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

(334) 361-1020


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

Save the Restaurants We Love

I just got a text from my friend George Sarris who owns The Fish Market Restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. George’s restaurant has a special place in my heart.

When our kids were young, Rick and I had a weekly date night there. That was at the old place–the one that looked like a big styrofoam box. We’d crowd around a table with friends and strangers. It was not unusual for people visiting Birmingham from around the world to realize they knew someone at that table.

When George moved across the parking lot to his current location in a wonderful old warehouse with a custom bar and centuries-old timbers, my friend Lisa DeCarlo and I went with him and a small group to Greece (and then Lisa and I went to Turkey) to gather furnishings and decor (including genuine Greek fishing boats) for the place.

Our oldest child got her first job at The Fish Market and worked there as a cashier for years through high school and during summers home from college. To say she learned a lot about life there is a huge understatement.

Freshly shucked oysters and ice-cold local beer at The Fish Market bar are two of my favorite things in this world.

So, yes, this restaurant means something to me. And I’m not alone in this. So I want you to read what George sent me. Then do whatever you can to save the independent restaurants we love.

Here is George’s message in his own words:

Restaurants are the common ground of life in the United States. During my 50 years as a restaurant operator, I have watched customers grow up, get married, have kids, pass away – and now their kids are regular customers. If someone dies, gets married, has children, or a birthday party – we go to  a restaurant. In my home country of Greece, we have the coffee shop – the roundtable of the community – but here, it is restaurants. Not everyone likes to drink at bars, or dance in clubs, or even go to church, but everyone eats. If something happens to restaurants in the United States, then the way of life that we have come to cherish is at risk of changing irrevocably.

Without substantial help, I do not see 80% of independent restaurants surviving into 2021. 

My Name is George Sarris and I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 50 years. I immigrated through New York on April 1, 1969 from Tsitalia, a small village in the Greek Peloponnese. Our voyage was with the 2nd-to-last passenger ship that ferried immigrants to the United States from Europe.

My village consisted of mostly subsistence farming, and our 9-person household family struggled to make ends meet, with  5 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents. We had a “modest” house: 2 rooms reserved for the grandparents, parents, children, a bedroom for the goats and sheep, and the last bedroom was for our donkey and Truman, a Missouri Mule. 

Our mule was given to us under the Marshall Plan, a $700 million aid package provided by the United States to assist Europeans in the wake of World War II. There were 28 Missouri mules given to families in Tsitalia, and we named ours Truman. Most everyone in the village gave their mules American names. 

At the age of 12, the children left the mountainous village to begin high school in the plains down below. Our parents stayed above, tending to the small groves in the terraced rocky hills, while we lived amongst ourselves. By necessity, we were self-sufficient: cleaning, washing clothes, cooking,  all handled by kids no older than 15 . We were taught to take care of ourselves from a young age–as long as you can work, everything else will fall into place.  

At the age of 18, I started working in restaurants. I paid my dues in every position of the business. I worked a stint in New York to learn a little bit about delis, so I went with what I knew.  I opened a “Kosher Style” deli in downtown Birmingham. Of course back then in Birmingham, “Kosher  Style” might even include a little pork.  I have owned  restaurants for the last 48 years and have always applied the same model that I learned back then: work hard, keep cost low, and appeal to blue and white collar clientele alike. 80 hour work weeks are the rule, not the exception, and that remains true to this day. 

For the last 37 years I have owned The Fish Market Restaurant on the Southside of Birmingham. When we opened in 1983, there were 8 seats in the dining room; today there are 375. I have been fortunate to have a long-lasting restaurant, and it all goes back to what I learned in the beginning of my career: work hard, save your money, and be fair to customers. If you can do those three things, then you can make a living. 

For the first time in my life, that is no longer true. My business’ future is no longer in my hands. 

My son Dino has worked with me from the age of 9 years old. He is 32 and now, I don’t even know if the restaurant business will be for him over the next four decades as it was for me.   

The US employs over 11.5 million people via the restaurant industry, with countless others whose jobs are directly tied to the industry via farming, manufacturing, importing, shipping, transporting, etc. At the Fish Market, we employ some of the most marginalized in our community: those who have been afforded minimal education;  persons who have been previously incarcerated (and, in some cases, currently incarcerated), and those experiencing homelessness. These Birmingham residents can find a career at our restaurant.  And, more importantly, they can grow from that position. The restaurant industry thrives on giving people chances, and sometimes second (or third) chances. 

Additionally, independent restaurants are behind community events, fundraisers, helping local schools and churches, and any worthwhile cause. Because we are a big part of everyday life and we live among our customers. We stake our future in our communities. 

As an independent operator, I wear many hats with my staff: preacher, therapist, policeman, social worker, banker, and, above all, a friend. Personally, I see restaurants as a way to teach those of us, like myself, who grew up without some of the basics – personal hygiene, social etiquette, promptness, self control, and stress management. There is a learned art to keep smiling in the face of a customer who is having a bad day. It seems to me that if you learn these basic principles then you can handle most of life’s difficulties. 

So now, more than ever, our country’s independent restaurants need help. After Fish Market’s initial closure on March 17, we received the Payroll Protection Plan/CARES Act (PPP) money to cover 8 weeks of operational costs. We were able to pay all critical expenses:  rent, staff salaries, utilities, interest on existing loans, etc.. But, once that all was paid, we were back to square one. There was nothing left to keep the business going beyond those 8 weeks. The CARES Act did not address the actual problem that business owners were facing: the pandemic (and restrictions placed on businesses) were not going away anytime soon. 

The newly proposed “Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act”, seems, on its face, to have improved from the previous bailout. Businesses will have to show, through financial records, that their business is still being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the spring, numerous businesses receive grants who were thriving yet still remained eligible for huge amounts of money that could have helped those of us who are genuinely in a crisis. The P4 Act could provide funds to those who truly need it, and will allow us to keep our industry afloat through the end of the year. 

Truman, along with 28 other mules, was instrumental in the survival of our small mountain village in Greece. 70 years later, the community is still there, preserving the way of life that they hold dear. If the airlines, farmers, hospitals, bankers, carmakers, insurance companies, Wall Street, and multinational corporations can get a caravan of mules, when will the independent restaurant industry get theirs?

The restaurant business has never in the history of this country needed help from the government. We were able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to make it. This time, all we need from the government is a mule, and we can take it from there.

U-Pick Lavender

The u-pick opportunities in Alabama abound—strawberries, blueberries, sunflowers, muscadines, tomatoes, pumpkins and even Christmas trees. 

Now add fragrant lavender to that fun list.

Lavender Wynde Farm in Harvest, located in the rolling foothills north of Huntsville, is inviting the public to the farm to pick their own lavender Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. (The 10 a.m. to noon timeframe is filling up. They suggest visiting after lunchtime.)

There’s a Zen sort of vibe in the sunny, manicured fields of what owners Lora and Mike Porter call their “farmlet.” Some folks sit in chairs scattered around under a few shade trees while dozens of others kneel or sit in the grass next to knee-high plants quietly snipping the fragrant stems. 

When you arrive, you’ll be handed a pair of sterilized garden scissors (but you are encouraged to bring you own, which they will sterilize for you). They give you a small plastic sleeve with rubber bands. These sleeves will hold 100 to 120 stems. You’ll pay $10 for each bundle. You’ll be instructed how to dry your bundles of food-grade lavender (upside down in a cool, dry place for a few weeks). My bunches are making my closets smell amazing right now.

Lora Porter says, “growing lavender in north Alabama was a learning process.” Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, she explains, and it loves rocky soil. Our Alabama clay was too dense, so they learned to augment the soil with gravel and mound the plants for drainage. The long, beautiful rows of full, healthy plants, each bristling with hundreds of stems, is proof they’ve figured it out.

In addition to the u-pick opportunity, there’s a pop-up shop selling soaps and other bath and beauty products like body butters, lotions and sugar scrubs; essential oils; teas; and lavender-filled sachets. While they specialize in lavender, the Porters raise a variety of herbs and botanicals. They distill, on-site, many of the hydrosols and essential oils that are used in their natural, handcrafted aromatherapy products.

During the u-pick events, they will be distilling mint and lavender throughout the day, and they’ll have lavender lemonade for sale, too. Visitors can buy their own mint, rosemary and lavender plants (and they’ll even sell you bags of gravel to get those lavender plants started properly). 

Lavender Wynde Farm is at 492 Robins Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749. For logistical purposes, you should go to the Facebook page to let them know you are coming for the u-pick days. Or call 256-714-4144 and leave a message. Otherwise, visits are by appointment only. 

A few things to know:  Use the farm’s gravel driveway to enter. Do not use the neighbor’s driveway or cut across their grass for ingress/egress. And bring your own garden clippers/scissors if you have them; several of the farm’s scissors were lost during the first u-pick weekend. They will sterilize yours as you enter and leave. Finally, feel free to share photos of your lavender-picking adventure. Lora says that “makes all the weeding worthwhile.” 

Fresh Air

I know we’re all pretty much staying home, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But exercise is allowed and encourage and vital to both our physical and mental health.

Besides, “the mountain is calling.”

I’m talking about Ruffner Mountain, which has more than enough trails that you can practice social distancing while enjoying this beautiful day.

Image from Rick Swagler

Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain. That’s been the case for more than 40 years.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country. And it’s right here in our own backyard—mere minutes from just about anywhere in our metro area.  

Right now there are limited hours of trail and parking access–8:00am – 6:00pm Tuesday through Sunday. And access is permitted for the following: Residents of the City of Birmingham, Members (there is a $3 trail use fee, or you can explore other membership levels here) and Employees of a Business Member.

The Visitors Center is not open currently. The lovely Pavillion is closed, too. But all those miles and miles of well-maintained trails and the interesting industrial ruins you’ll find along the way, are available to you right now. So are the paths strewn with trilliums and the incredible, panoramic views of the city.

Image from Rick Swagler

You can appreciate the shifting shafts of sunlight dappling the forest floor through the branches of oak and hickory and sycamore trees all along your journey; take a break at Turtle Rock; and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry with limestone boulders embedded with fossils of brachiopods, bryozoans and crinoids (marine invertebrates from when this area was part of a shallow inland sea). 

Then you might also consider getting your hands on Mark Kelly’s fantastic book that celebrates this special place. Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain is a beautiful book about the vital connection between that land and our city and its people. 

Kelly says the book was more than a decade in the making. But it was worth the effort because this place is important. He writes:  “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

So get out there and explore the mountain. Simply go there and back, become a member or pay your trail use fee and be sure to observe the 6-foot rule.

You’ll be glad you did.

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


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.

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.)

Charleston Charm

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.

Breakfast the next day was French press coffee and a fresh, warm flaky almond croissant from Christophe Artisan Chocolatier and Patissier.

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.

Summer Edit Part 2: More Food and Drink and Life

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.

Shrimp a Different Way

Before we left for vacation, I made a batch of harissa with shrimp in mind. I had come across a recipe for Quick Broiled Shrimp with Harissa and Beer and felt it was absolutely necessary. Turns out it was.

I mostly followed the recipe from Serious Eats. Mostly. Here’s what I did to serve four:


  • 2 pound 16/20 shrimp, shell-on, deveined
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 bottle (12 ounces) beer, whatever kind you’re drinking
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 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.

Homemade Harissa Paste from Bon Appetit:

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.

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 the soup or use an immersion blender to make it smoother. 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.

I really have Frank Stitt and Miss Verba to thank for it. You’ll find the recipe in Frank Stitt’s Southern Table:  Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill. And I never ever go to the beach without it.

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.)

Easiest Daquiri Ever!

photo by Melinda Hammer for The New York Times

Here’s a simple yet absolutely delicious Santiago-Style Daiquiri recipe from The New York Times Cooking website. It’s based on Eduardo Corona’s recipe at El Traguito in Santiago de Cuba. You can read the entire story here.

There’s no blender involved. It makes one really great drink.


  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces white or three-year-old light rum
  • 5 drops maraschino liqueur (optional)
  • Lemon or lime slice for garnish


In a cocktail shaker filled with 1 cup crushed ice, combine the sugar, lemon or lime juice, rum, and maraschino, if using. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds.

Pour into a chilled martini glass.

Garnish with lemon or lime slice.

Odette is Destination Dining in Florence

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.

Read more about Odette here in my Alabama NewsCenter story.

Here are a few things you should know:

Odette serves elevated American fare in a comfortable, inviting setting (decades ago the space housed Kaye’s shoe store).

The food, Southern in nature with international influences, is made with locally and sustainably sourced ingredients.

Cocktails here range from traditional favorites like an old-fashioned to more modern concoctions (a watermelon mule), and sometimes things that are both (the “George & Tonic” gin-and-tonic slushy).

And Odette has one of the largest (if not the largest) bourbon collections in our state. Monday through Thursday, most of these bourbons are half price during happy hour.

44 Hours (approximately) in Asheville, NC

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.

Hole Doughnuts

168 Haywood Road

Asheville, NC 28806

(828) 774-5667

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.

Next stop:  Lexington Glassworks, where we saw a demonstration and bought a few colorful things.

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.

Chai Pani

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
Closed Mondays
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!

Mississippi Tamales and More, Thanks to a Los Angeles Mariachi Band

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.