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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.

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Featured

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.

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Sticky Onion Tart. You’re gonna want to make this.

Jamie Oliver‘s Sticky Onion Tart is a real treat. My friend Beth Wilder made it recently and shared a picture that made my mouth water. So I found the recipe and decided to make it myself.

It calls for things you probably already have on hand: onions, garlic, thyme, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar. I had to get the puff pastry during my last grocery run because I don’t usually have that in my freezer. Next time, I’ll get two because I will make this again and again.

A few notes: I had enormous onions in my onion/potato drawer, so I used two and cut them into eight thick slices. Also, I only had light brown sugar, but it was fine. I made this in a cast iron pan.

Jamie Oliver’s Sticky Onion Tart

Ingredients

  • 4 medium onions 
  • 50 g unsalted butter 
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme 
  • 4 fresh bay leaves 
  • 2 tablespoons soft dark brown sugar 
  • 4 tablespoons cider vinegar 
  • 8 cloves of garlic 
  • 320 g sheet of all-butter puff pastry , (cold)

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas 7. Peel the onions and halve across the middle. Place the butter in a 26cm non-stick ovenproof frying pan on a medium heat. Strip in the thyme leaves and add the bay, shake the pan around and get it bubbling, then add the sugar, vinegar and 100ml of water. Place the onion halves in the pan, cut side down. Peel and halve the garlic cloves and place in the gaps, then season generously with sea salt and black pepper. Cover, turn the heat down to low and leave to steam for 10 minutes to soften the onions slightly, then remove the lid and cook until – very importantly! – the liquid starts to caramelise, gently shaking the pan occasionally to stop it from sticking.
  2. Place the pastry over the onions, using a wooden spoon to push it right into the edges of the pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed up (it will look quite dark, but don’t worry!). Using oven gloves to protect your hands, pop a large plate over the pan and confidently but very carefully turn out.
  3. Delicious served with goat’s cheese, a simple salad and a cold beer.
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Hand-sewn masks

Back in mid-January, we got two weeks’ worth of pasta, beans and canned tomatoes. For Valentine’s Day, I gave my kids the usual heart-shaped box of chocolates along with some disinfecting wipes and their choice of lavender- or lemon-scented spray hand sanitizer. I thought I was prepared.

But then masks.

photo from WBAP.com

It is nearly impossible to get them now, so I decided to make them. I started with the New York Times’ pattern, which took a while. I made one with that. Next, I moved on to an easier pattern with a pocket for a filter from See Kate Sew.

But now, even fabric is hard to come by. I placed an order with JoAnn only to get one email after another saying, “Uh oh! Items from your order have been canceled.”

Then I came across this blog post from Free People about repurposing old clothing into homemade face masks.

That post was inspired by Becky Vieira, a super mom who created the website Masks For Heroes — pretty much overnight — in an effort to streamline support for making and acquiring masks, surgical grade and fabric alike.

As Becky says: “While cloth masks don’t offer full protection when dealing with COVID-19 patients, they serve other purposes: patients with less aggressive symptoms can wear them, freeing up Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers, or they can be used as a covering for used N95 masks since, in some cases, many health care workers are having to reuse the same mask for up to five days.”

Visit Becky’s site to find an easy pattern as well as a list of nearby medical facilities in need of masks. In Alabama, Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Southern Family Health in Columbiana and Cahaba Medical Care in Centerville are listed.

Closer to home, there’s the Facebook group bham face masks. They are making masks by the thousands and offer practice tips and troubleshooting for participants.

The mask from the Free People blog is super easy. This DIY hand-sewn mask is made with elastic hair ties and whatever fabric you have around the house … even, perhaps, a shirt or skirt you no longer wear.

DIY Hand-Sewn Mask

You’ll need:

Needle & thread (or sewing machine if you have one)

Two elastic bands 

One 10-by-18-inch piece of new or freshly-washed fabric 

*NOTE: Most departments of health suggest that masks be made from two layers of tightly woven 100% cotton fabric.

Begin by folding your fabric in half along its longer edge, so that it measures 5 x 9 inches. Make sure that, if your fabric has a pattern, the pattern is on the inside. 

Take your needle and thread and sew along the long, open side of the fabric (a simple running stitch will work). You’re essentially creating a small tube, with two openings on each of the shorter sides.

Once sewn, turn the fabric inside out so that the stitches sit on the inside.

Take an elastic band and insert it around the cloth on the short side. Fold about 1” of cloth over the rubber band and sew along the length of that side, making a casing for the band so it fits securely in place. Repeat for the other side and, voila! You’ve made a mask! And best of all, you’ve played a definitive part in helping to safeguard yourself and the community around you. 

Here’s a link to a video showing you how it’s done.

(A shout-out to Free People: The retailer is partnering with Goldsheep, an LA-based factory that normally produces FP Movement leggings. They are producing masks that will be donated throughout the medical community.)

Finally, of course, here’s the simple bandana mask that requires no needle or thread–only a bandana and two hair ties.

Remember that social distancing is still key to staying safe–even with a mask.

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Still Serving: Crestline Bagel Co.

We’ve been baking bread here at my house. Well, my husband has been baking bread, and I’ve been really enjoying it. Here’s my blog post with the tried-and-true, no-knead, made-in-a-cast-iron-dutch-oven recipe. The original recipe is from Sullivan Street Bakery.

But one bread we always buy: bagels. We just can’t do them like my friend Jennifer Yarbrough and her teams at Crestline Bagel, so we don’t even try.

Luckily Crestline Bagel is still serving during this current crisis.

The downtown location is temporarily closed, but the Mountain Brook and Cahaba Heights stores are open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. seven days a week.

Photo by Jennifer Yarbrough.

They are doing delivery through UberEats and Waitr. Or you can order online for curbside and takeout at Crestlinebagel.com.

So my go-to whole wheat everything with honey-walnut cream cheese–the perfect mix of savory and sweet, creamy and crunchy-remains something to enjoy.

And I’m truly grateful for that.

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Lost and Found

Friends, we don’t know half of what this coronavirus is taking from us. 

Not even half.

Our time with family. Our time with friends. Our time to just freely walk in this world and not think about the distances between us. 

I have often taken for granted the absolute delight of a sentence spooling out—one word sewn neatly into another and another and another, but now I am simply grateful, most days, that the words I fit together make any kind of sense.

Some days I am frozen. There are no words. 

So I look to someone else’s words for inspiration, for distraction. 

Yesterday, we lost John Prine, whose words in song are poetry. Sometimes, we don’t fully realize that, or stop to consider it, until we see them written down.

Here’s Angel from Montgomery:

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just a free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

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Fox 6 Books: April

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Each of these books will take you somewhere else. And right now, while we’re unable to travel (even outside our homes for the most part), they offer windows to the wider world.

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. 

Everything Lost is Found Again:  Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath is part memoir, part essay collection and offers an up-close-and-personal journey to Lesotho (this small, land-locked kingdom is surrounded by South Africa and is a place few of us have been, I’m guessing).

The author taught high school there, while his wife worked with families devastated by the AIDS epidemic. The subjects here can be serious and sad (there are lots of AIDS orphans in Lesotho; Old Testament retributions are not uncommon), but a lot of this book is laugh-out-loud funny. Truly funny. And that’s truly necessary right now. But best of all, this book takes us to a place of joy and resolve in the face of hardship and incredible love of life—a place where a stranger might reach out and hold your hand as you walk down the street. 

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins is perfect for right now if you find your attention span shorter than usual. Actually, I would recommend any of Collins’s accessible, beautiful poetry. Also, this is National Poetry Month, so poetry is timely.

I absolutely adore Collins’s literate and totally accessible take on the everyday—things like the scrawled comments of a book’s previous readers or forgetfulness or having insomnia (After counting all the sheep in the world/ I enumerate the wildebeests, snails/ camels, skylarks, etc./ then I add up all the zoos and aquariums/ country by country.) Collins served two terms as our country’s Poet Laureate. He has been called “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, and his conversational style and smart, witty and approachable, works are why. 

Abraham:  A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible, highlights the common heart of the world’s three monotheistic religions:  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

All three share Abraham, and so Feiler takes readers on a journey to understand this common patriarch. He travels through war zones, explores caves, talks to religious leaders and visits shrines to uncover some little-known details of the life of a man who connects the faiths of half the world. Read it and understand your neighbors better. Read it and understand that many conflicts are not really necessary.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is finally here! Fans have waited eight long years for this final book in Mantel’s historical fiction trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. This saga started with Wolf Hall and continued with Bring Up the Bodies (both of these won the Man Booker Prize). Both of those books also are available for download, but you might want to own them. 

In this last book, (which picks up after the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife), Mantel traces the final years of Cromwell, who always has had to rely upon his wits with no great family to back him, no private army at his disposal. But this blacksmith’s son—a common man—rose to the very highest levels of wealth and power in a very fickle court and changed the course of a country before he was done.

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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Fish Market Family Meals

Right now, when life is so very different, it’s nice to know some favorite things remain available.

The Fish Market Southside is still serving with curbside takeout and delivery (through DoorDash, Uber Eats and Bham Takeout) Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant’s full menu is available as well as some family meals.

Family Menu #1 ($38) includes Greek salad, house-made focaccia, Greek chicken (or chicken tenders), Mediterranean-style green beans and Greek potatoes.

Family Menu#2 ($50) includes Green salad, house-made focaccia, green beans and Athenian-style grouper or salmon (or half and half because both are awesome) served over orzo.

photo from The Fish Market

Both these meals feed four, but Fish Market owner George Sarris is known for his generous portions. He is, after all, Greek; they like to feed people. These family meals are available with an hour’s notice all day.

All dishes–from the family menus or the regular menu–are in safely sealed takeaway containers. There’s half-price wine and beer available to go, too.

photo from The Fish Market

The Fish Market’s fresh seafood market is open (9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday). There are grocery items there, too:  the Fish Market’s own extra virgin olive oil, coffee beans, pastas, Mediterranean sea salt, organic grits, assorted imported olives and cheeses and house-made condiments like Athenian sauce and Greek Island sauce. Grab some baklava, some bananas.

Additionally, some of the Fish Market’s most popular items are now “grab and go” – things like West Indies Salad, their famous gumbo, smoked salmon spread, shrimp or chicken Creole, red beans and rice with Andouille, feta spread, roasted eggplant and hummus dip.

This is comfort food when we all need some comfort.

photo from The Fish Market

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National Poetry Month

I can always count on my poet friend Irene Latham to remind me of National Poetry Month.

Musings of an Old Man by Nancy Milford

Her postcard featuring a work from Baldwin County artist and writer Nancy Milford (“Musings of an Old Man”) was a sweet reminder to live my poem.

In happier times, whenever I sent a package to my kids in college, I always included a poem. Always. The poem tucked in with food or other little treats reflected what was going on my my life or their lives at the moment. Sometimes these poems were just about the season we were in at the time. (I also always had the postman stamp these packages “spoiled” just for fun.)

Irene is the author of wonderful books of poetry and fiction and narrative poetry and poetry picture books for children and adults including Leaving Gee’s Bend; Don’t Feed the Boy; The Color of Lost Rooms; The Cat Man of Aleppo (out Apirl 14); Meet Miss Fancy; Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship; Dictionary for a Better World; and more.

Read them, enjoy them and here are some other poetry resources for you:

Irene’s own tips for writers including an editing checklist and books to make you a better writer and Author ABCs. There are resources for young writers here, too.

The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 to support poets and bring their work to as many people as possible. The organization celebrates poetry all year long, but this month is especially special. You can search a curated collection of more than 10,000 poems by occasion, theme, form, keywords or poet’s name. I also love their poem-a-day. There are materials for teachers there, too, which should help parents these days.

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National Attention, Local Efforts

Our state’s James Beard Foundation semifinalists should be enjoying a boost to business, but this is not business as usual. 

When the James Beard Foundation announces its highly anticipated best-of semifinalists, our state usually has plenty of nominees. 

This year started out no differently with restaurants from across our state named semifinalists in a number of categories:  in Birmingham, Automatic Seafood and Oysters (Best New Restaurant); The Atomic Lounge (Outstanding Bar Program); and Chez Fonfon (Outstanding Hospitality). Three Alabama chefs are semifinalists for Best Chef South:   Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach; Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood; and Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile

But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit close to home, and these restaurants are closed to the diners who would come from across the country (and even across the world) to experience their dining rooms, savor their food and drinks and enjoy their hospitality.

There are no more 30-day-out reservations, no more lines out the door. 

The James Beard boost to business—which happens even with semifinalists—makes little difference now.

Some of these restaurants are still serving customers, offering curbside pick-up and deliveries. They are cooking for their employees who have been laid off and for other restaurant workers and for first responders while they wait to get back to business as usual.

I wrote about this for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire piece here. It’s long, but these folks are still working hard even with their dining rooms closed. Read on to see how you can help them.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

The husband-and-wife team of Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side at Automatic Seafood and Oysters—he with his award-winning kitchen skills and dedication to the fresh flavors of local and regional ingredients and she with her eye for design and her genuine warm hospitality. 

Their winning approach has resulted in weeks-long anticipation for tables, great local (and national) buzz and a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant. 

Most of that is on hold now, but Automatic is still serving customers curbside with a takeaway menu Wednesday through Sunday. They also offer cocktail kits as well as wine and beer to go. They recently added delivery service.

On April 1—the restaurant’s first anniversary—the menu featured smoked Gulf fish dip; grilled oysters with parmesan and smoked chili butter; fish and chips made with Gulf-fresh speckled trout; roasted chicken with crispy potatoes; seared Gulf tuna with smoked bacon, sweet potato and cabbage; and roasted Gulf snapper with asparagus, baby carrots and spring onions. 

It wasn’t quite the anniversary they envisioned, but Evans says, “We’re glad to still be standing.”

Tips for these to-go orders go to hourly employees who have been temporarily laid off, and customers can help those staff members with a GoFundMe page Suzanne set up. Also, Evans is working with his farm suppliers to help them sell their produce.

from the local farmers are as important as the seafood, in my opinion. And I don’t want those guys to have to close a farm.”

So customers who come to pick up curbside meals might see Andrew Kesterson from Belle Meadow Farm or the folks from Ireland Farms or Justin Hill from Eastaboga Bee Company in the Automatic parking lot with their CSA-style boxes. 

“We’re just trying to be positive and trying to do something good during this time, because there’s still a lot of hope. That’s something that we still have. So we’ll kind of take it as it comes and try to figure it out and know that we’re all doing it together.”

Chez Fonfon

Chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, have temporarily closed all their restaurants—Bottega and Bottega Café as well as Chez Fonfon and the flagship Highlands Bar & Grill, which has earned lots of James Beard attention over the years: Outstanding Restaurant (2018), Dolester Miles won Outstanding Pastry Chef (2018) and Stitt won Best Chef Southeast in 2001.  

Lately, Stitt has been cooking with the chefs de cuisine from his restaurants in his Highlands kitchen for his restaurant family. They make bagged meals—braised lamb with spring vegetable rice pilaf, duck and white bean soup, hamburger steak with green beans and mashed potatoes—using ingredients from local suppliers like baker Corey Hinkel. Stitt is sharing his own farm eggs—bringing in 45 flats of them recently to distribute to his staff.

This was the first JBF nomination for Chez Fonfon, which got the nod for its hospitality. This is fitting. In happier times, this French bistro is full of exuberant customers sitting around the bar; filling the tables; waiting for tables, drinks in hand. But even in the bustle of this high-energy dining room, the gracious servers can make you feel like your table is the only one that matters.

photo from Chez Fonfon

Hospitality looks different now. “We’ve been communicating more by phone, by text, by email, reaching out to friends and family and colleagues,” Stitt says. “Also, there are a number of our regulars who have reached out that they want to contribute some money for our staff, for the servers who take such great care of them. And so there seems to be that thread of love and care. We can express our hope and express our hospitality in those exchanges.”

Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina 

Executive chef Bill Briand of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange beach oversees two different restaurants under one roof: the breezy and relaxed open-air Dockside with stainless steel bars and pecky cypress walls, and the more sophisticated Upstairs with its relaxing seaside colors, onyx bar (impressively lit from below), antique cypress tables and reclaimed heart pine floors from the Godchaux Sugar Mill mule barn, built in 1892 in Raceland, LA. He’s also in charge of the nearby Playa at Sportsman Marina with its local seafood, steaks and tacos with homemade tortillas.

Briand’s creative riffs on Southern coastal cuisine—crafted with locally made products and just-caught Alabama Gulf seafood and spiced with the flavors of his Louisiana heritage—have earned him his fifth straight semifinalist nomination for Best Chef South. 

Upstairs is closed now, and Briand and his team are doing zero-contact curbside—and boat—pick-up from Dockside and Playa. Burgers and po’ boys and Cuban sandwiches. Shrimp and quarts of tuna dip. Tacos, soups, salads. At night, they do family packs of tacos, barbecue, fried chicken and peel-and-eat shrimp that will feed 4 to 6 people. There are cocktail kits and beer and wine to go.

photo from Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina

We feed anybody who asks, he says. “Any employee who needs food. We send food to all the other restaurants that are open, on a daily basis, giving them their own family meals. Any police who come driving through our parking lot, we feed them. Whatever we can do.”

“We were fully staffed and ready to go for the spring push, spring break and it just all stopped.  And that’s hard.  We just want to get back open. We have a clean, freshly painted restaurant. We want to see our locals and see our people come back and sit out here and have a good time, eat some oysters and, you know, really get back at it. That’s what I’m looking forward to—normalcy again. We’ll get there.”

Johnny’s Restaurant

Timothy Hontzas, the classically trained chef-owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, has been a JBH semifinalist for Best Chef South for four straight years. He has attracted national attention or his fresh takes on Southern classics like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey, bechamel mac & cheese, a Parmesan grit cake. But this happens to be a Greek-and-three, and so Hontzas honors his heritage with authentic Greek favorites like spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb) and tzatziki made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt).

Weekday lunchtime usually sees lines out the door of his restaurant in Homewood’s downtown. Sundays after church are even busier. These days, Hontzas is still cooking, but he’s serving his customers with curbside pick-up from a menu posted on Instagram. 

He’s making comfort food when we all need some comfort. Things like pot roast with toasted black peppercorn gravy served with field peas and snaps and mac & cheese; meatloaf with chipotle BBQ sauce; a Greek Pack with keftedes, house-cultured tzatziki, fasolakia (Greek green beans with tomatoes) and individual tiropita (cheese pie). 

He does meal packs that feed six, but, as he says, “It’s a lot of food. I’m Greek. I’m not going to let you go hungry. There’s a little extra in there, too.” He recently added more choices to this menu so people can customize their meat-and-three like they’re used to doing. These foods are delivered cold. You can heat them up as you want, or freeze some for another day. 

His curbside service allows Hontzas to keep buying from his longtime produce partner Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. He’s still buying meats from Evans Meats, a local family-owned business. He’s still employing his sous chef, and the staff out front alternate days so everyone gets some hours. Staff meals are the Greek foods he grew up eating—comfort food for them, too.

“It’s hard, but the easiest thing to do is quit,” he says. “Obviously, we have to be smart about it … but, I mean, we can’t just quit. … We’ve just got to push through. It’s kind of like Jason Isbell says, we’ve got to ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’

“We just push through and support one another because we’re all family,” he says. “I hope, I just hope it all brings us closer together and shows us how fragile we are and how important we all are to one another.”

 Life will eventually go back to normal, or some semblance of normal that we can—and will—happily embrace. These beloved restaurants will still have their James Beard status months from now. Some might be finalists by then. Some might be winners. 

Meanwhile, we can help them by ordering takeout or contributing to their staff GoFundMe campaigns and ordering gift cards to use now and on a brighter day.

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National Ferret Day

It is National Ferret Day. It truly is. It’s also National Burrito Day, but I’d like to talk about ferrets.

This from the National Day Calendar will get us started: “On April 2nd, Hob and Jill went up the hill with their little Kits to celebrate National Ferret Day because that’s some serious business.”

Ferret facts: Male ferrets are called Hobs, and female ferrets are called Jills. Their babies are called Kits, and the whole ferret family is called a “business.” I love that!

Other facts: They are carnivores and are part of the mustelid family, which includes the otter, badger, weasel, marten, mink and wolverine.

Humans domesticated ferrets about 2,000 years ago because they are great hunters. Some people do keep them as mischievous pets (they do best with a ferret companion). They are highly intelligent, can learn to use a litter box and can do tricks.

But in North America, the black-footed ferret is one of our most endangered mammals.

Once thought to be completely gone, a rancher discovered a small population on his ranch in Wyoming in 1981. Since then, efforts by conservationists, breeding programs and landowners are bringing the population back from the brink of extinction.

Today the population wavers around 500 ferrets alive in the wild with more in breeding programs preparing to be reintroduced into the wild. 

You can celebrate #NationalFerretDay by learning more about the rediscovery and conservation of the black-footed ferret. Watch the movie Ferret Town to learn more. 

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National Crayon Day & ‘Amazing’ Coloring Pages

Got kids at home? Do they know it’s National Crayon Day?

Keep them entertained (and learning at the same time!) with some free sample coloring pages from Amazing Alabama and Amazing Georgia, the first installments in Laura Murray’s “Amazing States” coloring book series.  

These books are published by New South Books, and the third, Amazing South Carolina, releases in May. 

All three books offer creative ways to engage with history for kids and adults alike. 

Each page in these coloring books features historical and cultural sites that are a must-see in a particular county along with companion text that describes them. Every county is included.  
Click here for free coloring pages!
Amazing AlabamaAmazing Georgia and Amazing South Carolina are available for purchase on the New South Books website. They can ship them straight to you at home. (Amazing South Carolina will be available on May 12.) 

Or you can order directly from Laura Murray, who is offering free shipping with discount code “coronacation.”
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Fresh Air

I know we’re all pretty much staying home, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But exercise is allowed and encourage and vital to both our physical and mental health.

Besides, “the mountain is calling.”

I’m talking about Ruffner Mountain, which has more than enough trails that you can practice social distancing while enjoying this beautiful day.

Image from Rick Swagler

Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain. That’s been the case for more than 40 years.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country. And it’s right here in our own backyard—mere minutes from just about anywhere in our metro area.  

Right now there are limited hours of trail and parking access–8:00am – 6:00pm Tuesday through Sunday. And access is permitted for the following: Residents of the City of Birmingham, Members (there is a $3 trail use fee, or you can explore other membership levels here) and Employees of a Business Member.

The Visitors Center is not open currently. The lovely Pavillion is closed, too. But all those miles and miles of well-maintained trails and the interesting industrial ruins you’ll find along the way, are available to you right now. So are the paths strewn with trilliums and the incredible, panoramic views of the city.

Image from Rick Swagler

You can appreciate the shifting shafts of sunlight dappling the forest floor through the branches of oak and hickory and sycamore trees all along your journey; take a break at Turtle Rock; and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry with limestone boulders embedded with fossils of brachiopods, bryozoans and crinoids (marine invertebrates from when this area was part of a shallow inland sea). 

Then you might also consider getting your hands on Mark Kelly’s fantastic book that celebrates this special place. Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain is a beautiful book about the vital connection between that land and our city and its people. 

Kelly says the book was more than a decade in the making. But it was worth the effort because this place is important. He writes:  “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

So get out there and explore the mountain. Simply go there and back, become a member or pay your trail use fee and be sure to observe the 6-foot rule.

You’ll be glad you did.

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Curbside Service has Become the New Normal

Social distancing has changed our food-centric state in ways we never imagined. Curbside service has become the new normal for many eateries. Others are relying heavily upon delivery services. Still others are altering their business models in more significant ways. 

While lives depend upon safe interactions, livelihoods depend upon businesses remaining in business. I wrote a story for Alabama NewsCenter about some of the ways food- and drink-related establishments are addressing the coronavirus crisis.

You can read the entire story here.

Meanwhile, here are some things you should know:

The dining rooms at all four Ashley Mac’s stores are closed, but Ashley McMakin, who owns the company with her husband, Andy, is still making homestyle casseroles and salads and desserts for pick-up and limited delivery. 

You can still get cupcakes at Ashley Mac’s.

And now, the Ashley Mac’s team is offering something else, too. 

“We were just trying to think of some things we could do for the community,” McMakin says, “and one thing we can get—that a lot of people cannot get at the grocery store—is produce.” So, they are packing boxes full of fresh fruits and vegetables. For $30, you can get a box of produce ranging from romaine, onions, broccoli and tomatoes to strawberries, cantaloupe and pineapple. McMakin says they will offer the produce boxes, which will vary according to what’s available and fresh, as long as there’s a demand and they can get enough produce in. 

Be sure to check Ashley Mac’s social media outlets for availability of items and produce boxes. Call 205-822-4142 for free pickup or 205-968-4126 for delivery with a $100 order.

Panache, Domestique Coffee’s charming little coffeeshop down an alley off 20th Street in Five Points South, is closed for now. So is Domestique Coffee Café inside Saturn in Avondale, but the Birmingham-based, small-batch coffee importer and roaster that specializes in single-origin coffeebeans is banking on a brighter future. 

Get Domestique coffee sent straight to your home.

Domestique is a multifaceted business that buys coffee from specialty growers all over the world including Haiti, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Mexico and elsewhere, so it’s not just local employees who are counting on this company.

So, CEO Nathan Pocus, who co-founded Domestique with his brother, Michael, says the company is inviting its customers to become co-founders, too. 

They are offering a Founder’s Card for $100. Sales of the cards will help the business now and allow buyers to enjoy lots of benefits later including a free batch brew for a month upon Domestique’s reopening, (a $90 value alone), 10% off all purchases for life, free digital products for life, early access notifications for all special events, monthly discount codes to use on the company’s online platform,  a ticket to the fun Founder’s Day party and more.  Go to www.domestique.com to learn more.

Big Spoon Creamery, the Birmingham-based small-batch, artisanal ice cream maker, has closed both its stores for now. But their handmade frozen treats (pint packs and sammie packs) are available for 24-hour delivery in the Birmingham area. 

This small-batch ice cream is like nothing else!

Ryan O’Hara, who owns Big Spoon along with his wife, Geri-Martha, says everything is done online, and “it’s a great way for us to try to keep going and a great way to promote social distancing. People don’t have to leave their homes.” 

So every day, they deliver as much ice cream as they can. “We didn’t think there would be such a huge response,” O’Hara says. “We’ve only been doing it for three days now, but we’ve had to cut off deliveries for the day when we reach our capacity. … We’re going round the clock. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re trying to do what we can to stay afloat.”

This home delivery allows Ryan and Geri-Martha to keep employing most of their full-time staff. Many of the part-time employees were college students who have since gone home. “We are prioritizing taking care of our people who rely on this job to support themselves,” he says.

To place your order visit https://www.bigspooncreamery.com/shop.

Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar is a fine-dining establishment, although Chef Clif Holt likes to say when you’re there, you’re simply “dining fine.” His customers are still dining in fine style, but they’re doing it at home with takeaway dinners for two and four. And Chef Holt has figured out another way to help his historic Forest Park neighborhood where he has operated his restaurant for 16 years:  He’s opening a neighborhood grocery. 

The grocery will stock raw protein by the pound (ground beef, ribeyes, chicken and fresh Gulf shrimp and snapper); dairy and French baguettes; fresh produce (oranges, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas and apples); and even toilet paper(!), paper towels, bottled water and boxes of latex gloves. 

All the necessities for right now. All at fair market prices.

“We’re not going to get rich off it,” he says of the grocery. “But it’s a service we can provide at a reasonable cost and keep our flow going.” 

That flow involves his employees, whom he’s trying to keep at work, and fish purveyors and truck drivers and even the folks who pick up the garbage.  “People don’t think about that,” he says. “We have a shortage of thought sometimes about how these things are going to go. For me, the main thing I’m trying to figure out is how we can retain as much normalcy as possible.” 

Normalcy currently means dinners for two or family dinners for four with the kinds of foods Holt’s customers have come to expect from Little Savannah. Things like hand-rolled pasta Bolognese or beef Bourguignon with herbed rice, Caesar salads and homemade focaccia. 

You can check Facebook for the daily meal specials and follow Little Savannah on Instagram for more info. Orders must be placed by 4 p.m. for pick-up or delivery the next day. Curbside pick-up hours are 4-6 p.m., and there is a $5 delivery fee. Call or text 205-616-0995 or go to info@littlesavannah.com to place your order.

Kay Bruno Reed, owner of Everything IZ, which includes IZ Weddings & Events and IZ Café, is one of the state’s busiest caterers, easily handling parties for hundreds and even thousands. On a smaller, more local level, she has been part of the Rocky Ridge neighborhood of Vestavia Hills for more than 20 years. Now, with weddings and large events canceled, she’s working to feed her neighbors—one family at a time. 

IZ cafe has been serving since 1999; they are not stopping now. Photo from Everything IZ.

She says, “Our staff has been working nonstop to keep our freezer stocked for our customers. We have been offering curbside pick-up for years but are now offering free delivery.” 

She’s also stocking basic staple items like milk, bread and eggs. Reed says the response has been amazing. “Customers are thanking us for being open and feeding them.”

All of the company’s full-time employees who want to be there, continue to work there. Those who have chosen to self-quarantine, she says, are taking a portion of their paid time off. 

Reed is approaching her work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a positive way. 

“My hope, first of all, is that it is over soon and with very few deaths.” She also says she hopes “parents will take this time to teach their children basic domestic skills while they are studying at home. 

“My prayer is that this will bring our nation together for the good of all.”

Go to everythingiz.com to see what’s available and to order.

Featured

Virtual Storytime

Bedtime. Is there anything sweeter when your children are little? Brush teeth, storytime, one song, prayers and a goodnight kiss. 

Bedtime. Is there anything harder when your children are little and you’re just flat worn out? And they want “just one more” story, song, kiss.

I must have read this one a million times. Love it!

Why not now (when everything has changed) change up that routine, too? Here are some free! virtual storytime links for your kiddos and you. I found these links on Pure Wow, which I love. Thank you to Alexandra Hough for putting them together and sharing.

Storyline Online streams videos of celebrities reading children’s books alongside cool illustrations. Previous readers include Viola Davis, Chris Pine, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, James Earl Jones, Betty White and more.

Want to be the bedtime hero? Have Olaf (Josh Gad) from Frozen read to your kids tonight. The 39-year-old actor is helping out during these trying times by reading his favorite children’s books on social media.

Another favorite at our house.

Your options for virtual storytime are many and varied if you search the #OperationStoryTime tag on social media. You’ll find a growing (by that, I mean every few hours!) collection of children’s book authors, celebrities and illustrators reading books (their own works and others) aloud for children and families.

Oliver Jeffers will read his books and tell you how he wrote them.

The artist, illustrator and writer Oliver Jeffers will read from one of his books every weekday (and talk about what went into making it) on Instagram Live beginning at 1 p.m. CST. These #stayathomestorytime episodes will be on his Insta story for 24 hours and on his site after that. As he says, “We are all at home, but none of us are alone. Let’s be bored together.”

Actors Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams launched the “Save With Stories” initiative in partnership Save the Children and No Kid Hungry. The idea here is to post storytime videos on Facebook and Instagram and raise money for children stuck at home right now.

The Brooklyn Public Library is closed, of course, but the folks there are still committed to children’s programming. You’ll find book readings, songs and more on Facebook Live and its website. View the broadcast on the Brooklyn Public Library Family page at 10:00 am. CST or catch past episodes on the Facebook page.

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Drive-Thru Farmers Market at Pepper Place

The Market at Pepper Place has, for decades, promoted a “know thy farmer” way of doing business full of meaningful human interaction and conversations that make buying fresh produce and enjoyable and entertaining.

from the Market at Pepper Place

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the market is taking a different approach these days with a Drive-Thru Farmers Market and a pre-ordering system that still gives you access to locally grown veggie boxes, farm eggs, baked goods, meats and more.

The second week of the Drive Through Farmers Market, will happen on Saturday, March 28 from 7 a.m. to noon in the “big parking lot” on 2nd Avenue South.

In response to health and safety restrictions related to COVID-19, this “contactless” market will allow farmers to continue selling the freshest locally grown produce available in the state directly to customers, and minimize the elements of traditional farmers market transactions that have been deemed high-risk in the current climate.

Here’s how this Drive-Thru Farmers Market at Pepper Place works.

• Click on this link to find out which vendors are participating each week. Vendor listings and links are updated on Monday.

• Each participating vendor’s name will be noted with their offerings, how to order, the order deadline and how they will accept payment.

• Place your orders, pre-pay online, and you’re done until Market day.

• Saturday, 7am-Noon, come to the Pepper Place Drive-Thru Farmers Market in the Pepper Place parking lot on 2nd Ave. South.

• Please remain in your car at all times. The farmer will load the back of your vehicle with pre-purchased goods using gloves and social distancing!

from the Market at Pepper Place

Please note that there will be no walk-ups or onsite purchases. Market staff and a security guard will be onsite to assist and answer any questions. The farmers, staff and customers are expected to follow all recommended safety precautions, including social distancing and hand washing. If you are sick or feel unwell, please send someone else to pick up your orders.

from the Market at Pepper Place

The folks at the Market at Pepper Place say they hope this drive-thru market will be successful for their farmers and shoppers while complying with the latest safety recommendations of the CDC and our State and County health officials.

With everyone working together and supporting each other—and supporting our farmers and local businesses—we will get through this time stronger and better than ever.

Again click here for this Saturday’s vendor list and links to their order pages.

from the Market at Pepper Place

Since 2000, Pepper Place Market has offered a special space for local and regional farmers and many makers to sell each Saturday. We’ll be back to that again. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll continue to support them all.

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Give Blood

While most of us are being advised to stay home, my deepest appreciation goes out to those who are essential to our society–the first responders, doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, pharmacists, gas station attendants, restaurant workers (who still are able to work) and so many more who are out there keeping things working and moving forward right now.

Thank you. Thank you all so much.

Now I’m going to ask some of you who are home to leave your homes today and go one place: Go give blood. If you can, briefly go out into this world and give blood. Then pick up some curbside takeout from a local restaurant. That’s all.

There is a huge need right now for both those things, and since it’s important that you eat well after giving blood, that takes care of that.

You can go to Red Cross Blood to find the nearest blood drive. Just put in your zip code. You can make an appointment at the UAB Medical Blood Donation Center in downtown Birmingham, or go give at the Birmingham Blood Donation Center at 700 Caldwell Trace. The website can point you in the right direction and makes appointments easy.

You also can download the blood donor app at the App Store to make it even easier. (You do all your paperwork ahead of time, and they keep up with your donations and remind you when you can donate again.)

It’s important that you go and give blood as soon as you can, if you can. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a great many blood drives have been canceled, and there are severe blood shortages throughout the country and right here at home, too.

I went to give the other day, and while it took a little longer than I expected, I just waited my turn and read my book (six feet away from the other people waiting for their turns). The entire procedure was safe and felt that way, too. The people working there took many, many precautions in dealing with us. I never, for one moment, felt uncomfortable or afraid.

So please, if you can give blood, go and give.

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Baking Bread

Here’s something you can bake that will be very satisfying (on so many levels) … even if you are not a baker.

It’s No-Knead Bread. It requires very special equipment, few ingredients, no kneading and not much baking experience. Really, time is the only big factor here.

It takes 24 hours to make this bread, but much of that time the dough is unattended.

We got the recipe from The New York Times, they got it from Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery. It is one of the most popular recipes the Times has ever published, and my husband has made it for years.

It calls for only three ingredients–flour, yeast and salt–and you probably already have them in your pantry.

He bakes our loaves in a cast iron dutch oven, and it comes out with an amazing crust.

Get the recipe here.

Enjoy!

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Virtual Dance Party

I miss my friends (and the energy!) of The Bike Room at Ignite Cycle at Pepper Place. Often I was the oldest rider in the room, but that never mattered. We all become equal on those bikes, riding for ourselves and, recently, for each other.

Also, I loved, loved, loved going to class there with my grown kids!

It really is a wonderful, welcoming community. It’s a giving community, too. They share their fantastic setlists on the Ignite Cycle website, and when I’m not in The Bike Room, I use those sometimes as running playlists.

In an effort to reach out and lift up, the Ignite team is hosting virtual dance parties Monday-Friday and on Saturdays, too. Over the last two nights, more than 500 people joined in!

One participant left this message on Ignite’s Instagram: “as I danced alone, all that weird lonely energy that had been building up all day melted away. your INCREDIBLE vibes filled me to the brim with joy and gave me the motivation to keep going. I’m grateful to wake up today and to have something *totally stress-free* to look forward to🖤”

If you want to dance along with the uber-cool Ignite girls, tune into their IG Live for a 45 minute set from @djkallima Monday through Friday at 5:15 p.m. and Saturday at noon. It’s easy. Go to their Instagram at the appropriate time, and click on the profile picture and watch the live video.

It’s free. They say: “Community is too important for us to charge for it at a time it’s hard to find 🖤

The lyrics will be CLEAN … they know some people have “little ears” at home. Go on; dance with your fam!

It’s easy. Just hop on IG Live and get on the digital dance floor. Maybe you FaceTime with some friends, and it really does become a party.

Meanwhile, connect with the Ignite team @ignitecyclebhm on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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Celebrating an Unsung Hero of Birmingham’s Food Scene

I had the absolute honor of helping out with Alabama NewsCenter‘s awesome coverage of food-related stories to celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of African-American cooks and chefs to our state’s rich food scene (current and past).

One of my favorite pieces was about Juliette Flenoury, a name we all should know.

My editor Bob Blalock made the story I submitted way better when he invited local restauranteur Becky Satterfield (Satterfield’s restaurant and El ZunZun) to Alabama NewsCenter’s studio to narrate a video about her friend Juliette.

You can read the entire piece here and see that video, too.

Juliette grew up in Birmingham’s historic Fountain Heights neighborhood, and as a child she cooked alongside her mother. Before she was even a teenager, Flenoury was honing her skills, baking cookies and gathering fans among friends and family.

She began her first food-industry job working at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Birmingham. By day, she worked as a cashier, and at night, she cooked foods for the daily menu at the cafeteria in the bus terminal.

Juliette left the bus station job to cook at the Mountain Brook Club, where she remained for 43 years.

She says, “After cooking passionately for most of my life, I am best known for my corn pones, fried chicken, cornbread dressing, chicken potpies, greens and many other selections of Southern cuisine.”

Those corn pones, especially, are delicious little works of art, and watching her make them is art in motion. I was lucky enough to see this for myself one day at Becky’s home. Becky had invited her fellow members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier to meet Juliette and watch her cook. (We also enjoyed some amazing collards and black-eyed peas.)

Juliette retired from the Mountain Brook Club several years ago. She has spent some of her time since retirement cooking for family and friends; making gift baskets; listening to gospel music; taking care of elderly neighbors; and volunteering for Christian Service Mission when that organization needed her help cooking for the homeless and for student interns visiting Birmingham from various colleges.

Here’s Juliette’s recipe for her famous corn pones. Enjoy!

Juliette Flenoury’s Corn Pone Recipe

Preheat convection oven to 450 F

INGREDIENTS

5 lbs. Martha White (plain) cornmeal

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 cup salt of your choice (Juliette keeps everything old-school with regular Morton Salt)

4 cups of melted Crisco shortening at 450 degrees F

4 gallons of boiling water to pour into mix

Another gallon and a half of boiling water for the dipping spoon

INSTRUCTIONS

Spray four half-sheet pans with cooking spray and put into hot oven for 10 minutes (be careful not to let them stay in longer than that because they get too smoky). Then pull them out to use for panning the pones. This helps create a little caramelization.

Use a large commercial-grade metal kitchen spoon for mixing and shaping the pones.

Mix all dry ingredients first in a very large stainless steel mixing bowl (industrial/commercial grade).

Pour hot, melted Crisco into the cornmeal, stir quickly and incorporate well.

Pour boiling water, four cups at a time, until you have the right consistency. (The video will help with this part.) You might not need all of the water you prepared for this recipe, but have it on hand just in case.

Stir vigorously, and be reminded that this batter is very dense; at times, it will be hard to stir but needs to be fully incorporated.

Build a ridge on the side of the bowl nearest yourself, and smooth it off.  Start scraping your spoon toward yourself as the cornmeal mixture kind of curls inside the spoon. Take it and turn your spoon to the left, tap it to release the pone. Repeat this the same way every time. All pones should be right next to each other and uniform. (A little extra hot water should be added via the large kitchen spoon at intervals to keep hydration level correct. Smooth out, pat it down, back and forth, then scrape to roll the pone into the spoon. Also, halfway through this recipe, you will need to change out your dipping water with fresh boiling hot water to keep the temperature up for the conduction through your spoon so the pones will curl uniformly within the spoon and so the spoon will stay clean.)

Put pones in the preheated convection oven and bake for 45 minutes at 450 F. Check halfway through, and rotate the pan. The pones should be brown on the top ridge and the rounded sides to give you the crunch you desire.

This recipe, straight from Juliette’s time in the Mountain Brook Club kitchen, and in her own words, makes a lot of corn pones—several doze