I am not from Alabama. When I first moved here from Massachusetts, I thought there would be nothing to eat. So I came prepared. I crossed the state line with a survival kit containing: A huge hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; chocolate babka from a Jewish bakery in Boston; bresaola, prosciutto and other charcuterie; sun-dried tomatoes; jarred roasted peppers; Italian honey; vanilla beans; Turkish peppers; and a half-case of lambic. (A note about the chocolate babka: Most of it actually did not cross the state line. It was consumed before.)
It so happens that I arrived in Alabama in early summer, when tomato season was just beginning to peak. What I could never get my fill of in Boston was good tomatoes – tomato season in Massachusetts feels like it lasts just one week. I soon discovered flavorful Alabama-grown heirloom tomatoes at Birmingham’s Pepper Place Market and ate them for dinner every night for a week. It wasn’t long before I slurped the juice of my first Chilton County peach.
I discovered there is food – good food! – in Alabama.
Since then I have enjoyed more: McEwen & Sons eggs and grits. Cheeses from Wright Dairy and Belle Chevre. Local honey. Organic whole milk from Working Cows Dairy. Fresh pinto beans sold by a woman named Linda at Pepper Place Market – she says once you’ve had them, you’ll never go back to canned or dried. (She’s right, and I’m hooked.) I walk the farmers markets on weekends to take my pick of lettuces, peppers, peaches, melons, berries, okra, corn, sweet potatoes, breakfast radishes, tomatoes, herbs, jams, summer squashes and their edible blossoms, chickens, beef, pork and more – all produced in Alabama. Recently, I had the fortune of getting a beautiful head of cauliflower grown in Chandler Mountain. And there are two local beer breweries in downtown Birmingham. (I’m not missing the lambic.)
People think Southern food is all about pies, tall and multilayered cakes, sweet tea and fried everything. It’s a stereotype that blinds people – that blinded me! – to the beautiful truth: The climate we enjoy, and the men and women who work so hard in the fields, grow very good food. Southern food is very much about a wide variety of produce that is ripe for long seasons, grown at a local farm or even in our backyards. Southern food is about sharing, celebrating, and preserving what nature bears.
Beyond the food, I have discovered a comforting food culture in Alabama. My first fine-dining experience in Birmingham was at Hot and Hot Fish Club. Some friends had invited me to meet them. I reached the front door, announced that I was joining a party of friends, and Idie Hastings gave me a big hug in welcome, as if she were my dear aunt and we hadn’t seen each other in years. Honestly, how many restaurants have you been to where the chef’s wife welcomes strangers with a hug?
Warmth permeates Alabama’s food culture, from top to bottom. The wait staff at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill is personable, impeccably professional and the best I’ve experienced anywhere. I’ve seen people pull together to help local farms get back on their feet after damaging ice storms and tornadoes. I’ve joined friends and strangers in bringing food from our home kitchens to a shelter to feed those who are homeless. And we are slowly growing a community of bloggers and writers to celebrate Alabama’s food and the food of the South, and the people who produce, cook and enjoy it.
When famed British chef Marco Pierre White visited Alabama and asked, “What’s grits?” I made sure he did not leave the state without a bag of McEwen & Sons Stone Ground Organic Yellow. There is good food in Alabama, and whether you are Alabama born and bred or just passing through, it would be a shame to miss it.
Shaun Chavis is a cookbook editor for Time Home Entertainment Inc., and co-founder of FoodBlogSouth and the Birmingham Eat Drink Read Write Festival. She has a master’s in gastronomy and a certificate in culinary arts from Boston University.
The views expressed here are those of the author.