From the vast forests and plentiful rivers of the northern mountains, to the rich soil of the Black Belt, to the southern coastal lowlands, Alabama boasts bountiful resources. Native Americans relied on that bounty from the time they began building mounds around the start of the eleventh century. So did the Spanish and French colonizers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the earliest white American settlers and their slaves in the nineteenth. Early Europeans, Americans, and Africans often adopted native traditions for survival. Enslaved people prepared locally grown food on plantations. And city dwellers in Montgomery and Mobile accessed imported fruit, meat, and seafood. The pace of change accelerated after the Civil War. Reconstruction brought increased rail transportation. And the discovery of iron deposits drove demand for industrial labor that fueled the growth of cities such as Huntsville, Decatur, and Birmingham. By the turn of the twentieth century a vibrant culture of dining out and a spirit of entrepreneurship were pervasive, even as many Alabama folk struggled with poverty. Poor whites and blacks fed their families with whatever they could grow, hunt, fish, and forage.
Alabama foodways in the twentieth century were shaped by the increasing diversity of the state’s population and the challenges of racial segregation. Even as immigrants opened cafés and sold produce to blacks and whites alike, whites established segregated public spaces and policed racial barriers. Only the civil rights movement eliminated those barriers, improving access for all and laying the groundwork for opportunities that arrived with the growth of the Sunbelt economy by the 1970s.
Today, Alabama cuisine is diverse and distinctive. Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants now stand alongside barbecue pits. Alabama women sell their cooking and baking expertise to national and global markets. Alabama, in short, remains a foodways frontier, its people showing ongoing creativity and experimentation with natural resources and cultural traditions.
Archaeologists continue to speculate about the moundbuilders of the Mississippian culture that flourished in Alabama from roughly the ninth through the fifteenth centuries. The surviving archaeological record suggests that food consumption was highly ritualized. Native Americans who resided at the Moundville site in central Alabama along the Black Warrior River from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, for example, lived in a rigidly hierarchical society. The feasts that formed social bonds also reinforced social rank.1 The Moundville peoples relied on maize and fish for the bulk of their calories; supplemented their diets with persimmon, maypop, blueberries, greens, maygrass, and barley; and baked, parched, or ground into flour acorns, hickory nuts, and chestnuts. They also relied on stockpiles of food during winters and lean times. Elites had access to choice cuts of game meats such as venison, beaver, and turkey.2
As the cultivation of corn drove a shift to more organized villages in the eleventh century, Mississippian culture expanded in Alabama and food-serving rituals became increasingly elaborate. As the primary unit of social organization shifted from the household to the village center, serving ware and pottery became more intricate and indicative of status and ritual use. The varying sizes of the thin-necked jars, out-slanting bowls, and flare-rimmed bowls found at sites like Lubbub Creek in Pickens County, for instance, suggest that food preparation and service both were essentially communal activities. And the presence or absence of cooking ware and pottery at burial sites likely reflects the social standing of the deceased.3 At mounds used for feasting and religious ceremonies, one would be more likely to find larger-rimmed vessels than on surrounding farmsteads. Food always played a prominent role in ceremonial and communal activities. Political power emanated from the mounds outward through the farmsteads. The size and extent of pottery found at the mounds may indicate that village populations worked together to protect food supplies from rivals.4
When European colonizers began arriving in Alabama in the sixteenth century, they made significant contributions to regional cuisine. The Spanish introduced the domesticated pig toward the middle of the 1500s.5 Survival required that Europeans observe, learn, and partake in the foodways of the native population. Hernando de Soto, who explored Alabama in 1540, first encountered barbacoa, or barbecue, among Native Americans living on the Gulf Coast. As his secretary Rodrigo Ranjel recalled of one barbecue meal, “first they breakfasted on some fowl of the country, which are called gaunaxas [turkeys] and some strips of venison which they found placed upon a framework of sticks, as for roasting on a gridiron.”6 Even as Spanish explorers supplemented their diet with corn, greens, and nuts, Ranjel frequently mentioned eating meat “en barbacoa” throughout his journey with de Soto. In the village of Mabila in central Alabama near what is now Tuscaloosa, Spaniards feasted alongside Native Americans on bread made of ground chestnuts, which were abundant in the region and a staple of the native diet.7 Nearly a hundred years later, British botanist John Gerarde reported that “some affirme, that of raw chestnuts, dried and afterwards turned into meale, there is made a kind of bread: yet it must needs be, that this should be dry and brittle.”8
None of this cultural sharing came without problems. The Spanish found themselves in a tenuous position. Outnumbered and dependent on Native Americans for sustenance, the Spanish provoked violence and instability. When Mississippian Chief Tuskaloosa arranged for a ceremony involving dance, song, and food at Mabila for de Soto and his men, his warriors attacked the Spanish, only to see the Spanish fight their way out of the ambush and burn the village to the ground.9 The Spanish were not above using foodways to imply the uncivilized nature of their hosts. Even as barbacoa came to be seen as the classically indigenous form of cooking, it recalled the Spanish word for barbarian. Smoking meat on a platform connoted the violence and savagery of colonization.10
The native population of Alabama declined significantly due to warfare and the introduction of European diseases, but the growing population of European settlers continued to rely on Native American foodways traditions evident among tribes of Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee. Well into the eighteenth century, Spanish, French, and British settlers maintained the Native American habit of eating foraged greens and cultivated maize. By that point they had long since adopted the practice of barbecuing meat. The introduction of enslaved African people to the region in the early eighteenth century drove further cultural and culinary exchange. Southerners of varying races and ethnic and national backgrounds began incorporating African foods such as okra, sesame, peanuts, and black-eyed peas into their diets.11
Through the War of 1812, the territory of Alabama changed hands several times among the Spanish, the French, and the British, and it remained relatively unsettled compared with the bustling Atlantic seaboard. The conclusion of the war ushered in the era of “Alabama Fever,” a period when cotton-land speculation was widespread and the population of white and enslaved Americans expanded dramatically, culminating in the admission of Alabama as a state in 1819.12 Within just a few years, the Alabama landscape transformed from dense wilderness frontier to cotton farms and small towns. Food production was often of secondary concern to cotton planting.13 Even as the state’s population ballooned to 300,000 by 1830 and remained largely rural in character, food shortages persisted. A bushel of corn in the middle of the 1810s, for example, cost four dollars on the road from Huntsville to Tuscaloosa.14
When food could be acquired, cuisine on antebellum American frontiers often left much to be desired. Into the 1840s, Alabama seemed rugged and wild compared with other places. As British traveler James Silk Buckingham rode through the southeast in 1842, he noted that in Alabama, “brooks ran with greater impetuosity, and the bridges over them were more rude than any we had yet seen.” The towns he visited were plain in character, consisting often of little more than a “blacksmith’s shop, a few log-huts, and a ‘confectionary,’ with the ever-ready poison of strong drink.” After staying at a boarding house en route to Montgomery, Buckingham remarked that only “a very rude breakfast was served,” likely comprising corn and various cheap cuts of meat.15
As Buckingham observed, alcohol flowed freely on the Alabama frontier, and its production was prominent for reasons of economics and health alike. Maintaining hydration with alcoholic beverages was typically safer than drinking unpurified water that could be rife with disease.16 Grain alcohol was especially widespread. More genteel settlers experimented with wine and brandy production, with mixed results. One farmer who attempted to produce wine had some success with American grape varietals such as Catawba and Herbemont’s Madeira, but he also acknowledged “we have long tried to introduce the foreign grape into this country, which has failed here, because the climate does not suit us. Our climate, like young America is restless.”17 One German immigrant, though, had somewhat better luck, utilizing winemaking practices from the Rhine, known for its Riesling, to make brandy in in Tallapoosa County. “In addition to the enjoyment of its fine exhilarating flavor,” he wrote in the 1850s, “one drinking has the satisfaction of knowing that it is Alabama brandy, and a pure article, and not, as is now the brandy of commerce, a deleterious compound.”18
Still, visitors in the 1850s viewed Alabama as unrefined, especially by comparison to the North. Traveling by steamboat to Mobile in 1854, Frederick Law Olmsted observed that the cotton-planters aboard were “usually well dressed, but were a rough, coarse style of people, drinking a great deal, and most of the time under a little alcoholic excitement.”19 Slaves aboard the steamboat dined separately on the cotton bales, away from white passengers and without standard dining utensils. Olmsted noted that “the food which was given to them in tubs, from the kitchen, was various and abundant, consisting of bean-porridge, bacon, corn bread, ship’s biscuit, potatoes, duff (pudding), and gravy.” But he also wrote that “there was one knife used only, among ten of them; the bacon was cut and torn into shares; splinters of bone and of fire-wood were used for forks; the porridge was passed from one to another, and drank out of the tub.”20 As slavery became more entrenched in the Cotton Kingdom over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, race and class distinctions like these became more prevalent, in public dining as in other areas of life.
Travelers did find somewhat better fare and accommodations in Alabama cities. Buckingham commented that one (unnamed) Montgomery hotel was the finest he had stayed in since he had been in New York, and that it was better than any in Charleston or Savannah.21 Similarly, while Olmsted found Mobile to be “dirty, and noisy, with little elegance,” he noted that the Battle House was an excellent—if overpriced—hotel. Olmsted observed that “at a market-garden, near the town which I visited, I found most of the best Northern and Belgian pears fruiting well. . . . Figs are abundant and bananas and oranges are said to be grown with some care.”22 Attending the Mobile Jockey Club Spring Races in 1857, a reporter commented on the boom and bustle of the port city. While at the market, a “noble green trout, some ten pounds” that he had wanted for dinner was stolen, only to have a friend tell him, “I can spot the man who stole it! I saw it in a large bunch of red snappers, pompano, and groopers [sic], carried into yonder oyster shop.”23 If the story reflected the questionable morals and rapid pace of life in antebellum Mobile, it also demonstrated the variety and quality of goods available at the city’s fish markets.
Antebellum Alabama foodways were a melting pot of international cultures. European and African traditions became most pronounced. A Native American influence remained, even after the federal government dispossessed most Alabama tribes by the middle of the 1830s. In Dallas County in 1838, for example, Phillip Henry Gosse wrote of the presence of Dutch “woffles” for breakfast that utilized European techniques and Native American ingredients. “You see they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges,” he explained. Prepared with a waffle iron and served with butter, Gosse noted that “sometimes they are made of the meal of Indian corn (as so little wheat is grown here as to make wheat-flour be considered almost a luxury), but these are not nearly so nice, at least to an English palate.”24 In an era when few had regular access to ice, a hot and humid climate meant that food preservation techniques in the antebellum period were at a premium. These, too, drew on various cultural traditions to provide salient characteristics to Alabama foodways. Foods were salted, smoked, dried, pickled, and stored in root cellars, often using variations of African and Native American practices of drying fruits and beans for future use.25
Still, the cultural mélange of Alabama’s foodways could not disguise the kinds of disparities that Olmsted saw on his steamboat voyage. Thomas Hubbard Hobbs, who belonged to a planter family from Athens, Alabama, recalled in his 1847 diary eating boiled eggs or sardines at times when he stayed out too late at night or failed to return home in time for supper. He also reported studying, hunting, fishing, and making social calls. He attended barbecues where he courted young women, and generally his meals, like those of others in his class, consisted of formal affairs. Elites in Alabama often ate imported items like wheat flour that were unavailable or unaffordable for most Alabamians.26
By contrast, enslaved people ate less formally and with less variety. Wooden spoons were often the only servingware or utensils allotted to the enslaved, and rations were sparing.27 Near the end of his life, Henry Barnes of Suggsville recalled that when he was young, his master would slaughter eight to ten “set-down” hogs at a time. These were hogs that had been fed so much corn that they could no longer stand on their legs. Barnes remembered that “us had all us could eat den, an’ plenty sugar-cane to make ‘lasses outten. An’ dey made up biscuits in de big wood trays. Dem trays was made outten tupelo gum an’ dey was light as a fedder.”28 Normally, however, Barnes, like other enslaved people where he lived, received three pounds of meat and a peck of cornmeal to last a week.29 Cull Taylor of Augusta County remembered somewhat more generous rations: six or seven pounds of meat and one peck of meal per week for each man. But the allocation Barnes remembered seems to have been far more typical, with a few pounds of meat offering some protein and corn providing the starch.30
Holidays, celebrations, and harvest times were special occasions in antebellum Alabama for slaves and masters alike. Whatever boundaries usually separated the foodways of white and black blurred somewhat. At weddings and on Christmas, hogs, turkeys, and chickens formed the foundation of a communal feast. Chickens and biscuits might be distributed to enslaved people on Christmas or on Sundays, and cotton-picking, hog-killing, and corn-shucking provided excuses for festivities that often included singing, dancing, and meals that went on through the night. At these events, enslaved women often dedicated themselves to frying and baking in quantities well beyond their usual output.31
Enslaved people in Alabama needed to supplement and add variety to their diets by making use of local plants and game. Plantation gardens provided greens, collards, and turnips, and orchards yielded peaches and apples.32 Slaves also had their own gardens that were more or less permitted by their masters. Allowing slaves to supplement their rations reduced the cost of maintaining a healthy labor force.33
Cheney Cross of Evergreen explained how her grandmother would cook. “My gran’ma she hung dat pot up on dem pot hooks over de fire an’ washed de meat an’ drap it in. Time she done pick an’ overlook de greens an’ den wrinched ’em in spring water, de meat was bilin’. Den she take a great big mess of dem fresh turnip greens an’ squash ’em down in dat pot. Dey jes’ melt down an’ go to seasonin’.” None of this effort meant that white needs could be neglected, of course. Cross continued, “‘Nex’ thing I knowed, here come my mistis, an’ she say: ’Now Cheney, I wants some pone bread for dinner.’ Dem hick’ry coals in dat fire place was all time ready an’ hot. They wouldn’t be no finger prints lef’ on dat pone when Cheney got th’ew pattin’ it out neither. Better not! Look lack dem chillun jes’ couldn’t git ’nuff of dat hard corn bread.34
Key elements of southern cuisine were born of the interplay of slaves and masters. Watermelons, pumpkins, rice, sugar cane, cashews, pears, plums, and grapes all grew on Alabama plantations. People made beer out of persimmons and wine out of plums. As a boy, Cull Taylor remembered that men went out on evenings to hunt opossum, raccoons, and wildcats. “Dey den would sometimes go deer an rabbit huntin’ in de daytime; an’, too, dey would set traps to ketch other varmints. Dere was plenty ob squirrels too.”35 Hunting was not only a recreational activity but means for enslaved men to better provide for themselves and for their families.
Folk medicine in Alabama, too, owed itself to the ingenuity and cultural knowledge of the enslaved. On one Clarke County plantation, slaves gave children the seed of Jerusalem Oak cooked into a candy with molasses as a means to cure hookworm.36 Published in 1923, Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes includes a recipe for “Old Virginia Molasses Taffy,” made by boiling molasses with baking soda, before adding butter and vinegar.37 It is possible that slaves mixed the seeds or herbs into this common plantation candy in order to get the children to swallow it. For common colds, horehound, which grew wild, was gathered and brewed as a tea.38 Other slaves brewed elderbush tea for fever, sassafras tea for spring fever, and pinetop tea for colds. They used poultices out of mullein leaves to relieve swelling.39 While the efficacy of these remedies is uncertain, the folk medicines reflected the deep knowledge slaves had of their surroundings and of the edible forest.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the people of Alabama and soldiers in the Confederacy faced food shortages and inflation. Over the course of the war, enslaved people slowed their work on plantations and many simply left to hasten their freedom, giving slaveholders few options but to do their best to maintain order and control at home.40 In a March 1863 letter to his father in Union Springs, Alabama, for example, James Zachariah Branscomb wrote, “If I could only get to eat what your negroes do now I should think me doing finely. Tell them I say to work and have plenty to eat when I get home. If they don’t work hard, their rations may get as short as mine.”41
Soldiers like Branscomb began the war optimistically. Over time, their confidence eroded. Branscomb and his messmates hired a cook in August 1861 while encamped in southern Virginia. He noted that “besides our rations we buy potatoes cabbage and various other vegetables.”42 But seven months later, even as Branscomb could still proudly write of his ability to make magnum bonum biscuits and bake beef, he and his messmates could no longer afford their cook. As the Confederacy strained under the Union blockade Branscomb’s letters home became gloomier.43 Fighting in the Peninsula campaigns near Norfolk, Virginia, in 1862, Branscomb wrote his parents, “We are faring very badly in the way of rations at present and everything is so high we can’t afford to buy. Molasses is $4.00 a gallon, sugar .75 cts. a lb., butter $1.25 a lb, and these things are hard to get at that. Vegetables are not to be had.”44
First Alabama Infantry Private James A. Goble, who called Auburn home, expressed similar sentiments. Camped on a bluff along the Mississippi River in Port Hudson, Louisiana in March 1862, he wrote in his diary that molasses and sugar were abundant. When he had time, Goble foraged for greens and fished. He saw men who sold food and drinks when soldiers were not on the battlefield or in winter encampments. The following year, Union forces lay siege to Port Hudson, and after two weeks of combat in March 1863, Goble complained that a Yankee rifle shell hit a barrel of beer that a man had been intending to sell. The shell “passed through the head and Emptied the Beer out on the ground. The Yanks rather got the best of the Beer man that time and he did not get his price.” 45 Lost beer was only one of the problems Goble and his comrades faced. After thirty-five days of besiegement he described an urgent search for food: “Rebels was on a search today for provisions and was fortunate enuff to find 18 old oxen, 9 old cows, 20 lbs salt horse, and 1 small box of old strong bacon. Rations enuff for 4 days, and when that gives out the Gen. will keep the men 4 days on sour Molasses and musty cornbread. 8 days will be the utmost.”46 A few days later Goble reported that army-issue provisions had not been received at Port Hudson in four months, and on June 28th he wrote, “Meat gives out today. Men all complaining only two meals a day. Served out to them like dogs.” Within a week the men in the First Alabama Infantry would be living on dried cowpeas, mule meat, and a little corn soup. Many lost their ability to fight altogether due to heat exhaustion and hunger. 47
The homefront fared about as poorly. The focus on provisioning armies meant that flour and salt were scarce for civilians. Salt was especially vital, as it was necessary for leavening bread and preserving meat, meaning that shortages could potentially lead to starvation during lean months of the year. Drought and wartime shortages of salt in 1863 prompted bread riots from Richmond to Mobile, led by women trying to feed their families. On September 4, six hundred soldiers’ wives and their children gathered on the Spring Hill Road in Mobile. Marching and carrying banners emblazoned “Bread or Blood” and “Bread and Peace,” they demanded bread with which to feed their families. Wielding hatchets and knives, they headed down Dauphine Street, breaking into stores and taking food and clothing. The Seventeenth Alabama, ordered to suppress the riot, refused, arguing that the women were desperate and long-suffering. Only a promise to the women from Mobile’s mayor and the provost-marshall that they would have what they had demanded convinced the crowds to disperse. The women were tired of war and desperate for peace. They simply wanted to be able to run their households again. And they were not without support.48 As the New York Times reported, “The population of Mobile very naturally strongly sympathized with these poor, starving women, and many instances occurred to show this sentiment.”49
Given the strains on both soldiers and civilians, many white Alabamians accepted defeat and welcomed the end of war in 1865. Ellen Thomas, a seventeen-year-old enslaved woman in Mobile, remembered that she was cooking a breakfast of fried codfish and potatoes when she heard Union forces approaching. When she informed her owner, “He jumped up and said: ‘It’s the Yankees! Tell Pedro to get a sheet and hang it out in front.’ Pedro was excited and, instead of getting a sheet, got one of Mistress’ best table cloths and hung it from a big oak tree near the front gate. When the Yankees rode up, they dismounted and Master invited them in for breakfast."50 With the surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox, the South began the process of Reconstruction, and with it reconciliation with the Union. Though farms and cities lay in ruins across the South, the conclusion of the Civil War and the end of slavery drove dramatic economic and social change.
Agricultural boosters worked to portray Alabama as a place of abundance and renewed opportunity. Newspapers touted the benefits of farming in Alabama, deemphasizing cotton as a crop and promoting produce instead. After seeing an article praising Florida, the agricultural editor of the Mobile Register pointed out that while Alabama was more prone to cold snaps, it had the advantage of “better soil, a soil more susceptible of improvement, exemption from insect troubles . . . superior water, finer gardening lands, better marketing facilities, and so on to almost endless extent.”51 Identifying the benefits of Alabama’s landscape was essential to recasting the state as modern and capitalistic. Alabama would now be a cornucopia, a provider for the nation.52 As William Truitt of Deer Park, Alabama, wrote to the Ohio Farmer, “This is splendid country to growing vegetables and fruit. I do not believe California can equal it, and I think in the near future the Golden state will find a strong rival in the fruit industry from this part of the south. The finest pears and peaches I ever saw were grown here the past season.” Encouraging Ohioans to resettle in Alabama, Truitt said that he had “no ax to grind,” but simply wanted to see old friends move to “help build up the country and improve our society.”53
The effort to reorient Alabama’s agricultural production succeeded, particularly in the southern part of the state. Citrus boomtowns emerged by the late nineteenth century. Emperor Meiji of Japan first gifted the Satsuma orange, a type of mandarin, to Fig Tree Island in 1878. The town was renamed Satsuma in honor of the orange trees in 1915. A Michigan newspaper advertisement in the 1890s asked readers to consider the town of Fruitdale. “Don’t you want to go South to live? If so, investigate the advantages of Fruitdale, Alabama,” it urged. The advertisement stressed that growers in Fruitdale began shipping peaches out on June 1st and continued through August 1st—before northern farmers even began to bring in their harvests.54 The Business Men’s Association of Citronelle similarly boasted of Alabama’s long growing season. In a pamphlet produced by the association in the 1910s they wrote, “Here we raise bumper crops of early vegetables while the North is yet mantled in snow. Here the Fig and Satsuma Orange ripen and bring a golden harvest to the grower. Here the dollar-a-pound Pecan Nuts grow to perfection. Here the Sand Pear flourishes with never a failure.”55 Claiming a population of twelve hundred, Citronelle thrived for a few decades growing fruits and pecans, though it ultimately succumbed to stiff competition from the Florida fruit markets. Southern Alabama towns did see explosive growth in citrus production for decades. But the unpredictability and relative frequency of winter frosts compromised sustained, large-scale citrus growing.
Postwar Alabama farmers took strong interest in their gardens, noting the daily changes in weather and experimenting with new crops, including grapes for winemaking. In Tuscumbia, attorney William Cooper recorded in his journal on February 6, 1884, “4 stakes and vines put out near office. This many grape vines put out today ought bear some in 1886. The roots of these home vines are very poor roots but are now in very fine soil.” Cooper also recorded that he had planted Diana and Norton vines, but it was his Venango grapes that he described as “exquisite.”56
Northern entrepreneurs, observing the possibilities from efforts like Cooper’s, used the wine industry to promote Alabama as a tourist destination. After working for the Tallapoosa Land, Mining, and Manufacturing Company, for example, Connecticut-born Ralph Spenser determined that the land stripped by the old mines was perfect for wine growing and relaxation. In 1895, along with a partner, Spenser established a two-thousand-acre winery on the site of a former mining camp called Summit Cut (later called Zidonia) and founded the town of Fruithurst. Spenser advertised for immigrant labor, attracting two hundred Hungarian employees who had been working in the mines.
Fruithurst boasted mansions, gaslights, and streets lined with maples. In the vineyards Spenser experimented with Ives, Delaware, Concord, Niagara, and one hundred other grape varietals. At the Victorian-style Fruithurst Inn, tourists dined on roast sirloin of beef, roast leg of lamb, and wild goose a la fermier, all of which were paired with Fruithurst claret, a blended wine equivalent to French Bordeaux and considered a luxury ever since the British began to express a preference for clarets in the seventeenth century.57 Fruithurst winemakers also bottled port, sherry, muscatel, and sweet concord wine. Fruithurst, like many of the citrus towns in the southern part of the state, proved to be a boomtown as well, and it quickly fell victim to shortsighted management and overexpansion. The town was sold at auction in 1898. Within a few years, its population and its wine production rapidly dwindled.58
Alabama met growing national demands in niche markets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Huntsville became the watercress capital of the world in 1908 when a New Jersey man named Frank Dennis bought and leased ponds in several states to grow the peppery and zesty green. As fine-dining hotel restaurants in northern cities, such as the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Palmer House and the Drake Hotel in Chicago, added salads to their menus the demand for watercress surpassed the supply. Dennis had begun selling watercress to restaurants in 1874. Madison County’s temperate climate and limestone springs made it an ideal location for the Dennis Company’s winter headquarters. From December through May, employees in waders gathered the leaves, which they washed, packed, and shipped on ice by railcar to all states east of the Mississippi. The Dennis Water Cress Company flourished until the 1960s when colder winters, comparatively ineffective chemical fertilizers, and spot fungus crippled production.59
Along the coast, meanwhile, the fishing industry boomed at the turn of the twentieth century. Fishermen in Bayou La Batre hauled in nineteen thousand pounds of red snapper in 1910, the largest catch shipped out of any dock in Alabama other than Mobile. That led one newspaper to project, “It means, according to indications, the birth of an industry which will soon bring the seas coast of Alabama into a state of much activity and development.”60 Visitors flocked to a terrapin farm in 1894 to watch the turtles snap at feeding time, though the animals had a different destiny than as a tourist attraction. As one newspaper reported, “The diamond back terrapin is greatly in demand among epicures, and while there are few restaurants that do not claim to supply terrapin stews, there are very few that really do, on account of their scarcity and high prices.”61
For all that might be deemed its progress in the decades after the Civil War, changes to Alabama’s economy, new uses of its resources, and growing connections to national markets also created social tensions. White leaders of the state government began passing Jim Crow laws to restrict voting and formally segregate public spaces. By the early twentieth century much of social and political life was geared toward the maintenance of white supremacy. Black resistance to these changes was met by ferocious white violence and sometimes by lynching. The combination of economic discrimination and racial terror forced many African Americans into grinding and enduring poverty, largely performing labor as sharecroppers on cotton plantations and doing other kinds of low-paying agricultural work.62
If the social and political reform impulses of the Progressive Era yielded segregation and disfranchisement, they also fostered a new interest in standardization, modernization, nutrition, and health. Booker T. Washington, who had begun life as an enslaved person and became the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, believed that food preparation and presentation was strongly connected with racial and class uplift. Yet in the plantation districts surrounding Tuskegee, the diet of sharecroppers and tenants centered on pork fat and cornbread just as it had during slavery, and poor farmers often still ate meals right out of the skillet as they walked to the cotton fields. As Washington recalled in his autobiography,
At times I have eaten in cabins where they had only corn bread and ‘black-eye peas’ cooked in plain water. The people seemed to have no other idea than to live on this fat meat and corn bread, –the meat, and the meal of which the bread was made, having been bought at a high price at the store in town, notwithstanding the fact that the land all about the cabin homes could easily have been made to produce nearly every kind of garden vegetable that is raised anywhere in the country.63
More generally, Washington associated cotton production with poverty. Thus, Tuskegee promoted both scientific farming and advanced techniques in food production as means of reducing poverty among African Americans. Washington encouraged his students to take advantage of the resources in Alabama, arguing, “If you will travel through certain sections of Alabama today, if you will travel through certain sections of the mountainous sections of Tennessee, you find where nature has been most rich, the people have taken the least advantage of the opportunities which nature has provided.”64 Nothing better symbolized the sorts of innovations Washington encouraged than the work of Tuskegee professor George Washington Carver, whose agricultural experiments led to the peanut being elevated to the status of a primary crop in the state.
Washington’s efforts at Tuskegee were not without challenges. Washington struggled, for example, to set up a kitchen for students at Tuskegee. In its early years the school had little money, a limited staff, and meager accommodations. Meals were cooked outside over a fire, rather than on a stove. Tableware was insufficient and students sat on carpenter benches rather than at dining tables. “No one . . . seemed to have any idea that meals must be served at certain fixed and regular hours, and this was a source of great worry,” Washington lamented. “Everything was so out of joint and so inconvenient that I feel safe in saying that for the first two weeks something was wrong at every meal. Either the meat was not done or had been burnt, or the salt had been left out of the bread, or the tea had been forgotten.”65 Washington’s worries reflected the ways class and manners affected his students. If African Americans dined as middle and upper class whites did, Washington believed, white people would slowly but surely come to recognize their equality.
Finding the meager meals of Tuskegee’s early days totally inadequate, Washington soon established a dining room and kitchen with all modern conveniences, and student meals became more regimented. For breakfast students ate Boston beans, syrup, cornbread, and coffee. For their dinner they ate beef and gravy, greens, boiled peas, sweet potatoes, and cornbread.66 Students worked in the kitchens and prepared complex dishes for visitors and faculty. Beef, rather than pork, became standard fare in the Tuskegee dining room, suggesting that modernization had truly changed the southern diet. In March 1902, for example, the students served faculty soup, fried steak and gravy, boiled cabbage, rice, stewed canned corn, butter, buttermilk, and cornbread. Supper consisted of fried oysters, fried potatoes, canned pears, syrup, butter, sour milk, light bread, coffee, and tea.67 Blending urban and rural cultures, and locally and nationally produced foods, the menu at Tuskegee reflected significant changes in Alabama foodways.
Nowhere was modernity more evident than in Alabama’s growing cities. Spurred by industry and railroad transportation, Huntsville and Birmingham became the new commercial centers of Alabama. The state’s boosters, businessmen, and newspapermen promoted an optimistic vision of progress while also maintaining notions of honor and mastery.68 The port city of Mobile, meanwhile, which saw its population dwindle and its economy suffer during and immediately after the Civil War, revitalized over the course of the postwar decades, thanks largely to cultural traditions intimately linked to foodways. Residents revived the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations by the second half of the 1860s, providing social elites with an opportunity to imbibe in anticipation of the Lenten season and gave nearly anyone a chance to buck customarily austere Victorian norms.69 Revelers organized krewes and mystic societies to hold parades that culminated with balls and feasts. Hoc Signo Sustineat, also known as the Heavy Samplers’ Society for the tendency of members to stand near the punch bowl, held lavish balls at the Battle House Hotel. One popular dish for a pre-Mardi Gras ball was Nero’s sausage. Spiced country sausages with little fat or gristle were placed in a chafing dish on a bed of bay leaves. After slowly cooking the sausage, a cup of brandy was poured over the sausage and lit on fire. The dish was served with buttered grits and greens.70 Another ball dish was eggs cooked in chicken stock and heavy cream. Sometimes seasoned with cayenne or tarragon or dill, so-called creamed eggs were considered a “‘refreshment’ to help hold revelers together until the champagne breakfast after the event.”71
Mobilians also adapted to more modern cooking. The 1878 Gulf City Cook Book, created by the ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, revealed lasting foodways changes prompted by the Civil War.72 Already feeling the effects of a seven-year depression that would culminate with the collapse of the Bank of Mobile in 1884, white churchwomen published the cookbook to fundraise for charity. The sluggish economy that retarded the development of industrialization and urbanization in Mobile meant that most dishes in the cookbook were crafted from homemade goods, rather than store bought ingredients.73 Recipes included stewed okra with tomatoes, gopher soup with onions, baked red snapper with Irish potatoes, and “rebel pudding” made with molasses, ground cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. Instructions were direct. Literate middle-class women followed along or instructed employees. The recipe for canvasback duck, for example, instructed cooks to “have the ducks wiped dry, and stuffed as any other fowl. Rub over them lard, pepper, and salt and roast about an hour.” The authors suggested, “before sending to the table a little lemon-juice squeezed over them is an improvement.”74 These women, some of whom owned slaves before the war, may not have been accustomed to working in their own kitchens, but social customs made it important for women to demonstrate they could maintain their households. Cookbooks with simple directions were necessary in every middle and upper-class kitchen.
In the late nineteenth century, a new consumer culture emerged across the United States as railroad networks expanded to transport mass-produced goods. Significant foodways developments included the emergence of national brand-name food items and the growing importance of restaurants. Across the South, refrigerated railcars introduced more beef into the southern diet and passenger cars brought tourists. Alabama made foodways innovations a central component of its ongoing shift from a plantation economy to one grounded more in entrepreneurship and industry. In Huntsville, for example, local entrepreneurs built the Monte Sano hotel in the late 1880s with elegance in mind, while an Independence Day menu from the Bienville Hotel in Mobile in the early twentieth century featured an upscale prime rib au jus along with more traditional sides like baked sweet potatoes and coarse hominy.75
Given the state’s hot and humid climate, it is not surprising that a number of the first carbonated sodas originated in Alabama. In 1901, Sidney Lee of Birmingham formed the Buffalo Rock Company to market his unusually potent ginger ale.76 With a deep amber color and packing a punch that cleared the sinuses, Buffalo Rock Southern Spice Ginger Ale quickly became a lasting regional favorite. As Fannie Flagg, the Alabama-born author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, wrote, “In the South the very best drink on a hot summer afternoon was a large frosty glass of creamy vanilla ice cream with golden Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale poured on top.”77 Grapico also became a popular soda throughout the South. Though it originated in New Orleans, the beverage was bottled in Birmingham by 1917. R.R. Rochell and his Grapico Bottling Company of Birmingham became the sole proprietors of the grape-flavored soda in 1929. Advertised as the “Drink of the Nation,” Grapico promised to be “bright, when days are hot, right off the ice, will hit the spot.”78 Flagg recalls drinking this soda as a child, too. The drink turned her lips purple and was “so sweet that it made your hair stand up on your head.”79 The Buffalo Rock Company continues to bottle Grapico in Birmingham today.
Even as some Alabama brands inched toward national prominence and became more widely available for consumers, class and race determined access to food in Alabama cities. By the 1910s, grocers sold and restaurateurs served meats from the Midwest, oranges from California, and bananas from the Caribbean. But these were often only accessible to elites in the state. Whites in Alabama used access to hotel restaurants as a means of identifying with a growing national, white middle class. The segregation of public spaces in the South resulted in a ritual of eating that depended on interactions tied to consumption, social control, and racial purity.80 Even as Birmingham’s “magical” overnight growth fueled by the iron industry brought profit and prosperity to managers of the mines and foundries, life for many steel workers was incredibly difficult, and poor nutrition was one reason why. For poor blacks and whites alike, pellagra, a niacin deficiency, remained a common ailment through the 1930s.
Concerns over public health led to the policing of markets and of lower class households, but not always to their obvious benefit. Workers in the mines belonging to the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI) found their lives dictated in large measure by the company. In the early twentieth century, the company’s workers in and around Birmingham earned between thirteen and fifteen cents an hour (African American workers earned the least), while steel workers in Pittsburgh and Chicago earned seventeen cents an hour on average.81 TCI employees lived in company towns in houses with leaking roofs and little furniture. They paid rent to the company and bought food and other items from the company store using company-issued script, often at considerably higher prices than at outside markets. Poor working and living conditions led to turnover rates that frequently exceeded 400%. Progressive reformers sought to improve the conditions for workers, but their motives for improving sanitation in company towns had as much to do with ensuring the public health of Birmingham’s middle class as it did with aiding the working poor.
As employer interest in scientific management took hold among industrial firms like TCI, the desire for an efficient labor force that did not have such high absenteeism and turnover yielded corporate interest in things like worker malnutrition. Soon the nutrition of employees living in company towns became a vital reform issue for mine operators in Alabama.82 Nutrition in company towns fell mostly to the wives of the steel workers. Each TCI company town had a director of welfare whose job was educating women and their families. Home economics teachers encouraged white women to grow gardens to supplement their diets. Programs in company-run schools taught children to distinguish among dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables, and grains. At one of TCI’s rival companies, Sloss Furnaces, women were provided with the means to can food and they could earn extra money by cooking meals for single men, but employees of the company tended to gather communally rather than because of company-directed initiatives. Groups of workers regularly gathered for barbecue and chitterlings, and African American workers passed down knowledge of gardening and seeds to new generations.83
Regardless of the approach used to improve employee nutrition, education and food production ultimately was geared toward the service of the company. They yielded mixed results, mostly because working conditions remained poor and wages remained low. Steel workers often sought access to food outside the company system, including at immigrant-run businesses. Greeks found early success in Birmingham and Mobile in the food-service industry. TCI and Sloss both recruited young Greek men to work in mines and furnaces. By 1900 roughly one hundred Greek immigrants lived in Birmingham. George Cassimus, often described as the first Greek in Birmingham, moved to the city from Mobile to open a fish lunch house.84 Others soon followed. Newly arrived immigrants founded fruit stands that required little knowledge of English. Others operated short-order cafes, and a few ran higher-end restaurants. Secondgeneration immigrant Denny Kakoliris explained why Greeks drifted into food service: “In Greece everybody had to know how to cook. If you were a shepherd, way up in the mountains, you didn’t go home at night. You’d stay up there with your sheep—maybe a week, maybe two. And you’d learn to do for yourself.”85 For decades, Greeks maintained a virtual monopoly over the fruit stands. Alex Kontos became known as the “Banana King” when he signed a contract to sell wholesale bananas from a distributor in Mobile.86
Italian immigrants, meanwhile, frequently sold groceries in African American communities. Whites in Alabama viewed Italian immigrants, who were predominantly of Sicilian origin, as neither white nor black. Italians discovered they could use their ambiguous racial status to claim a kind of intermediary standing in Birmingham.87 Over ninety percent of Italian-owned stores were located in segregated black neighborhoods. They provided access to national products that might otherwise be denied African American consumers.88
Mobile in the early twentieth century underwent unusual forms of cultural blending. Greek immigrant Bessie Papas went to work at the age of fifteen in the city’s Metropolitan Restaurant, owned by relatives, before getting hired at the Malbis plantation and bakery in 1927. There, Greek dishes of dolmades, stuffed grape leaves, and plaki, baked fish, topped the dinner table. Greek cookies were presented to guests.89 Somewhat less common in Alabama was the continued presence in Mobile of small numbers of Native Americans, most of whom had been forced west in the 1830s. Alabama native and author Eugene Walter remembered as a young man in Mobile when “the ‘boboshilly’ was usually the first to appear” on the streets in the early morning. “Like the din from the lamp, she was suddenly there. The boboshillies were the two or three old Indian women who came into town to sell gumbo file, a few wild herbs like burnet, bay laurel leaves, sassafras root, sometimes wild persimmons….” The women, who moved like shadows, wore faded cotton dresses and white turbans, and they never spoke.90
Walter remembered childhood breakfasts and other meals with a range of cultural origins. He recalled fried plantains, ham steaks, and soufflé. He described imported cheeses, sherbet made with Karo syrup and blackberries, and chocolate from George’s chocolate shop.91 On Sundays, Walter’s family often drove to nearby Bayou La Batre or Coden to dine in restaurants located on the piers next to the shrimping boats.92 The first time Walter ate catfish, it was while he and his family waited for a ferry back to Mobile. An African American woman named ‘Vira fried the cornmeal crusted fillets. “The meat was fine textured and the fresh-water sweetness, contrasting with the delicate crunch of the cornmeal coating, was infinitely satisfying. There was also corn on the cob, with old-fashioned crinkly hairpins stuck in each end to serve as handles,” Walter remembered. ‘Vira also served turnip and mustard greens with dumplings.93
The Great Depression marked another major turning point for Alabamians and their foodways. Owing to cotton surpluses in an era of declining prices during the 1920s, Birmingham and other parts of the state felt the effects of the Depression two years before the stock market collapsed.94 In 1928, the Birmingham Trades Council reported that the unemployment rate was eighteen percent. The closing of two TCI steel mills resulted in even more widespread unemployment by 1929.95 Many of mill families moved back to the woods and fields.96 In a memoir of his grandfather, Rick Bragg wrote that his kin survived the Depression primarily on beans and bread. The men who still had work at cotton mills and in coalmines took lunch pails of pone with pork cracklins and buttermilk from home. Families fried okra, squash, and green tomatoes in the summer. Peppers became chow-chow, eaten with beans.97 Alabama poor whites ate deer and other game, too. As Bragg explains, “They scrambled squirrel brains into their eggs, and made candy for their children by melting cane sugar in skillets and then letting it get hard.”98
The lives of impoverished African Americans during the Depression bore similarities to those of whites. A child during the Great Depression, African American Artelia Bendolph was the daughter of a tenant farmer in Gee’s Bend. She slept on a mattress of corn shucks and wore work clothes made out of fertilizer bags and flour sacks. She remembered that her grandmother cooked “collard greens, cabbage, whatever they raised in the garden. English peas, potatoes, onions, squash, carrots.”99 In Sumter County, the granddaughters of former slave Josh Horn recalled eating possum in the Depression. Their grandmother, Alice, “would take possum in the kitchen and skin possum and lay him in ashes—wouldn’t cut head off. She’d pull the tongue out and fill the mouth with taters and things. And she’d take that old black tail and wrap it around the possum.”100 As Alabamians had for so long, these folks relied on the forests and fields to provide in hard times.
Eventually, federal relief provided families with greater stability and the means to broaden their diet. Federal agencies issued families cornmeal, potatoes, cabbage, milk, lard, and molasses.101 Government agents distributed peanut butter, white bread, and five-pound blocks of American cheese. Rick Bragg later wrote, “Chances are, if you are Southern and your grandma ever made you a grilled cheese sandwich or a plate of macaroni, there was government cheese in it. Country people, unlike fancy, more urbane people, do not think cheese has to smell like a dead dog to be good, and this was clean-smelling and didn’t even have any holes in it.” The influence of the government shifted food patterns in Alabama. Impoverished folk consumed more mass-produced foods made in distant factories.102
The outbreak of World War II disrupted the eating habits of Americans. Ration books metered consumption. Alabamians, who had survived more than a decade worth of Depression and severe poverty, were accustomed to such shortages and adapted to wartime rations.
With their sons fighting in the Pacific and in Europe, worried Alabama parents sent their soldiers care packages of chocolate bars, cookies, crackers, and whatever other treats they could muster. They were not always appreciated. In one letter home, homesick Mobilian Eugene Sledge remembered fondly his last hunting trip with his father, taken just before Pearl Harbor. However, he also urged his father to intervene and prevent his mother from sending him jarred baby food. “It’s too rich for me and besides the mortar section takes great glee in ‘Say Sledgehammer did you get any baby food today?’ I can take teasing but that’s too much,” he wrote.103 Soldiers fighting abroad also supplemented their GI rations with stolen goods, as they did in nearly all wars. Sledge watched his comrades steal two turkeys from the mess tent on New Year’s Day 1945 on the Pacific island of Pavuvu. Sledge recounted, “The boys being friends of mine invited me to their tent and the turkey was delicious. Next day the mess sgt. beat his gums terribly. But failed to find the culprits.”104
But the war was also an economic boon in some parts of the state. Mobile once again became a place of opportunity and promise. The population climbed as thousands arrived to build warships at Alabama Drydock and process alumina for airplanes at Alcoa. Within just three years, Mobile added one hundred thousand people, its population growing to nearly a quarter of a million. Some of those migrants made new contributions to local foodways. Moving to Mobile in 1942, William “Bill” Bayley served in the U.S. Merchant Marine as a ship steward, eventually becoming a chef with Alcoa Steamship Company. On his voyages he discovered ways to make use of crabmeat, which many at the time felt was hardly worth trying to sell given the difficulty of extracting the meat from the shell. After the war, Bayley and his wife opened Bayley’s Restaurant, featuring crab prominently on the menu. Using local blue crab from the Mobile docks, Bayley popularized the West Indies salad, a variation on crab ceviche that consisted of lump crabmeat, onion, oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Bayley also claimed to be the first to fry crab claws, which were often simply discarded by cooks.105 With resourcefulness, Bayley found a means to make a profit by using locally sourced crabs that cost little on the market.
World War II marked a major turning point in Alabama history. The economy began to improve after having bottomed out in the Depression. The atrocities of the war, the outstanding service in the armed forces by many African Americans, and the onset of the Cold War combined to inspire Americans to challenge the nation’s entrenched racial discrimination. Nowhere was it more glaringly obvious than in the South that while the United States touted democracy and freedom around the world, it failed to provide either at home.106 Jim Crow laws segregating whites from blacks remained entrenched, especially in southern states, after World War II. In Birmingham, public codes permitted restaurants and cafés to serve both white and black customers, but mandated that each race eat in separate rooms or, if in one room, separated by a seven-foot wall. The law effectively banned African Americans from service or forced them to be served in the backs of facilities via take-out windows or counters.107
By the 1950s, the civil rights movement presented serious challenges to segregation and discrimination, and eventually it would lead to the end of Jim Crow. Foodways proved central to the movement, of course, as lunch counter protests arguably touched off the student movement in the early 1960s. Alabama in particular made its own dubious contribution to the intersection of foodways and civil rights when Ollie’s Barbecue, a Birmingham restaurant located eleven blocks off the interstate. Ollie’s refused to serve African Americans at the front counter even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination at public facilities, hotels, and restaurants. Owner Ollie McClung argued that as a private establishment he had the right to deny service to anyone he chose.
While the lower courts upheld McClung’s claim, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in Katzenbach v. McClung (1964) that because Ollie’s Barbecue purchased foods and goods produced out of state, and because many of the customers were interstate travelers, discrimination at the restaurant violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. At the time, over two-thirds of the workers at Ollie’s were African American. After 1964, African Americans in Alabama would no longer just cook for white customers at restaurants and cafés. Instead, the lawsuit proved a landmark, breaking the access barrier for African Americans in dining establishments in Alabama and across the country.108
The end of legal segregation created new opportunities for African Americans, and for cultural exchange and economic growth more broadly in Alabama. As the South transformed from the Blackbelt into the Sunbelt, new businesses, industries, and people came to the region, and regional specialties became increasingly visible across the country. Barbecue, for example, had been a staple in Alabama for hundreds of years, but only in the late twentieth century did barbecue restaurants join the explosive world of fast food. Though the “low and slow” technique of barbecue may seem antithetical to the concept of fast food and drive-through, barbecue joints benefitted from modern techniques used by fast food chains, utilizing disposable cutlery, plates, and napkins.109
In Alabama, African Americans and whites alike enjoyed success in the barbecue business. Big Bob’s Gibson’s in Decatur, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Archibald’s in Tuscaloosa, and Chuck’s Bar-B-Que in Opelika were and are important businesses. Their founders did not come from generations of men standing over a pit. Big Bob Gibson’s originally opened in 1925 and expanded in the 1950s, adding cafes around Decatur and Huntsville. By then, menu options included homemade lemon, chocolate, and coconut cream pies, and word about the chain’s famous vinegar and mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce, concocted for use on smoked chicken, was already spreading and drawing people to northern Alabama. Near Auburn University, Chuck’s Bar-B-Que in Opelika was founded in 1976 by Chuck Ferrel, who saw barbecue as a means to become his own boss, provide for his family, and share his Christian faith. Chuck’s soon emerged as the place to go for pork sandwiches served either chipped (finely minced on a block) or chopped (cut into bite-sized bites), and topped with sauce. 110
At Dreamland and Archibald’s, meanwhile, the menu was all about the ribs. In 1958, former brick mason John “Big Daddy” Bishop built a fireplace and opened a rib stand to help feed his family, and Bishop quickly gained a reputation for his ribs, which became a mainstay at University of Alabama games. Each morning at dawn hickory and wood smoke rose from the chimney, the coals smoldering at a temperature that was hot, but not hot enough to boil water. Across town, Archibald’s, established in 1961, employed a similar technique. George Archibald Junior, son of the founder, claimed that he only wets the ribs with water, and that simplicity is the key ingredient to great ribs. “I let the wood do the seasoning,” said Archibald.111 Dreamland and Archibald’s both serve their smoked ribs with white bread only, used to mop up the tangy sauce.
New immigration patterns continue to impact Alabama foodways. Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian immigrants arrived on the coast during the Vietnam War. Many came from fishing and shrimping backgrounds, and began working in the industry.112 By 1991 one third of Bayou La Batre’s population was of Asian descent. Immigrant-owned grocery stores popped up, selling rice from Thailand and chili sauce from Vietnam. The lifting of immigration restrictions on Asians in 1964 created an influx of Chinese immigrants who arrived to work in the burgeoning Birmingham medical science and healthcare fields. In the early 1990s, Jet Wee Ong, owner of the Great Wall restaurant, observed: “Birmingham sure has changed since I came here in 1984. There were only a half dozen Chinese restaurants then; now there are 60. It used to be quite difficult to explain to people what an egg roll is. Now they’re just like French fries.”113
Tradition also remains powerful. Sweet cakes are a totem of Alabama hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit. The Lane Cake in particular remains a popular dessert at the holiday season. Said to have originated in Emma Rylander Lane’s kitchen, in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, by way of a friend in Eufaula, early versions of the cake called for white frosting and raisins, with a heavy dose of brandy, bourbon, or even moonshine. Later variations of the cake added pecans and flaked coconut.114 Popular throughout the South, Harper Lee featured the cake in To Kill a Mockingbird. When her aunt moved to town, Scout noted, “Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”115 Alabamians have taken the Lane Cake, along with caramel cake, lemon curd cake, and boiled chocolate icing cake to new heights. Known as stack cakes, they are made with thin layers of cake, separated by frosting. Sometimes rising to as much as seventeen layers tall, the origins of the stack cake are in southeast Alabama. Franklin Peacock, who began eating layer cakes in the 1930s, explained, “Three or four weren’t nothing to brag about. Five or six is about where you’d want to start talking about your cake.” In a place where cotton and peanut fields abound, the cakes are often sold in churches at Christmastime as fundraisers. Sardis Methodist Church in Dadeville sold one thousand of them in 2009 alone. One year the delicate stack cakes helped pay for a new church piano and the next they underwrote a remodel of the church kitchen.116
The same entrepreneurial spirit that drove businessmen to open vineyards on the frontier, inspired women to write cookbooks, prompted immigrants to corner fruit markets, and led men to pit-cook barbecue remains strong in Alabama. For Christmas in 1986, Patricia “Sister” Schubert Barnes began selling frozen rolls at her church to raise money for charity. That season she received orders for eighty pans of “Sister’s Rolls.” The next year there were two hundred orders. The following year, the church secretary stopped taking orders at three hundred pans. Schubert based her recipe for yeast rolls on her grandmother’s recipe, which had, in turn, been based on the rolls served at the Parker House in Boston in the 1880s. By 1991 Sister Schubert’s Homemade Rolls established as a bakery in Troy, Alabama. The company opened a twenty-five thousand foot state-of-the art facility in Luverne in 1994. Schubert explains, “It took a lot of courage and faith to step out of my kitchen and start the next chapter of my life—as an entrepreneur. As with every important decision in my life, I prayed about it and asked God to guide me.”117 In 2000, the Lancaster Colony Corporation in Ohio bought Sister Schubert’s, which, as of 2012, has over $100 million in annual business and bakes nine million rolls a day.118 The yeast rolls reflect both profound changes to the southern diet and Alabama’s role in national food production. The rolls may be mass-produced, but they are still produced using butter, and they bring home cooking to kitchens nationwide.
In recent years, Alabama has remerged as a new sort of frontier, this time in fine dining, as chefs, farmers, artisans, and restaurant goers have developed a new interest in local ingredients and regional recipes. This shift occurred concurrently with the increased popularity of southern dishes nationally. Frank Stitt is at the vanguard of this renewed interest. Raised in Cullman, Alabama, Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham in 1982. The restaurant now routinely sits atop annual lists of the best restaurants in the nation. In The New York Times, Sam Sifton argued that Stitt created “southern cuisine married to French technique, which meant that it was plain and simple as much it was the exact opposite.”119 Stitt sources locally when he can. In the spring he cooks with flounder, asparagus, fava beans, and baby artichokes. In the fall, grouper and white shrimp make their way from the Gulf by truck. “Pickup trucks are piled high with just-dug Cullman sweet potatoes and all kinds of greens—collard, turnip, and mustard,” Stitt wrote in 2004. “Since the first frost will not come until mid-November, the Chandler Mountain tomatoes are still surprisingly good, as are the pink-eyed peas from south Alabama.”120
Stitt broadcasts a profound appreciation for the local harvest festivals he participated in while studying in France, and believes in restoring the pride in farming that he feels has eroded since he was a child in the 1950s. Though he and his parents attended the Cullman County Fair when he was young, he argued recently that gatherings like the county fair had passed their prime: “My grandparents might have still cared about who put up the best blueberry jelly or the best fig jam, but in large part, somewhere along the way our culture had lost its appreciation for the spiritual aspect of celebrating the bounty of harvest.”121 His motivation was to recapture this pride of place in Alabama. Accomplishing that goal has required patience. When Highlands opened, Stitt occasionally argued “with customers shocked that no salad came with the entrée, or that you couldn’t get a baked potato with your steak. Here instead was local country ham elevated to the status of jamon de Paris and Cullman sweet potatoes treated as if they were chickens from Bresse.”122
The growth of cities like Huntsville and Birmingham, and overall population growth in the state, has opened space for other entrepreneurs like Stitt, who serve an audience with a different attitude toward food than Alabamians of previous generations might have had. In 1995, Chris and Idie Hastings opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club. Chris Hastings ties the food in his restaurant to experiences in the outdoors: “In the late spring and early summertime when the moon is full, bream will go to their beds and spawn for several weeks. It is during that time that you will find our family out in the local ponds and lakes, flyrods in hand casting to fat bream.” After catching bucketfuls of bream, which his family calls “swimming french fries,” they filet the fish, soak them in buttermilk, dredge them in cornmeal, and fry them in deep oil.123
The movement toward well-prepared local food rooted in seasonal availability is not confined to Birmingham. In the college town of Tuscaloosa, Tres Jackson opened Epiphany restaurant in September 2003. Back then he sourced from one local farmer. Now Jackson sources from over twenty local farms. In the late spring of 2014, his menu included Bayou La Batre flounder, with toasted pecans, brown butter, creamer pea and squash succotash; maque choux made with Fawndale crawfish, hot pepper, spring shallot, and silver queen corn; and desserts of sweet tea panna cotta, with Wright’s Dairy milk, peach, olive oil, and black pepper.124 The leftover hops from the local Druid City Brewing Company feed the pigs he cooks in the restaurant. “As the university has grown, there has been a turnover bringing newer faculty from outside the South,” Jackson said in 2014. “It is the faculty who question the source of their food, and I see this as a good change. For natives, there is still a misconception of what local food means, but I do think in the past five years especially, people are beginning to wake up. Food shouldn’t be coming prepackaged and premade on an eighteen-wheeler.”125
Around the state, other chefs are garnering attention for their use of Alabama ingredients. In 2008, James Boyce moved to Huntsville after stints in New York, Las Vegas, and California to open Cotton Row restaurant. Boyce claimed that unlike other parts of the country, Huntsville has inspired in him a sense of adventure: “I came to the South and I tried foods not many people would try on the West Coast or even New York—game meats, pheasant, venison, a lot of pork.”126 David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn relies on Alabama ingredients, too, with a focus on responsible and sustainable harvesting practices. An on-site garden supports the kitchen with heirloom varieties. Since 2011, the Front Porch Revival, a collective of chefs including Bancroft, Wesley True, Chris Harrigan, and others gather each year at the Back Forty Brewery in Gadsden to present local fare at a fall festival. There, they look to “cast a spotlight on the artisanal folk movement that endures and evolves in our state, and to promote and encourage such creations that stand on the foundation of our heritage and stretch upward toward the vision of our future.”127 The organization is not bounded by city or region, but focuses on the state as a whole, both urban and rural.128
Alabama is returning to its roots. Centuries of hardship and of settling and working the land fostered a deep appreciation for homegrown foods that remain staples in homes as well as on restaurant menus. Alabama has always been a food frontier, and this reality is what sets its cuisine apart from the rest of the South. Rich or poor, urban or rural, the people of Alabama have taken advantage of its resources and made do in times of shortage. The mountains and cooler air in the north produce abundant harvests, while the trees in the Black Belt yield pecans, peaches, and figs. The waters of the coast provide abundant seafood. While early cuisine relied heavily on Native American traditions, the influx of European and African settlers shaped the foods served. The people who came to Alabama had a will to survive and to exploit Alabama’s unique geography by creating businesses and better lives for themselves. That drive to prosper extends from the nineteenth through the twenty-first century, tapping a national consumer market for foods and beverages.
From slavery to segregation to enduring poverty, poor nutrition restricted the growth of Alabama foodways. An Alabama cuisine built on hog, corn, and greens reflected simple cooking. Many Alabamians relied on ingenuity to stretch meals, and some still do. Newcomers struggled with discrimination. Immigrants from Greece and Italy found eventual success by filling gaps in niche markets. These immigrants also grew the state’s industrial centers, brought their own techniques and foods, and further diversified Alabama foodways. Through the twentieth century, Alabama largely remained steadfast to traditional cookery, though the arrival of even more new immigrant groups has broadened Alabama palates. In the twenty-first century, Alabamians have restored their appreciation of locally grown foods and local farmers. Cooks and chefs from around the state now collaborate to define Alabama cuisine. Through their efforts, they have forged a state that is nationally recognized for its foodways.