ABOVE PHOTO: Alabama State Capitol Building.
By Renée S. Gordon
“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
–Mark Kurlansky, 2002
For the second time Alabama has designated a specific year the Year of Alabama Food. The theme was first selected in 2005 and now again in 2012 and I must admit I am mystified. Anyone who has ever eaten in Alabama knows that every year is the Year of Alabama food. The meals are consistently delicious from the swankiest dining establishment to the tiniest roadside café and you will always find a traditional or creative Southern dish to delight your palate. The venues span the state and in order to enable intrepid eaters to pace themselves several trails have been developed that are easy to follow. A state BBQ Trail is under development and information on all the trails and the more than 375 food festivals is available online at www.yearofalabamafood.com
Alabama’s Wine Trail was inaugurated in 2007 and consists of 14 wineries statewide. People who complete the trail and get a special Passport stamped will receive a souvenir after the final stop. Maps and guides may be obtained on the web. www.alabamawinetrail.com
The “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” is my favorite brochure. It is a great read and the information is priceless. Entries are listed by city and include the restaurant’s name, contact number and specialty. www.aotourism.com/images/brochures/pdf/100_dishes.pdf
The Bible says, “Man shall not live by bread alone”, and even in Alabama that’s true. Alabama is filled with significant historic sites and attractions and visits to these places make the trip a perfect destination for a food aficionado, a history buff, or the eclectic traveler. Armed with the “100 Dishes” brochure and an Alabama state tourism guide you can set out to explore all things Alabama. Montgomery is always a great place to start because fares are largely affordable and the city is accessible to all the other sites. www.visitingmontgomery.com
Montgomery was formed from two villages established in the early 1800s, New Philadelphia and East Alabama. The juncture of the villages’ main streets, Dexter and Commerce, was Court Square, now widely considered the nexus of Alabama’s Confederate and Civil Rights history. An 1885 fountain atop an artesian well dominates the square. The well was used to water mules that pulled the wagons of cotton to the riverfront.
A historic marker indicates the site of a slave market across from the telegraph office in the Winter Building from which Confederate Jefferson Davis sent the telegram that ordered the firing on Fort Sumter. Also on the Square is an area indicating the Court Square Bus Stop, the place where Rosa Parks boarded the bus on December 20, 1956. She worked as a seamstress in the basement of Montgomery Fair Dept. Store and was on her way home.
In 1851 the Greek Revival State Capitol was built to replace an earlier structure. Horace King, a freed African American engineer, constructed the three-story, unsupported, spiral, staircase in the interior. In February 1860 representatives from the Southern states met there to draft a constitution and on the 18th Jefferson Davis gave his inaugural address as President of the Confederacy on the steps. A bronze star indicates the place Jefferson stood to take the oath of office. The historic Selma to Montgomery march ended on the steps of the Capitol and is now commemorated with a trail established by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Free tours are offered Monday-Friday. www.exploresouthernhistory.com/selmamontgomerytrail.html and www.visitingmontgomery.com/visit/alabama_state_capitol
Located one-block from the Capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy. The Confederacy authorized the rental of a home for Davis and the furnished house of Colonel Harrison was chosen for $5,000 a year. The two-story Italianate house was built in the mid-1830s and modernized in 1855. Tours of the house highlight period furniture and Davis artifacts. Tours are free. www.firstwhitehouse.org
Two locations that are important interpreters of the King legacy are Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Parsonage Museum. The Second Avenue Colored Baptist Church was established in 1877 inside what had been a slave pen. It was not renamed the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church until much later. Tours must be arranged in advance but offer access to the sanctuary and a 1980 10′ X 47′ mural painted by John Feagin to depict Dr. King’s Civil Rights’ journey. This was the site of Rosa Parks’ first telling of the story of her arrest and the decision to launch a boycott.
The Dexter Parsonage Museum is where King the family man and the Civil Rights Leader intersect. In the adjacent center visitors view a 15-minute orientation video, “From Men to Movement.” The tour proceeds next door to the 1920 home purchased for the pastor in which the King’s lived. When they moved here he was 24-years old and had been married two months. In 1954 the house was bombed and visitors can still see a small crater in the front porch. He lived there until 1960.
The interior of the house is furnished with original King furniture that reflects its 1954 appearance. Visitors tour all the rooms including his office complete with books and music he loved and it was in this kitchen that King underwent the epiphany that solidified his commitment to the cause. Artificial flowers in the kitchen represent the fresh flowers that he always sent Coretta when he was away. Just before the assassination he sent an artificial bouquet and when she asked why the change he replied that he wanted to give her something that would last. www.dexterkingmemorial.org
PHOTO: Rosa Parks Museum.
Rosa Parks Museum, Library & Children’s Wing is situated on the site where she was removed from the bus and arrested, triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The museum has an outstanding 10-minute introductory film and a simulation of Rosa’s arrest as visitors stand on a corner outside of the bus. The tour ends in the exhibit hall with a bronze statue of a seated Rosa Parks that visitors can sit beside. The Children’s Wing is an interactive trip through the history of Jim Crow leading up to the bus boycott. www.troy.edu
Court Street Methodist Church gifted its 1834 building to its African American members in 1852. They then moved the church to the current site. Legend has it that as they moved the structure they were asked what they would name it. They responded, the Old Ship A.M.E. Zion Church. It is the oldest black church in Montgomery. www.netministries.org/see/churches.exe/ch03069
The Montgomery Hank Williams Museum is arguably the most important stop on the Hank Williams Trail. It is deceptively small from the exterior but inside you are engulfed in the world of the man who was country music’s first superstar. The self-guided tour showcases memorabilia, videos, artifacts and a collection of original outfits that remind us he was the first country star to wear designer clothing on stage.
The focal point of the museum is Williams’ iconic baby blue 1952 Cadillac. This is the car in which he died of heart failure at the age of 29 on January 1, 1953. Also in the collection is the suit he was wearing on that night and the suitcase he had in the trunk. A painting, “The Ghost of Hank Williams,” hangs above the car display. In it Hank and his driver are pictured standing by the car and no matter where you stand the picture is facing you. Williams is buried in nearby Oakwood Cemetery Annex. www.thehankwilliamsmuseum.com
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, one of the 10 largest Shakespeare theaters in the world, is situated in Blount Cultural Park. Founded in 1972, this professional theater produces 14 plays a year and operates year round. The onsite Olive Branch Restaurant is open pre and post- performances. www.asf.net
Montgomery’s Riverfront provides great views and river tours aboard the Harriett II named after the original 1821 Harriett, the first riverboat to travel from Mobile to Montgomery. This area was the first entertainment district in the state and it continues that tradition with The SandBar. The bar is built on the bluff and serves a signature drink, the painkiller, to those in the know. www.funontheriver.net
Montgomery’s newest area is The Alley Entertainment District in the downtown area. The District comes alive in the evenings with entertainment, food and libations. You can tell when you’ve arrived because of the huge Water Tower that marks the entrance.
Here you will find the Alley Bar, the only frozen shot room in the city. Patrons enter an anteroom and don furry jackets prior to entering the refrigerated shot room. Glasses are made of ice and after imbibing you get to break your glass on the floor. www.alleybarmontgomery.com
Alabama’s Year of Food focuses on locally grown produce and a great place to do background research is the Hampstead Institute, a 3-acre urban farm. The farm concentrates on growing sustainable foods and educating the public on their growth, health benefits and eliminating food related diseases. It is located just below the Riverwalk and in 2013 visitors will be able to access the farm via a staircase from above. Tours are offered. www.hampsteadinstitute.org
Montgomery has more places to dine than I could visit in a year, but I gave it my best shot. Here are a few that have been “Smooth Traveler” tested.
Central. Rachel Ray has proclaimed this one of her favorite restaurants and it has been lauded in both “Bon Appetit” and “Condé Nast Traveler.” Located inside an 1890 grocery store it retains the original floors and has added designer touches. Central serves 89 percent local food and 90 percent is created from scratch. The food is refined southern cuisine with a Brazilian kick. www.central129coosa.com
Chophouse at the Vintage Year. Fine dining along with an incredible selection of wines has made this a favored venue for steak and seafood. www.chophousevy.com
Chris’ Famous Hotdogs. This was Hank Williams’ favorite restaurant when in Montgomery. The family is in the same location after 95-years so Hank wasn’t the only one to love it here. Do not pass up a hotdog served “all the way.” That is with the addition of the special sauce with sautéed onions and sauerkraut. www.chrishotdogs.com
Cool Beans at the Café D’art. This café serves fresh, locally grown, produce cooked in the healthiest ways possible. Foods are roasted or baked, never fried and everything is delicious. My suggestion, try the salad!
Martha’s Place. Martha’s is ground zero for Southern comfort food. Owner, Martha Hawkins has hosted a long list of the rich and famous and has been featured in Oprah’s magazine. The restaurant is open daily. www.galatea.meccahosting.com/~a000677f
The Olive Room. Situated inside a 107-year old building is a 15-year old restaurant that serves a seasonal menu of classic Southern dishes with a French twist. www.theoliveroom.com
Roux. Executive Chef Wesley True, a James Beard Award semi-finalist, artfully blends classic Southern and Louisiana Creole elements to create some very special dishes. The ambiance here is almost as good as the food and you can dine privately in the elevator. www.rouxmontgomery.com
The Tipping Point. This is the place to go for good food and a comfortable atmosphere. You can eat the signature dishes, the Chicago Dog and the Cookie Skillet, inside or outdoors. It is wonderful for families. www.tippingpointhampstead.com
We’ll eat and tour more in part two when we head toward Mobile. In the meantime read all about it online. www.alabama.travel.com
I wish you smooth travels!
Greater Wilmington is festival central this fall. Add these to your calendar for unique adventures less than an hour away.
Brandywine Festival of the Arts will be held on September 8th and 9th in Brandywine Park www.visitwilmingtonde.com. Hundreds of craftsmen and artisans present their wares as well as concerts, a food court and free admission to the Brandywine Zoo. www.brandywinearts.com
From September 14-16 you can celebrate the fall in Newark at the Delaware Saengerbund Oktoberfest. There will be food, performances, amusements and lots of lederhosen.
Wilmington’s 5-day Fringe Festival will be held September 26-30. www.fringewilmingtonde.com
Wine lovers will wind their way to Wilmington’s Tubman Park on October 7th to sample wines from 2:30-6:30 PM. The Vendemmia Wine Festival is one huge party. Tickets are available online. www.societadavinci.com
Longwood Garden’s Chrysanthemum Festival featuring more than 200,000 chrysanthemums will be on view from October 27th –November 18th. www.longwoodgardens.org