Fox 6 Books April

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

In the Company of Men by Veronique Tadjo

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

Stoner by John Williams

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

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

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

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

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

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

Celebrating Women & Science at The Lumbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from The Lumbar

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

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

She’s going to need this family moving forward. 

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

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

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

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

The Lumbar

212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham

https://www.lumbarbham.com

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

Hours

Tuesday-Thursday noon to 7 p.m.

Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Closed Mondays

Fox 6 Books March

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

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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

The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank

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

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

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

Feeding Body and Soul

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

photo from Jake’s Soul Food Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake’s Soul Food Café

3075 John Hawkins Parkway, Hoover, AL 35244

205-438-6340

HOURS 

Monday—closed   

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

Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Fox 6 Books February

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

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

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

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

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

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

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold with illustrations by Suzanne Kaufman

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

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

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

Closed Sunday

Celebrating Girls with GirlSpring

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

XOXO,

Susan

Fox 6 Books: A Fresh Start

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

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

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

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

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

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

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

The Complete Air Fryer Cookbook by Linda Larsen

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

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

Live Local, Eat Local

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. 

I visited with Zargo for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video, too.

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

photo from Farmhouse of Springville

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.”

Farmhouse of Springville

85 Purple Heart Blvd. 
Springville, AL 35146

205-839-9901

Hours

Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Closed on Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk in and find yourself somewhere else.

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

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

Christine’s design also proved to be incredibly practical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen

1021 Brocks Gap Parkway
Suite 145
Hoover, AL 35244

205-538-5866

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