Fox 6 Books: September

Local flavor, y’all! Reading close to home with books by Alabama writers and another about a worldwide, homegrown topic. Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month.

The Speckled Beauty (on sale September 21) by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg has the amazing ability to tell stories that touch our hearts. He always has.  His books like All Over but the Shoutin’ and the more recent Best Cook in the World draw the reader in with just the right mix of tenderness and toughness and honest humor. He tempers sorrow with laughter, and somehow, we’re different and better when we put down his books. He’s back with a book about a dog, and it’s another winner. The Speckled Beauty:  A Dog and his People, Lost and Found goes on sale September 21. It’s a warm and laugh-out-loud funny story about how Bragg’s life was changed by a poorly behaved, half-blind stray dog “an illegitimate Australian shepherd” who wandered onto his rural property. He named the dog Speck. It seems Speck, who likes mayonnaise sandwiches and chasing all livestock, showed up exactly when Bragg needed … something. And so, this is the story of two damaged creatures who help each other heal.

Sweet Potatoes:  Roasted, Loaded, Fried, and Made into Pie by Mary-Frances Heck

Oh, the humble sweet potato! Is there nothing it can’t do? Apparently not, as Mary-Frances Heck, senior food editor at Food & Wine, shows us. Sweet Potato Ice Cream? Yes. Sweet Potato Galette with a just-cooked egg on top? Consider it done. Sweet Potato Leaf and Fava Bean Stew? Why not?

Some 60 bold and delicious recipes take us from appetizers to sides to dinner to dessert—and the flavors are from all over the world. Shrimp and Sweet Potato Kakiage is a Japanese dish; Huevos Rotos is Spanish; there’s Irish Fish Pie with a topping of sweet potato puree; Thai-Style Noodle Curry is an exotic way to up your sweet potato game. (A trip to the farmers’ market AND the fabulous markets on Green Springs Highway is in order; you’ll find everything you’ll need.) Some dishes will be more familiar.  There are sweet potato fries here and sweet potato chips and sweet potato biscuits. There’s even a sweet potato “Big Mac.” What’s more, Mary-Frances guides cooks in a conversational way that is comforting even before you put your comfort food on the table. 

Family Law by Gin Phillips

I’ve followed Gin Phillips for years now. Her first novel, The Well and the Mine, remains one of my favorites. It won the 2009 Barnes & Nobel Discover Award. And once, in a train station in Germany, I saw a poster for her book Fierce Kingdom, and I was just so immensely proud of this Birmingham writer! Her latest novel, Family Law, is just as well written and compelling as the others. It’s set in Alabama in the 1980s and follows the career of a young lawyer named Lucia who is making a name for herself at a time when women were more likely to be the ones represented—not the ones doing the representing. Lucia spends her days helping women and children get free of troubling relationships, and her work is not without its perils; she receives plenty of threats. One day, a teenage girl named Rachel, whose mother is divorcing, comes into Lucia’s office. Rachel is captivated by Lucia and her ability to successfully move in what is essentially a man’s world. The young girl sees a path for herself in what Lucia is doing with her life. But then the violence of a threat made good puts Rachel in danger, and Lucia has to decide exactly how much her work means to her. (The novel is inspired by the real-life career of a highly successful woman attorney from Birmingham.)

The Unlikely World of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:  Solidarity Across Alabama, the United Kingdom, and South Africa By Cole S. Manley

I spoke to Ambassador Andrew Young a few months ago, and he told me a story. He said he had told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the movement, “We probably will die before we are 40. But if we don’t, it’s up to us to change the world.” This book, published by the Montgomery-based NewSouth Books, looks at the global influences and lasting impact of the 1955-56 mass protest in Montgomery that many historians consider to be the start of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Cole Manley is a PhD student in History at the University of California, and he takes a world view of a movement that started here. He researches how the Black Montgomery boycotters thought about their movement as it relates to international struggles—from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the anti-color bar battles in the United Kingdom. Because what happened in Montgomery reverberated throughout the world. The Montgomery bus boycott was about much more than fair seating, of course. It remains an example of the power of protest and still inspires people in the ongoing struggles for racial and economic and social justice.

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.

Alabama Chef Competes on National Stage

Chef Scott Simpson, who brings a global approach to dishes at The Depot in Auburn, will be representing our state at the 17th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. The winner of this event will hold the title of King or Queen of American Seafood.

The competition is set for Saturday, August 7 in New Orleans, and Chef Simpson is ready.

“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”

I spoke to Chef Scott for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the complete story here.

In 2018, Simpson placed second at the 4th Annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. This past June, he took first place at the state competition, which led him to New Orleans where he will compete against 12 other chefs from around the country.

In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans. 

“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”

This is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Chef Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang BBQ sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.

His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that. 

Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School, (the first English language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.  

Then he ventured even farther afield. 

With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world— from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamacia and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become Executive Chef & Culinary Educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn), and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot. 

Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Chef Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in the state of Alabama. So, he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.

During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped Champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood) KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Chef Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.

Decerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal—on a stage or in the dining room. 

“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the far front of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you—quickly moving—that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.

“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”

Photo by Tristen Cairns

Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors, almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”

Perhaps a teacher at heart—and most certainly a lifelong learner—Chef Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation. … so, she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores).  … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour timeframe are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.  

“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel—because of a lot of preparation—no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team—front and back of the house—who’ve done such a great job to develop us. 

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds, “it’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So, I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”

Fox 6 Books: August

Let’s hit the books! A learning frame of mind is a great place to be, and we’re never too old for it! Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month–a great work of historical fiction, a cookbook designed for young people headed off to college, a guide to meditation and a thoughtful work of fiction. 

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

This beautiful work of historical fiction from Kristin Hannah is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s timely in an alarming way.  So I think it’s a must-read. Set in Texas and then California during the years of the devastating Dust Bowl era, the story follows Elsa Wolcott who marries a man she hardly knows and ends up living with him and his parents on the family farm. It’s 1921 in Texas, and the bounty of the land is plentiful. By 1934, though, things are different. Millions are out of work; a drought has left the farm in ruins; dust storms pummel the plains; and Elsa’s husband, Rafe, just walks away. Elsa, in an effort to simply keep her children alive, heads to California with its promise of jobs and security. It’s a false promise, but Elsa—facing challenges she never imagined—finds an inner strength she never knew existed.  In the end, The Four Winds is a lovely tribute to the indomitable spirit of women of The Greatest Generation and how they held their families together in the most dangerous and dire circumstances. This is not an easy book to read. Hannah’s WWII-era The Nightingale was more of a page-turner. I say read both. 

The 5-Ingredient College Cookbook:  Easy, Healthy Recipes for the Next Four Years & Beyond by Pamela Ellgen

Most college students are short on time, money and counter space. This cookbook with more than 100 easy-to-follow recipes—requiring five or fewer affordable ingredients and taking about 30 minutes to cook—can help instill healthy eating habits and hone lifelong kitchen skills. The recipes are varied—classic French toast, vegan enchiladas, Greek pita sandwiches, Thai chicken ramen and more. Young cooks can brush up on fundamental cooking skills with tips and techniques things like on knife safety and food storage. What’s more, most of these student-approved recipes include alternate versions to accommodate a variety of tastes and diet requirements. 

Practicing Mindfulness:  75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Mental Health and Find Peace in the Everyday by Matthew Sockolov

In these continually stressful times, mindfulness is more important than ever. Mindfulness is an evidence-based way to reduce stress, enhance resilience and maintain mental well-being. So why aren’t we all practicing it? All the time? This book gets you past any excuses with gentle, practical guidance. The 75 mediations are of various lengths; some meditations are designed for specific situations or emotions, and Sockolov also offers tips on how to handle wandering thoughts and mental blocks. The early meditations here take just five minutes (science shows us that even short meditations can turn a day around). Then the exercises grow with the reader’s experience, building on previous lessons to cultivate a regular and transformative mindfulness practice for a calmer, more balanced life. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a powerful work of fiction about knowledge and lose and the fragility of innocence. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grew up at Hailsham, an exclusive and secluded boarding school in the English countryside, where they were constantly reminded of how special they are. Now, several years later, Kathy is a young woman, and her work reconnects her to Ruth and Tommy. This stirs memories of old hurts as well as moments of happiness—and they begin to realize the horror of what it is exactly that makes them special. Ishiguro is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day. His newest work, Klara and the Sun, reminded me how much I enjoy his stories. 

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.

Fox 6 Books July

Summer is far from over! Here’s a book of poetry by a local father-son team, a perfect beach read, a summer-ready cookbook and an informative book about food for kids. I featured these today on WBRC-Fox 6.

Illusions:  Poetry & Art for the Young at Heart

by Charles Ghigna with illustrations by Chip Ghigna

Charles Ghigna, our own beloved Alabama author who often goes by the name “Father Goose,” teamed up with his artist son, Chip, for an especially beautiful book of poetry. Through thoughtful words and fanciful black and white images, they create a dream world that is anything but black and white. The poems and pictures blur the lines between imagination and reality in a way that is inspirational and heartwarming and even funny. 

Art

Art is undefinable,

A mystery of creation

Inspired by a pigment

Of your imagination.

The father-son collaboration is magical—sort of like how family members can harmonize better and more naturally than singers who are not related.  Charles’s poetry is accessible, as always, which I enjoy. There’s truth in his poems. And Chip’s illustrations are spare, yet thought-provoking. A perfect pairing. 

The Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion

I’m a little late to the Rosie situation. The Rosie Project was published in 2013 and there have been two other installments since then:  The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result. I must say, I thought there would be a film before any sequels; The Rosie Project is a very visual read. This international bestselling rom-com of a book is about a genetics profession named Don Tillman who is absolutely brilliant but socially challenged. He’s looking for love and approaching it as a scientific project. He designs The Wife Project, complete with an exhaustive, 16-page questionnaire, that he hopes will lead him to a life partner. Smokers, drinkers and late arrivers need not apply. Then, by chance, he meets Rosie Jarman who has all three of these “flaws.” Don quickly disqualifies Rosie for The Wife Project but is intrigued by her quest to discover her biological father. So, he embarks upon The Father Project, and his world is quickly turned upside down by the unpredictable Rosie.  The book is laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming and just plain fun. Don discovers that sometimes, despite the most diligent search for love, it sometimes finds you.

Summer, a Cookbook:  Inspired Recipes for Lazy Days and Magical Nights

by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson

Americans are ready to share dinner and drinks and lunches and brunches with friends and family. No doubt about that. This brand-new cookbook offers delicious, easy-to-follow instructions on how to do that. More than 100 seasonal recipes here advocate going with the flow (and not turning on the oven if it’s just too darn hot out). Even though the spotlight is on ease, the ideas are inspiring. Consider Spicy Pineapple Spears and Landlubber’s Lobster Rolls for your next beach picnic. Gather at the lake for Grilled Shrimp Louie salad. Host a paella party. There are tiki cocktails here as well as a Five-Minute Frosé. And you’ll even find tips on building a beach firepit. Welcome to the rest of your delicious and fun summer!

There’s No Ham in Hamburger:  Facts and Folklore About our Favorite Foods

by Kim Zachman with illustrations by Peter Donnelly

This new book is about the history, science and geography behind lots of foods beloved by kids (of all ages). That said, this book is written especially for young readers ages 8-12. Burgers and fries, chocolate and chicken, peanut butter and ice cream and cold cereal, Chicken McNuggets and hotdogs. They are all addressed here in a way that’s playful and informative. 

Author Kim Zachman, from Roswell, GA, is a history buff and an advocate for kids reading for pleasure. 

“I wanted to write history for kids, and I wanted it to be really fun,” she told The Associated Press. “I was trying to think of ideas, and I was out walking my dog one day, and I was like, why is there no ham in hamburgers? I’d always kind of wondered that. That’s when I found so many great origin stories.” Even something as everyday as vanilla and chocolate are not so straightforward:

  • It takes four years for a young vanilla plant to produce a flower, and the flower lasts for just one day. 
  • The tropical trees grown for chocolate can’t handle direct sunlight, need rain year-round and take three to four years to produce blossoms that can only be pollinated by tiny flies called midges. Out of 1,000 flowers, just three or four will be pollinated and grow into seed pods, which take about six months to ripen.
  • Cacao seeds were so valuable that the Aztecs used them as money.

This hands-on history lesson includes some simple recipes and one science experiment—learn how to extract iron from fortified cold cereal. 

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.

An Epic Road Trip in the American West

In early June, after vaccinations and a year of no traveling, my husband, Rick, and I hit the road and headed out West to visit the five big national parks in Utah—Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. We also found some state park gems like Dead Horse Point near Moab and Snow Canyon near St. George. And we visited some amazing BLM locations like Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail and others where we hiked through colorful slot canyons—Little Wild Horse Canyon and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch. We added the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the end of our trip, because why not?

Several friends have asked for our itinerary, and I’m happy to share. We started in Moab, Utah, and made our way down the state and into Arizona. We set a fast pace (nearly 70 miles of hiking over 10 days), because I like to see “everything.” 

I’ll organize this trip by area, and you decide how many days to spend in each place. 

Here’s how to do what we did:

Moab—Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park with a side trip to Little Wild Horse Canyon

Canyonlands is huge! There are four districts—Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, The Maze and The Rivers. The Maze is the least accessible unless you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle (and are fully prepared for self-sufficiency). Next time we visit, we will hire a guide and a big vehicle to see the ancient, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in stone) in Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze district; this is some of the most significant rock art in North America.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is easily accessible and especially beautiful early in the morning.

On our visit this summer, we hiked the Island in the Sky district. We started with an easy, short walk to Mesa Arch, then hiked about 2 miles round trip to view the impressive Upheaval Dome (the crater is 3 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep and there are conflicting views about why it’s there) and finally, we hiked 2 miles out and back along the mesa’s edge to the Grand View Point Overlook (with amazing views the entire time). We arrived around 9 a.m. and spent an entire day at Canyonlands.

Arches is busy! Go early. Like 6 a.m. early. They were shutting down the entry gate mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and it’s always busy until they do. So go early, take your breakfast, take your lunch, take your snacks and extra water and make a day of it.

We started with a three-mile out-and-back hike to Delicate Arch where we had a breakfast Clif Bar and then waited in a very civilized and organized line to have our photo taken under the arch. The way it works, everyone takes a turn, and you can get a good photo of the arch (with no people!) as one group leaves and the next comes up. Timing is everything at Arches!

There’s some cool Ute rock art near the beginning of the hike to Delicate Arch. Then we drove to Double Arch (just stunning!) where we parked once and saw a lot. We spent some time under the connected arches and then walked across the big parking lot where we hiked a primitive trail to see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.   Don’t miss Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world; this hike is 2 to 7.2 miles, depending upon how you do it). We started at 5:45 a.m. and spent an entire day at Arches.

Dead Horse Point State Park is near Canyonlands and is especially pretty at sunset. Go early (before tour buses arrive) and get a spot on the terrace just below the lookout point so you’ll not have other people’s heads in your photos. Then look to the rocks as the setting sun makes them glow with vibrant reds and oranges and pinks. The Colorado River snakes through the canyon 2,000 feet below. It’s a magical way to end the day. This park, a Dark Sky Park, sometimes has ranger-led stargazing events.

Where to Stay:

We rented a VRBO condo on a quiet side street near the busy downtown area of Moab (with lots of off-road vehicles on the road, it’s kind of like a scene from Mad Max). Our little unit was beautifully decorated, (loved the nice linens and custom sinks!) ideally located (out of the fray) and perfect for two.  Our host, Kimberley, offered an informative, insider’s guide to the area and helped us make the most of our time in Moab.

What to Eat:  

Y’all know I love a street taco picnic!

Get street tacos and elote at Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop in Moab (there’s a drive-thru) and go to Dead Horse Point for a sunset picnic; for a fancy dinner go to Desert Bistro (reservations required); Moab Brewery has burgers and nachos, and Johnny’s American IPA, Juicy Johnny’s Hazy IPA and the Dead Horse Amber Ale all are delicious.

Don’t Miss:  

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, sunrise or sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches, sunset at Dead Horse Point, stargazing at any of these International Dark Sky Parks

Little Wild Horse Canyon started our obsession with slot canyons. This one is suitable for all ages.

On the way to Capitol Reef National Park, we stopped off at Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park. Little Wild Horse is a fun slot canyon that’s suitable for just about anyone (including kids). There’s a trailhead (with a toilet and a good map), and the slot is easy to find. It’s narrow enough to know you are in a slot, but it’s not so narrow that it’s uncomfortable. And the colors are amazing!

It widens into a larger canyon and you can continue to a longer loop or turn around and come back the way you came.  Plan to spend 2-3 hours here.  NOTE:  Slot canyons are off-limits if there has been recent rain or if there is a chance of rain anywhere nearby; they are prone to deadly flash flooding.

We also visited Goblin Valley State Park, and although its hoodoos, like the iconic Three Sisters above, are significant and impressive, we didn’t stay long. The trails are not well marked at all; there were several frustrating moments when the trails just seemed to disappear. The one we did manage to stay on was like hiking through a sandcastle, and hiking through a sandcastle is not that much fun.

Torrey—Capitol Reef National Park with a side trip through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

You can see much of beautiful Capitol Reef simply driving through it, but this park with its cliffs, canyons, domes and natural bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles), is a hidden gem. An 8-mile scenic drive features breathtaking views, and there are 15 day-hiking trails here. Make sure to stop at the petroglyphs just off the main road near the visitor station. We did a moderate, 2-mile out-and-back hike to Hickman Bridge to get a feel for this lesser-known park, and we saw a golden eagle here.

You’ll want to be at Capitol Reef for sunset; it’s amazing. Then come back to anywhere in this International Dark Sky Park for some of the best stargazing you will ever experience. You can easily see this park in one day or even a half day.

Where to Stay:  

Red Sands Hotel and Spa in Torrey

What to Eat:  

Wingstrands for farm-fresh food; we got takeout to eat during sunset

Don’t Miss:  

Sunset at Sunset Point, stargazing anywhere in the park, the petroglyphs just east of the visitor center

Highway 12 and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Take the amazing, winding Scenic Byway 12 (UT-12) or just “Highway 12” to get from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. This All-American Road is more than 122 miles long, and it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You travel through a diverse and beautiful and rugged landscape of arches, mountains, slickrock canyons, red rock cliffs, aspen and pine forests, mountain meadows, national parks, state parks, a national monument and quaint rural towns.

Part of Highway 12 crosses various parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers nearly 1 million acres of public lands. There are three distinct units here: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon. It’s so remote and rugged that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped! We went there looking for a few specific slot canyons and we found them down Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM Road 200).

If you are adventurous and in fairly good shape with a relatively small frame and not claustrophobic(!), visit Dry Fork Narrows and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is a true adventure! The slots are down 26 miles of dirt road, but you can rent a Jeep in Escalante that can handle the trip. 

Once at the trailhead, just getting to the slot canyons requires a two-mile hike along the rim and down some short cliffs and across desert dunes following well-spaced trail markers called cairns. Next time, we’ll take the Upper Dry Fork trail 1.5 miles through Dry Fork Narrows. But Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, with their tight and twisty, beautiful and wavy, red and purple walls, are your ultimate goals, and they are worth any trouble. (They require almost zero technical skill or know-how other than some rock-scrambling skills.)

I call this a “Dugas pass” after my favorite shoulder surgeon. #grateful

Peek-a-Boo is a tight slot that corkscrews back on itself. Your photos will be fantastic! The hardest part was just getting into this slot; you climb about 10 (challenging) feet up a dry fall to the entrance using shallow hand and foot holds (go at it sideways and chimney up by bracing with your back and your legs or have your strong hiking partner haul you up). After that, it’s just awesome in the truest sense of that word, as you twist and turn through what feels like an adult playground. At the end of Peek-a-Boo, you’ll hike across about a half mile of desert to get to Spooky, which is an even tighter slot that narrows to about a foot wide in spots.

People with smaller builds do better here … just saying. If you take your backpack, you’ll need to take it off and carry it above your head at times. There are some tricky parts where you must work out how to navigate around boulders or short descents (wear clothes you don’t care about; they might get torn) and there’s a knotted rope you’ll use to get past a 6-foot drop. Other than that, it’s just thrillingly narrow and very beautiful. We spent about 4 (truly delightful) hours here. We hiked about 6 miles total.

Here’s a link that tells you how to find these slots. For current conditions on any of the slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, or other hiking opportunities in, or along the Escalante River and its side canyons, contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499.

Tropic—Bryce Canyon National Park

This was my bucket-list location—really the reason I wanted to head West in the first place—and it was more spectacular than I ever imagined! There is nothing on earth quite like Bryce Canyon with its many thousands of colorful and ancient hoodoos and cliffs that range from white to pink to orange to deep red. Fun fact: Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent, but Bryce has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.

We did the 8-mile Fairyland Loop (more than 1,700 feet of elevation change) that offers views you simply cannot get otherwise. There’s some climbing along uneven trails; boots are best. You’ll hike to the bottom of the amphitheater and then up again on the far side of the park above another valley of younger hoodoos. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon; the colors are best early and late. We also hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop (clockwise) and came up Wall Street, which is a short, yet awesome, slot canyon with terraced steps leading out of it at the end. So impressive! (It’s closed during the winter months.) We spent an entire long day at Bryce and logged 14 miles of hiking. I’d recommend at least a day, maybe two.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in a little log cabin at Bryce Canyon Inn in Tropic (this is about 10 miles outside the park). You can stay in Bryce Canyon City just outside the park or, with luck and advance planning, at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon (reservations are limited).

What to Eat:

Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic kept us nicely fed for two days straight and didn’t mind that we ran in about 30 minutes before closing both days. There’s a fantastic coffee shop—Bryce Canyon Coffee Company—at the Bryce Canyon Inn with great espresso drinks and fresh pastries.

Don’t Miss:

Anywhere you look in Bryce is absolutely beautiful. Stop off at Fairyland Point near the park entrance when you first arrive for a preview of what’s to come. Do the full Fairyland Loop if you are up for an 8-mile hike (We did this counter-clockwise and took our time, and the entire hike with lots of picture taking took us about 5.5 hours); Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop trail (do this 3-mile loop clockwise so you come up Wall Street slot canyon), sunset at Sunset Point, the short Mossy Cave hike just outside the park proper, the scenic drive to Rainbow Point, which at 9,115 feet is one of highest points in the park. (Drive up and then stop at the overlooks on the way down to avoid cross traffic.) Make time for stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park. With the right timing and some luck, you can enter a lottery to go on a Full Moon Hike.

St. George—Zion National Park and Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op) and Snow Canyon State Park

First of all, Zion is a zoo right now. Especially this summer when all of America wants to go somewhere and lots of them decided Zion is that place. Several of the popular trails were closed when we visited because of a big rockfall, so that meant even more people on the ones that were open. We could only access these trails inside the park via shuttle service, and that meant long lines and overcrowded shuttles. (The park opens the Scenic Drive to private vehicles January to mid-February only.) And unless you have good parking karma, you’ll need to take a different shuttle service in the town of Springdale just to get to the park entrance. (Also, the town shuttle stops running before the park shuttle ends, so plan accordingly.)

When we hiked The Narrows, there were always at least 50 people right around us; there were probably 500 on the watery trail that morning; it felt like walking out of a college football game – except mostly in knee-deep water. We skipped Angels Landing and opted for the less-traveled Canyon Overlook Trail, which was wonderful. This is the only trail within the park you can drive to via the Scenic Drive (which includes a mile-long tunnel), but parking is very, very limited; we went late in the day. The drive is awesome with lots of pullouts for photos of the monumental mountains and cliffs and a that long, scary tunnel through the mountain and we saw a family of bighorn sheep on the mountainside. 

Even with the crowds, this park is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the the scale of it all! I understand why it’s so popular.

NOTE: If you hike The Narrows, rent some water shoes and a thick hiking stick from Zion Outfitter in Springdale just outside the pedestrian entry to Zion. You can do this online and pick up your gear the night before (after 4) or walk up after 4 the day before your hike to rent them or even walk up the morning you arrive if you’re not a planner. You’re welcome!

We skipped a second day at Zion in favor of some less-crowded destinations. Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op), pronounced: tumpee poo oop, in Santa Clara was a great way to spend a few hours. This family-friendly hike winds through through the desert, past the ruins of an Anasazi farmstead (built about 1,000 years ago) to the top of a hill where we climbed amongst a tumble of boulders to see (up close!!) some incredibly well-preserved ancient petroglyphs.

These were carved into the desert varnish on the rocks by Ancestral Puebloans. Lots of the art—from small bear claw images to snakes to bighorn sheep and geometric shapes—is quite accessible without bouldering; you can just walk along the rim trail and see plenty, but climb down to find them everywhere! We spent about 2 hours on this 3.5-mile out and back.

Snow Canyon State Park is awesome! We spent most of the day (with a break for lunch) at this colorful park with its red petrified dunes and red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs and black lava flows. The park is located in the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established to protect the federally listed desert tortoise and its habitat.

The trails are well-marked with signs and cairns, and you’ll line up a series of shiny silver metal markers attached to the dunes to navigate those huge formations. So smart!

There’s a short slot canyon here, and you can climb into lava tubes from an extinct volcano. The landscape at Snow Canyon is so interesting, and a hike though the sagebrush-scented desert dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by soaring red cliffs is lovely in so many ways. There were times, we were the only hikers as far as we could see.

Where to Stay:

It’s more convenient to stay in Springdale just outside Zion or at Zion Lodge inside Zion if this park is your main/only destination But if you want to explore more of this part of southern Utah, Washington/St. George would be a good central location. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Washington.

What to Eat:  

We had our first In-N-Out Burger in Washington, and we loved Mixed Greens in a Chevron station in Santa Clara. There’s every kind of food you could want in the town of Springdale outside Zion.

Don’t Miss:

At Zion, The Narrows and Angels Landing are the iconic hikes; the Canyon Overlook Trail is less traveled than Angels Landing and offers spectacular long views. Make sure to rent those water shoes if you do The Narrows. And take time for the Scenic Drive at Zion. Venture down into the fallen boulders at Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail. At Snow Canyon, walk through Jenny’s Canyon (the slot canyon) and hike those petrified dunes. Do seek out a lava tube or two and climb in, because why not? 

North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closer and less crowded (only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors go here) and the views are still spectacular. We spent a day here, starting with the short walk to Bright Angel Point and doing a 4-mile round-trip hike along the partially shaded Transept Trail, which winds up and down along the canyon rim and through the forest. We drove up to Point Imperial, which at 8,803 feet is the highest point in the park. 

We were lucky to be at the Grand Canyon for a star party. A star party! It was actually held at the Kaibab Lodge outside the park. Three amateur astronomers set up huge telescopes (20- and 22-inch mirrors) and we just rotated from one to the other in the pitch-black dark looking at deep-space objects like globular star clusters and distant galaxies. Our own Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky and the occasional meteor kept us entertained along with a small band (2 or 3 or 4 people; hard to say—it was dark) playing mysterious desert music/sounds. So. Much. Fun. Check with each park for night-sky programs.

Where to Stay:

Kaibab Lodge is just outside the park and we stayed in a small cabin. There’s lots of lodging inside the park, including cabins and the beautiful Grand Canyon Lodge, but reservations are somewhat hard to get; there’s a booking schedule; start planning now.)

Where to Eat:  

There’s a lovely restaurant at the park Lodge, you’ll also find a deli, coffee shop and a saloon with cocktails and lots of local beer. Kaibab Lodge offered a buffet of homestyle foods, and we especially loved the wings that they smoke for hours. Go across the street to the convenience store to get beer or wine and bring it with you to dinner.

Don’t Miss:

Just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the Grand Canyon Lodge verandah with a local brew and enjoying the views, the Transept Trail, the amazingly dark skies (with or without an actual star party), animal sightings (the bison are right on the side of the road)

One final thing: We ended our adventure at Hotel Luna Mystica, a vintage Airstream trailer hotel and starlight campground in Taos, New Mexico. We stayed in a cozy 1962 Airstream named Ralphie. All the trailers have their own fire pits and porches. It was the perfect way to finish our two-week trip of a lifetime.

Before you go:

  • Create an account at recreation.gov so you can reserve lodging and campsites, buy passes and gain access to ticketed events.
  • If possible, stay in the park where sunrises and sunsets and starry skies are just steps away. 
  • Follow the parks you’ll be visiting on Instagram for updates and news.
  • Buy a US Park Pass. It’s $80 and provides free entry to all National Parks and other federal recreational lands for a year and allows you to bring three other adults. (Children under 16 are always free.) If you’re going to see more than two parks, it’s likely it will pay for itself.
  • Download the NPS app and find the parks you’ll visit. You can download your favorites to access offline (that’s important, as cell service is spotty at best!).
  • Make sure you get the park’s “newspaper” in addition to the glossy guide when you enter (or go to the visitor center and get it when they open if you enter before the gate is staffed; the national parks are open 24 hours a day). The newspaper is your key to the best experience, allowing you to make the most of your time there. You also can access this newspaper for some of the parks on the NPS app.
  • Most of these are certified International Dark Sky Parks; plan your visit around a new moon if you like stargazing (sometimes there are ranger-led programs with telescopes) or go during a full moon for ranger-led night hikes (if possible, register ahead of time for these at recreation.gov).
  • Load up on sunscreen and water. Always have a gallon of water in your car.
  • Hiking boots are best (especially in Bryce); mid height is fine. In any case, make sure you have shoes with excellent traction; Utah is covered in what they call “slickrock” that’s often sandy, too. For some of the ranger-led programs, you have to actually show that you have proper shoes.
  • Hiking poles made many of these trails easier. I used Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking poles
  • I carried an Osprey Daylite backpack with a 1.5 liter water reservoir nearly all the time.

Hubbard’s Off Main is a Main Attraction in Oxford

Food brings people together. No question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in Historic Main Street Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.

Hubbard has served on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s 3-million-dollar revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a Designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market—with music and makers and food trucks and growers—that draws people from in town and beyond. 

Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.

I recently was one of them. I visited to write a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video from my partner Brittany Faush.

The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.” 

What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Company. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.

In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young—26—but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.

“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”

That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta.  There’s a burger and catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce rib eye and an 8-ounce filet, and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards. 

One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes, and cream. It is delicious. 

All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”

Hubbard’s also features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto, and Southern Comfort.  There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.

The restaurant itself, with its textured, century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food. 

It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger. “I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”

The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad M. Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.

Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of beautiful antiques including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of these things came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old ice box that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on Oxford’s City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces—one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant some eight years ago. 

The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on a small stage near the front door on Friday and Saturday nights. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says. 

She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area—Hubbard’s Out Back—to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make this happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.

Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, her community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week—or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and for some of the homeless people who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually would go for food.

There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.

Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here—from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”

Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.

Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and so has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.” There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main, and in the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market. 

Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. This kind of progress, she says, is exciting—and  great for her city.

Hubbard’s Off Main

16 Choccolocco St.

Oxford, AL 36203

(256) 403-0258

Hours

Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.

Dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Fox 6 Books June

Let’s go back to the future! We’ll travel forward and backward this month with compelling fiction for all agesthis first one is a prose poem narrative for young readers written by a local writer.

D-39 a Robodog’s Journey by Irene Latham

This dystopian, yet heartwarming, novel-in-verse is by local writer Irene Latham. It’s a fable set in a civil war-torn future U.S. in an imaginary place called Worselands, and things are pretty awful there. Real pet dogs have been outlawed, freedoms are being taken away, too, and violence is everywhere. One day, 12-year-old Klynt Tovis is restoring artifacts in her Museum of Fond Memories when an intriguing antique shows up—a D-39 robodog (the Dog Alive™ company named it that because dogs have 39 chromosomes).  As the war makes its way closer, Klynt and D-39 must undertake an epic journey to survive. 

Irene says, “When I started this book it was in free verse, with jagged lines. But as I kept tinkering with the story—the same way main character Klynt likes to tinker with the objects in her Museum of Fond Memories, (which was named after the iconic Reed Books in downtown Birmingham). I wasn’t satisfied. I could hear the story whispering to me to try something different … and when the poems settled themselves into prose poems, I knew it was exactly what the book needed!” She adds, “Writing this book was FUN. Poetry is a playground, and this book allowed me to explore. And I got to make up words… A LOT of words! Like greenseason (spring), deathstretch (war), joyslammed (happy) and quirkface (smile). There’s a Glossary at the end of the book, but you probably won’t need it, as context reveals their meanings.”

In addition to being an accomplished poet, Irene is a fantastic teacher. She offers these activities for her young readers:  Explore the Discussion Guide that includes activities across the curriculum—and “Poem-Friends” for D-39! Invent Your Own Robodog Activity Sheet, Create Your Own D-39 Junk Journal and Invent Your Own Words Activity Sheet.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

This is the brand-new, New York Times bestseller by the author of The Martian (which was made into a 2015 movie starring Matt Damon). In Project Hail Mary, a junior high school science teacher becomes an unlikely hero when Earth is threatened by a microscopic lifeform that is draining the Sun of its energy. Dr. Ryland Grace awakens from a medically induced coma lightyears from home—he’s alone on a spaceship except for the corpses of his two crewmates. As his memories slowly return, Dr. Grace realizes that the fate of his planet depends solely on him  … or does it? He soon discovers he has company in deep space. Full of cool facts and fun science, this page-turner of an interstellar adventure novel ultimately is a story of friendship and courage and redemption.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

This highly anticipated new novel did not disappoint. With three heroines and two timelines, this is a tale of poison and empowerment. In the twisted alleys of 18th century London, a dark apothecary shop caters to a certain clientele—women who need to get rid of the abusive, oppressive men in their lives. A shadowy figure named Neila compounds what they want—poisons of all sorts. Her business is steady and stealthy until her newest client—a precocious 12-year-old girl makes a grave mistake. Meanwhile, in the present day, an aspiring historian named Caroline is spending her 10th wedding anniversary alone in London, having discovered her husband was cheating on her. While looking for artifacts along the River Thames one day, she stumbles onto a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that took place in the city 200 years ago. Suddenly ,her life and those of the two women from long ago are intertwined in ways she never could have imagined.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

This is an older novel (2016), but it reads like it was written last year. Told in intimate first person, it’s a creepy, apocalyptic story of a young mother named Anna who is fleeing her cold and controlling and unfaithful husband, a successful businessman who is now running for public office. Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to a dingy motel in Maine so the three can appear as a normal, happy family for his campaign. But not much is normal here—certainly not Ned, who becomes more and more threatening, and unpredictable, not the other motel guests who are united by more than their desire for a relaxing seaside vacation, and not even Anna who has a history of hearing voices. When Ned’s efforts go from creepy to criminal, Anna begins to lose her grip on reality. The kindness of strangers is the only thing that will ultimately save her and her daughter. Millet is the bestselling author of a dozen award-winning books including A Children’s Bible.

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.

Lots of Things are Brewing at Bizarre: The Coffee Bar

Bizarre:  The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses.  The café, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.

I visited Bizarre for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video by my partner Brittany Dunn.

Bizarre was started in 2018 by two women, Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October of 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”

How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.

“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months. 

“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.” 

But that’s only a piece of it. 

To increase foot traffic—and get people back downtown—Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre. 

“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands—people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad—some of the best you could ever get—we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.” 

There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit.  “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.”  It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.

“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanali Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.” 

On the counter next to a stack of My Sweetheart Bakery’s enticing sweet potato cakes, you’ll find Will’s mama’s whipped shea butter and Tae Lee’s financial literacy board game called Game of Fortune:  Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt! 

Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke, Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night. 

Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership. 

Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.

“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”

Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. …  Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”

So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.

They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chow chow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls; and they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation. 

Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs—folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.” 

At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details. 

They serve locally sourced spirts like Redmont Distilling Co.’s Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin and Campesino rum. 

And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”

These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence—a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers—but they also keep Bizarre interesting.

“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.

“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.” 

The past year has seen Bizarre—and Harvill—take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses. 

A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied healthcare workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”

When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings. 

“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business—be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store—and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”

Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC. 

Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard, Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.  

“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, DC calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.” 

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December of 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses. 

Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.

“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar 

217 22nd St. N. in downtown Birmingham

205-538-7100

https://www.facebook.com/Bizarre.TheCoffeeBar

Hours

Monday—Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Sometimes, just depending, the party extends past 11 p.m.

(Grand) Mothers and Suns and Stars

Here’s what I shared on WBRC Fox 6 this month. A hot-now cookbook that celebrates grandmothers, brand-new fiction, an older but important book to read right now and a new children’s book about stars. It’s a lot!

In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen

The subtitle of this cookbook—The recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean—tells readers we are in for a lot of tasty treats and some armchair travel with a side helping of enduring wisdom. Hassan is a Somali chef, and together with renowned food writer Turshen, she gives us 75 home-style recipes and engaging stories gathered from bibis (grandmothers) from Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar and Comoros. With personal narratives and beautiful photos shot on location in their homes (some still live in Africa; others left during difficult times and now live in the U.S.), these women share recipes (and the stories behind them) that have been handed down through generations. The easy-to-follow recipes for things like kicha (Eritrean flatbread), matoke (stewed plantains with beans and beef), kachumbari (tomato, cucumber and onion salad) and even straightforward mango chile sauce will expand your culinary horizons, and these women and their stories will touch your heart. 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This brand-new book is the eighth novel published by the Nobel Prize-winning British author of The Remains of the Day. It’s set in a dystopian future where some children are genetically engineered (“lifted”) to excel academically. All learning is online, so to provide social interactions, wealthy parents buy their children an Artificial Friend (AF). This story is narrated by one such AF, Klara, who becomes a friend for a girl named Josie. Klara is very observant and intelligent even though her worldly experience has been limited to what she could see outside the store window. As a solar-powered machine, Klara is always aware of the sun (which she refers to as He and considers a living, conscious entity with the ability to heal). When she realizes that the lifting process is a dangerous one (Josie’s sister, Sal, died and Josie herself is quite sick), Klara decides to enlist the sun’s help to heal her friend. This book is profoundly moving. And it ultimately asks the important questions, “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to love?” The answers might surprise you. 

The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkson also is the author of the No. 1 bestselling book Caste:  The Origins of our Discounts. In this older (2010), beautifully written and equally important book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author chronicles the decades-long migration of Black Americans who fled the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life for themselves and their families. From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million people made this journey, and this exodus changed the social and economic face of America. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people, researched official records and mined new data to bring this important part of our history to light in a way that is dramatic and hard to put down. The story is told, with stunningly intimate detail, through the lives of three people:  Ida Mae Gladney, who left sharecropping in Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago; George Starling, who in 1945 fled the orange groves of a horrifyingly violent Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, who, in the early 1950s, left Louisiana for California to pursue a successful medical career (he was the personal physician to Ray Charles. Wilkerson traces their exhausting, frightening journeys across the country and then their lives where they landed—where they and other transplants like them changed those cities with their culture, food, faith, hard work and personal drive for a better life.

The Secret Life of Stars (on sale today, May 4!) by Lisa Harvey-Smith with illustrations by Eirian Chapman

The stars, they are just like us! Stars, nebulae and other deep-space phenomena take on personalities and human-like emotions and frailties in this new book for young readers. The author easily explains, in a fun and engaging way, why the sun produces heat and light, what happens when a star blows up and even the secrets of black holes. It’s astrophysics for everyone; and that’s the book’s subtitle. As Harvey-Smith, an award-winning astronomer, writes, “… we see stable dwarf stars, unpredictable giants and many in between. We see kind stars, devious stars, selfish and just plain weird stars. … Some live in families … yet many destroy their relationships. … During a midlife crisis, a star can disappear completely, or reincarnate in a colorful cloud of gas. Stars are born and they age, just like us, before slowly succumbing to the inevitable, their ashes returned to the cosmos.” 

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.

Yo’ Mama’s only Alabama restaurant to receive James Beard Foundation grant

Yo’ Mama’s, a homegrown lunch and brunch place in downtown Birmingham, has long enjoyed a loyal local (and regional) following. Now the eatery has attracted some welcome, timely national attention, too.

Yo’ Mama’s is one of about three dozen restaurants around the country – and the only one in Alabama – to receive a James Beard Foundation (JBF) grant through the organization’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.

Crystal Peterson, co-owner and the general manager of Yo’ Mama’s, says they are thrilled with the grant. “It’s really cool to be included in something that is considered so prestigious in the food industry.”

These grants are part of JBF’s efforts to recognize and provide financial resources for food and beverage businesses that are majority-owned by Black or Indigenous people.

The foundation notes: “Black and Indigenous people often have portions of their cuisines and cultures appropriated, their hand in creating major American food and beverage items and dishes erased, and their images exploited and racialized to the benefit of their white counterparts. We recognize these facts and seek to highlight the merits and contributions of Black and Indigenous people.”

Fish tacos—grilled or fried—are served with Yo’ Mama’s signature POE sauce, salsa fresca and slaw. There’s a gluten-free corn tortilla option, too. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Peterson says one of the many contacts she’s made through the years forwarded an email to her about the grants. “I sent it to my sister, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just try out for it. You never know, but the fact that we are Black, and we are women-owned, we’re pretty much a double minority, and we may be able to get this thing. The least we could do is just try.’”

She says the grant money – $15,000 – will help cover payroll, but it’s more impactful than that. The additional money will help them help others.

“It’s gonna alleviate pressure on us on the financial side, sure. But it also frees you up to be creative. As a business owner when you’re stressed about the income and cash flow, it takes you away from other things. … By having that financial freedom, it helps us stay … involved in the community.”

Yo’ Mama’s employs women from Jessie’s Place as well as people with autism. They feed families at the Ronald McDonald House. They feed Birmingham’s homeless. “Street homeless,” Peterson says, “not just the homeless who stay in the shelters. We’ll go to the people who are actually street homeless.”

They also work with community-focused nonprofits. “It’s hard enough for the 501(c)(3)s in the area already,” Peterson says, “because so many businesses are seeing losses, they’re not spending money on the giving side. Because they already have so much loss, they don’t have it to give. So, we still try to stay active in those things because we know that they need the money now more than ever.

“We firmly believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Every time we are given something, we definitely give back.”

The grants are part of the JBF commitment to be more inclusive overall, and “to recognize, celebrate and support the efforts of all types of food and beverage businesses, not just those that have been acknowledged for decades at the James Beard Awards.” This includes lunch places like Yo’ Mama’s as well as pop-up supper clubs, food trucks and brewpubs. “In speaking with the foundation,” Peterson says, “they’re saying that they’re about to change how they award the James Beards; it doesn’t have to be fancy food anymore. They’re going to try to actually include all genres of food that are just good food.”

Yo’ Mama’s has been in business since 2014, when Crystal, along with her father (who does the finances) and her sister (who handles the website, digital media and online interface) helped her mom, Denise Peterson, realize a longtime dream of owning a restaurant. The place was popular from the get-go. They specialize in homestyle cooking with Southern roots and are perhaps best known for their fried chicken and waffles and the daily specials that, Peterson says, are dishes her mom cooked for the family when she was growing up. With the exception of a few Meals of the Day, everything is gluten-free or has a gluten-free option.

But there’s more than that at Yo’ Mama’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Yo’ Mama’s is the fried chicken wings with Belgian waffles. The waffles are topped with homemade syrup and fresh fruit or not. Photo by Tan Crowder.

“We have a lot of people who think that all we sell are soul foods,” Peterson says, “because most of the time, when it comes to Black people, we only are referred to as ‘soul food.’ But I always tell people, ‘It depends on where your soul goes.’ Because, if you want tacos, we’ve got it. If you want shrimp and grits, we’ll take you to a little bit of New Orleans. We got it. Where’s your soul going? We can take you there.”

Yo’ Mama’s is currently open for curbside pickup and takeout, with some seating outside. Peterson says during the pandemic, they did research and started using vented to-go boxes so the food travels well whether you pick it up yourself or use a delivery service.

According to JBF, the fund uses the most recent census data to help disburse grants equally across Black and Indigenous populations throughout the United States. The foundation identified six regions of the country, each containing 16% to 17% of the total Black and Indigenous population in the U.S. Yo’ Mama’s received its grant in the second round of funding; other recipients in the region that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma were Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine and Food Friends Catering, both in Florida.

The grants are part of the JBF Open for Good campaign, launched in April “to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient when it re-opens post-COVID-19.”

The aim is to lift up Black and Indigenous business owners within the food and beverage industries during these difficult pandemic times and keep supporting them moving forward so they can survive – and thrive – into the future. To that end, JBF is enlisting other organizations and industry experts to provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts.

“What James Beard found out is that money is not the biggest problem; sometimes it’s education,” Peterson says. If you can educate and finance at the same time, you can really help people cope with something like going from 200 customers one day to 20 customers the next, she adds.

Peterson says her family has been thinking about franchising Yo’ Mama’s and expects that the various Zoom meetings, forums and expert advice offered by JBF can help make that dream a reality.

“It helps when you know that information,” she says, “when you’re trying to make a deal versus letting a lawyer talk you to your deal.” Peterson is looking for guidance on a business model that best suits their homestyle, gluten-free niche. “Between all the contacts they have and the mentorship I can gain from them, they also connect you with other business owners who are chefs or people that are in the business areas – not necessarily the food side. And they also have help with the food side … recipes, calorie counts … all the kinds of things you are required to have as a franchise.

“We’re ready to get all the information, because I’m ready to start negotiating contracts to franchise.”

The JBF grant Yo’ Mama’s received is a kind of personal affirmation, too, Peterson says.

“To me – to us – it’s really just a blessing. And we know that we’re running our business right simply because we keep getting blessings. … It’s just awesome.”

For more info about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/investment-fund.


Savory shrimp and grits is a mixture of cheesy grits (cheddar, Asiago and cream cheese), fresh shrimp and spicy sausage. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Yo’ Mama’s
2328 2nd Ave. N.
Birmingham, AL 35203
205-957-6545

Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Twice-monthly brunch (the second and last weekends each month) will resume in June.

Yo’ Mama’s is on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Yelp.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.