language blossoms, basic motor abilities form, thinking becomes more complex, and children begin to understand their own feelings and those of others. 

“I have found the Reach Out and Read program to be a critical component of our primary care clinic,” says Elizabeth Dawson, MD, FAAP, medical coordinator of Charles Henderson Child Health Center and founder of the Troy Resilience Project. “It is incredibly powerful to not only be able to talk about but also demonstrate the power of books and reading for our children and families every day, as we are able to observe how children interact with books as well.” 

“Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses seems to be the perfect book for this summer,” says McClure. This book, in particular, promotes positive thinking, which is so important in these uncertain times.

“I look forward to sharing this book in our clinic for the upcoming summer reading program,” Dawson says. “I love that it gives parents and kids the chance to feel a little brighter while promoting literacy and relationships and building a healthy foundation for every child and caregiver to become more resilient.”

Go to Reach Out and Read-Alabama to learn more about the Rx for Summer Reading program and how you can help get books to children.

Reach Out and Read-Alabama kicked off its 11th annual campaign on its Facebook page with a live virtual event on Friday, June 19. Guest speakers included Betsy Prince of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services; Elizabeth Dawson, MD, FAAP, of Charles Henderson Child Health Center and the Troy Resiliency Project; Anna Dailey of Dothan Pediatric Clinic; and Alabama-born actor Clayne Crawford of the Clayne Crawford Foundation who read Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses. You can listen to Crawford reading the book here.

Featured

Full Moon Shines Across Our State

During times of unimaginable uncertainty in the restaurant industry, Full Moon Bar-B-Que continues to cook. Low and slow, of course. But steady, too. Even during a pandemic, it seems, people still want their ‘que. 

In the 23 years since the Maluff brothers—David and Joe—purchased Full Moon Bar-B-Que from Pat James, they have grown the business from a single store on Birmingham’s Southside to 15 locations all across the state. The Birmingham metro area has eight locations, including one in the Hill Student Center at UAB (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall). The brothers are even moving ahead with plans for a new store in Huntsville by the end of 2020.

James, a former football coach who spent a dozen years as Paul “Bear” Bryant’s assistant, started the business in 1986 with his wife, Eloise. They called it Pat James’ Full Moon Bar-B-Que. David and Joe, sons of Lebanese immigrants, purchased the original Birmingham location in 1997.

I talked to the brothers for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here.

The brothers have stayed true to the initial vision with colorful, sports-centric décor celebrating favorite regional teams; made-from-scratch dishes; and hands-on involvement in the business. Perhaps most importantly, they have always used hickory wood-fired pits to cook the meats. They even have five big, portable pits, allowing them to cook Full Moon barbecue anywhere—feeding groups of 10 to (once restrictions are lifted) 10,000.

These wood-fired pits make a world of difference, David says. “We have a passion to do barbecue right.  That’s why all of our stores still have wood-burning pits in them. And we do it the old-fashioned way—fresh, from scratch, every day. We cook our meat low and slow right in front of our customers, and they see it, smell it, taste it. And that’s what’s kept us thriving through the years.”  

During its flavorful 35-year history, Full Moon Bar-B-Que has gathered fans from across the country. It’s cheekily called the “Best Little Pork House in Alabama,” but Full Moon offers a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere that has served generations and appeals to all nationalities, David says. “We’re real big on making the customer feel good. That’s our job. When you come into our house, we make you feel warm and welcome. We’re here to make you happy.”

Full Moon was named one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the U.S. by Huffington Post. The restaurant’s red and white sauces are on grocery store shelves along with the signature chow-chow, which is served on every sandwich.

Full Moon boasts two items on Alabama’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die:  the crisp vinaigrette slaw and the baked-fresh-daily Half Moon chocolate chip and pecan cookies (half dipped into glossy, dark chocolate). Both these items are made according to Eloise James’ original recipes. 

There really wasn’t much of a pivot, David says, besides shutting down the dining rooms. “We were already set up for drive-thru, catering (and) curbside. That’s our model. We got stronger in that sense, but we’ve been doing it forever. You know, we’re one of the few restaurants that can have a full menu like we have on the drive-thru menu. So, it’s automatic for us to thrive in a situation like this, because we do it every day.” Besides, he adds, barbecue travels well.

What has changed, though, are the expanded health and safety precautions at each restaurant, Joe says. Things like maintaining social distancing between tables, hanging plexiglass between the booths, regular temperature checks for employees, masks and gloves for everyone who works there, extra attention given to sanitizing surfaces and washing things in the kitchen. 

“We have to take these measures every day to keep our employees safe, to keep our guests safe,” Joe says. “That’s the most important thing at this point.” 

“I’m proud of our people,” David says. “Being in the restaurant business is tough enough. Then adding all these measures on top of their jobs. You have to remember:  These guys are wearing a mask in the kitchen! It’s hard for them. It’s hard for us to manage because we’ve never been through anything like this before, right? That’s our duty … we’ve got to keep everyone safe. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep our business thriving and our employees safe. Whatever it takes.”

Full Moon has long been known for scratch-made Southern sides like collard greens, baked beans, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, fried okra and mac & cheese.  But over the years, the brothers have expanded the offerings to suit a variety of tastes and lifestyles adding freshly made salads topped with a meat of your choice, hand-breaded chicken tenders, and gigantic baked potatoes overstuffed with meat and fixings. They put wings (Buffalo and smoked) on the menu several years ago, and the fried catfish (farm-raised in Mississippi) is extremely popular. 

But it’s the savory, smoky barbecue that is most famous here, especially the pork. Whether you get it chopped or request it sliced, you’ll want to order it like the regulars do—with “a little of the outside meat” mixed in. There are classic spareribs as well as baby back ribs. The brisket is from Black Angus cattle. Smoked chicken, turkey and spicy pork links are other options.

All this food is made using decades-old recipes and time-honored techniques; it’s comforting and familiar. And it makes people happy.

Back in March, the brothers started a “Feed a Friend” campaign, and they’ve extended it through June. It’s not something they talk about much. For years, David and Joe have quietly worked behind the scenes with churches, schools and nonprofits, but they had to enlist the help of people on the restaurants’ email lists to find families in need. 

When the pandemic hit, David says, “we saw a lot of people unemployed, not working, hungry. It broke my heart; it broke my brother’s heart.”

Each week, they get 300 to 400 responses to their Feed a Friend query. They go through these messages every day, identifying families in need and then sending food to their homes.  “I’ll tell you,” David says, “the reactions we get … will bring tears to your eyes. When they hear they are getting fed today … they are overwhelmed with joy. … It’s anonymous, who suggested that they need food. We bring it to their front door. We don’t say a word to them except, ‘Enjoy.’ 

“We’ve gotten a huge response,” David says. “A lot of this we don’t advertise, and we don’t want to advertise. This is from our hearts to the community. And I don’t care who it is, whether they’ve been a customer of ours or not. That doesn’t matter. We need to feed the kids and the families in our community and support them when we can.” 

The brothers do this every day, and sometimes they’re feeding two or three families a day. But that’s not all.

“It’s a wonderful feeling in your heart, doing something for others,” Joe says. “Feeding the first responders, feeding the nurses for nurses’ week, feeding the firemen. We’re not doing it just in Birmingham, we’re doing it in Tuscaloosa, we’re doing it in Auburn, we’re doing it in Montgomery. We’re just … trying to help our community out when they need it.”

Full Moon Bar-B-Que

Locations in Alabaster, Dothan, Fultondale, Homewood, Hoover, Inverness, Jasper, McCalla, Montgomery, Opelika, Pelham, Southside in Birmingham, Trussville, Tuscaloosa and UAB’s Hill Student Center. 

Check individual locations for current hours.

fullmoonbbq.com

Featured

U-Pick Lavender

The u-pick opportunities in Alabama abound—strawberries, blueberries, sunflowers, muscadines, tomatoes, pumpkins and even Christmas trees. 

Now add fragrant lavender to that fun list.

Lavender Wynde Farm in Harvest, located in the rolling foothills north of Huntsville, is inviting the public to the farm to pick their own lavender Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. (The 10 a.m. to noon timeframe is filling up. They suggest visiting after lunchtime.)

There’s a Zen sort of vibe in the sunny, manicured fields of what owners Lora and Mike Porter call their “farmlet.” Some folks sit in chairs scattered around under a few shade trees while dozens of others kneel or sit in the grass next to knee-high plants quietly snipping the fragrant stems. 

When you arrive, you’ll be handed a pair of sterilized garden scissors (but you are encouraged to bring you own, which they will sterilize for you). They give you a small plastic sleeve with rubber bands. These sleeves will hold 100 to 120 stems. You’ll pay $10 for each bundle. You’ll be instructed how to dry your bundles of food-grade lavender (upside down in a cool, dry place for a few weeks). My bunches are making my closets smell amazing right now.

Lora Porter says, “growing lavender in north Alabama was a learning process.” Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, she explains, and it loves rocky soil. Our Alabama clay was too dense, so they learned to augment the soil with gravel and mound the plants for drainage. The long, beautiful rows of full, healthy plants, each bristling with hundreds of stems, is proof they’ve figured it out.

In addition to the u-pick opportunity, there’s a pop-up shop selling soaps and other bath and beauty products like body butters, lotions and sugar scrubs; essential oils; teas; and lavender-filled sachets. While they specialize in lavender, the Porters raise a variety of herbs and botanicals. They distill, on-site, many of the hydrosols and essential oils that are used in their natural, handcrafted aromatherapy products.

During the u-pick events, they will be distilling mint and lavender throughout the day, and they’ll have lavender lemonade for sale, too. Visitors can buy their own mint, rosemary and lavender plants (and they’ll even sell you bags of gravel to get those lavender plants started properly). 

Lavender Wynde Farm is at 492 Robins Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749. For logistical purposes, you should go to the Facebook page to let them know you are coming for the u-pick days. Or call 256-714-4144 and leave a message. Otherwise, visits are by appointment only. 

A few things to know:  Use the farm’s gravel driveway to enter. Do not use the neighbor’s driveway or cut across their grass for ingress/egress. And bring your own garden clippers/scissors if you have them; several of the farm’s scissors were lost during the first u-pick weekend. They will sterilize yours as you enter and leave. Finally, feel free to share photos of your lavender-picking adventure. Lora says that “makes all the weeding worthwhile.” 

Featured

Fox 6 Books: June

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. You’ll find nonfiction with Harper Lee, timely historical fiction, a usable guide to important self-care and a twisty thriller set in Germany.

A note for right now:  I want you to have access to great reads from your home. While our access to books is somewhat limited, I’ll be sharing books that are not hard or expensive to find. Some are available via the Jefferson County Library Cooperative’s Overdrive (Libby) platform for download on your electronic devices. If you don’t have a library card, you can get an e-card here (https://www.jclc.org). You can also get my recommendations on Kindle or paperback via Amazon. Only one of these books is brand new, but you can get it delivered, too. 

Furious Hours:  Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep, is set in 1970s Alabama when the story of a serial killer caught the attention of Harper Lee who wanted to write her own gothic true-crime work (like Truman Capote’s In Cold Bloodwhich she helped him research 17 years earlier).

Lee attended a trial and worked obsessively on the book about a man accused of killing five family members for insurance money. Cep’s reporting is based on materials no one has written much about, including a surviving first chapter of a book Lee called The Reverend, which sat in a briefcase for years in Alexander City. In this well-written work of nonfiction, Cep takes up the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell after he himself has been killed. The trial is for the vigilante who shot Maxwell at the funeral of his last victim. The same savvy lawyer who helped Maxwell avoid punishment is representing the man who shot him. This book is a moving tribute to one of our most revered writers and an intimate look at racial politics in the Deep South.

Year of Wonder:  A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, feels awfully timely right now. In the 1660s, a small village in England quarantined itself after residents were stricken with The Plague.

This is a work of historical fiction because this really did happen in the remote village of Eyam, and some of the characters (including the rector and his housemaid) are from the sparse historical record. In this book that housemaid, Anna, is the heroine, and the story is told through her eyes. As the disease takes half of the villagers, Anna emerges as a healer. (Somebody had to after the village midwives and herbalists were killed during a witch hunt.) The Plague was devastating, of course, but the deterioration of Anna’s community was another thing to overcome in a terrible year that eventually became a “year of wonders.”

Healing Yoga, by Loren Fishman, MD, is a practical guide from a renowned expert on rehabilitative medicine who shares usable advice and easy-to-understand techniques to pursue self-care right at home.

The book is full of postures proven to treat 20 common ailments—from headaches to insomnia from backaches to shoulder pain from bone loss to bunions. Learn strategies to restore your body, relieve your pain, and ease your mind with yoga. Some 170 photographs will illustrate healing techniques Dr. Fishman has invented, refined and validated with the help of thousands of patients through decades of research.

Broken Glass, by Alexander Hartung, is the first of two books (so far!) in the Nik Pohl thriller series set in Munich. The story is a page-turner, the protagonist is flawed but heroic and the city provides an interesting setting for this police procedural. (I love reading books set somewhere I’ve been, and having visited Munich last fall, it was great to see this amazing city again in these pages.)

In this novel, one woman is missing, another is dead and the two women look remarkably similar. Nik (who gets suspended from the police force fairly early in the story) has to figure out what else they have in common—something powerful people want to keep hidden. There are several twisty parts to this story, which make it highly entertaining.  

Blood Ties, the second in this series, came out last December, but read this one first to get a real sense of Nik Pohl’s character.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Featured

Virtual 5K = Real Results

Run, walk (or skip, for that matter) to benefit service industry workers.

A virtual 5K can make a real difference to local hospitality workers right now.

COVID-19 has hit Alabama’s restaurant and hospitality industry hard, and thousands of service industry workers across our state have seen their hours reduced or have lost their jobs altogether.

Will Wilder saw a way to help them.

Wilder has teamed up with The Trak Shak, Redmont Distilling Co. and EW Motion Therapy for the Redmont ‘Rona Run, a virtual 5K to benefit Alabama’s service workers. 

All proceeds from the Redmont ‘Rona Virtual 5K, set for May 8-10, go to the AL Hospitality Workers Relief Fund, which distributes cash directly to Alabama food and beverage workers to help cover rent, utilities and medical expenses during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Wilder, an avid runner who loves the outdoors, says, “Running has kept me sane since COVID-19 arrived. I’ve been running almost every day, and other than trips to the grocery store, it’s about the only time outside I have each day. 

“I’ve also always thought our incredible restaurant and bar scene is one of the best things about Birmingham,” says Wilder, who grew up here and attended college at Washington University in St. Louis and then Columbia Law School. “There is nothing I love more than showing people from out of town around our city and letting them taste our incredible food. It’s been tough to see how hard the pandemic has hit service sector workers. I thought that putting on a virtual 5K fundraiser would be the best thing I could do to use something that has kept me happy and sane to help the rest of my community.”

Participants can walk, run or walk-run—at a safe distance from others—either outside or inside on a treadmill. They will have almost an entire weekend to complete their virtual 5K. With social distancing practices in effect, participants are encouraged to exercise by themselves with the satisfaction of knowing they are part of something larger than themselves.

The window for folks to run the virtual race and submit their results begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 8th and ends at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 10th. To be eligible for Top Finisher Awards, participants must submit photographic evidence of their time to AlabamaServiceWorkersRelief5k@gmail.com. This can be a photo of their treadmill screen or a screenshot of results from a GPS-based exercise app such as Strava or Nike Run Club or Runkeeper, Wilder says. (These apps have limited versions that are free.)

Awards will go to the Top Three Overall Women and Men, and there will be cool raffle prizes, too, including gift baskets from Dreamland Bar-B-Que and Redmont Distilling Co.

The winners will be announced during a Virtual Happy Hour at 6 p.m. on Sunday hosted by Redmont Distilling. Everyone who signs up or donates will get a link to log in through Zoom, a free video-conference website.

The cost to register is $20 plus a $2.50 RunSignUp fee. Registration closes at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 10.

For more information or to sign up, go to https://runsignup.com/Race/AL/Birmingham/AlabamaServiceWorkersReliefVirtual5k

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Fox 6 Books: May

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. I think they are perfect for right now: fiction that you can get lost in, an important picture book for young readers, a way to cope with anxiety and a cookbook to remind us of better days.

A note for right now:  I want you to have access to great reads from your home. While our access to books is somewhat limited, I’ll be sharing books that are not hard or expensive to find. Some are available via the Jefferson County Library Cooperative’s Overdrive (Libby) platform for download on your electronic devices. If you don’t have a library card, you can get an e-card here (https://www.jclc.org). You can also get my recommendations on Kindle or paperback via Amazon. Only one of these books is brand new, but you can get it delivered, too. 

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton, is the story of a boy coming of age in 1980s Australia, and it is gritty and funny and heartbreaking all at once. There’s magic here as well as crime, violence, mystery and a character you won’t forget anytime soon. Eli Bell doesn’t know his real father, but his mother and stepfather are heroin dealers. He has a brilliant brother who does not speak. As a young child, their sitter was a notorious ex-felon (a national record-holder for number of successful prison escapes). Eli lives in a neglected neighborhood of Polish and Vietnamese immigrants, but he’s determined to follow his open and big heart, become a journalist and grow up to be a good man. People have called this book “electric,” “mesmerizing,” “thrilling.” I think this debut novel is all those things including amazing.

The Cat Man of Aleppo is a picture book for young readers by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, both of whom are local writers. It’s the true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who, in the midst of a terrible civil war in Syria, took care of the hungry, abandoned cats he found on the once-beautiful streets of Aleppo. When most people fled, Aljaleel, an ambulance driver, stayed behind to care for his neighbors who could not leave. He soon realized that they were not the only ones who were suffering. So he used what little money he had to feed the city’s abandoned cats. When that wasn’t enough, he asked the world to help, and the world did. Today, people from all over support Aljaleel’s efforts to house and care for orphaned children and shelter and treat abandoned animals. This is a beautiful (and beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu) story of love and compassion and determination and courage.

You Are Here:  An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, by Jenny Lawson, is something I found on a reading list for people who are experiencing anxiety. And who isn’t to some extent right now? Part therapy, part humor and part coloring book, Lawson (who wrote the equally hilarious book Furiously Happy) uses art therapy to help readers cope with anxiety and negative feelings. Lawson has always been candid about her personal struggles, something that helps readers cope with their own. Some of the material in this book is dark, but there’s lightness here, too. Lawson doodles and draws when she is anxious, and she sometimes posts these pieces online. Fans would come to her book signings with printouts of these drawings for her to sign. This is an entire book of these funny, smart, sometimes-irreverent drawings (all printed on perforated paper so you can tear them out, hang them up, give them to friends). That and things like fill-in-the-blank lists allow you to make Lawson’s book your own. 

Always Home:  A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories is a brand-new cookbook and more by Fanny Singer. Singer is the daughter of food icon and activist Alice Waters, and she grew up in her mother’s kitchen at Chez Panisse. (As a baby, she was swaddled in dish towels and slept in a big salad bowl.) She also learned the lessons of an edible education—knowing what you’re eating and how it got to your plate This is more than a cookbook; it’s a culinary memoir about the bond between mother and daughter, food (of course) and the need for beauty in our lives. Dozens of well-written vignettes accompany recipes for dishes like roast chicken, coriander seed pasta and her mother’s Garlicky Noodle Soup.  And they highlight an amazing life of food, people and travel.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

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Pizza

Thank you, Birmingham Breadworks, for getting me out of my house. At an acceptable distance, of course.

Because I ate a full half of one of your pizzas, I felt compelled (really compelled and fueled) to walk five miles in my hilly neighborhood today.

I really am grateful. That pizza with its savory bacon and thick, chewy Gouda on your delicious airy crust was amazing.

And it’s available for pick-up only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. Options include pepperoni, three cheese, Margherita, sausage and cheddar, onion and arugula, chicken bacon ranch.

You order online. Designate a pick-up time and you’re golden. And full.