ABOVE PHOTO: Cochrane-Africatown Bridge in Mobile Alabama.
By Renée S. Gordon
One of the things I love about “The Year of Alabama Food” is the fact that the designated lists of restaurants and food trails always include establishments found in cosmopolitan cities and small towns, menus created by classically trained chefs and recipes passed down for generations and both fine dining and drop-in diners. As I stated in part one, the venues span the state and half the fun is getting there. We are going to be exploring the food, history and culture of Alabama’s Black Belt with stops all along the way. www.yearofalabamafood.com
The Black Belt Region is so named because of the rich black soil that was conducive to growing cotton and the plantation economy. At the onset of the Civil War cotton was responsible for nearly $7-billion of the US economy and the South was dependent on the labor of the enslaved. More than 45 percent of the population of this region was black. After the Civil War the plantation system morphed into sharecropping and tenant farming.
Today the area is a showcase for a rich and diverse culture that is totally unique. Every town is special and the main streets and meandering back roads cry out for you to pause in your journey and see what they have to offer. www.alabamasfrontporches.com
Auburn, in the heart of the fertile Black Belt Region, was founded in 1836, four years after the Creek Indians signed the Treaty of Cusseta ceding all Creek land east of the Mississippi River to the US. John Harper established the settlement and was quickly followed by others who were accompanied by their slaves. In 1839 the city was chartered. www.aotourism.com
During the Civil War Auburn was the site of several Confederate hospitals. Union troops passed through the town twice, once stopping to destroy the railroad station and tracks.
Former slaves founded Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in 1868 on a plot of land given to the congregation at the close of the war. The church was constructed of logs from a nearby plantation that were towed to the site. Services were held in the structure until 1969. A marker has been placed at the site, East Thach Avenue.
Auburn is the quintessential university town and has been since the founding of the East Alabama Male College in 1856. After several name changes it became Auburn University in 1960. AU today encompasses 1,800-acres and offers more than 140 majors. The list of illustrious alumni, coaches and administrators is long and the Tiger Trail honors these greats, including six NASA astronauts, with a series of granite sidewalk plaques in the downtown area. www.auburn.edu
PHOTO: Toomer’s Corner.
Toomer’s Corner, S. College St. & Magnolia Ave., is considered the exact point that separates the town from the university. Toomers Drugs® has been situated at the intersection since it opened in 1896. It retains the original floors and ceiling and is the best place in town for AU souvenirs and memorabilia. They make wonderful sandwiches and fountain sodas but their forte is their fresh squeezed lemonade that is listed as one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” They make it as you watch and it is delicious. www.toomersdrugs.com
The Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center was established in the 1970s as part of AU. Raptors are birds of prey with hooked, sharp talons and beaks. The center treats injured raptors and releases them only if they are returned to 99 percent functionality. Guided tours of the facility allow you to get up close and personal and learn some interesting facts about raptors. I learned that vultures have a tremendous sense of smell and that the fastest creature is the falcon. It can fly 250-mph.
Tours begin with an orientation that includes a look inside the refrigerator at what they eat, (this is a food tour after all). I will spare you the details but, while they prefer live food, the center can only provide dead creatures by law. www.vetmed.auburn.edu/raptor
The winner of Open Table’s 2011 Diner’s Choice Award was Ariccia Trattoria & Bar at Auburn University. In addition to serving authentic Italian cuisine created from fresh regional ingredients and signature drinks Ariccia offers scheduled culinary events and cooking classes. The restaurant has undergone a restoration and diners may opt to dine indoors or on the newly created patio. www.auhcc.com/dine/ariccia-en
Ariccia is situated inside The Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center. The hotel has also been recently renovated and designer touches added. www.auhcc.com/hotel-auburn
The Conecuh Sausage Retail Store is in Evergreen and travelers should stop there to taste, and purchase, one of Alabama’s specialties. The sausages have a distinctive taste based on their higher sugar content and extra spiciness. Originally made in Conecuh County, thus the name, the sausages can now be found in markets and can be ordered by mail. www.conecuhsausage.com
Perdido Winery, Alabama’s first farm winery, is open for tours and tastings Mon-Sat. All of the products are made from local fruits and guides are happy to explain the process, the benefits and the impact of the industry on American history. This is a very informative and tasty tour.
Alvarez Pineda was the first documented European explorer in the Mobile region, followed by Hernando de Soto forty years later in 1559. The third Spaniard in the area, Tristán de Luna, founded a short-lived colony but the first permanent settlement was French in 1702. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established Mobile on a bluff on the Mobile River. Because of constant attacks by the Mauvila Indians the city was relocated to the mouth of the river. As Alabama’s oldest city Mobile came under US control in 1813. In 1864 Admiral David G. Farragut ended the Confederate blockade of the port in the Battle of Mobile Bay. The battle severed Confederate supply lines and brought a halt to Mobile’s prosperity for decades. www.mobile.org
Mobile hosted the first Mardi Gras, not New Orleans. The first mention of Mardi Gras in North America is a notation in Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville’s 1699 journal. In 1831 a group of friends held an impromptu parade on New Year’s Eve that would become the forerunner of the modern Mardi Gras Parade. The festivities ceased during the Civil War but were reinstated by Joe Cain in 1866 to bring back spirit of the city and the celebration was moved from New Years to Fat Tuesday.
Mobile’s Carnival Museum traces the history of Mardi Gras through videos, dioramas, memorabilia, interactive exhibits and a majestic collection of outfits. The first African American ball was held by the Order of the Doves in 1894 until WWI. The Knights of May Zulu (1938-52) were the first African American parading society. Tours begin with a 10-minute video and conclude in the boutique gift shop. www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.com
PHOTO: Wintzell’s Oyster House.
From its inception Mobile was the most culturally diverse city in the state and black history contributions and achievements are outlined in the 32-marker African American Heritage Trail. www.maaht.org
The Davis Ave. Library, a branch of the public library system built for blacks during desegregation in 1930, is now The National African American Archives and Museum. When the system was desegregated the library became a repository for information on black culture and a museum. www.nationalafricanamericanarchives.org
Dauphin Street is the heart of Historic Downtown Mobile and a walking tour includes historic sites, restaurants, stores and unique, food-related, shops. The Three Georges has been making handmade chocolates for 95-years using vintage recipes. www.3georges.com. A&M Peanut Shop has been roasting peanuts and selling candy since 1947. A stop here is a Mobile tradition. www.ampeanuts.com
Dauphin Street will lead you straight to the most historic hotel in town, The 1908 Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa. The current structure replaced the first Battle House built in 1852. Previous guests range from superstars and presidents to historic figures, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis. The Battle House offers luxurious accommodations, exemplary service and a 10,000-sq. ft spa. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of America, is designated a AAA Four Diamond Hotel and boasts Mobile’s sole Four Diamond Restaurant, the Trellis Room. www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mobbr-the-battle-house-renaissance-mobile-hotel-and-spa
Felix’s Fish Camp, located on the Causeway, is one of the city’s best restaurants. The views of the bay are awesome, the menu changes every three months and the service is spectacular. Everything is delicious but if you must choose some of the best bets are the Shotgun Shrimp, Crab Bisque Soup and West Indies Salad. www.felixsfishcamp.com
True Midtown Kitchen is under the auspices of Executive Chef Wesley True. The atmosphere here is southern comfortable and the shrimp and grits are to die for. www.kitchen.truedine.com
Wintzell’s Oyster House is arguably the most famous restaurant in Mobile. It has been in operation on this site since 1938, has appeared in numerous publications and has been featured on the Travel Channel. They have a full seafood menu but try their oysters “fried, stewed or nude.” www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com
Monroeville, Alabama, the “Literary Capitol of Alabama,” was once part of the Mississippi Territory and the area was known as Burnt Corn because of ongoing skirmishes between countries and the Native Americans. After James Monroe arranged for purchase from Spain in 1795 it was referred to as Walker’s Mill after Major Walker the earliest settler. It was eventually named Monroeville to commemorate the role of President Monroe in its founding. www.monroecountyal.com
This small southern town was home to Truman Capote and Nell Harper Lee and was the model for Maycomb, Alabama the setting of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The novel was published in 1960, after going through a name change from “Atticus” to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following year. The story is based on two Alabama cases, the Scottsboro Boys and the Case of Walter Lett and spans the time period from the summer of 1932 to October 31, 1935. The book has not been out of print since originally published and is one of the 10 best selling books of all time.
For 23-years The Mockingbird Players have performed “To Kill a Mockingbird” from April thru May. Act One takes place in the Biggs Amphitheater on the West Courthouse Lawn. Act Two is performed in the original Old Monroe County Courthouse courtroom. Most performances sell out immediately and group tickets for the 2013 season go on sale on January 1st.
Old Monroe County Courthouse is the second on the site. It was constructed in 1850 using slave labor. After a fire in 1928 it was restored and in use until 1963. Currently it serves as the Monroe County Heritage Museum. There are three permanent exhibits, “Old Courthouse: Heart of the Community”, “Truman Capote: A Childhood in Monroeville”, and “Harper Lee: In Her Own Words”. A highlight of a visit is the courtroom that was replicated for the movie.
The gift shop has exclusive items that make wonderful souvenirs and gifts and you can order online. www.tokillamockingbird.com
Information on the food and the fun to be found in Alabama is available at www.alabama.travel.com
I wish you smooth travels!