Talking Travel Rediscovering America Suzanne Wright Birmingham Alabama


A Sampling of Birmingham, Alabama
by Suzanne Wright

Food, especially on a local or regional level, is a key component of culture. In Alabama, it takes on a whole new and delicious meaning when the focus of a trip is to discover the state’s distinct food heritage. According to the Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel, which in 2005 published a cookbook in celebration of the “Year of Food,” this state has “at least 100 dishes to eat before you die.”

I started my food sampling tour of Alabama and Birmingham by swinging by a local convenience store and picking up a bright yellow can of Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale. This spicy, caffeine-free popular drink had its beginning on the battlefields of the Civil War when ginger was used for its perceived health benefits to soldiers. Today, the drink will give you a jolt of energy for a two-day swing through town. So if you visit Alabama and Birmingham, here are my personal suggestions.

• I love to see how products are made, so I planned two tours to local food manufacturers in Birmingham and one visit to a winery nearby. In addition, I visited an old steel mill before beginning my visits to several well-known restaurants and food emporiums.

• I started at Bud’s Best Cookies, a family-owned business in nearby Hoover that offers tours on Mondays and Tuesdays during the school year. (About 30,000 people visit the plant each year.) Your kids will love the “Cookieland Express,” a train that takes visitors through the production facility. It’s fascinating to watch the product literally take shape through its progression on a series of crisscrossing conveyor belts — from raw dough to baked and packaged mini-cookies.

• And then there is one of America's favorite snack foods; the potato chip. “The crispiest chip in the South,” as it is touted, comes from Golden Flake which has been making the salty snacks since 1923. A regional favorite, they are the second most popular chip sold in Florida, South and North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. The factory converts 100 million pounds of potatoes into chips annually. And corn grits are used to make cheese puffs. Eighty-year old Sara Hall works on the pork rind and chip packaging line; she’s been with the company for 49 consecutive years. She remembers when she used to hand-stuff chips into bags; now the process is automated. When I ask her if she tires of the product, she just smiles. “When I came here I was skinny. I eat the product all day long!”

• Harpersville is the home of Morgan Creek Vineyards, a small family winery that produces 12 varieties of wine made with muscadine grapes, a Southern varietal. Founded in 2000, the winery sponsors an annual grape stomp (reminiscent of the famous episode from the I Love Lucy show), but when I arrived in mid-summer, folks were picking blueberries at the property. As for their wines, I liked the dry Noble, a strawberry-scented red and the semi-sweet Blueberry.

• And then there are peanuts — and The Peanut Depot (2016 Morris Avenue, 205-251-3314). In a very small workspace in an historic building downtown, every week employees hand-crank the old roasting ovens to produce thousands of pounds of Virginia peanuts that are then shoveled into brown paper bags. They have been doing essentially the same thing since 1907. The smell of roasting peanuts is heavenly. For a century now, the ovens in this historic Birmingham site, have been roasting peanuts for sports stadiums across the Southeast, grocery stores, and peanut lovers. You can sample a 50-cent bag or cart off a trunk load.

• A popular gathering place for African-Americans and lovers of Southern soul food is Lavase Fine Dining (328 16th Street North). While I waited for my catfish fried to order, a little girl smiled at me from a nearby booth. “Good, isn’t it?” I said. A gap-toothed grin appeared on her face and she nodded her head vigorously. The lightly battered catfish is culinary perfection; and the mac-and-cheese and spaghetti casserole are pleasing accompaniments.

• The parking lot is your first clue that there’s good food inside Niki’s West (233 Finley Ave, West). Bustling crowds line up all day long for a wide variety of cafeteria-style dishes, including Greek chicken, lemon pepper catfish, fried okra, and coconut cream pie.

• No visit to Birmingham would be complete without a stop at Sloss Furnaces, a 32-acre national historic landmark. Docents offer tours that trace the beginnings of the“Iron City” when an Irish farmer’s son from northern Alabama started exploiting the area’s rich deposits of iron ore, limestone, and coal to produce steel. Toiling in 2600-degree furnaces, Sloss’ pipes and smokestacks were the emblem of the industrial New South; and — unusual for the times — its work force was always integrated from its opening in 1881 to the closing of the factory in 1971.

• Birmingham’s upscale and bright future is epitomized by the Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in the rolling hills on the edge of the city. This is a great place to spend a couple of nights. Located on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — a group of world-class courses that stretch throughout the state of Alabama — Ross Bridge is a 261-room resort with cascading waterfalls feeding a sculptured pool, a stacked stone fireplace, and a terrace with fire pits. The resort pays homage to the past with a design that evokes the classic railway resorts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

• Birmingham's Chef Frank Stitt has an international reputation and his culinary success has spawned several acclaimed restaurants in the Five Points neighborhood in the city. These include The Highlands Bar & Grill, The Bottega Restaurant and Café, and Chez Fonfon (website pending). His cooking is renowned for putting a twist on Southern classics. If you dine at the Highlands, as I did, don’t miss the soufflé-like signature stone ground baked grits with country ham and mushrooms. I also feasted on the squash blossoms with tangy tomato relish, the Appalachicola gigged flounder with hopping John pink-eyed peas, braised Mississippi rabbit with black truffle risotto, and a peach crosada with vanilla ice cream.

Historic Birmingham

Birmingham is of course an important civil rights pilgrimage city. Therefore I also spent time in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Here in the city’s historic center, the pain of a racially segregated past gives way to a deeper understanding of those turbulent times in American history. Twelve galleries tell the story of the city’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Seeing Martin Luther King’s jail cell and separate “white” and “colored” drinking fountains are poignant symbols of the struggle, the heroism, and a sobering walk through American history. Across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where one of the deadliest moments in the era’s history occurred; four little girls preparing for Sunday school in the basement were killed by a bomb. Once the staging ground for civil rights rallies, demonstrations and marches, Kelly Ingram Park now boasts outdoor sculptures and a self-guided audio tour with the voices of famed activists.

From historic Kelly Ingram Park, a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faces the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the infamous and deadly 1963 bombing.

Pay a virtual visit to Birmingham, Alabama (“the Diverse City”) by clicking on the preceding link.

Visit the official website of the City of Birmingham by clicking on the preceding link.

Pay a virtual visit to Alabama by clicking on the preceding link.

The 100 Alabama dishes to eat before you die.

For the complete list CLICK HERE. (This page will open as a PDF file.)

Potlikker is the Southern delicacy brewed from fresh turnip greens.

Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park pays tribute to a Birmingham native son and lead singer of The Temptations.