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The best of Alabama

You voted, and the winners are…

Little River Canyon National Preserve,
Little River Canyon National Preserve,

By Allison Griffin

Here at Alabama Living, we’re always looking for ways to highlight some of the places, people and products that make Alabama great. We’re continuing our “Best of Alabama” contest for the second year, and included a questionnaire last summer to get your opinions.

We wanted to go beyond “best product” or “best state park.” Instead, we asked you for the best advice for a newcomer moving to Alabama; for the best place to get married; for the best random roadside attraction; and for the best thing about living in Alabama, among others.

Thank you to the hundreds of you who responded. Read on to see if you agree with the winners!

Advice for a newbie: Pick a team!

It’s no surprise when we asked the question, “What’s the best advice for a newcomer moving to Alabama,” the majority of responses were football-related.

Of course, it might be due to the timeframe — we asked readers to respond to our “Best of Alabama” poll during the football months — but we think the outcome wouldn’t change.

What we did find interesting: Out of just more than 250 online responses, 31 were “pick a team,” “pick Auburn or Alabama,” or some variation. So at least 12 percent of you were thoughtful enough to offer an answer that didn’t favor either team.

But get this: 13 responses were “Roll Tide” or some University of Alabama variation. Auburn, however, received no votes at all. Troy University’s Trojans garnered one vote. Now, the Alabama fans on our staff might interpret this to mean that the majority of our readers pull for the Tide. But we’re definitely not that scientific!

College football did top our “best advice” question, but we received all kinds of responses to this open-ended question, some of them very humorous. The second-highest vote getter was our crazy Alabama weather, coming in with 39 various responses.

Among our other favorite responses:

“Don’t EVER put up your summer clothes.”
“Learn to say ‘y’all.’ We are hospitable and Southern to the core — embrace it!”
“Be sure to try sweet tea.”
“Don’t expect ‘fast.’ Life is slower.”
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Do not try to change us.”
“Don’t ever say, ‘That’s how we do it up north.’”
“Smile and wave. It’s the Southern way. Don’t be alarmed.”
“It is OK when people are extra friendly here.”
This response sums it up for us: “Alabama has everything. Enjoy!”

Best city/town with unique or funny name: Slapout

More formally known as Holtville, the casual nickname for this small Elmore County community near Lake Jordan got its name from, according to lore, a general store that existed there around the 1920s. The store would occasionally be “slap out” of goods, and when asked, the storekeeper would say, “I’m slap out.” Just last year, the town got an unexpected boost of publicity thanks to native Jessica Meuse, who made it to the finals of season 13 of the Fox show “American Idol.

Runners up: Burnt Corn in Monroe County, and Lick Skillet, near Hazel Green in Madison County

Best all-time athlete, past or present: Bo Jackson
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The former Auburn University standout and multi-talented athlete from the 1980s won this category by a large margin. Born in Bessemer, he led Auburn to the Sugar Bowl and qualified for the U.S. Olympic track and field team; he started his MLB career in 1986 with the Kansas City Royals, and later played for the Chicago White Sox and California Angels. He signed with the NFL’s L.A. Raiders in 1987 and played four years of pro football before he was sidelined by injury in 1991.

Runners up: Joe Namath, quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide and the NFL and AFL; and Jesse Owens, four-time Olympic gold medalist from Oakville.

Best location in Alabama for a selfie: Beaches

Check out our cover shot for an illustration of this cell phone phenomenon, shot at The Hangout in Gulf Shores.

Runners up: Vulcan in Birmingham, Cheaha State Park in Clay and Cleburne counties

Best movie about Alabama: “Sweet Home Alabama”

The 2002 hit romantic comedy starred Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas (both Southerners in real life, but not Alabamians) and was filmed primarily in the South (but not in Alabama.) Critics praised Witherspoon’s charm, and the movie eventually grossed more than $120 million at the box office, but it wasn’t universally admired: Critics also panned its preposterous story line and lack of true comedy.

Runners up: “Forrest Gump,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Best place to go on a first date: The beach

A caveat here: You gave us nearly 100 different responses to this open-ended question. And you’ll see Alabama’s beaches show up in several other categories, so be prepared for some repetition. But the sugar white sands and famed restaurants along Alabama’s Gulf Coast are undeniably attractive, so it’s easy to see why they garnered so many votes

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for this question.

Runners up: an Auburn or Alabama football game, the Fairhope pier

Best Alabama export: Cotton

The state’s largest row crop has strong roots in Alabama’s economic development history. The search for land to grow it brought the state’s first settlers to Alabama’s river valleys; its production created two dominant labor systems (slavery and sharecropping.) Although it is no longer a “king” of Alabama’s agriculture, the state’s farmers planted nearly 460,000 acres of cotton in 2011, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation, and the crop is grown in 59 of Alabama’s 67 counties.

Runners up: automotive products, peanuts

Best statue or historical marker in Alabama: Vulcan
BirminghamVulcanClose-upAerialViewWithSkylineInBackground

Watching over Birmingham is Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, an appropriate symbol of the city’s iron origins. At 56 feet tall, it’s the world’s largest cast iron statue, according to its website, and was designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904. An educational park complex helps interpret Alabama’s industrial history for visitors and residents alike.

Runner up: Boll Weevil Monument, Enterprise

Best place to get married: The beach
(including responses of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and “the beach”)

Again, winning with 30 percent of the vote, are Alabama’s beaches.  Baldwin County was also the choice for the state’s newest “it” couple, former Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and model Katherine Webb: They were engaged at a restaurant in Gulf Shores, their rehearsal dinner was held at the FloraBama Yacht club, and the couple married at an Orange Beach church in July.
Runner up: Gorham’s Bluff, near Pisgah in Jackson County, northeast Alabama

Best place to retire: Beaches

Probably not a surprise that the beaches scored well in this category: Alabama as a whole offers several advantages for retirees, including a low overall cost of living (even the more expensive beach towns, when compared to pricier areas like Hilton Head and Boca Raton, compare favorably), a warm climate, top-quality golf and assisted living and nursing homes that cost significantly less when compared to the national averages.

Runners up: Fairhope in Baldwin County (in above photo), lake areas

Best outdoor annual festival: Shrimp Festival, Gulf Shores

Held on the second weekend of October, the free Shrimp Festival draws an estimated 250,000 visitors and features more than 300 vendors. A sand sculpture contest, 10K/5K run and an “American Idol”-style singing contest for young people are all featured events, but the focus is, of course, on the shrimp and seafood, and chefs challenge each other to create the festival’s best dish.

Runner up: National Peanut Festival, Dothan

Best place to get muddy or play in the mud: Boggs and Boulders, Andalusia
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This off-road adventure park and campground is set on more than 1,000 acres in the little town of Brooklyn south of Andalusia. The park features a spring-fed pool, caves and lakes and dry dirt trails, according to its website.

Runner up: Stony Lonesome OHV Park in Cullman

Best annual event: Iron Bowl

Few contests inspire the heated passions of the annual Alabama/Auburn game, played for many years at Birmingham’s Legion Field (hence the name, a nod to Birmingham’s industrial history.) Now the game alternates between campuses, and is considered to be one of the most heated collegiate rivalries in the country. The first meeting of the two teams was in 1893.

Runner up: Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores, the World’s Longest Yard Sale along Alabama Highway 127

Best outdoor adventure destination: Gulf Shores

Again, the beaches win, with fishing, parasailing, hot air balloon rides, scuba diving and dolphin cruises. Several outfitters and vendors in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores stand ready to take you on your next adventure.

Runner up: Little River Canyon, which has rappelling and rock climbing excursions, canoe and kayak rentals and hiking trails.

Best cook-off event: Alabama Wildlife Federation Wild Game Cook-offs

Local chapters of the AWF host annual wild game cook-offs all over the state, giving backyard chefs a chance to show off their culinary skills using wild game in three divisions: fish, fowl and wild game. Winners at the local level move on to the state finals, held at Lanark Pavilion in Millbrook. Some past winning dishes: Grilled Dove Breast, Smoked Venison with Cajun Wild Rice, and Flounder Stuffed with Shrimp and Crab.

Best Alabama-grown produce: Peaches 

The sweet summer fruits were an easy winner in this category. Peaches are Alabama’s leading commercial fruit, and the state ranks 18th in peach production in the U.S., according to statistics from the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. In 2012, growers produced 7 million pounds of peaches, according to the Alabama Farmers

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Federation. Most are produced in Chilton County.

Runner up: tomatoes

Best seasoning, sauce or condiment made in Alabama: Dale’s

Its bottle proclaims that it is “delicious on all meats, fish, fowl and vegetables,” and obviously you agreed. Dale’s Seasoning was first bottled in Birmingham in 1946, according to the company’s website, as the house marinade for the steaks at Dale’s Cellar Restaurant. As the popularity of the seasoning grew, the family-owned operation began to bottle and sell it, first at local outlets and then to bigger chains. The recipe is top secret, unknown even by the employees at the Brundidge bottling plant.

Runner up: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q sauces and rubs

Best Alabama dish to serve out-of-town guests: Shrimp and grits
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We’re not sure that Alabama can lay claim to this popular dish — it may have originated in the Low Country of Georgia and South Carolina — but its popularity is undeniable. Virtually every Southern chef seems to offer his or her own spin on it, from upscale eateries to down-home fish camps.
Runners up: Barbecue (including all types of barbecued meats and restaurants), fried green tomatoes

Best place to take a Sunday drive: Northeast Alabama

Counting together the responses for Little River Canyon, Lookout Mountain, Mentone and “northeast Alabama” put this scenic area over the top. Of course, even the most picturesque car trip needs a stop for leg-stretching and picnicking, so if you decide to take that Sunday drive, check out the Little River Canyon National Preserve, which features the 45-foot Little River Falls; not far away is DeSoto State Park, which features several of its own beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails.

Runner up: Bankhead National Forest, in Lawrence and Winston counties in northwest Alabama

Best thing about living in Alabama: The people

This one wasn’t hard to predict. But we were impressed with the diversity of answers: everything from the mild weather to the state’s natural beauty to a slower pace of life all received votes. Of course, it wouldn’t be Alabama

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without college football showing up a close second. (And a shout-out to the vote received for Alabama Living!)

Best random roadside attraction: Peach Park, Clanton

This area is known by several names, judging from your responses: “the big peach,” “Peach Park,” “Peach Tower” and, curiously, “the big orange in Clanton.” Whatever you call it, Clanton’s big peach, just off Interstate 65 at exit 212, is a highly visible landmark: It towers 120 feet above the ground and holds 500,000 gallons of water, according to RoadsideAmerica.com.

Runners up: Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Huntsville Space and Rocket Center

Best Alabama-made product to send home with out-of-towners:Pecans

This category was a little more difficult to tally, because some responses were generic (“socks” versus “Zkano organic cotton socks,” which are made in Fort Payne.) But the tasty nuts, grown in Alabama since the early 1900s, won by a small margin. Alabama ranks about sixth nationally in pecan production.

Runners up: Conecuh sausage, peanuts

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Best non-chain breakfast place: Waysider Restaurant in Tuscaloosa

Boasting a breakfast like grandma used to make, patrons come craving the made-from-scratch biscuits topped with red-eye gravy and other breakfast fare. Opened on Feb. 8, 1951, this out-of-the-way eatery is painted red and features plenty of Alabama football memorabilia on the walls — and you may even see a coach or player or two.
Runner up: Busy Bee Cafe, Cullman

Best historic cemetery: Magnolia Cemetery, Mobile

This historic city of the dead, shaded here and there by old oak trees, was established in 1836 on 36 acres of land in what was then outside the city limits; today, it’s in the heart of historic Mobile and contains 80,000 grave sites. Adjoining Magnolia is a national cemetery containing the graves of more than 6,000 veterans and the cemeteries of Mobile’s two Jewish congregations.

Runners up: Coon Dog Cemetery in Colbert County in northwest Alabama (featured in the October 2013 Alabama Living), and Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery (where country music icon Hank Williams is buried)

Best article, feature, photo or helpful tip you read in Alabama Living in the past 12 months: Recipes

We’re well aware of the popularity of our reader-submitted recipes each month, but we were a little surprised to see them win by such a large margin — more than three-to-one over the next closest answer. But we’re glad to see that you also enjoy our monthly “Worth the Drive” features by Jennifer Kornegay, and “Around Alabama,” which lists events and festivals.

We’re planning a similar reader opinion contest for 2015, so let us know any suggestions for categories you’d like to see! Contact us at agriffin@areapower.com.

Orange Beach resident is contest prize winner

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Miranda Dodgen of Orange Beach wasn’t sure how she was going to pull off getting Christmas gifts for friends and family last month. That is, until she got the call from Alabama Living that her name was drawn as the winner from all the entries in our “Best of Alabama” contest.

“You have made my day!” she exclaimed after being told the news that she’d won the $500 cash prize. “Thank you so very much!”

Miranda was one of several hundred Alabama Living readers who entered the contest, voting on categories from best place to take a selfie to best place to get married in Alabama. “I think I’ve told every single person I’ve encountered about this!” Miranda said. “It has really made my Christmas.”

Miranda, who grew up in Ozark, has lived in Orange Beach and been a member of Baldwin EMC since 2012.
Not surprisingly, many of her answers reflected her love of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. “I’ve been going to the beach all my life with my family,” she said. “ I was taught how to catch blue crabs in the surf at a young age by my mother. It has been a favorite pastime of mine ever since. One night we netted 52 crabs and had a crab feast!”

At her job at the Michael Kors store at the Tanger Outlet in Foley, Miranda is able to share her enthusiasm for the state’s beaches: “I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world on vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast!”

A graduate of Troy University, she enjoys touring Alabama’s historic homes and learning about Alabama’s history.

– Lenore Vickrey