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.”
I took a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago—so quick, in fact, that I was very limited in what I could do. So it was two days of food and drinks and then some solitude in my very favorite place.
I usually spend some time shopping on King Street. I also love to take my running shoes and head to The Battery via the waterfront path by Rainbow Row. I walk through the French Quarter and go to the Market to buy souvenirs from the Historic Charleston Foundation store (silver rice seed bead bracelets, anyone?). I didn’t have time for that on this trip.
But even a short trip is enough to remind me how much I love this city. Charleston is beautiful this time of year (I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t trim their crepe myrtles downtown). It’s also fun and delicious and full of great energy. And folks in Charleston have Southern hospitality down pat. Of course.
No wonder it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the entire country.
Some of the highlights of my short trip included:
Raw oysters and royal reds at The Ordinary (544 King Street). This fancy oyster hall is in a beautiful historic building that used to house a bank. The restaurant belongs to James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata (Best Chef Southeast 2009) and business partner Adam Nemirow, the same team behind FIG (another personal favorite place). My daughter Allison knew I was going to The Ordinary that evening, and she called ahead and ordered an assortment of South Carolina raw oysters that included Roddy Rocks and Single Ladies and Sea Clouds and long, thin Capers Blades. I skipped the cocktail sauce in favor of the ginger mignonette. A glass of cold Les Gras Moutons Muscadet was perfect, too. I loved my dish of charcoal-grilled royal red shrimp over polenta with shrimp nage.
The next day, I took a scenic two-mile walk through old neighborhoods to eat lunch at Nana’s Seafood & Soul with its classic Gullah-Geechie dishes and fresh seafood. Someone told me that the rapper 2 Chainz had eaten there the week before. That turned out not to be true, but Waka Flocka Flame had been in a few months earlier for the shrimp and lobster boats and fried crab legs. I enjoyed the crab mac and cheese and spicy garlic shrimp very much.
A late-night drink and snack at Babas on Cannon (11 Cannon Street) was the perfect way to end our day. This cozy, all-day, old-world café serves coffee and house-made pastries in the morning and sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. During the evenings, you’ll find apértivo service with carefully chosen wines, creative cocktails and delicious snacks (try the brioche grilled cheese with a giant cheese crisp on top). This cafe has a Birmingham connection, too: It belongs to Frank Stitt’s daughter, Marie, and her husband, Edward Crouse.
I took my breakfast to one of my very favorite places—the garden cemetery at The Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale Street). Founded in 1787, this is one of the oldest Unitarian Churches in the United States and the oldest one in the South. There is a monument outside to honor the slaves who actually built this church—making even the very bricks that form the walls.
The cemetery is a beautifully wild place with plants—some 200 years old—growing from the plots. It’s incredibly peaceful. You can get to it off King Street; there’s a gate sort of hidden down near and across the street from the Billy Reid store. Go down an alley and find yourself in another world. If the church is open, you’ll want to go in. The people there are so welcoming, and they love to share details of their beautiful church with visitors.
Finally, before we head home, we always go back to Christophe for a ham and Brie sandwich for the road. These are exactly like what you’ll find at little bakeries and corner stores all over France. And chocolates. We always get an assortment of Christophe’s extraordinary chocolates. No trip to Charleston is complete without these.
St. George Island never disappoints. Even on a cloudy day, and those have been few, it’s my favorite place to be.
Life is here simple: hours and hours of reading books on the beach under a huge umbrella. We listen to Oyster Radio (100.5 WOYS) and don’t turn on the television. I’ve had oyster dates with my kids and husband at Lynn’s Quality Oysters on the bay side. We’ve spent hours in a sea kayak looking for turtles and dolphins (and finding them).
We timed our visit to coincide with the Perseid meteor showers and thrilled to a couple of long, slow, colorful earthgrazers most nights. On Sunday (the peak night), we sipped Buffalo Trace bourbon and watched into the wee hours seeing dozens of shooting stars, some with spectacular tails. Orange. Green. Blue. A few evenings we’ve woken to incredible thunderstorms just outside our window, lightning striking the water turning night into day. Another kind of light show.
We’ve eaten lots of tomatoes, just old-fashioned slicing ones from Chandler Mountain in Steele, Alabama, shipped all the way down here to the Piggly Wiggly in Apalachicola, Florida (imagine!). We’ve made salads by adding fresh peaches or watermelon to them–whatever my hand grabs first. Brother caught a redfish on his fly rod the other day, and we ate it a few hours later baked on the half shell with just salt and pepper and a little olive oil.
Best. Fish. Ever.
We spend our days in swimsuits here, very rarely dressing more than that. Even then it’s shorts and t-shirts. A sundress, maybe. In fact, we’ve not gotten much fancier than dinner for two at The Owl Cafe in Apalachicola one night. If you’re here, you should go. The food is delicious and the service so quietly friendly.
I can’t show you the turtles we’ve seen. Green turtles? Loggerheads? We only get a glimpse of a yellow-spotted head and they are gone. Likewise, a red fox crossing the road on our way home from dinner that one night was as fleeting as a thought. I saw this kingfisher cozying up to a guy fishing from the shore one day. I think he knew the guy had a bite before the guy knew.
Rick rode his bike on the island and off. And then off some more. While cycling on the logging roads in Tate’s Hell State Forest, he saw bear tracks but, thankfully, no bear. He also saw a deer and a sizable black snake. I told him if he wasn’t back by noon, I would come looking, so when he was done, he texted me: “I’m out of Hell. Headed back … all good.”
All that is Gulf-coast specific, but what we enjoyed on our dining table is not necessarily so. Most of these things don’t require a beach to enjoy, but of course, they might taste better down there.
1 cup (8 ounces) butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup homemade harissa paste (see recipe below)
crusty bread and more beer to serve
Place a sheet tray lined with foil or a large cast iron skillet under the broiler to preheat. Toss the cleaned shrimp with salt. Set aside.
Add the beer and garlic to a small, 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce until it is sticky and only about 3 tablespoons in volume, about 10 minutes. The beer will foam up while boiling. Set the pot askew on the burner to prevent it from boiling over.
Add the butter to the beer one tablespoon at a time while constantly swirling until incorporated and thick, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the harissas.
Pour the butter sauce over the shrimp and toss to combine. Pour the shrimp and all the sauce on the preheated sheet tray or skillet. It will hiss and sputter. Make sure the shrimp is in one even layer and place the tray or the skillet under the broiler (but not too close; make sure they don’t burn) until shrimp are opaque and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
Harissa is a key ingredient in North African cuisine. This batch will last up to a month in the fridge, and you can put it on everything from scrambled eggs to rice. It makes a lovely rub for grilled meats, too.
15 dried chiles de árbol
2 dried guajillo chiles
1 dried ancho chile
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1½ teaspoons hot smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
Place árbol, guajillo, and ancho chiles in a large heatproof measuring glass. Pour boiling water over to submerge, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until chiles are very pliable and cool enough to handle, 15–20 minutes. Drain; remove stems and seeds and discard (wear gloves for this part if you have them).
Toast cumin and coriander in a dry small skillet over medium-low heat, tossing constantly, until very fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a food processor, add garlic, and pulse until spices are broken up and garlic forms a paste.
Add chiles and pulse until chiles form a coarse paste. Add lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, paprika, and salt and process until mostly smooth but mixture still has a little texture. With the motor running, stream in ½ cup oil. Process until oil is incorporated.
Transfer harissa to a bowl. Pour remaining ¼ cup oil over top and keep in the refrigerator.
Here’s What To Do With All Those Tomatoes
I’ve made Alton Brown‘s Gazpacho recipe so many times, I can do it by heart (and feel OK taking my lazy-girl shortcuts). It’s a great way to enjoy summer’s bounty of tomatoes, and you can make it your own by adding things you love like a hotter pepper or things you have on hand at a beach house or lake place like a little bit of Old Bay.
Brown’s recipe proper (which involves removing the skin of the tomatoes) is in the link above. Here’s my take on it:
2 pounds really ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped and sort of seeded
1 small container of tomato juice or V8
1 large cucumber, some skin removed, seeded and roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1/4 cup (or more if you want) finely chopped red onion
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
1 lime, juiced
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
dash of Old Bay (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil leaves to garnish
Put the tomatoes and tomato juice into a large mixing bowl. Add the cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno, garlic, olive oil, lime juice, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire, cumin, Old Bay if you want, salt and pepper, and stir to combine.
You can leave it as is, with lots of crunchy bits in soup or transfer 1 1/2 cups of the mixture to a blender and puree for 15 to 20 seconds on high speed. Return the pureed mixture to the bowl and stir to combine.
Cover and chill for 2 hours and up to overnight.
Serve with a chiffonade of basil.
Because Pimento Cheese is Good (and It Opens Doors)
This is true: I have managed to get an invite (more than once!) to a fabulous beach house in return for bringing the world’s best pimento cheese.
It makes a big batch, and we enjoy it for days with saltines. We save the last few servings for grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwiches on a day when I just cannot leave the beach before 7 p.m.
We serve these sandwiches with whatever salad we care to pull together, (I show it with a fresh, juicy mix of watermelon, tomato and fresh basil with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil and a little salt and pepper.)
These sandwiches are great with the gazpacho mentioned above.
Here’s Miss Verba’s recipe. Prepare to be addicted.
1 pound sharp yellow cheddar
1/4 pound cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
3 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 cup homemade mayonnaise or best-quality commercial mayonnaise
1 teaspoon sugar
Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholulu
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Grind the cheddar in a food processor fitted with the grating disk, or grate it on the small-holed side of a hand grater.
Transfer the grated cheese to a bowl, add the cream cheese, white pepper, bell peppers, mayonnaise, sugar, hot sauce, and cayenne, if using, and blend all together thoroughly. I also add a splash of Worchestershire.
Refrigerate and serve chilled. (The spread will keep for several days in the refrigerator, but it usually disappears long before then.)
For nearly five years, Odette owner Celeste Pillow and executive chef Josh Quick and their team have helped downtown Florence, Alabama flourish–one delicious dish at a time. The casual, upscale restaurant is one of a growing number of locally owned, small businesses drawing people back to this exciting town’s downtown.
I love sharing Birmingham with friends. I love just as much when friends share their own special places with me–opening my eyes to something I don’t see every day.
My husband, Rick, and I recently spent about 44 hours in Asheville, North Carolina, with our friends April and Sid and Bob and Tondee. April was the resident expert, and she curated a trip that was food-focused, art-centered and absolutely awesome. April clearly delighted in doing this, and she’s incredibly good at it! We left town after our long weekend having seen and done (and tasted) so much. I am grateful beyond measure, and I’d like to share some of April’s favorite things. You’re going to want to take a road trip.
We arrived at Sid and April’s home, stopped briefly to unload our bags and enjoy a glass of rose and then headed to Gan Shan Station for dinner. Patrick O’Cain (he’s the tall one you’ll see behind the chef’s counter) was born and raised in North Asheville. He spent time in the kitchens of Asheville’s Curate and McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. He left McCrady’s and opened Charleston’s Xiao Bao Biscuit as sous-chef. Then he returned home to his own dreams and opened a restaurant in the neighborhood where he grew up. Gan Shan Station is in an old gas station in North Asheville. The open, airy place is named for Sunset Mountain where Patrick spent his childhood.
April arranged for the chef’s table tasting menu, and it was a stunning mix of Southern foods and Asian flavors–and clever drink pairings from around the world. Sichuan salt and pepper tofu (a table favorite even with people who don’t like tofu) was paired with a cocktail made of mezcal; whole flounder, sprinkled with fresh flowers and herbs and served over crispy Laotian rice, came with a Tuscan white. A miso-glazed pork chop with pickled blackberries and buttermilk dressing was paired with a French merlot. Six people fell in love with Sichuan pepper that night.
Gan Shan Station
143 Charlotte Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed on Sunday
We started our day at Hole Doughnuts with cooked-to-order, served-hot-y’all doughnuts and great coffee roasted at the nearby PennyCup Coffee Co. At Hole, the yeasty dough is rolled out by hand, right in front of you. The doughnut varieties change all the time, but expect them to be glazed, dipped or sprinkled as you watch. Our doughnuts were crisp on the outside, wonderfully fluffy inside with vanilla glaze; a seasonal topping of hand-crushed wineberries; a dusting of cinnamon and sugar; and a crunchy, slightly savory topping of almonds, toasted sesame seeds and cinnamon.
168 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
7:30 am – 2:00pm, Closed Tuesday
We spent the rest of the morning walking through the River Arts District where converted warehouses and industrial buildings along the French Broad River house studios for all kinds of artists. We looked at Cheyenne Trunnel‘s dreamy acrylic, pencil and watercolor landscapes and talked with Cindy Walton about her contemporary oil and cold wax paintings.
We were delighted with what we found at Splurge. Artist Robert Nicholas is collecting eclectic antiques and vintage objects and creating awesome things for his gift shop. What we loved: pendant lights made of huge commercial mixing-bowl attachments (whisks, paddles), mirrors surrounded by industrial floor-polishing brushes (I have a wall waiting for one of those, and you can see them here), chandeliers made of wire and wood.
For lunch, April guided us to Chai Pani with its Indian street food by two-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef Southeast Meherwan Irani. The self-taught Irani also owns a Chai Pani in Decatur, GA, as well as Botiwalla, a traditional tea and kabab place. He teamed up with Chef Elliott Moss (another James Beard Best Chef Southeast nominee) to open Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville’s South Slope area. Buxton Hall features wood-smoked, whole-hog barbecue, Low-Country dishes, Southern favorites, seasonal pies and a daily slushy. Irani also owns MG ROAD Bar & Lounge and a Spicewalla spice store, both located near Asheville’s Chai Pani. Spicewalla spices are sourced, selected and blended by Irani. Some of these spices are available (along with cool t-shirts) at Chai Pani.
During our lunch, we enjoyed butter chicken thali with marinated Joyce Farms chicken; uttapam (savory crepes made of rice and lentil batter) with corn, peas, onion, cilantro, curry leaf, ginger and hot peppers; and (our surprise favorite) crispy masala fish roll with cumin, lime, chili powder, ginger and garlic in hot-buttered naan.
22 Battery Park Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday to Thursday 11:30–3:30 / 5:00-9:30
Friday and Saturday 11:30–3:30 / 5:30-10:00
Sunday 12:00–3:30 / 5:00-9:30
We shopped at Nest Organics for vintage-feeling, Asheville-themed dish towels made of flour sacks, and we ducked into Asheville’s own East Fork Pottery because we had so admired the beautiful stoneware on our table at Gan Shan Station the night before.
For dinner, we headed to Nightbell for some shared small plates and (individual!) craft cocktails. Executive chef and owner Katie Button serves dishes made with local Appalachian ingredients in the intriguing setting of a former nightclub (you’ll notice the colorful disco lights here and there). Katie was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award in 2012 and 2013 and a nominee in 2014, semi-finalist for Best Chefs in America in 2015 and a nominee for the JBF Best Chef Southeast award in 2018. She was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2015, and she hosted an international television series, The Best Chefs in the World.
Katie and company source ingredients mostly from small, local farms, and a nose-to-tail butchery program, in partnership with her Cúrate, has them serving sustainable (often lesser-known) cuts. Nightbell gets its name from the days when guests rang the “nightbell” for entrance after 5.
What we loved: the “deviled eggs,” which are an airy mix of corn sabayon, sunburst smoked trout gravlax and pimenton in an egg cup (certainly like no other deviled egg we’ve ever had); brown butter skillet cornbread with chicken butter and seasonal jams; grilled baby beets with bresaola, puffed Carolina gold rice and béarnaise yogurt; seared scallops with roasted sweet potato, sour corn and dashi; and house-made French fries with rocket sauce.
32 South Lexington Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
Open at 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Before heading home, we went to Limones for brunch. This cozy, downtown restaurant specializes in Mexican and California cuisine.
We shared a plate of lobster nachos with crema, guacamole and Serrano peppers to start. Other favorite dishes highlighted the inventiveness of this kitchen and included roasted fennel and organic snap pea slaw enchiladas with mole Amarillo, chipotle rice, crema, guacamole, queso fresco and pickled onion; huevos divorciados with chipotle rice, bacon, refried beans, queso fresco and avocado; and smoked chipotle chilaquiles with two eggs, epazote, refried beans, crema, queso, pico de gallo and Southern farm bacon.
If you go, begin with the awesome bloody Mary or the Basil Refrescante (Oronoco rum, muddled basil, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup) or a peach-chipotle margarita (Patron Reposado, Patron Citronge, fresh lime juice and house-made peach-chipotle puree).
And you must end the meal with a cup of anise-scented hot chocolate served with the best churros ever!
13 Eagle Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
We made one more stop before we left–a quick trip into Mast General Store for some last-minute souvenirs: postcards, local honey and a black bear-shaped cookie cutter. Perfect! That cookie cutter is going to my dear friend Maria who lives in Germany and makes amazing sweets. The postcards already have arrived, she told me.
April, thank you for a wonderful weekend … and for helping me share the love and your special place!
LIfe’s little surprises often remain hidden unless you’re paying attention.
At the Southern Foodways Alliance Winter Symposium held in Birmingham recently, I heard the celebrated female mariachi band La Victoria perform a concert of corridos (storytelling folk songs). They sang about many things including a woman who traveled with her food–and food memories–packed in a suitcase. When she was stopped by a Border Patrol agent, she opened the suitcase and her memories (and the smell of delicious foods from home) opened his heart.
Their song about the historic Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, also stayed with me. The song was in Spanish, of course, but the women explained that it was about a man named Juan Mora who sold hot tamales on street corners before opening a little store near downtown Jackson. That was nearly 80 years ago. The Big Apple Inn has been selling tamales as well as “smokes and ears” (smoked sausage sandwiches and pig ear sandwiches) since 1939.
My younger daughter, Eleanor, is attending school at Millsaps College in Jackson, so I decided right then that I would find the Big Apple Inn the next time I was there to visit her.
That happened to be last week.
It wasn’t hard to find. The original location at 509 North Farish Street is only about 10 minutes from the Millsaps campus. There’s another, I think, at 4487 North State Street, but I wanted the one with the history that goes way back. Farish Street was once the economically independent hub of the African-American community in Jackson–actually the largest such community in the entire state. The bustling Farish Street in this 1947 photo from the University of Mississippi archives was home to Trumpet Records and Ace Records and the Speir Phonograph Company. An early campus of Jackson College, which became Jackson State University, one of our historically black colleges and universities, was located there. The Farish neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The street is not nearly that busy anymore, but Big Apple Inn comes right up on Waze, and when I got there I saw a Waitr sign on the counter. So there’s that, too.
It’s worth a trip for many reasons.
This story and film about the Big Apple Inn from the Southern Foodways Alliance explains why.
The short version goes like this: Juan Mora, known as “Big John” to his neighbors and customers came to Jackson from Mexico City. He named his store the Big Apple Inn after his favorite dance, the Big Apple. Today, his great-grandson Geno Lee is the fourth-generation owner of the place. According to the SFA story, Big John was a big supporter of the community that supported him. “As long as he was able to care for his family, anything left over went to everybody else. In fact, all the kids in the neighborhood knew that they could get school supplies or get meals from Big John,” Geno told SFA interviewer Amy C. Evans.
At the Big Apple Inn, I was talking with another customer who asked if I was getting ears. I told her not today, and she said I needed to come back then. Another customer was there for both ears and smokes; he said he likes the ears, and his lady wanted some smokes. I got my half dozen tamales and headed for home. My husband and I enjoyed them that night with some leftover tomatillo salsa, but they really didn’t need any condiment. The meat inside the tender cornmeal casing is finely ground and just spicy enough. These are good tamales.
I’m definitely going back. And I’m taking people with me.
The Big Apple Inn is not a secret. It has been featured on the Travel Channel and Food Network and Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown. After taking a bite of his first pig ear sandwich, Bourdain said, “It’s everything we love about pig: The texture, the mix of fatty, lean, all that. Oh that’s good!”
But when I asked a few former Millsaps students and a professor or two about the place, I got nothing. Eleanor and her track teammates and friends had never heard of the Big Apple Inn. They head in a different direction when they want lunch or dinner. To Fondren, the areas’s hip arts district, or just off campus to CS’s or up North State Street to “the Mexican place.”
All that’s just fine, but I think they’re missing something.
That something is about much more than tamales, but we’ll start there.
A couple of my kids are great thrift-store shoppers, so I took them to the thrift-store mecca Unclaimed Baggage Center. This huge store in Scottsboro, Alabama, is where unclaimed bags and cargo from all over the country eventually end up.
“You never know what you’ll find,” is the logo of this store. It’s an understatement. We found (among too many things to list) David Yurman jewelry, a glittery ice-skating dress, hundreds of sunglasses, an Escada jacket, Tag Heuer watches, a Gucci dress, lots of Michael Kors handbags, a men’s Givenchy cashmere coat that was one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I’ve ever seen, furs, Burberry trench coats, Beats headphones, iPads, iPhones, Kindle Fire tablets, MacBook air computers, wedding dresses, camping equipment and soccer jerseys. Ironically, or maybe not, there were lots of suitcases, too.
We bought: Two Kindle tablets, Ray-Ban sunglasses (aviators and Wayfarers) with cases, a soccer jersey from Burkina Faso, a men’s Levi’s denim jacket, a few sweaters, men’s dress socks, two 90s-era windbreakers and a pair of Adidas hightop sneakers that were so ugly they were beyond cool. We spent less than $250.
In business since 1970, Unclaimed Baggage is one of Alabama’s top tourist destinations. It’s been featured on NBC’s Today show, in The New York Times and in Smithsonian magazine. There’s a cafe in the store (serving Starbuck’s coffee) if you need a little space in the 40,000-square-foot store (which covers more than a city block).
According to the company’s website, they’ve opened luggage to find: a Versace gown straight from the runway, a full suit of armor (replica), a Las Vegas showgirl costume (not a replica), a 5.8 carat diamond packed in a sock, a 40.95-carat natural emerald, a platinum Rolex worth more than $60,000, a bearskin packed in salt, a camera from the Space Shuttle (which they gave back to NASA), a live rattlesnake, an ancient Egyptian burial mask, a Limoges vase (it sold for $80 and later was appraised at $18,000) a painting that sold for $60 that actually was worth $25,000 and a missile-guidance system for a fighter jet (which they returned to the Air Force).
In 2016, Unclaimed Baggage earned the Alabama Retailer of the Year Gold Award. The store is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.. It’s closed on Sunday.
Unclaimed Baggage is about two hours from Birmingham and is worth the drive. Especially if you make it a day and have lunch at 50 Taters.
This casual restaurant features all sorts of comfort food. You can’t go wrong with the fried catfish here, and the stuffed baked potatoes (we filled ours with pulled pork) are huge and delicious.
Tips for shopping at Unclaimed Baggage Center: Go in with a set amount of money and spend just that. You will be tempted to spend more. You can call ahead and reserve time with a personal shopper. In any case, do stop by the customer service area for a map of the place. And be sure to spend some time in the smaller store called Etc. This is where the biggest bargains live (including lots of stuff for kids). Also, this is where the famous hourly “Roll-Outs” happen.
There are safety nets everywhere you look, but there also are little holes in these nets–just the right size for your hand and an iPhone.
Tip: You’ll need to get a free ticket with a specific time for entry, and you’ll do that near the north tower, around the corner from the main entrance. There’s a kiosk onsite for this, or you can use your smartphone while you sip wine at a nearby cafe.
Chicago in fewer than 48 hours still is exciting. Here’s how:
Lunch at The Purple Pig (a James Beard Award-winner). An afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the second-largest art museum in the U.S. It was hard to walk away from Monet’s Wheatstacks in any season. Dinner at Sepia. They do amazing things with okra here: The seeds were scraped out and picked and the pods julienned and flash-fried. That’s a rose made of orange rind floating in my delicious drink. Spend a few hours in the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center.