Fox 6 Books: September

Let’s explore what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on September 3. School has started so a trip might not be possible, but you still can explore close to home and far away.

In Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain, by Mark Kelly, photographs by Bob Farley, design by Melanie Colvin, Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain, just minutes from anywhere in our metro area. This new book explores the mountain’s geological formation, its part in Birmingham’s industrial history as a center for mining and the ongoing efforts to preserve this special place.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country, and it’s right here in our own backyard! Ruffner’s beautiful and varied terrain, crisscrossed with well-maintained trails and marked with remains of mining sites and equipment, has drawn generations of nature lovers.  Hikers can visit incredible views at the overlooks and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry. The Nature Center informs and entertains people of all ages. The annual plant sales, with native plants large and small dug straight from the land, attract hundreds of visitors and have spread some of the best parts of Ruffner all over Alabama.

This gorgeous book celebrates the beauty and the importance of this unique and awesome place.  Kelly writes: “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

You can hear some of this story from Kelly and get a signed copy of this book tomorrow (Wednesday, September 4) from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Alabama Booksmith. There’s another opportunity to hear from the author and photographer at Ruffner Mountain on Thursday, September 19 from 5 to 7 p.m.  Go to www.ruffnermountain.org for more info.

With Morag and the Land of Tir Na Nog, local writer Marie Pridgen (who was born and raised in Ireland) has written a delightful little book about fairies for young readers. Pridgen says her childhood was filled with wonder and imagination and stories of wee people told by her mother and passed down from her grandmother. And so she shares some of that culture and folklore and love here with a story of a beautiful fairy who ventured into the mortal world. This book, told in that same continuing story-telling style, is clearly the first of several. Pridgen says she wrote this book to “bring happiness to all who read it and to let you escape to a world of fae, magic and innocence.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a New York Times bestseller based on a true story of love and courage and survival in one of the darkest times in human history. In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. An educated man who speaks several languages (including fluent German), he becomes the tattooist, putting the permanent numbers on his fellow prisoners. One day, he inks the number 34902 onto a scared young woman, but something is different this time. Lale vows to survive the camp in order to live the rest of his life with Gita. But in order to do that, he has to get creative in this place of unimaginable brutality. So he risks his own life trading jewels and money found in the clothing of those who died for food for his fellow prisoners. In the process, he helps countless people survive. Lale told his story to Heather Morris years after escaping, and she shares it in a way that is powerful, heartbreakingly sad and yet incredibly hopeful.

Lady in the Lake is a new novel by Laura Lippman, the New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn. Lady in the Lake is a psychological thriller set in 1960s Baltimore. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz leaves the comfort of her married life to make her own way and make a difference. When her own closely held secrets help the police find a murdered girl, that leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper and another murdered young woman. Cleo Sherwood was found in a fountain in a city park, and no one seems to know or care why she was killed—except for Maddie. And she is determined to find the truth. But that truth might come at a tremendous personal cost to Maddie and to those she loves.

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.

Johnny’s Greek-and-Three and Much More

Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.

The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’s fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day.

I sat down with Tim Hontzas recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and even daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.

The menu above the registers showcases typical Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and the Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special:  This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.

The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”

Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.

“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”

Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous,who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous(the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry.  He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolousfamily made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.

And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating:  spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh. “We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.” Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring his peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves he grows in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during its season in the summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.

And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas also cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.

For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.

“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition.”

These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra— written on the wall for all to see—was Hontzas’s Papou’s mantra, too:  “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”

“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.

Johnny’s

2902 18thStreet South, Suite 200

Homewood, AL 35209

205-802-2711

http://www.johnnyshomewood.com

Lunch Hours:  Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Carey Thommason of Dinner. in Crestline Village did the chef demo today at The Market at Pepper Place. Carey made Lady Pea Hummus, which I missed tasting because I was sweating next door at Ignite Cycle. However, I know Carey’s food is great, and I couldn’t resist making a batch for my family’s Sunday dinner. I used pink-eyed peas that I got from Knights Farm.

Here’s how you can do it, too.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Ingredients

4 cups lady peas

15 basil leaves

4 cloves garlic

1 tsp slat

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¾ cup olive oil

Instructions

Pick over lady peas. Rinse the peas in fresh cold water and drain. Fill a large pot with cold water and add the peas. Bring to a boil. Lower temperature and cook for about 45 minutes or until very tender. Drain and cool completely.

In a food processor, add the cooked peas, basil, garlic and salt. Puree, and, with the motor running, slowly add lemon juice and olive oil.

Serve with raw vegetables and pretzels.

Fox 6 Books: August

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on August 6, and there’s truly something for everyone–a memoir (with recipes and a link to much more), a surprisingly awesome book about grammar, mesmerizing short stories and a romp of a novel. Enjoy!

From Scratch is a memoir from actress Tembi Locke. It’s also a love story with recipes. Tembi married a man from Sicily (it was love at first sight when Tembi met Saro, who was an apprentice chef, in Florence, Italy). But his family was not happy with their son marrying a black woman from America. When Saro died of cancer, Tembi and their adopted daughter sought solace in Sicily … at her mother-in-law’s kitchen table. The close-knit community; the simple, fresh food at the table; and her memories of a great love gave Locke the strength to heal her heart. Now she’s paying that forward. Read the book, and also check out www.thekitchenwidow.com.

“This is a modern take on the age-old kitchen table conversation—an inspirational online platform dedicated to raising awareness about how we can support each other through times of illness and grief,” Locke says. “Here we reclaim the lost art of comforting the soul. We do it around delicious food.” You’ll find advice on dealing with grief, information for caregivers and healthy recipes.

Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson, is brand-new nonfiction, and it’s creating a buzz. This book about “The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” is both funny and informative. It’s about language rules, sure, but it’s also about the love of language and a celebration of creativity. The semicolon was invented in the 15thcentury; by the 1800s, it was “downright trendy,” Watson writes. Today, some people love the punctuation mark; others loathe it. It was designed to create clarity; misused, it creates confusion. Watson considers how the semicolon has impacted society and law as well as literature. She says it can do more, too. When she finished researching and writing this book, Watson says:  “Not only did I become a better and more sensitive reader and a more capable teacher, I also became a better person. Perhaps that sounds like a fancifully hyperbolic claim—can changing our relationship with grammar really make us better human beings? … I hope to persuade you that reconsidering grammar rules will do exactly that, by refocusing us on the deepest, most primary value and purpose of language:  true communication and openness to others.”

Orange World is the newest collection of short stories from Karen Russell, the bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Swamplandia! (which I’ve talked about before; also, I brought Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove to Fox 6 last time). I just love this writer, who never ceases to amaze me with her imagination and her way with words. This is her most recent collection of short stories, and, as expected, they are cleverly funny and a little bit creepy. In “Bog Girl:  A Romance,” a young man falls in love with a 2000-year-old girl he unearthed in a northern European peat bog. In “The Prospectors,” two young, idealistic, Depression-era girls head out West in search of a new life and find themselves fighting for their lives when they end up at the wrong party. In “The Bad Graft,” a Joshua tree makes a “Leap” into the consciousness of a woman. August is busy; find an hour or so for yourself to spend with these stories.

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke is a delightful novel. Calvin Bledsoe is an ordinary man destined for an extraordinary adventure. After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in an explosion, Calvin’s world is changed forever. At the funeral, a mysterious woman, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt, shows up and insists he accompany her to Europe. Right now. For Calvin, who has never ventured far from his small hometown in Maine, this is not easy. Then danger ensues:  Calvin encounters antiquities thieves, spies, religious fanatics and his ex-wife who is stalking him. By the time Calvin realizes he’s been kidnapped, he has to figure out how to escape and how to live the life he’s meant to live. (This book goes on sale August 27.)

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.

Fresh, Bright Flavors at the Wildflower Cafe

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

I traveled to Mentone recently for Alabama NewsCenter to spotlight this unique restaurant. You can read the entire story here.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippy-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.

Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself:  “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta.

They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey-mustard sauce and cheeses; the prime rib with its crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all these meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version of this dish, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon also offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie:  It is worth any drive. Ripe, roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Some cheddar and mozzarella and a beautifully flaky crust make it completely delicious.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy Hill, Mountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts:  clothing, wood crafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey and jams and organic chocolates and Moon’s own natural lip balms and skincare (when she has the time to harvest the ingredients).

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

Wildflower Café

6007 Alabama Highway 117

Mentone, AL 35984

256-634-0066

http://www.mentonewildflower.com

Reservations are highly suggested for dinner and must be made by phone at 256-634-0066 or in person.  The café does not take reservations for lunch or Sunday brunch.

Hours:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Lunch  11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 4 to 8 p.m.
General Store open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday
Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(On holiday weekends, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.; call and check before you visit.)

Soul Food Saturdays and Tasty Thursdays

I went to Soul Food Saturday at Arlington House this past Saturday and loved every delicious minute of it. Pork wings and braised collards and perfect mac and cheese. Sweet tea and some chocolate cake made the visit complete.

Here’s some info from the home’s website:

Arlington is a fine example of Greek Revival architecture dating from the 1840s. Originally called “The Grove,” the house was built by Judge William S. Mudd, one of the ten founders of Birmingham, and is the only remaining antebellum mansion remaining in Birmingham.

Shortly before the end of the Civil War, General James Wilson arrived with over 13,000 troops and, using Arlington as his headquarters, planned the destruction of the Confederate iron furnaces and the military school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The property went through several owners and in 1902 became the home of Robert S. Munger (who also had one of the first “motor cars” in Birmingham). Mr. Munger did many renovations including plumbing and electric lights. He had another structure moved behind the main house, and that was used for a kitchen, dining room, sun parlor and sleeping quarters.

Located on six acres in the heart of Old Elyton, Arlington is a center for historical, cultural, and civic activities.

And Soul Food on Saturdays … on August 10, 17 and 31. It’s $10 for a plate with $3 for dessert. This lunch is served from 11:30 to 3. So make plans now.

You also can get lunch (not necessarily soul food and by reservation only) at Arlington on Thursdays during August and beyond. During “Thursdays at Arlington,” guests will receive a salad, entrée, dessert and beverage for $20. The price of lunch also includes a tour of Arlington House. See the schedule here.

And the beautifully appointed historic home is available for weddings and other events.

Arlington House and Museum

331 Cotton Avenue, Southwest
Birmingham, Alabama 35211
Phone: 205-780-5656

Admission:
$5.00 per adult
$3.00 per student 6 to 18 years
special rates available for groups

Art Alive!

AIDS Alabama brings together local artists to create art and opportunities through an art auction with a real-time twist.

AIDS Alabama does serious work, but the fundraisers this organization puts on tend to be lots of fun.

On the heels of April’s successful Dining Out for Life, when AIDS Alabama teamed up with local restaurants like Bottega Café and Chez Lulu for a day of giving, AIDS Alabama presents its 3rd Annual Art Alive!

Art Alive! is set for Saturday, July 27 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Canary Gallery  (2201 Second Ave. N. in downtown Birmingham). Guests can watch eight local artists create original artwork—ranging from abstracts to more realistic pieces—during the event. These works will be available that evening through a silent auction.

Tickets are $50 each. There will be foods from El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar, a friend to AIDS Alabama that also participated in Dining Out for Life; complimentary beer from Cahaba Brewing Company; and wine from International Wines & Craft Beer. Matthew Carroll Band will entertain the crowd.

The silent auction is an exciting focal point for this event, but people other than the winning bidders can go home with new art, too. Several previously completed works in the artists’ gallery will be available for immediate purchase.

Art Alive! featured artists include:

“We are so grateful to our talented and extremely generous featured artists,” says Caroline Bundy, director of development for AIDS Alabama. “To have the opportunity to actually watch these artists as they create their work is a thrill, especially considering the different methods each uses to create their own individual piece. You don’t want to miss this fun and unique event!”

Fundraising like Art Alive! allows AIDS Alabama to devote more of its energy and resources statewide, helping those with HIV/AIDS live healthy, independent lives and working to prevent the spread of HIV.

Right now, there are more than 14,000 Alabamians living with HIV/AIDS, Bundy says, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama ranks 11th in the nation for new HIV diagnoses.

AIDS Alabama works tirelessly to meet the needs of Alabama’s HIV-positive population, providing safe, affordable housing to low-income people living with HIV in Alabama. Additionally, AIDS Alabama’s prevention education and outreach efforts provide free and confidential HIV screening, accurate HIV information and links to care for thousands across the state

There have been many important medical advances that make HIV manageable as a chronic disease, Bundy says, but HIV rates in the South remain high and within epidemic proportions, making AIDS Alabama’s prevention, transportation, mental health and housing services more vital than ever.

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here, or go to www.aidsalabama.org.

(Leftover) Barbecue and Sheep Milk Fresca Quesadillas

I was at the farmers’ market at Pepper Place on Saturday, wanting tomatoes and peaches and hesitating about buying anything with all the leftovers still in my fridge from our 4th of July family dinner.

Then Ana Kelly, owner of Dayspring Dairy suggested quesadillas made with our leftover Full Moon Bar-B-Que pulled chicken and sliced pork. “Try the Poblano Lime Fresca,” she said. “You can use that.”

So I did.

I bought a package of the fresh cheese (as well as some tomatoes and peaches). I stopped by the grocery for some flour tortillas, and we were set.

I made a salsa of peaches and tomatoes and serrano peppers with a few squeezes of fresh lime and some salt and pepper. I added a little mint from my kitchen garden because I didn’t want to go back to the store for cilantro. Cilantro would have been better. And I longed for one of those oblong red onions from BDA Farm, but maybe next time.

I heated up our Full Moon ‘que (both the chicken and the pork). Next, I generously slathered the Dayspring Dairy sheep milk fresca onto the tortillas, added a little leftover corn (cut from the cob and mixed with some finely chopped serrano), piled on the barbecued meats and cooked the quesadillas on the stovetop.

We served them with some angel hair slaw, dressed simply with fresh lime juice and salt and pepper. I put that fresh peach-tomato salsa on top.

Delicious.

And as a little something extra, here’s a link to a great Alabama NewsCenter story about Dayspring Dairy.

Fox 6 Books: July

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6  on July 2. These vacation-ready must-reads include a LOL trip around the world, a thriller from Down Under, an important story of self-invention and some easy-to-pick-up, easy-to-pick-up-later short stories.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer is laugh-out-loud funny and poignant and important all at the same time. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about Arthur Less, a not-so-successful novelist about to turn 50 who is not at all happy with his life. He’s alone, but even worse, his boyfriend of nearly a decade is about to be married to someone else. When the wedding invitation arrives, Less realizes he needs to leave—for anywhere else. So he cobbles together a trip around the world—courtesy of a bunch of half-baked literary events and what little savings he has left. The jaunt takes the novelist to Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan—all far, far away from the everyday life he doesn’t want to face. It’s a love story and a satire of an American abroad and a whole lot of fun to read.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is an impressive debut novel by Felicity McLean. Tikka Malloy remembers the hot summer of 1992 for two reasons:  all the ongoing debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain, and that was when Tikka’s best friends disappeared. The Van Apfel sisters—Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia—simply vanished. Were they taken? Did they run away from their strict, evangelical parents? Their disappearance shook their small town and left lasting trauma. Tikka and her older sister know something of what happened, and when Tikka returns home years later, she’s confronted with questions. This is a thrilling, at times darkly comic, coming-of-age story about childhood memories, female friendships and unexpected consequences. It’s scary good and was named a Barnes & Noble Summer 2019 Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read. Tara Westover was 17 years old before she ever set foot in a classroom. She grew up in the mountains of Idaho with a survivalist father and a mother who was a midwife and healer. Isolated from all of mainstream society, she never even saw a doctor and there was no one to intervene and protect her from family violence. When one of her brothers got himself into college and returned home talking about the outside world, Tara decided she wanted that life, too. So she taught herself enough math, grammar and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. It opened her mind and her heart and her entire world. She learned for the first time about psychology and philosophy about the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. Her self-invention and thirst for knowledge transformed her and took her to Harvard and to Cambridge University. This memoir is about truly finding oneself and the absolute pricelessness of an education. It’s also about family loyalty and the price of severing ties with those you love.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is by Karen Russell, the bestselling author of Swamplandia! (yes, I’ve talked about this Pulitzer Prize finalist before). In this book, she offers a selection of short stories that I think are vacay-perfect for a couple of reasons:  They are highly entertaining, and they can be picked up and picked up again later as your day dictates. Summer is made for short stories! Russell writes beautiful prose with a definite dark edge. A group of boys finds a militated scarecrow that looks a lot like a missing classmate. A community of girls held captive in a Japanese silk factory transmute into silkworms and plot a revolution. And in the title story, two vampires in a lemon grove try to slake their thirst for blood as they consider their immortal relationship. You won’t soon forget any of these pieces.

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.

Automatic Hit

It’s easy to think of Automatic Seafood & Oysters as a singular kind of place:  It looks and feels like nothing else in Birmingham, and the menu is filled with adventurous approaches to familiar (and perhaps unfamiliar) foods. But what really makes it special are a few important partnerships:  between local and regional suppliers and the kitchen, between the servers and the customers who have crowded into the dining rooms since the place opened and between the husband and wife team who put it all together.

Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side—he with his acclaimed kitchen skills and her with her design expertise and warm hospitality—to celebrate clean, fresh flavors with friendly, gracious service in a space that is hip and modern and respectful of the past.

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

Automatic Seafood & Oysters opened in April in a 1940s warehouse that once was the home of the Automatic Sprinkler Company. But the buzz about its chef-owner began long before that.

Adam spent time in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated restaurants, from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans to Craft in New York City. Before moving back to his home state, Adam was the executive chef at Ford Fry’s The Optimist in Atlanta when the restaurant was named Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year and made Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants. He then helped Jonathan Waxman open Brezza Cucina, also in Atlanta.

The shell- and finfish at Automatic are sourced primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but Adam pulls from other coastlines, too. Most of what’s on the menu is familiar, but the combinations or preparation might be a surprise. Consider roasted scallops with oxtail marmalade or snapper crudo with pickled ginger, crispy skin and lime or duck fat-poached swordfish with sunchokes and pancetta vinaigrette. Some of the fishes are unusual—things like fresh-caught sardines and seasonal bycatch like hake, which Adam prepares blackened with blue crab, watercress, potato puree and green garlic butter.

“What the Gulf of Mexico has to offer is way beyond snapper and grouper,” Adam says. “There are a lot of different species that aren’t maybe common to see but are equally as delicious. It’s especially important for me to try and utilize the bycatch products, the things that they’re not targeting when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper (but) that they’re pulling in. … It’s a great opportunity for me to highlight different species from the Gulf that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus.

“There’s a local guy in Birmingham who is a commercial spear fisherman. So he’s been going to the Gulf for years. … I just recently received some fish that he harvested, and it’s really interesting to see the quality that he’s bringing. It’s unlike the other fish that I get because of … the way he’s harvesting it. You really see the difference.”

These fish – snapper and grouper; triggerfish and amberjack; cobia; and the invasive, nonnative lionfish – are listed as “spear-caught” on the menu and often are used in a raw preparation “so people can get a sense of the quality that they’re eating,” Adam says.

The long, sleek oyster bar at Automatic is a focal point in the restaurant; as many as eight different kinds of oysters are piled high on ice. You’ll likely find Mo Boykins there. He started at Automatic as a dishwasher but told Adam he wanted to do more. Now he’s the restaurant’s main oyster shucker, as entertaining and engaging as Jose Medina Camacho and his team of friendly bartenders nearby who are creating craft cocktails like Springtime in Mexico with Lunazul blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Herbsaint, cucumber, mint and lime.

Automatic’s team is not just in the restaurant. Adam is committed to supporting farmers of all kinds – from oyster farmers in the Gulf to traditional growers closer to home. He says he’s delighted with the product he’s getting from regional oyster farms like Alabama’s Murder Point and Point aux Pins and with local farmers markets like the one at Pepper Place.

The 39-year-old chef has wanted to own a restaurant in Birmingham since he read Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook.

“I remember reading Frank’s book and thinking, ‘This guy’s from Cullman. He’s a great chef; he’s been around. I want to do the same thing.’ I’ve always thought about coming here and doing this, and it just became time.

Suzanne, co-owner and project designer of the restaurant, is in the dining room most every night. It’s a different kind of role for her, but she says it’s the best job she’s ever had:  “And I wouldn’t even call it a ‘job.’  “It’s really a pleasure every night to have a restaurant full of friends and family and a lot of folks that we’ve never met before.”

She was introduced to Adam one evening when she was dining at The Optimist and he was the executive chef there.

As far as the restaurant’s design, she says, “We took a lot of cues from the structure itself and the timeframe in which it was built. We took the 1950 Americana aesthetic and applied it as well. We wanted to create a space that felt classic but not in a re-creation … just maybe like it had been here for a while.”

She worked with local artisan Grant Trick, of Design Industry, on the restaurant’s custom booths and barstools with sleek, reflective channel upholstery. “We looked at antique wooden speedboats. We looked at classic cars. We looked at advertisements of fishing and boating and leisure from that time period” for the channeling and color combinations, she says.

Adam and Suzanne will celebrate their first anniversary soon, and Automatic has been a huge part of the whole of their married life. They’ve worked on the restaurant for the past two years, and they share an immense appreciation for each other.

Suzanne has never worked in restaurants, Adam points out. “And she has stepped up and has been there for every service and been there for every guest. … It’s amazing to have her out there (while) I’m in the kitchen. It’s really comforting for me. … It’s been great.”

Suzanne puts it this way:  “I’m proud of him. I’m proud that we are able to do this every day, that he gets to do what he loves. I know it’s really his story and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it. … He’s so talented, but he’s so humble; that’s a wonderful combination in a human being. And so if I can help to … tell that story and share it, then I’m happy to.”

Automatic Seafood & Oysters

2824 5thAve. S.

Birmingham, AL 35233 (in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood)

205-580-1600

Open every day for dinner

Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.

www.automaticseafood.com