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Alabama Adventure Weekend

It is Earth Day 2007 and the Alabama sun is unseasonably hot. Summer is still two months away, but the living is already easy, especially in the Shoals area of North Alabama where I am spending the day at the Alabama Adventure Weekend, a two-day banquet of art and culture, fun and fellowship, food and festivites.

Nearly one hundred years ago, H. L. Mencken called the South the "Sahara of the Bozarts," but Louis Rubin, Jr, observed, some sixty years later, that the south had "become a garden." And nowhere is that flowering more evident than in the Quadcities.

When I arrive at Pickett Place for "Coffee with Billy Reid," early risers are already gathering. Pickett Place is the second oldest home in Florence and was an antique store before clothing designer and entrepreneur Billy Reid converted it to his flagship store and studio. The elegant home retains much of its original ambiance as antiques and vintage memorabilia share the spacious rooms with Reid's handsome original clothing and accessories.

Reid is a tousled-headed young man with dark rimmed glasses who manages to look both boyish and scholarly at the same time. He was the 2001 CFDA Perry Ellis award winner, and his clothing line has been praised for it's "southern charm." He has been touted as a designer who has "stayed true to his roots." Today Reid is showing individual customers pieces from his exquisite collection and they are loving what they see. This weekend he is donating 10% of his sales to the Southern Foodways Alliance.

I have only been in the store a few minutes when I am already approaching sensory overload. It's all about texture, color, shape and form, and it is all achingly beautiful: fabrics that cry out to be touched and handmade footwear rich with the sweet smell of leather.

But fine leather is not the only aroma in the air. In another room, where I expect to find a coffee urn and a stack of paper cups, I find a sumptuous breakfast buffet of cheese grits, sausage and egg casserole, fresh strawberries, coffee, juice, and what I hope is a platter of sweet potato biscuits filled with sliver of ham.

One of Reid's small daughters is efficiently manning the table. I whisper in her ear, "Are those by any chance sweet potato biscuits?" "Yes, ma'am," she replies. I have died and gone to heaven--and it has only just begun.

I fill my china cup with the steaming coffee and meander through the shop meeting the folks from the Southern Foodways Alliance, Oxford American and others who along with Reid, Natalie Chanin, Robert Rausch of Stellar Designs, Sandi Stevens and Audwin McGee of Cassetta Gallery are hosting this momentous event.

Today is day two of the Alabama Adventure Weekend. I was unable to attend day one and so I missed out on one of the star attractions--chicken stew. Along with haute couture, art, music, literature, architecture and local history, this particular Adventure Weekend is featuring food. The Southern Foodways Alliance, who is co-sponsoring this particular weekend, will be hosting a gala dinner tonight at Gas Studio (Stellar Designs) for SFA members and special guests. The title of the evening "Rabbit and Watercress" makes my mouth water---in spite of its being full of sweet potato biscuits.

Pickett Place is seductive (Reid has recently added a line of women's clothing to his collection), but the next venue beckons. Hank Klibanoff, co-author of "The Race Beat" and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history, is speaking at the public library at 11 a.m. I get there just in time to grab a chair for there will soon be standing room only---and it is no wonder. Klibanoff, a Florence native and veteran journalist, is a mesmerizing speaker. He holds us in thrall for nearly an hour as we relive the early civil rights movement and the journalistic milestones that helped shape the modern South.

As I turn to leave, I run into Charles Moore, the renowned photographer whose pictures of the civil rights movement are legendary. I can still close my eyes and see those shocking photos of the events in Birmingham in 1963 that filled the pages of Life magazine. I practically prostrate myself at Moore's feet, and his blue eyes twinkle with amusement. At my request, he signs a picture of himself in Klibanoff's book that was taken when he was covering the Selma to Montgomery march--and then uses his own linen handkerchief to blot the ink.

It's time to head out to Lovelace Crossroads to picnic with Natalie Chanin. Chanin, who created Project Alabama, began hosting the picnic six years ago as a company picnic. After she launched her own company, AlabamaChanin, in 2006, the tradition continued. Chanin holds the picnic in the backyard of her ranch house/studio which is filled with her unique, handcrafted, limited edition designs that range from household furnishings, to jewelry, to elegant handstitched clothing and a collection of t-shirts.

Inside the house I see what I take to be her handwritten manifesto hanging on the wall. For me, it summarizes the quintessence of the Adventure Weekend. She writes "... by learning, once again, to take part in community I have been inspired to commit myself to bringing a contemporary framework to the fading domestic arts, which I prefer to call "Living Art"...passed by oral tradition through generations, connecting us to our roots, our past, our community, and consequently, to our present."

Outside, the crowd is a veritable melting pot of the new South, and everyone is having a blast. I feel as if the band should be playing "We are Family" but I think they are playing "Take Me Home Country Roads. " I connect with a striking woman in a zebra print mini skirt (I am wearing a zebra print jacket) and a black straw cowboy hat. She spots my composition book and offers to write something. Her name is Bonnie Blue McDaniel and she is in the TV and film industry and is a friend of Natalie's.

Billy Reid's mother joins us. An entrepreneur in her own right, T. J. Reid is a much sought after speaker, author and retail specialist, but today she is a mother. She is watching Billy throw a football with some other guys and she tells this story: "Billy was chosen to be the quarterback in high school because he was tall and made straight As. But when he found out the quarterback was the one who got hit, he would throw the ball and then wave his arms and yell 'I don't have it! I don't have it!' " I laughed and think---well, Billy, you may have thrown the ball then but now you have it and you are RUNNING with it.

After the picnic, guests are offered numerous choices of side trips: The Wall or the Rosenbaum home, or W. C Handy's birthplace, or Fame Studios. I opt to go across the river to Tuscumbia and hang out in the newly renovated section of Main Street that adjoins Coldwater Park. In that small but elegant area, there is Coldwater Books, Parkside Grill, a charming women's clothing store, an Italian eatery, The Palace drugstore-- famous for its milkshakes and hotdogs, Gas Studios, Cassetta Gallery where there is wine and cheese at six p.m,.and also live music on the street.

The structure that houses Coldwater Books, as well as Cassetta Gallery and Parkside Grill, is surrounded by a veranda that rises about 15 feet above the street where one can sit and sip a cool beverage, look at the waterfall at the edge of the park, and contemplate the meaning of life---or in my case, where to have dinner. Yes, food again---one of the reasons I cannot wear those adorable size sixes designed by Reid and Chanin. But I can dream.

Because I am able to commandeer a table on the veranda, I choose to dine at Parkside. Meanwhile, I spy Frank Stitt standing in the doorway of Cassetta Gallery and, in good southern style, I strike up a conversation. I mention that he looks much too cool and composed to be the chef who is preparing a gala for 75 people in less than an hour. Modest and gracious as always, he declares that the greatest part of the work has already been done by Scott Peacock. For the gala, Stitt is also assisted by SFA, Martha Foose, Steven Satterfield, and, I presume, his gorgeous wife Pardis, looking stunning in her white chef's jacket.

After Stitt and his entourage depart to make the final preparations for the gala, I order a glass of wine and relax on the veranda where behind me huge dramatic canvases by Audwin McGee festoon the brick wall. I feel swathed in art, ensconced in culture, immersed in music. As darkness falls, I savor my perfectly grilled rare filet mignon and sip a glass of Pinot Noir and watch the colored lights dance in the waterfall at the edge of the park.

I am grateful to be a part of this tribe of artists and entrepreneurs who value what is old and who glory in making it new. Visionaries who wish to preserve tradition while embracing change, who cherish our resources and use words like sustainable, renewable, local and organic.

Having been baked by the Alabama sun, cooled by the southern breeze, and satiated with food, fun, and fellowship, I drive slowly and carefully along the dark highway back to Elk River. As I turn into my driveway, Florence public radio is playing Billie Holiday's rendition of "Stars Fell on Alabama." It seems as if Lady Day is joining in the celebration, adding her voice to those of other artists. I thought to myself: how happy I am to be living in this place at this time. But surely do hate I missed that chicken stew
- Penne J. Laubenthal, April 21, 2007

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