Worth the Drive: Red’s Little Schoolhouse
Today’s lesson: Southern cooking at Red’s Little Schoolhouse
By Jennifer Kornegay
It’s time to go to school. Yes, it’s summer. Sure, you completed your courses and graduated already. But, when it comes to good ol’ Southern cooking, we all have a thing or two we could stand to learn, and the tasty classics at Red’s Little Schoolhouse in Grady will teach you all you need to know.
You’ll do your culinary classwork in a rustic, red, early 1900s building (originally a one-room school) that sits at the crossing of two county roads in rural Central Alabama. The day’s lesson is written on a large chalkboard, where you can read the variety of dishes that are on the ever-changing buffet and prepare for what your studies will include.
Your teacher is owner Debbie Deese, and she’s got the qualifications. She received her instruction from the most prestigious institutions — her mother’s and her grandmother’s kitchens. Oh, and she was an actual schoolteacher, too.
“I grew up out here, and when this building came for sale, my dad bought it and encouraged me turn it into a furniture store,” she said.
“I told him I wanted to open a restaurant, but he didn’t think it was a good idea since we’re kinda in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
It’s a fact. Red’s isn’t really near anywhere else you probably need to go, but Debbie stuck to her guns, doing a trial run by offering up the land around the building to area folks for Saturday yard sales. “I put up signs saying people could come and set up stuff to sell for free, and then I made some batches of camp stew and asked my dad to make some barbecue to sell to the crowds,” she said.
Her plan was a success. After just a few weekends, Debbie was running out of her food. “We knew it would work then,” she said.
Red’s Little Schoolhouse opened in May 1985, named for her dad Red and as a reference to space’s previous purpose. That June, a food critic from The Montgomery Advertiser gave the place a visit and liked what he ate. His glowing review let others know Red’s was an A+ place to dine, and it’s stayed packed ever since.
Throngs hungry for the way things used to be daily descend on Red’s and rarely leave disappointed. You can order items like hamburger steak and sandwiches off a menu, but most line up on both sides of a long buffet and load their plates with things like fried chicken, watermelon, lima beans, dressing, pulled pork slow cooked in a pit out back, squash casserole, fixins for green salads and house-made dressings. The options are always different, but with its abundant assortment of busting-out-of-the-serving-pan-seams Southern staples, the spread calls to mind the tables of plenty found at church dinner-on-the-grounds gatherings and family reunions.
Everything is scratch-made; often veggies were picked by Debbie’s own hands as late as the morning before they end up on the chalkboard menu list. If she didn’t harvest them, they came from a nearby farm.
While Debbie admits the restaurant business can be tough — long days and hard work are her routine — she stays at it because, “I love cooking and love people,” she said. And it’s always been a family labor built on that love. “We lost my mom 10 years ago, but she cooked for us; most of the casseroles we still serve are her recipes,” Debbie said. Her dad comes every morning and helps out.
Ask a sampling of guests what they like most, and you’ll get a range of answers as wide as the available selections, but the one item Red’s devotees cannot do without is the fried cornbread. Warm and waiting for you at the end of the buffet, the little rusty colored, oval discs are simple pleasures, just cornmeal and buttermilk seasoned with a dash of salt and quick pan-fried in a giant cast iron skillet.
“It’s really our customers’ favorite thing, and mine too,” Debbie said. “We now cater a good bit, and we fry it up onsite so it’s hot. If we ever showed up and didn’t have it, we’d for sure get sent back to get it.”
Jennifer Kornegay is the author of a new children’s book, “The Alabama Adventures of Walter and Wimbly: Two Marmalade Cats on a Mission.” She travels to an out-of-the way restaurant destination in Alabama every month. She may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.