Georgeanne is in southern France where, as she says, even the simplest food is extraordinary. While she’s there, I’m taking the opportunity to write about food in the American South. Although my roots are in North Carolina, I’ve been visiting Birmingham, Ala., a city entirely a product of the post-Civil War period, the intersection of the North and South and Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad.
My daughter, Hatley Rose, is a junior at Birmingham Southern College, so I’ve come to eat in Birmingham quite a bit. Let’s begin with Niki’s West, a “steam table” restaurant right near the college.
At steam table restaurants, the men behind the glass partition serve you. “Meat and three veg?” they might ask. You select a meat, such as fried chicken or ribs, and side dishes, such as rice, greens (collards, turnip, kale), corn and beans. There are pole beans, field beans — some of which are called peas — butter beans, broad beans, lima beans and red beans.
You select a dessert, like pecan pie or chocolate chess pie. Chess pies are a Southern specialty that has a simple filling of eggs, sugar, butter and a small amount of flour. Chocolate chess pie tastes like brownies with a crust and gives “rich” new meaning.
You select a table, and the waitress asks you if you want sweet tea. At steam table restaurants, there is coffee, but no other kind of tea – just cold, sweet tea, pronounced kind of like this, really slowly, swwaaeeiitt taeeuuhh.
Then there are barbecue joints. When you grow up on Eastern Carolina barbecue, like I did, there really is no other kind of sauce than vinegar-based, and the pork is pulled. Hush puppies are a regulation side, along with Brunswick stew. In Birmingham, none of this is the case. I can’t get used to the tomato-based sauce or the different sides, like potato salad. I’m going to keep trying.
Early in a food lover’s research, one finds Frank Stitt III, the owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant and Chez FonFon (my favorite) in Birmingham. He was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage” in 2011. An Alabama native who attended UC Berkeley, he worked his way into the kitchen of Alice Waters, the owner of the iconic Chez Panisse.
I always make room for the coconut cake, another classic Southern food, at Chez FonFon, the recipe for which is in his book, “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.” Stitt has influenced many chefs in his kitchens (wife Pardis runs the front of the house) who now have their own restaurant, and who adhere to the philosophy of using fresh ingredients from local providers, including fishermen.
Fish restaurants are their own category. Alabama has a bit of the Gulf Coast. One of Stitt’s former chefs is Chris Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club, another favorite. There is Ocean, and its sassy little sister, 26. The tourist must-visit is The Fish Market, which is characteristic of the Greek influence in the area, but I haven’t been yet.
The Greeks came to work the iron ore mines of Red Hill, the basis of Birmingham’s industrial wealth and what gave it the name “The Magic City” as it appeared to grow out of nowhere from 1881 to 1920. My favorite Greek restaurant is Dodiyos, in Homewood, a little town just over Red Mountain from Five Points, where all the Stitt restaurants are.
Since I stay in Homewood, I have my favorite diner for breakfast a block from The Aloft Hotel. Salem’s Diner is a hole-in-the-wall with old-fashioned booths. I order the fried eggs, small cheese grits, bacon and toast. The owner — who strikes me as Homewood’s informal mayor as he knows everyone — brought out his mother’s pear preserves for me to try.
As for cafes, I like the old Irondale Café, in Irondale, another small town just outside of Birmingham. This café is the inspiration for Fannie Flagg’s novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” subsequently made into a movie of the same name, starring Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates. A Birmingham native, Flagg’s 2010 novel, “ I Dream About You,” about a former Miss Alabama, is a fun and a good way to learn about the neighborhoods of Birmingham.
My favorite shrimp and grits has its own story. The shrimp are fresh-caught, by a member of the Southern Federation of Cooperatives, which holds its annual event where the shrimp and grits are served at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I took Hatley here on our first visit so she would know what Birmingham has meant to my generation; I’ve now been lucky enough to see how it is changing.
Alabama agriculture, which ranks 27th in the U.S. for farm gate receipts, also has changed since the mid-1860s when cotton was king. The Birmingham farmers market, called Pepper Place Saturday Market, is seasonal (April through December). In the Lakeview district not far from downtown, you will find glorious grits, old-fashioned corn relish, pickled okra, Muscadine grapes, hams and vegetables, music and cooked foods to enjoy.
There’s so much more to share, but the rest will have to wait until the next time Georgeanne goes to the south of France. Southern food in America has come into its own … it is a story and cuisine, like that of Provence, deeply rooted in the soil and tradition.
Mary’s Chocolate Chess Pie
The first time I made this in California, people had never tasted such a thing and loved it. The recipe was given to me by my stepsister Mary Wynne, born and raised in Durham, N.C. She said it was from her Aunt Lizette.
1 cube margarine melted (not butter — I know this is strange, and you can try butter, but she always insisted it had to be margarine)
3 rounded tablespoons cocoa powder (let’s just add that a quality chocolate would be good here)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons flour
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs, slightly beaten
Putting it together:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix all of the ingredients together in a medium-size bowl. Pour into a single piecrust shell, unbaked (use your best pie crust recipe — or she said a frozen deep dish pie shell would be fine if you’re in a hurry).
Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until done, right after the pie has risen, and a toothpick or knife inserted comes out clean. The pie will rise almost like a soufflé and form a crust on the top. Let cool for 10-15 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature.
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are co-authors of “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012). Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans and Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm-fresh food in school lunches. Reach them at [email protected]