Farewell, kudzu country


Southern fare has grown on me, much like the invasive Japanese vine that slowly but steadily has covered the South,

Southern fare has grown on me, much like the invasive Japanese vine that slowly but steadily has covered the South,

After six years inn Alabama, I’m returning to my home turf of Southern California. Still, my time in Dixie has left an indelible impression on my palate. There are many things I’ll miss–great friends and neighbors, my 1930s bungalow in what has to be the kookiest neighborhood in Birmingham. But here are just a few of the foods I’ve come to love:

All of Frank Stitt’s restaurants. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Birmingham’s Frank Stitt is a terrifically talented and versatile chef. He’s kept the empire manageable enough that he and his wife, Pardis, are involved in the day-to-day operations of their three restaurants: the high-end, New Southern-style Highlands; the bistro Chez Fonfon; and  Bottega. 

A plate of pull-pork 'cue and all the fixins=pure goodness.

Barbecue, and especially pulled pork barbecue. Until I moved to Birmingham, barbecue never did much for me. Maybe because I’d never had really great barbecue before. But a former work colleague, Mike Wilson, has a tidy side business making incredible North Carolina-style pulled-pork barbecue and selling his vinegary Saw’s Sauce, which you can buy. Add pickles and crunchy coleslaw (another food I learned to love in Dixie), and I’m a happy camper. Yes, there is barbecue in Southern California, but it won’t be a patch on Mike’s.

All pig products. Well, really, I’ve come to love pork in all its forms–bacon, sausage, roasts, etc.

Summer-fresh shell beans. Birmingham’s wonderful farmer’s market at Pepper Place is full of fresh shell beans and peas (butter beans, lady peas, pink-eyed peas–you name it), which became one of my favorite summertime staples. I love to toss the cooked beans with a simple vinaigrette (usually some variation of the supereasy Marinated Lady Peas from Cooking Light). For the piece de resistance, add a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, which I understand is a uniquely Birmingham treat.

Jon and his secret gumbo ingredient: Tony Cachere's

My friend Jon’s gumbo. Not too long ago, several of us gathered at my friend Aimee’s house for a gumbo-making lesson. It’s a big pot of love.

The soul-soothing, tummy-warming goodness of jambalaya. I was in New Orleans a few years ago and watched Chef Frank Brigtsen do a cooking demo of his jambalaya. The demo was interesting, but the tasting was heaven. The jambalaya was delicious, of course, but even more, it made me warm and contented from the inside out.

My friend Kevin’s biscuits and chocolate gravy. He’ll whip this specialty up on the occasional weekend morning. It’s his mama’s biscuits and a gravy made, literally, of chocolate. Hmm, I’ll have to beg him to make a batch tomorrow morning.

Kevin and one of his many cast-iron cookware pieces.

Kevin and one of his many cast-iron cookware pieces.

Kevin’s cornbread. Also made from a family recipe in a hand-me-down cast-iron skillet.

Sonic, which has helped me through a long, dry spell of no In-n-Out Burger.

Bahn mi sandwiches at Pho Que Huong. Yes, Birmingham has a Vietnamese restaurant, and it’s hopping at lunchtime. I’m addicted to their char sui bahn mi sandwiches. It’s another way I learned to love pork.

Falafel sandwiches at George’s Lebanese Restaurant. Birmingham has a lively and sizable Lebanese community, and my favorite spot is George’s. It’s a modest strip-mall restaurant and grocery, lined with hookah pipes and run by George and his wife.  I just wish George would start wearing his fez again. It was cool.