In the northwestern Alabama towns of Tuscumbia, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Florence, known collectively as the Shoals, a community of homegrown artists, designers and cultural provocateurs gathers each month for a potluck dinner. By and large, they are not cooks by trade. Instead, they are cooks by habit and social inclination. Surety with a cast-iron skillet is bred in their bones.
This place made these people. The Shoals was once a textile center; the forebears of these artists and designers were cotton farmers and laborers who earned their wages with their hands. When the mills closed, blue-collar jobs with benefit packages and pensions vanished. But an appreciation of handwork remained. Nowadays, among this diverse coterie, respect for that tradition serves as common ground. Honoring handcraft is a common cause. And food—culinary handwork—offers a reason to gather, a catalyst for conversation.
The group is deeply Southern, but the people defy stereotypes. Metal artist, builder and hunter Audwin McGee of Tuscumbia is the man behind the juicy garlic-rubbed pork roast at the center of the table. With his fiancée, Sandi Stevens, a lithe Alabama-born gymnast and sculptor, he’s this month’s host. To a casual observer, his second-story loft, set amid a row of redbrick storefronts in downtown Tuscumbia, calls to mind downtown Manhattan, but it’s bona fide Southern. "Cleaning up before renovation," says McGee of the hardwood-floored rectangle that once served as storage space for a dry goods store, "we found dozens of blue-and-white-striped seersucker suits."
The flow of the dinner is easy. No one stands on ceremony. No one raises a toast to signal either the beginning of the meal, or the end. Across a table piled high with Southern sacraments, the friends talk about their mothers’ recipes for leaf-lard piecrust and their fathers’ formulas for barbecue sauce. They talk about great local cooks. About the men who gather on fall mornings to stir giant pots of chicken stew for church fund-raisers. About the women at Florence’s Hollywood Inn who fry cornmeal-dusted okra to a peerless crisp. And, yes, they swap recipes.
Natalie Chanin, who hails from Florence, baked the downy buttermilk biscuits that everyone is slathering with butter. She’s the designer and entrepreneur behind Alabama Chanin, who, through her former label, Project Alabama, sold the runway critics on densely patterned and elaborately beaded dresses stitched by local sewing circles. "Love your thread," Chanin was fond of telling the women who joined together at her country ranch house headquarters. "Love your thread." With Chanin are her boyfriend, Butch Anthony, a laconic and dry-witted artist whose work—cake stands bolted together from cast-off garden implements, serving bowls cleverly crafted from cow vertebrae—defies easy categorization, and Thom Driver, who helped style Chanin’s Project Alabama catalog.
Angie Mosier, proprietor of retro-hip Blue-Eyed Daisy Bakeshop in Palmetto, Georgia, is a welcome interloper. She earned her entrée by pan-frying chicken drumsticks and thighs. Mosier also brought a tin of pecan sandies and creamy lemon chess pies. She got to know the Shoals crowd when the University of Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance, of which Mosier is the board vice president, teamed with Chanin to collect oral histories of area cooks and showcase their stories and recipes in Chanin’s Project Alabama catalog and on its Web site.
The cheese grits casserole—so light it might as well be called a soufflé—is a specialty of Billy Reid and his wife, Jeanne. From a second-story atelier set in an antebellum Florence home, he designs eponymous lines of clothing that evoke sepia snapshots of a vague Southern past. Yet Reid is quick to buck convention. At his Florence shop as well as at boutiques in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dallas and Houston, he mixes and matches genres, displaying Alabama-designed and Italian-made wingtips atop gilt-rimmed cake plates that look as though Reid lifted them from his great-aunt’s china cabinet.
Charles Moore, a Tuscumbia native who documented the civil rights movement for Life and the eldest of the group, has come, too. Along with local photographer Robert Rausch—bearer of a broccoli casserole bound with homemade cream of mushroom soup and topped with a crumble of Ritz crackers—he’s taken on the task of documenting dinner.
At the table, it becomes clear that while these Southerners are rooted in place, they are not bound by it. As the biscuits are passed and the fried chicken is reduced to a jumble of bones, Chanin tells the story of quitting her life as a stylist in Vienna to hone her kitchen skills while working as a cook on an island in Los Roques, a Venezuelan archipelago. "The fishing families on the island couldn’t pronounce biscuit," she says, "so they started calling what I baked pan de Alabama." McGee is full of stories from a trip to Mozambique, where, along with fellow Alabamians, he has been developing a sustainable hunting preserve and pondering how to develop the East African nation’s tourism industry.
In the tradition of the church suppers of their youth, everyone talks at once, and almost everyone returns for seconds. As Chanin recalls her early days in New York City, snipping apart and then stitching back together T-shirts to make contrarian couture, the men debate the relative merits of two local steak houses. There’s no clear victor apparent until Chanin steps in. "Dale’s still gives you a glass of cold tomato juice to start your meal," she says. "It’s really old-school." And the debate is settled, for now.
About the time Mosier slices into a chess pie and passes plates to all, a bottle of bourbon appears. Someone suggests a dessert wine as the proper accompaniment but is shouted down as three fingers of bourbon go into each diner’s glass. In time, the group adjourns to the sleeping porch, and conversations trail off as everyone watches the moon rise alongside the Tuscumbia water tower.
John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South.