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

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

Conversation is on the menu for Southern Foodways Alliance Fall Symposium

Here’s a clever pandemic-year pivot: Instead of having your annual symposium in one place, have it everywhere. Then make sure everyone has something special and delicious to eat so you can continue – and expand – the conversations you started.

The 2020 Fall Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Symposium: Future of the South has been happening throughout October, and lots of the related articles and presentations are published online at the SFA website. But SFA wants to keep the meaningful conversation going – and make it personal and involve tasty food.

Because food is such a vital ingredient of what SFA does, on Saturday, Nov. 7 for dinner and Sunday, Nov. 8 for lunch, folks in the Birmingham area can pick up some gourmet grab-and-go Community Meals prepared by chef-owner Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters and Timothy Hontzas, chef-owner of Johnny’s in Homewood. Both men are James Beard-nominated chefs who are shaping the future of food in our part of the country.

Each year, the symposium features a boxed lunch by a chef who has an important voice in regional food. (Last year, it was Maneet Chauhan’s “Working Woman’s Lunch,” with sweet potato chaat and collard green curry.) This year, it’s different everywhere with the Community Meals prepared by chefs in celebrated restaurants all over the country – from JuneBaby in Seattle to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin to The Second Line in Memphis to Miller Union in Atlanta to here at home.

“This moment,” according to SFA, “when in-person dining is unpredictable but takeout options have never been better, feels like the perfect opportunity to carry on that tradition with new purpose.”

“We all look forward to sharing meals each October,” said Olivia Terenzio, marketing and communications strategist for SFA. “Obviously, we can’t do that this year because of safety concerns, but we still wanted to foster a sense of community and engage people around the questions and ideas posed during the symposium this year – that is, what are our hopes and visions for the future of the South. We really hope to encourage people to pick up meals that build on these questions and gather in ways that feel safe to them to continue the conversation.”

The meals might, themselves, be conversation starters.

“I want to serve a box that uses as much of the whole fish as possible,” Evans said. He’s known for his creativity and commitment to sustainability. So, on Nov. 7, he will offer a “whole fish box” featuring smoked fish dip with fish-eye crackers; braised fish cheeks with farm pickles; fried fish collar with chili butter; grilled, dry-aged fish ribs with lemon and olive oil; sweet potatoes with XO sauce; shaved kale salad with fish-belly bacon and farm vegetables; and fish scale and tapioca coconut pudding. This gill-to-tail feast is $50 per box and serves two people.

On Nov. 8, during lunch, Hontzas of Johnny’s will showcase his fine-dining skills and Southern-Greek heritage with Mavrodaphne-braised lamb tips drizzled with a Tsitalia olive oil and citrus vinaigrette, toasted cumin tahini grits, cucumber-mint tabouleh stack, sumac-marinated feta, and cayenne and garlic Tabasco cornbread. It’s $14.95 per box and available for pick up during Sunday lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Famous for his popular “Greek and three,” Hontzas said, “It’s my twist on beef tips and rice but with lamb and tahini grits. I just love taking something Southern and making it Greek; we’re so similar in cultures.” (Fun fact: Mavrodaphne, a sweet, fortified wine made with dark-skinned grapes from the Greek Peloponnese, is what they use for communion wine in the Greek churches in that part of the world.)

For ordering and pick-up information, visit each restaurant’s website: https://www.automaticseafood.com and http://www.johnnyshomewood.com.

The Community Meals are open to everyone, not just people who attended the fall symposium. If you fill out the RSVP form by 5 p.m. on Nov. 4, they will put you in touch with other respondents in Birmingham on Nov. 5.

Then, make plans to gather safely (or remotely), enjoy your meal together (or online and apart) and talk about things like journalist José Ralat’s exploration of Sur-Mex, the integrated cuisines of the American South and Mexico, or cookbook author Chandra Ram’s ideas about how a celebration of Indian and Southern food connections might lead to social action.

“We wanted to create a way for them to organize where they want to meet and how. So, it’s about giving people the tools to figure that out amongst themselves,” Terenzio said. “We have printed postcards that I just mailed out yesterday for the chefs to include with their meals. The postcards have some conversation starters on the back that relate to the future of the South and the programming that we shared during October.”

The Oxford, Mississippi-based SFA is known for hosting workshops; sponsoring internships; and contributing to the academic study of regional foodways of the changing South through films, articles, literature, art and podcasts. Birmingham has had its fair share of attention from the organization.

“We reached out to Automatic Seafood and Johnny’s because Adam and Tim are both SFA members and they’ve worked our events in the past, including the symposium,” Terenzio said. “We knew their restaurants are open and that they would be able to offer an exciting and insightful boxed option that speaks to their visions for the future of the region.

“Everyone at SFA has just a tremendous admiration for Birmingham,” she added. “We’ve done a ton of work exploring the different food histories.” A few examples are “The Birmingham Greeks” and “Birmingham at Work,” a series of portraits and vignettes about restaurant labor in our city, and a profile in memory of Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs.”

SFA produced a short film by Ava Lowrey on Hontzas and some of Birmingham’s Greek-Southern dining traditions.

“This goes back to (Birmingham’s) inspiring history,” Terenzio said, “but also the people who are doing the work now to recreate and continue creating the city’s food culture.”

For more information on the Community Meals and SFA, visit the site.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

So Sweet

The spotlight is on some of Birmingham’s top women in food, beverage and hospitality again this Saturday at Pepper Place Market! From chefs and bakers and mixologists to dietitians and restauranteurs and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food-related industries. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

This was last week at Pepper Place Market! Cristina Almanza is the cutest taco ever!

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent near Homewood Gourmet’s popular space. This week, we’re sharing sweets of all kinds from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants.

Our tables will be full. Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Creamy vanilla cheesecake by Dame Joy Smith of Sorelle 

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes bite cups from Dame April McClung

Dame Brooke Bell’s apple butter Bundt Cakes

Dame Pam Lolley’s Brown butter Chocolate chip cookies

Dame Telia Johnson’s regionally famous classic chocolate cake

Brownies, giant cookies and Ashley Mac’s signature strawberry cake from Dame Ashley McMakin

Crestline Bagel Co. granola from Dame Jennifer Yarbrough

Pizzelle cookies from me (one of the only pretty desserts I can make!)

Big Spoon Creamery ice cream sandwiches from Dame Geri-Martha O’Hara

Dame Maureen Holt’s Kentucky Butter Cake with Bourbon glaze

Dame Cheryl Slocum’s ginger-white chocolate cookies

Dame Sonthe Burge’s homemade baklava

Best-Ever Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Dame Stefanie Maloney

Rosemary shortbread from Kristen Farmer Hall of The Essential and Bandit Patisserie

When you’re done visiting with us, turn around and grab a breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, selling these homemade goodies, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating what’s sweet about Birmingham’s food scene. 

That fundraiser deserves another mention. 

Each year, we have a big party to raise money for our scholarship and grant giving. Since we were organized in 2013, we have awarded nearly $60,000 to women of all ages all across our state who are pursuing their culinary dreams.  

Our Southern Soiree in-person event is not possible this year, so we’ve pivoted to a Champagne and Fried Chicken drive-through pick-up picnic on Sunday, Oct. 18. (There will also be a vegetarian option.) Each basket will serve two people and will come complete—naturally—with a bottle of Champagne.

Additionally, we will have a virtual store with gift certificates, books, art, virtual cooking classes, a virtual wine tasting, a year of dinner playlists on Spotify, Southern Living’s Christmas Big White Cake and lots more. 

And we’ll have TWO different raffles each with TWELVE $100 gift certificates/cards to some of Birmingham’s best restaurants including Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar & Grill, Blueprint on 3rd, Helen, Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine & Bar, The Bright Star, The Essential, Chez Fonfon, OvenBird, Sol y Luna, Satterfield’s, Ashley Mac’s, Urban Cookhouse, Iz Cafe, The Garden’s Cafe by Kathy G, Village Tavern, Troup’s Pizza and much more!

Go to www.ldeibirmingham.org/fundraiser/ for details.

Tickets for the basket and raffle as well as our online storefront will go live on Saturday, September 26, at 7 a.m.

Fried down but not out!

One of my favorite organizations, the Cahaba River Society is moving forward in a fun, inventive way with #FryDown2020: Our Hot Mess.

The Cahaba River Fry-Down is a beloved celebration of the Cahaba River – the heart of America’s Amazon and our region’s primary drinking water source.
This annual competitive cook-off is usually a huge community party, and it is the primary fundraiser for the Cahaba River Society. I’ve been a judge for the past few years and am thrilled to join Kathy G. Mezrano and George Sarris to judge again this year.

It will be different though. This year, since our community can’t be together in person, the CRS will offer a unique, interactive and FREE experience that everyone can enjoy!

Each day, starting on Tuesday, Sept. 29th at noon and leading up to the Big Day on Oct. 4th, they will reveal something new on the Fry-Down website.
You’ll be able to watch as your favorite teams teach YOU how to cook those incredible dishes to “wow” your friends and family. You can even get your own complimentary Fry-Down Cookbook with all of this year’s recipes when you donate.

You’ll be entertained by featured acts and performers of Fry-Down so you can “taste” a little of what exciting things are to come. (This, too, shall pass!) You’ll explore your wild and wonderful Cahaba River through a virtual series of adventures, get fishing tips, and learn how to cook fish on a campout.
Finally, you’ll get to vote on YOUR FAVORITE team to win this year … all from the comfort of your home!


Join me and join in the fun while doing your part to help us protect, conserve and restore our treasured River for future generations!

Celebrate Mediterranean food with Birmingham Les Dames d’Escoffier

The Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization that supports professional women in food & hospitality, is coming to Pepper Place Market every week in September to spotlight some of Birmingham’s female culinary superstars.

This week, we’re celebrating women food leaders who keep us connected to our culinary roots in the Mediterranean.

Quite a few members of Les Dames do this, and they’ll be at a tent in the Walk-Thru Market on Saturday, September 12 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find: Dame Kathy Mezrano (Kathy G. & Co.) will be bringing her stuffed grape leaves. Dame Sherron Goldstein of Fresh Fields Cooking School will have veggie couscous to go, along with her cookbook. Dame Stacey Craig will bring cheesecake baklava from The Bright Star, and copies of The Bright Star cookbook, too. Dame Sonthe Burge will bring Greek salads, tapenade, taziki and koulourakia (those addictive Greek butter cookies).

You can pre-order Italian dishes of all sorts from Dame Linda Croley (Bare Naked Noodles) in the Drive-Thru Market, or pick up some of her dried homemade pasta at the Dames’ tent. Also in the Drive-Thru, you can pre-order an array of authentic savory and sweet Greek specialties from The Greek Kouzina. Wow!

Meanwhile, my fellow Dames and I will be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions and celebrating how truly international our cooking heritage is–right here in Birmingham, Alabama.

Turning Over a New Leaf

When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start. 

The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes. 

Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.” 

Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States.  For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager. 

“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”  

I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.

Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India. 

This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants. 

He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”

Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.

There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry. 

The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries:  a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.

Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies. 

Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.

Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice. 

Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.

Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.

“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar

bayleaf@thespicelibrary.com

https://www.bayleafbham.com

Five Points South location

1024 20th St. S. Unit 101

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-777-3070

Lunch served daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.

Valet parking available

Highway 280 location

5426 Highway 280, Suite 14

Birmingham, AL 35242

 205-518-0208

Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and weeknights and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Reservations strongly suggested.