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Savoring southern cooking in north Alabama

BY JOHN BLANCHETTE Modified: October 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm •  Published: October 15, 2012
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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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