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Alabama: A Place in the Sun

Posted: Jul 04, 2008

It is July in Alabama and the corn is literally as high as an elephant’s eye. Jungles of lush green flank the country roads. Where formerly one could see for miles, one can barely see the road directly ahead. Thanks to the spring rains, roadside stands are overflowing with sweet Alabama peaches, delectable summer squash, okra, cucumbers, blueberries, and that delicacy of all delicacies: the homegrown tomato.

Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous BLT sandwich, but did you know that the latest craze in the south is the fried green tomato BLT? In my book, fried green tomatoes are the ambrosia of the gods. If you have not dined on Frank Stitt’s fried green tomatoes served on a bed of arugula with homemade buttermilk dressing, you have not lived. The recipe can be found in his wonderful cookbook, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.

Speaking of southern foods, be sure to pick up or print out a copy of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die. And yes, fried green tomatoes are foremost on the list, as well as the heavenly she-crab soup and crab cakes at Cobb Lane restaurant in Birmingham (just up the street from Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill and his bistro Chez Fon Fon).

Every time I post a blog on Swampland, I reflect upon how fortunate I am to live in Alabama. Although I must admit, such was not always the case. An old friend who claims she has been exiled to California sends me an email at least once a month yearning for the south—Alabama, in particular, and her home state of Louisiana. Just yesterday my sister said to me that North Alabama is a little jewel. Her brother-in-law had just returned from kayaking on a swampy inlet near the Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area (in southern Limestone County) bursting with tales about the prolific flora and fauna.

My sister and I both live on Elk River, a tributary of the Tennessee, where wild life and recreational opportunities abound and where nature never ceases to amaze us with its magnificence, from soaring bald eagles to flaming sunsets. And should we feel the urge to golf or to indulge in some upscale dining, we are only thirty minutes from the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa overlooking the majestic Tennessee River. The Shoals Marriott continues to lead Marriott hotels for overall guest satisfaction and was the top golf resort for Marriott in 2006. This luxury hotel is just a short distance from two new Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses – Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster. The Fighting Joe was as one of the top ten new courses by Golf Magazine and Travel Leisure Golf. For gourmet dining, the revolving 360 Grille at the top of the Renaissance Tower offers remarkable cuisine and breathtaking views of the Tennessee River Valley.

But Alabama is not just another pretty face. On June 21st Alabama Public Television earned six regional Emmy Awards in the National Academy of Arts & Sciences Southeast Chapter 2008 competition held in Atlanta. Among the awards was an Emmy for outstanding achievement in the Documentary category, earned by APT’s "Mr. Dial Has Something to Say." (See my blog  "Arrivederci Roma, Ciao Athens (Alabama)" in the  Swampland archives.) "Mr. Dial Has Something to Say" also won two others Emmy awards for APT in the Post-Production Director category and in the Program Photography category.

"WWII: Alabama Remembers," a 90-minute documentary that featured first-hand accounts of the war by veterans throughout Alabama and aired on APT on Veterans Day 2007, received an Emmy for the film’s promotional piece that appeared on APT and can still be viewed on the APT web site. The film also garnered an Emmy in the Lighting category.

While I am lauding the art and culture of Alabama, I want to remind everyone about the upcoming W. C. Handy Music Festival (July 18-26) held in Florence and surrounding area. The first festival, held over twenty years ago, consisted of a long weekend of music featuring Dizzy Gillespie as the headliner artist. Over the next two decades, the annual celebration has evolved into a ten-day festival including over 250 events with music at locations throughout northwest Alabama. So book a room at the Marriott and treat yourself to a holiday in the Shoals.

Here is my recipe for Chilled Summer Squash Soup. As I never measure, you will need to adjust proportions to your taste. Cook fresh squash in chicken broth along with onions, seasoning (I use very little salt since chicken broth is already salty, and I use both black and red pepper as I like my food spicy), and a little garlic. Let mixture cool enough to puree in a blender, food processor, or using what has become my favorite kitchen utensil—the hand blender. When the soup is cool, blend in some fat free half and half. Chill, serve (I think fresh dill makes a nice garnish), and enjoy.

My goal is to make cold summer soups out of all the scrumptious summer vegetables. I have always loved gazpacho (I make it when there are more tomatoes than I can eat), chilled cucumber soup, roasted red pepper soup, and vichyssoise, but this is the first time I have attempted summer squash soup. It will definitely become a staple. As Julia Child would always say, "Bon appetit!" 

--Penne J. Laubenthal

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