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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For Ryan Zargo, the chef-owner of Farmhouse of Springville, the idea of local is serious business. It’s personal, too. That’s exactly why he opened his fresh, new restaurant near where he lives.
“I’m local,” he says. “I grew up in Trussville; I live in Odenville. I’m very passionate about food, and … there’s just not a very big variety of food out in this area. … It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, just bring that variety of … fresh food to the people in this area. … Business has been good,” he says. “Reception from the community has been great. I’m just glad to be a part of the Springville community.”
The restaurant, just off Interstate 59, is the realization of a long-held dream for Zargo, but the chef took an interesting, detour-filled journey to get where he is today.
Just out of high school, Zargo tried out for a semi-pro baseball team and spent time in south Florida playing ball until a shoulder injury cut short that career. After rehabbing that injury, he joined the Marine Corps and served his country for four years. It was after his time in the military when a television ad for classes at Culinard Culinary School caught his attention. So Zargo, who grew up with a hands-on appreciation for freshness that comes from a family garden and food made at home from scratch, decided on a new career track. “When I find something I enjoy doing,” he says, “I take it and I run with it.”
After finishing culinary school, he worked at The Fish Market on Southside, where he says owner George Sarris taught him general restaurant management and how to handle high volume. He also worked at The Club, where the chefs helped him hone his skills in French techniques and fine dining. Along the way, he also worked at barbecue and meat-and-three restaurants. He spent the past five years as Executive Chef at Bellinis Ristorante putting it all together, but he always wanted his own place.
So, after some 15 years in the food industry, Zargo opened his Southern-style Farmhouse, which he describes as “family owned and locally operated; we have a little bit of something for everybody—from barbecue to seafood to a good, old-fashioned burger to steak.”
Farmhouse of Springville has only been open for about six months, but it already has a local following. It’s attracting customers from Birmingham and Gadsden, too. The restaurant, with its certified Angus 8-ounce filet and 16-ounce ribeye, was named “Best Steak Restaurant” by the Trussville Tribune.
Those steaks are one good reason to visit; the chicken is another. That’s because they, like lots of things here, benefit from Zargo’s solid techniques with a smoker. The steaks are “cold smoked” before they grill them; so is the salmon. It’s a technique Zargo picked up at The Club. He even cold smokes the Gouda for his mac and cheese. The result is a layer of flavors including notes of the wood. The rich, mouthwatering scent of hardwood smoke surrounding these various ingredients in the small shed just out the restaurant’s back door is one of the first things visitors will notice.
While simple salt and pepper will go a long way, Zargo isn’t afraid to mix things up in his kitchen. Even the breading for the fried homemade pickles is a subtly complex combination of about 20 or so different ingredients including celery seed, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, onion powder and a touch of confectioners sugar. This sort of mixture makes the fried okra and green tomatoes special, too. It’s the kind of thing that sets a restaurant apart; Zargo says he’s simply trying to bring something different to the area. “I like building layers of flavors.”
Of course, this kind of detail takes time. Sometimes days.
The restaurant’s award-winning pastrami is brined for three days with a variety of spices including cinnamon, ginger, bay leaves and a Marsala pickle spice. Then it’s dry rubbed with similar spices, rested for 24 hours and hot smoked for 12 more. The smoked chicken, which is one of the most popular items on the menu, also takes time. It is bathed in a simple brine of brown sugar and salt for a day, then dry rubbed to sit for another day before being smoked for three hours.
Zargo uses this chicken for dishes like the popular “mid-night chicken Cuban” where he layers pulled smoked chicken with avocado, smoked provolone, chipotle-caramelized onions, spicy mayonnaise and homemade pickles.
Burgers, made with certified Angus beef that’s ground in house, are another favorite here, and there are several options including a classic farmhouse burger, another with melted blue cheese and another with smoked Gouda sauce, honey-glazed onion rings, and sweet and spicy barbecue sauce.
There are soups, salads, catfish, shrimp and grits and pan-seared grouper, too.
Farmhouse, as the name implies, also is about using the best of what’s fresh and locally grown, and sometimes that means produce straight from Zargo’s own 1,000-square-foot backyard vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and squash.
What he doesn’t grow, he tries to source locally from producers like Allman Farms & Orchards in Oneonta. He gets extra tomatoes from nearby Sand Mountain. Zargo relies upon quality meats and Gulf-fresh seafood from Evans Meats & Seafood.
We really have a passion for what we do, he says. “We try to provide a variety of things—very fresh and flavorful food—for everybody.” Word has gotten out, business is steady, and customers range from lunching ladies to date-night couples.
“They’ve been great,” Zargo says about his customers. “And especially at the opening, they really came out and supported us. We’ve been real thankful for that. We still get a lot of regulars coming in. It’s been a real supportive community, and we’re trying to … get more involved … trying to get out and do things for the community to give back.” He says they’re starting small but doing what they can, donating to the nearby schools and to a local food pantry. “We donated to (the food pantry) for the holidays and are going to continue trying to donate and keep it stocked for the people in need through the holidays.”
Zargo figures that his entire career up to now has prepared him for owning his own restaurant. The dedication, commitment to hard work and a deeply instilled affinity for teamwork that gave Zargo the confidence to pursue a professional sports career and then led him to serve our country also are making him successful at Farmhouse. The teamwork, he says, is especially important.
“I’m real team-oriented,” he says. “You know, … I don’t look at certain positions in my kitchen … a lot of people say, ‘Here’s your grill cook, your fry cook.’ We have those, but we’re all a team; we all have got to help each other. That’s what I relate to a lot. That teamwork. That feeling of camaraderie.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Places, Literary Places, Mystical Places and Artistic Places(coming in March 2021).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.