Good Food That’s Good for Your Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her cheesecake deserves a few words. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorelle Café 

903 Broadway Street, Homewood, AL 35209

(205) 848-2818

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

Hours

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

Closed Sunday

Fox 6 Books: October

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

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Nueva Michoacana 

104 Green Springs Highway 

Homewood, AL 35209

205-703-4604

Connect with @LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm  

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

Hours

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

Fox 6 Books: September

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Law by Gin Phillips

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

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

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

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

Bow & Arrow 2.0

David Bancroft is a quick study. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s those personal touches that matter. 

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

Memaw’s Eclair photo from Bow & Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bow & Arrow

1977 East Samford Ave.

Auburn, AL 36830  

Phone: (334) 246-2546

www.bowandarrowbbq.com

Hours

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

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

To-Go Window/Online Ordering

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

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

Alabama Chef Competes on National Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he ventured even farther afield. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Tristen Cairns

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

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

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

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

Fox 6 Books: August

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

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

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

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

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

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

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

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

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

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

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

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

The customers are loyal, too. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Acres Café in downtown Birmingham

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

205-251-3875

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

Other locations:

Green Acres Ensley

913 20th Street

205-786-7040

Green Acres Eastlake

8500 First Avenue North

205-838-2700

Green Acres Center Point

2405 Center Point Parkway

205-815-0949

Ready for Takeoff

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

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

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

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

Paper Plane (makes 2 drinks)

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

1.5 ounces Aperol

1.5 ounces bourbon (we use Makers Mark)

1.5 ounces fresh lemon juice, strained

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

Fox 6 Books July

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

Illusions:  Poetry & Art for the Young at Heart

by Charles Ghigna with illustrations by Chip Ghigna

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

Art

Art is undefinable,

A mystery of creation

Inspired by a pigment

Of your imagination.

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

The Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion

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

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

by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson

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

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

by Kim Zachman with illustrations by Peter Donnelly

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

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

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

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

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

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