Like the old song, I was "Alabama bound." Rather than taking the train, however, I flew into Huntsville to start my tour. The state is celebrating its food heritage this year, and I tried as many of the culinary delights of Southern cooking as I possibly could.
I was traveling between Huntsville, the largest city by area, and Birmingham, 100 miles south and the largest city by population, to explore the region's rich history and culinary heritage. This is the end of the Appalachian Mountain range, and the area is hilly, unlike the southern delta region.
I was looking forward to sampling traditional Southern cooking — fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, fried fish, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, sweet tea and pork in all its forms, so I was surprised to learn how sophisticated the region's palates had become. Japanese, Mexican, German, French, Italian, fusion and multi-ethnic restaurants proliferate, and there are farm-to-table menus, great produce and exceptional cuisine produced by bold young chefs and seasoned professionals.
In Huntsville I enjoyed some of the best sushi appetizers I've ever tasted at Scene inside the Monaco Movie Theater, which offers adults-only dining and drinking while watching first-run films in luxury seats. Across the street is Goodwin Clark's Watercress restaurant, so named because Huntsville is the watercress capital of the United States. This is just part of the Bridge Street Town Center, a huge mall complex built around a landscaped lake.
Dinner was at Chris McDonald's Grille 29 in the nearby village of Providence, a popular steak and seafood restaurant.
The motto for Huntsville is "Rocket City," and the slogan "We've got space" is everywhere. Following World War II, most of the German rocket scientists were brought to Huntsville to develop rocket technology and begin the U.S. Space and Rocket Center under Werner von Braun. The popular Space Camp here is a major attraction with several full- size rockets that can be explored.
My introduction to fried green tomatoes and biscuits and gravy came at the Blue Plate Special the next morning. Then it was on to the botanical garden, 120 acres of plantings and waterways. I particularly liked the butterfly house, which has more than 2,000 flitting about and dining on their favorite flowers, the largest collection in the United States.
Another fun exploration is Constitutional Village, where period buildings are fitted with furnishings of the day, from print to woodworking shops, and gardens are planted with the vegetables that would have been available. This is where the state constitution was signed in 1819. Nearby is the Harrison Bros. hardware store, another preserved shop owned and operated by the Historic Huntsville Foundation.
The 100-year-old A.M. Booth's Lumberyard is Doug Smith's eclectic mix of old buildings, a hip saloon, abandoned locomotive, concert venue and art gallery in a funky and fun outdoor space. It's close to Huntsville Depot, where classic electric-powered streetcars are displayed.
Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Center, an artists' cooperative, was built inside an old cotton mill. The shops feature crafts created by the members, and theater and music performances are held throughout the year.
One of the city's most famous denizens, Tallulah Bankhead, was reared in the historic district across the street from Chef James Boyce's Commerce Kitchen. He led me on a walk through the district between his restaurants, Pane E Vino and Cotton Row. The food is seasonal, locally sourced and reflects the chef's French training. The wine list is superb.
Steven Bunner, the chef at 1892 East, sources his foods from local farmers using sustainable methods. He batters his shrimp with grits for a new take on an old combination.
The next day I had a pint at Below the Radar brewpub in the historic Times Building. Steve Below (hence the name) is the brewmaster. He offers a seven-glass tasting tray to try the full line.
I got fortified at Another Broken Egg before the brewpub. This is a local chain with a cottage atmosphere that serves an upscale breakfast at down-home prices. Lunch was at the massive, brightly decorated and popular Rosie's Mexican Cantina. I recommend trying the margaritas and purchasing a bottle of the chef's Spicy Taco Sauce.
On the way from Huntsville to Birmingham I made a "pit" stop in Decatur to have lunch at Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q restaurant, winner of last year's and several other years' Memphis in May pork barbecue competition, the most prestigious in the world. He also won for his white barbecue sauce made for chicken.
Nearby is Morgan Price Candy Co. and every kind of homemade candy and chocolate concoction imaginable. I tried the peanut brittle and pralines. They offer free tastes and a gift section with baskets in the shape of Alabama.
Next stop was Birmingham. In the Civil Rights District, Kelly Ingram Park is the center of activity. I walked across the expansive green to visit the Civil Rights Institute, an award-winning museum, memorial and archive center.
Nearby was the 16th Street Baptist Church, an organizational center where the Rev. Martin Luther King preached and where four young girls were martyred when the church was bombed in 1963. Other historic parts of the district include the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Fourth Avenue Business District, where enterprises owned by African-Americans prospered during segregation.
That morning I visited Jones Valley Urban Farms with chef Clayton Sherrod. This is five acres of vacant downtown property used to educate the community on the importance of fresh vegetables and eating properly. Volunteers work the crops, and it is a popular field trip for students.
I had breakfast prepared in the outdoor kitchen using some of the garden products. That afternoon the farmers market was in full swing at Pepper Place, an upscale section of town with a variety of shops and restaurants.
One of Alabama's largest crops is peanuts, and in the industrial section of downtown the 100-year-old Peanut Depot on cobblestoned Morris Avenue still uses the antique roasters to process the legumes. The boiled peanuts (also called "goober peas") are addicting.
The best ribs I tasted in my travels were at a local joint on the south side of town, Rib-It-Up. The meat was served with a nice smoky flavor, zesty sauce and great greens, cornbread and beans.
The Five Points Historic District has some exceptional restaurants that push the edges of modern cuisine. I had drinks on the outdoor patio at Chef Frank Stitt's Bottega and dined at his Highlands Bar and Grill and Fonfon. Exceptional service, attention to detail and lovely ambience are all trademarks of his restaurants. He trained at Alice Waters Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and in Provence and Burgundy, and he paid attention.
Up the hill is Chris Hastings' Hot and Hot Fish Club. A protege of Stitt, he also put in time in Northern California with Chef Bradley Ogden and recently gained fame by outpointing Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef." His restaurant is welcoming, and edgy dishes incorporate ideas from all over the world. Reservations are highly recommended but not necessarily honored. I dined on a night the chef wasn't in and had to wait for a table. The food was delicious but the service was slow.
Fanny Flagg, author of "Fried Green Tomatoes," grew up in Birmingham and I worked as her publicist for several years. In my first trip to Alabama, I finally learned what the Southern cooking and fried green tomatoes she had always mentioned were all about.
WHEN YOU GO
In Huntsville I stayed at the spacious Embassy Suites, which had fried green tomatoes, biscuits and gravy, and grits on the breakfast buffet: www.embassybirmingham.roomstays.com or 205-879-7400.
In Birmingham, I was at the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa, a castlelike property in the rolling hills outside Birmingham: www.rossbridgebrochure.com or 205-916-7677. Part of The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, it is the third-longest course in the world. A bagpiper in kilts drones in happy hour every day and provides phone wakeup calls. Brock's Restaurant offers a buffet breakfast and fried green tomatoes.
For further information, contact the Alabama Tourism Department, www.alabama.travel or 800-alabama (252-2262).
John Blanchette is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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