When I was a young girl, my mother’s mother would cook green beans for what seemed like every meal. They would be fresh from the garden when in season or, during the winter, they would come from her reserves of “put up” vegetables that had been canned and stored. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand the sight of a green bean. Though it took years to reawaken, my love of green beans did eventually return.
All of this cooking and storing of green beans and the bounty of summer took place in the makeshift “outdoor kitchen” that was nothing more than a concrete platform that was the roof of my grandparents’ storm cellar. The tools of this summer pop-up kitchen included a single garden hose, several dull paring knives, and a variety of galvanized buckets and tubs that had seen the better part of several decades. Beans, fruits, and vegetables of all sorts were initially washed and left to air dry on the shaded expanse of the concrete roof, which remained cool from the deep burrow below in the hot summers. Kids and adults alike gathered there in random pairs to shuck, peel, and prod those fruits and vegetables into a cleaner, more manageable form that would then be moved from the outdoors to the “real” kitchen inside. In her small kitchen, my grandmother would boil, serve, save, can, freeze, and generally use every scrap of food that came from the garden—a tended plot large enough to serve extended family and close friends. The preserved treasures would then move from the house, back outside and into the cool depths of the storm cellar to await their consumption—just below the makeshift kitchen, and alongside a family of spiders and crickets who made that dark place home.
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but by offering up that summer kitchen to any willing hand (and by serving all of those green beans), my grandmother was providing love and nourishment the only way she knew how—while teaching all of us kids the usefulness and practicality of growing our own food. Stories unfolded over those buckets of produce, and because of her patience and generous time sitting on the edge of that storm cellar, I learned that food could be used to pass down a love of nature, the earth, family tradition, and culture.
This May, Alabama Chanin is featuring two of my personal heroines (and, now, dear friends) as part of our ongoing Chef Series at the café. They might not be chefs, but Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva are The Kitchen Sisters—independent producers who create radio stories for NPR and other public broadcast outlets. Davia and Nikki are two of the most genuine and real women I know. Without their dedication to telling the real story, I would not be the person I am today. Route 66 changed my perception of storytelling in the autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a square in Savannah, Georgia. Just like that, my life changed.
Davia and Nikki met and began collaborating in the late 1970s, hosting a weekly radio program in Santa Cruz, California. Their name was taken from two eccentric brothers—Kenneth and Raymond Kitchen—who were stonemasons in Santa Cruz in the 1940s. One night, they were discussing the Kitchen Brothers, who were featured in a book about Santa Cruz architects, as prep for an interview with the book’s author—while also cooking dinner for a group of people on the commune where Nikki lived—and got caught up in legends of local masonry (chimneys, yogi temples, Byzantine bungalows…), and food prep fell to the wayside. Dinner that evening was a disaster, and The Kitchen Sisters were (laughingly) born.
Oral histories heavily influenced their style of radio production. Over the years, they have produced a number of series, such as Lost & Found Sound, The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls, and Hidden Kitchens. Regardless of topic, Davia and Nikki find a way to build community through storytelling.
Our Heirloom series highlights personal items or mementos that hold a special meaning, regardless of monetary value. Our hope is to reveal the incredible value of family, memory, and things that last.
This week Erin, our Director of Media Services and Special Projects, shares the story of her grandmother’s kerchief.
My grandma, Nancy Jo, was a beautiful, artistic, kind-hearted, and very stylish woman. She had a contagious laugh, and I remember her as always happy and smiling. Throughout much of her life, she painted and drew as hobbies (mostly pictures of flowers and birds), made clothes, crafted, and was an amazing cook. (My favorite was her coconut cream pie, which I made for Christmas this year.) I like to think she passed her creative traits down to my dad, who then passed them to me.
When she passed away in May of 2011, she left me her engagement ring, her sewing machine and a box of fabric scraps, hats from her collection, her paper doll collection, and a collection of her kerchiefs. That spring, I had just been introduced to Alabama Chanin and wouldn’t begin working here until the following year. But, I’d been inspired to begin making and sewing for myself and was excited and proud to share my projects with my Grandma.
Where I grew up, singlewide trailers were as common as clapboard shotguns. On the far end of my Georgia town, near where the seg academy floundered, the mothers and fathers of my grade school friends worked at the mobile home factory, bending aluminum and punching rivets, constructing metal shoeboxes with roller skates on their bottoms. No matter. In my youth, trailers were jokes waiting for punch lines. We said terrible things. We said stupid things. We said, “Tornadoes are proof that God hates trailer parks.”
With time has come perspective. And humility. And a respect for trailers as shelter and conveyance. A few years back, I wrote a book on food trucks. Once I got beyond the hype and chickpea frites, I recognized that food trucks are trailers, too. Operated by new immigrants. And downshifting chefs. And aspirational hipsters.
When I first glimpsed the Massengill family photos of Arkansas folk, shot in a Depression era trailer studio and now being reinterpreted by Maxine Payne, I thought of old prejudices and of new realizations. And I thought of the everyday beauty that earned flashbulb pops then and deserves the klieg lights of fame now. Continue reading →
My love for cake, from traditional layer cakes to simple pound cakes, has been well documented over the years. While I delight in the homemade sweets of the South, one of my favorite cakes comes from a local bakery here in the Shoals called Sugarbakers.
The family owned-and-operated bakery opened over twenty years ago in nearby St. Florian. A few years ago, the main location, which focused on baked goods, closed and the bakery operation moved to a restaurant called “The Drink Box,” which serves up delicious milkshakes (Maggie’s drink of choice) and chicken salad, as well as old Sugarbakers favorites and layer cakes.
Our newest Journal series highlights our personal heirlooms – things that hold special value and meaning to us personally, regardless of their monetary value. Alabama Chanin wants to honor things that last and things that we choose to keep in our lives and our homes as reminders of family, friends, or important moments.
This week, our graphic designer, Maggie, shares memories of her grandfather and his special talent for woodworking. Her story reminds me of the words of William Morris: “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.”
My grandfather, who we all called Papa, was an extremely smart and talented man – a skilled artist and craftsman. He really could draw, do, or make anything. He was a gunner on a B-17 during World War II. His plane was shot down over Belgium, where he was captured and held in a few different POW camps for 15 months. He had grown up watching his mother crochet, but he was never formally taught. It was freezing some of the months that he was in Austria and Germany, so he whittled down a stick into a crochet hook so that he could crochet a warm hat and mittens out of holey sweaters he’d found and taken apart. He ended up not only making some for himself, but also for the other prisoners so they could be a little warmer. He was a very caring and thoughtful man. Continue reading →
Last year, we began a series called “Real Women,” an exploration of the real women in our lives (and throughout history) that have made a difference—one way or another—in our world. Today, we are finishing a chapter of that series: real women as seen by men.
Here you find a tribute from son to mother, written by Nashville singer/songwriter (and former English professor) Jon Byrd. Jon grew up just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and is a dear friend of our editor, Sara. Please welcome Jon and enjoy his beautifully candid account of his mother, Margaret Tidwell Byrd.
The most important woman in my life, past or present, is my mother. I’m adopted; that’s probably why I feel this way. I don’t remember our first meeting, at the Alabama state orphanage in 1955, but it was obviously a life-changing moment for me.
My mother was sweet, but tough. She was not a pushover and didn’t have to win an argument or always be (perceived as) right. She had an amazing way of speaking her mind, calling someone out, and standing up for herself that made the other person in the conversation question why they were resisting her. Her strongest quality was, without question, her determination. She encouraged with empathy, compassion, integrity, and consistency. Continue reading →
My Gram Perkins passed down several recipes to me through the years. I keep most of them in a recipe book my mother compiled of family recipes. From Chocolate Pie to Thanksgiving dressing, Gram Perkins’ delicious Southern dishes continue to make their way onto my table—always tasting amazing, but not quite as good as when she made them.
One of the simplest (and most beloved) recipes she gave to me was for egg salad, featuring homemade Fourteen-Day Pickles (also known as sweet or bread-and-butter pickles). I think of it as one of the ultimate comfort foods. When I was a child, Gram Perkins often served it to me as a summer lunch or afternoon snack. I have vivid memories of sitting in her kitchen, watching her prepare her famous egg salad sandwich for me—always with extra pickles in a jar on the table.
After my Gram Perkins passed away, my granddaddy, lovingly known as Perk, continued making the famous Fourteen-Day Pickles. My mother carries on the family tradition today by gifting pints of these treasures every holiday season. Egg salad is definitely better with this homemade version but there are great bread-and-butter pickles available on the market today that you can use for your homemade egg salad. We recently taste tested the Blackberry Farm version and found it delicious.
No one really knows when egg salad itself was created, but it became a popular luncheon salad in the early 1800s, after French chef Marie-Antoine Carême invented mayonnaise as we know it today. A sister to tuna and chicken salad, egg salad is a nice option for those looking for a simple lunch, packed with protein.
We’ve started serving Gram Perkins’ egg salad in The Factory Café, complete with homemade pickles, made from her recipe. Stop by for lunch (new menu below) and try it on whole wheat sourdough toast, served with julienned honey crisp apples. (Trust me—the pairing of eggs and apples is delicious.)
Alabama Chanin’s first-ever sewing workshop took place in 2008 alongside a seminar on Southern cooking, organized and presented by our friend and collaborator, Angie Mosier. While the sewing participants stitched and chatted, the food preparers fried up some chicken, steamed collard greens and made pot likker, then baked the most delicious Lane Cake. At each meal, Angie explained the history of each dish and its significance within Southern culture. This is where I first learned the details behind one of Alabama’s culinary specialties, the Lane Cake.
Lane Cake was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, as her entry into a county fair baking competition in Columbus, Georgia. She originally called the recipe, “Prize Cake,” but eventually leant her name to the dessert for all posterity. She self-published a cookbook called Some Good Things to Eat in 1898 and included the recipe as one of her featured desserts. Lane Cake is a white, layered sponge cake (originally designed for 4 layers) iced with a frosting that includes coconut, raisins, pecans, and bourbon. It is often found in the South at receptions, holiday dinners, or wedding showers. Chef Scott Peacock writes in The Gift of Southern Cooking that he was served a Lane Cake every year on his birthday.
Illustrator and author Maira Kalman has long been a personal hero of mine. She visited The Factory a couple of years ago, along with Rosanne Cash and Gael Towey, for a two-day sewing workshop and some adventure. It was then that I learned Maira is not only a talented illustrator, but also an avid embroidery expert. I love everything she creates (but especially her drawings and unique storytelling perspective), and am happy to call her my friend.
In her book And the Pursuit of Happiness, Maira explores American democracy and its workings. Originally published as a 12-part online series for the New York Times, this complete bound volume tells the colorfully illustrated and hand-lettered history of America.