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."