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Alabama Recipes: Mama’s Best

VeggieLasa

Most everyone has a favorite comfort food. I would define my favorite comfort foods as being simple dishes that provide me with a nostalgic or sentimental feeling. I can say, hands down, my favorite comfort food is my Mama’s dressing. What makes it special, and comforting to me, is that my Mama made it, and it hasn’t changed since the first time I tasted it. Don’t forget to tell your mother how much she means to you.

Upcoming recipe themes and deadlines are:

June Dad’s favorite dish April 15
July Sandwiches May 15
August Cool drinks June 15

Submit your recipes here, email to recipes@alabamaliving.coop or mail to: Recipes, P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124. Don’t forget to check us out on Facebook for updates throughout the month.

MTS_2012_80px

Mary Tyler Spivey is a graduate of Huntingdon College
where she studied history and French but she also has a
passion for great food.

Contact her at recipes@alabamaliving.coop.


CORNBAKECASSEROLEBOWL

Cook of the month:

Sandy Esco, Dixie EC

Family Tradition Cornbake Casserole

  • 1 pound ground sirloin or venison
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 pound mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 pack pasta (broken into 2-inch pieces and cooked al dente) or 1 small package elbow macaroni
  • 2 cans cream of mushroom soup
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 packet Hidden Valley Buttermilk Ranch Dressing Mix (reserve 2 teaspoons of powder)
  • Garlic salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups cheddar cheese
  • 10 slices bread roughly chopped
  • 1 stick butter

Brown sirloin with onion and mushrooms then drain. Combine meat with pasta, mushroom soup, sour cream, ranch powder, garlic salt and pepper. Place in a greased 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish. Top with cheddar cheese and breadcrumbs. Combine remaining 2 teaspoons ranch powder with butter and garlic salt to taste. Pour over breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes until hot and bubbly and breadcrumbs are golden brown.

This recipe is an old family standby that has evolved over the years. Originally my mother-in-law made it with ground chuck, onion, elbow macaroni, soup, sour cream, corn and breadcrumbs. My oldest son added the mushrooms; one day out of necessity I used leftover angel hair pasta instead of macaroni; my husband added the ranch seasoning and uses venison. Over the years it has become a family standby, most often requested for birthdays. The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled and freezes wonderfully — great to have on hand for a quick meal for family or friend who needs a comforting meal brought over on short notice.


 

Salmon Skewers

  • 1-2 salmon filets cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 lemons, cut into thin rounds
  • Olive oil

Combine oregano, cumin, sesame seeds and red pepper flakes in bowl. Set aside. Using bamboo skewers soaked in water for about 1 hour, alternate salmon and lemon rounds.  Drizzle with olive oil and season with seasoning mixture. Place on grill for 5-6 minutes each side. Quick and yummy method: You can also keep the salmon filet whole and lightly slice every inch or so.  Put lemon slice in each crevice and put olive oil and seasoning on top. Broil on high for about 8 minutes, keep oven cracked and make sure you watch so it does not burn. This is very good served with julienned zucchini and squash lightly sautéed in a pan and topped with almond slices and Parmesan cheese.

Kim McCrary, Baldwin EMC


 

Chicken Spaghetti

  • 5 cups cooked chicken, diced
  • 1 jar (4 ounces) chopped pimiento, drained
  • 1/2 cup bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cans mushroom soup
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery salt
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 8-ounce package spaghetti, broken into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 pound cheddar cheese, grated (2 cups); reserve 3/4 cup cheese for the top of the casserole
  • Cook the onion and bell pepper with the spaghetti according to spaghetti’s package directions.  Drain. While the spaghetti is still hot, stir in all the other ingredients. Place in 9-inch by 13-inch casserole and top with remaining cheese. Bake in a 350 degree oven until hot and bubbly, around 30-40 minutes.  Serves 10. This is a favorite of my family.  The grandchildren request it by name.

 Jane Kendrick, Coosa Valley EC


 

Mama’s Homemade Chicken and Dumplings

  • 4 medium split chicken breasts
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 5 cups self-rising flour
  • 11/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 can of cream of chicken soup
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper

Wash chicken breasts and place in a boiler. Add butter, salt and pepper. Fill the boiler half full with water and boil 2 for hours. Make sure to keep water level at half full by adding water when needed. After chicken is finished cooking, remove it and debone. After deboning, place chicken back in boiler.  In the last 15 minutes of boiling the chicken, add one can of cream of chicken soup and let simmer.

The dumplings: Pour 5 cups of flour in a large bowl.  Make a crater in the center of the flour. Pour milk and vegetable oil in center. Take a fork and stir, scraping some flour into the mixture until it becomes gooey. Scoop out with hand and place on floured surface. Knead and add flour until dough becomes stiff. Next, take a floured rolling pin and roll dough out to about a 1/4-inch thickness.  With a knife, cut strips of dough about an inch wide. Increase the heat under the boiler, and when it begins to boil take strips of dough and break pieces and drop into the boiler.  Fold in dough with a wooden spoon. When dumplings thicken, lower the heat and simmer for ten minutes more. Makes four to five servings.

Cherry Coleman, Black Warrior EMC


 

Roasted Sweet Potato Lasagna

  • 1 15-ounce container part-skim ricotta
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper, plus more for seasoning
  • 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 11/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
  • 5 sweet potatoes (chopped and roasted ahead of time)
  • 6 cups marinara sauce
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles (8 ounces)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs, salt and pepper. Add the spinach and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, combine the mozzarella, Parmesan and basil. Spread a third of the marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish. Put a layer of lasagna noodles on top. Spread a third of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then spread a third of the roasted sweet potatoes over that. Sprinkle with a third of the shredded cheese mixture. Repeat to make two more layers. End with shredded cheese mixture on top. Cover the top of the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the top is golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

Robin O’Sullivan, Wiregrass EC


 

Mama Cake “Green Envelope”

  • 2 1/4 cups plain flour (or about 51/2 handfuls)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 11/2 cups sugar (or about 3 handfuls)
  • 1/2 cup shortening, only use Crisco (this is about a handful)
  • 1 cup buttermilk (you need to use your cup for this or until it’s a medium consistency.)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 unbeaten eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Icing 

  • 1 cup sugar (or about 2 handfuls)
  • 3/4 cup milk (use your cup)
  • Dash salt
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa

In Mom’s own words as only she can tell it. It’s called “Green Envelope” because she wrote the recipe for me on a green envelope. Combine sugar and shortening. Beat until combined, then add eggs, one at a time and vanilla. Combine flour, soda and salt. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk. Grease and flour two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 2 round layers. For icing combine sugar, milk, salt and cocoa. Boil for 3 minutes and not a second longer. You can use a toothpick and make small holes on cake. Then pour warm icing on top of first layer, place second layer on top of first and pour remaining icing. Good with a drop of ice cream on top.

Donna Feazell, Marshall DeKalb EC

Turtle time

LOGGERHEADTURTLE

Spring, summer are turtle time on Gulf Coast

By Thomas V. Ress

In the twilight on a deserted stretch of beach on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a lonely figure kneels and gently touches a stethoscope to the warm sand. Over the din of the crashing surf, Debi Gholson, a volunteer with the Share the Beach program, strains to hear a faint sound underground. She is listening to a loggerhead sea turtle nest, hoping to detect the telltale scratching of hatchlings breaking out of their shells and digging toward the surface.

“I hear movement!” Gholson says. We are thrilled that tonight we could witness the remarkable sight of dozens of baby turtles frantically erupting from the sand and madly sprinting to the protective waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Loggerheads are one of Alabama’s rarest and most fascinating wild animals — giant marine turtles that usually weigh 150 to 400 pounds (although some have been reported up to 800 pounds) and measure as much as four feet across the shell. Loggerheads spend almost their entire lives in the ocean; the females touch land only to nest. On a warm summer night, a female will crawl onto a beach, dig a cavity with her hind flippers and deposit up to 150 pliable ping-pong ball-sized eggs. She then fills in the cavity and lumbers back into the ocean, never to see the nest again.

What happens after that is dependent on weather and a dozen other factors. If the sun sufficiently warms the eggs, hurricanes bypass the beach and coyotes and other predators miss the nest, after about two months the eggs hatch and dozens of baby turtles miraculously bubble out of the sand and dash across the beach, dodging hungry gulls and crabs, before reaching the relative safety of the ocean. This fragile scene is repeated hundreds of times every summer on southeastern beaches.

DIGGING FOR LOGGERHEADS
Volunteers with Share the Beach help protect a loggerhead sea turtle nest. Photo by Debi Gholson

Many of these beaches are located in Alabama, and Fort Morgan Peninsula is a particularly important nesting area — in 2014, 80 nests were found on Alabama beaches and 42 of those were on the peninsula. Most of the nests were found by volunteers with Share the Beach, a nonprofit conservation group, which patrols the beaches during the May through August nesting season. Once they find a nest, they monitor it until it successfully hatches.

One of these nests is the one we are standing over tonight. Fifteen minutes after Gholson detected the first subterranean stirrings, the sand starts to quiver and a black pinky-finger sized head pops out. A tiny flipper appears, then another and finally a cookie-sized turtle squirts out and sprints toward the surf. Instantly, the sand comes alive with dozens of baby turtles emerging from the sand. This hatching flurry is called a “boil” and within minutes, more than 60 baby loggerheads magically pop into the moonlight.

What follows is both wondrous and comical as a handful of volunteers scurry around in the dark, shepherding dozens of confused and speedy critters toward the Gulf of Mexico. Evolution has conditioned the hatchlings to head toward light — which for eons was moonlight reflecting off the surf. But today artificial lighting from streetlights, condos and beach houses lures them inland, away from the surf. Volunteers repeatedly herd the babies toward the water and away from the dunes. Hordes of hungry ghost crabs lurk in the wings. If the volunteers weren’t here, there would be a deadly feast on this beach. After more than an hour, the last hatchling disappears into the dark surf. Sixty-nine eggs hatched, and all of the hatchlings made it safely to the water.

But the hatchlings face formidable challenges. Only a small percentage survive to maturity — some get entangled and drown in fishing nets; some choke to death on plastic bags, balloons, and other trash that they mistake for jellyfish, their favorite food; and beachfront development destroys the deserted beaches they need for nesting.

One of the potentially biggest threats was the 2010 BP oil spill. Although the long-term effects of the spill are still unknown, based solely on numbers of nests reported by the Share the Beach program, nesting has not been impacted. According to Mike Reynolds, director of Share the Beach, in 2010 the number of nests was low, but 2011 and 2012 set records before returning to the normal range in 2013 and 2014. But Reynolds says nesting numbers only tell the short-term impact and not the whole story.

“What if oil in the environment is affecting hatchlings in ways we don’t yet know?” he says. “What if the oil affects the hatchling’s ability to reproduce? What if they are sterile? Nest mortality and other data are still being studied and we may not know the true impacts for years.”

One thing we do know for sure is that the turtles imprint on their birth beach and one day the survivors will return to the same beach to lay the seed for yet another generation. The dedicated work of the volunteers and professionals who monitor and protect Alabama’s sea turtles give hope that we will witness the return of sea turtles to Alabama beaches for decades to come.

If you are interested in volunteering with Share the Beach, visit www.alabamaseaturtles.com.

Worth the Drive: Local Joe’s

Pork is just one of six different barbecue meats smoked onsite.
Pork is just one of six different barbecue meats smoked onsite.

Locally sourced foods, products on menu at Local Joe’s

By Jennifer Kornegay

The “eat (and drink) local” movement has been gaining steam in Alabama for the last few years, and it’s a philosophy that Jodie Stanfield has embraced with open arms. It’s the driving force behind his two restaurants in Rainbow City, Local Joe’s Trading Post and Local Joe’s at Little Bridge Marina. Both locations support area farmers and producers by incorporating what they grow and make into their foods and by selling their produce and products in their stores.

“That’s really how I came up with the name,” Jodie says. “We buy everything we can from ‘local Joes.’ We source from small area farms, and I mean some are really small, like this one retired guy who has a vegetable garden and sells me a couple packs of okra a day.”

A local lady makes Local Joe’s fried pies. You’ll find local beeswax soaps, local honey, local jams and locally grown herbs in the shop area. You’ll also find one of the area’s best selections of Alabama-brewed beer. “We try to use and sell all Alabama products,” Jodie says.

But folks flock to Local Joe’s for more than small-batch, scratch-made jelly. They also come for the ‘cue. The main items on the menus at both locations are the six different meats – turkey, chicken, ribs, pork butt, ham and house-made sausage — that are slow smoked onsite in metal drums that bellow clouds of heavenly scents for the wind to carry like a siren song into town.

The original spot is housed in a humble little wooden structure out Highway 411 that opened as a Pure Oil gas station – complete with a barber shop — in the 1940s. In the 1970s, it became a produce stand/small grocery store. Today, it’s one of the area’s favorite places to pork out on pig and to stock up on items offered in its quaint country store.

LOCALJOEBANNER

There aren’t many places to sit and eat there, just a couple of picnic tables set on a covered porch out front. But that doesn’t stop the crowds flooding in, especially around lunchtime.

The marina location is drawing plenty of people too, with its prime placement on the banks of the Coosa River. “We’ve got decks along the water, and we’re working to make it a place that encourages folks to hang out,” Jodie says.

No matter which Local Joe’s you visit, you’ll find barbecue that lives up to this column’s name. Choose a sandwich or a plate, and decide which meat speaks to your stomach. Then pick your sides from the usual suspects: potato salad, baked beans, slaw and one not-so-usual option, pasta salad.

‘Cue, smoked turkey and red velvet cake balls

The pulled pork is everything it should be: tender; full of smoke-soaked richness that comes from low heat melting fat into the meat; and laced with just enough of the pork butt’s mahogany bark. The sour-cream based potato salad has a refreshing tang to it, and the slaw is tossed in a tart vinegar dressing.

While pork is the most common meat in Alabama-style ‘cue, don’t overlook the poultry. Local Joe’s smoked turkey has become so popular, Jodie’s having Turkey Addiction T-shirts printed up. “Around holidays this year, we did 800 turkeys,” he says.

After you’ve cleaned your plate, take some Local Joe’s home. Grab to-go items like whole smoked hams, turkey and chicken breasts, pork butts, slabs of ribs and snacks and sweets like a bag of boiled peanuts, pimento cheese, house-made fried pork skins, strawberry bread that Jodie swears is the best anywhere around and some red velvet cake balls (bite-sized rounds of cake covered in icing) from the LJ bakery. “We’re getting known for our desserts,” he says.

And if you’re planning a function in North Alabama, look to Local Joe’s for catering. “We do events all the way down to Birmingham and up and over in Fort Payne and Guntersville,” Jodie says.

No matter where Local Joe’s roams, its heart is still at home in Etowah County, and Jodie explained why he “loves to support local.”

“It just makes sense. The food is fresher, and we’re supporting our community. It’s something we all need to get back to everywhere, not just here.”


 

Local Joe’s Trading Post
4967 Rainbow Drive
Rainbow City, AL
256-438-5179
localjoestradingpost.com


 

Local Joe’s at Little Bridge Marina
70 Whorton Bend Road
Rainbow City, AL
(256) 442-7788
www.littlebridgemarina.com

Poke Salat

POKE-SALAT-LOGO-NEW

Arab Poke Salat Festival set for May 15-16

By Whitney Adrienne Snow

Nestled in the heart of North Alabama, Arab is largely known for its Mayberryesque small-town aura, high school football, and poke salat. Wait, what was that last thing?

Pokeweed is a wild, poisonous plant, but when detoxified by boiling a few times, its young shoots make for a tasty dish, especially when mixed with scrambled eggs.  Sponsored by the local L’ Rancho Café and the Chamber of Commerce, the annual Arab Poke Salat Festival honors this leafy green with arts and crafts, eating contests, pet parades, children’s activities, and live music.

It all began with the “Liar’s Club,” a group of men who frequently dined at and eventually purchased the L’ Rancho in 1984. Around that time, member Curtis Williams Sr. witnessed a poke salat festival in Blanchard, Louisiana, and upon returning home, suggested forming a similar event in Arab to promote the city and bring notice to the downtown area.  Thus, the Poke Salat Festival was born.

Over the years, certain aspects have come and gone.  At one time, the festival included a political forum in which politicians like Fob James, Bill Baxley, Jim Folsom Jr. and George Wallace Jr. spoke. There was an “Ugly Woman Contest” in which men would dress in women’s clothes and parade down the street. Other past activities included a Confederate reenactment, fish tales, golf tournaments, impersonations and hat competitions. Poke salat cook-offs were particularly noteworthy and ranged from quiche and dip to casserole and pie, all made from poke.

POKEPLANT
The young shoots of a pokeweed plant are used to make poke salat.

In 2011, there was an effort to transform the Poke Salat Festival into the Poke Salat Bluegrass Music Festival in an attempt to attract more out-of-towners.  Groups like Dailey & Vincent, Canaan’s Crossing and Boxcars performed at the amphitheater in the city park. While the name of the festival reverted back to plain old Poke Salat in the following year, music has always played an important role.  Last year’s performances included Alabama’s Jeff Cook and his All Star Goodtime Band, Kyle Wilson and Clark Walker’s local band AZ.

Attendance has wavered over the decades, but rain or shine, folks come from far and wide.  In fact, last year, Arab celebrated its 30th Poke Salat Festival and this year, the celebration will take place on May 15-16.

While the L’ Rancho is under new ownership, the future of the festival is not in doubt.  As one Liar’s Club member once said, “As long as the L’ Rancho is in business, we will always have poke salat and the Poke Salat Festival.”

Troy’s Music Man

 

Long still maintains an office on the Troy campus where two buildings and a street are named after him. More than 400 of his band members have gone on to be band directors across the country.
Long still maintains an office on the Troy campus where two buildings and a street are named after him. More than 400 of his band members have gone on to be band directors across the country.

Legendary John Long has influenced generations

By Emmett Burnett

Photos by Kevin Glackmeyer and courtesy Troy University

My first encounter with Dr. John Maloy Long was as a journalism student, interviewing him for a class assignment at Troy (back then it was State) University. In 1975, he was a campus legend. In 2015, he still is.

Visiting his suburban Troy, Alabama, home, I reminded the 89-year-old director of bands emeritus of that four-decade-old homework assignment.

“Glad I could help,” he replies. “How did you do?”

He wasn’t joking. “Dr. Long is a kind, thoughtful and helpful person who puts the needs of others before his own,” said Troy University’s director of bands, Dr. Mark Walker. “He is a lifelong learner who still loves bands, band music and band people.”

And Long remembers them like yesterday. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a student I did not like or learn from,” he notes, pointing at photographs in scrapbooked memorabilia. He effortlessly recollects names, dates, and instruments of apprentices. More than 400 followed his lead and are band directors across the U.S.

Facing age 90, his visits to the beloved campus he waved a baton over for 32 years have decreased. “He only goes there now about three times a week,” laughs wife Mary Lynn. But almost two decades after retirement, he still maintains an office at the university with two buildings and a street named for him.

In the mid-1960s, Long heeded Troy’s call from its former president, Dr. Ralph Adams. The two were introduced by Gov. George Wallace, a mutual friend. Long was the 10-year band director of Montgomery’s Robert E. Lee High School when he graduated from prep school to college league.

“I wasn’t sure how I would do in university-level band,” he adds. “But Dr. Adams vowed the school’s support and it has endured to this day.”

The first day on the job was in 1965, the same year Long performed a campus makeover. “I was driving to work and wondering what to call the band,” he recalled about the morning commute. “Somewhere between Montgomery and Troy it hit me, ‘Sound of the South.’” Fifty years later, the name still stands.

MM_LONGHALL

Long invented the college color guard. He installed military drills, jazz, pop, country, and hymns: High-stepping marching musicians performed a variety show that might reverently croon “Precious Lord Take Me Home,” and then blast Elvis’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Blues standards, jazz hits and pop favorites rocked the arena as Long transformed halftime into show time.

The maestro is emphatic: “A good band show has a little of everything. It is a thing of beauty and there is nothing like it. Maybe I’m just an old worn-out musician, but I believed in giving people what they want. Entertain the audience; don’t play down to it.

“Good music is never old and a marching band should play marching music,” he adds. He did and others noticed.

“Few individuals have had a greater impact on Troy University than Dr. John Long,” says Dr. Jack Hawkins, Troy University president. “As the founding director of the Sound of the South, he created the most famous organization at Troy. His impact extends far beyond the walls of Troy.”

Long was the first active bandmaster elected to the Alabama Bandmasters Hall of Fame and the only band director ever given the Alabama Council of the Arts Governor’s Award. In 2012 the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., named him one of the top ten teachers in the U.S. He has been featured on the “CBS News” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

During his Troy tenure, his Sound of the South performed in venues across America, including bowl games and four presidential inaugurations. “President Nixon walked up to me, extended his hand, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Richard Nixon,’ – like I wouldn’t know this?” Long chuckles.

A native of Guntersville, Long’s first musical gig came in 1944 when his high school band teacher was drafted into the army. The principal asked the teenage trumpet player to lead fellow musicians until a replacement was named. Long had his calling, but so did Uncle Sam.

MM_LONGCONDUCTINGVINTAGE

He, too, joined the Army the day after high school graduation, performing in military bands in the company of Bob Hope, Jack Benny and stars of the 1940s. After the service, he studied to become a lawyer, but not for long.

Music beckoned and so did a job as band director in Oneonta, where he met a student color guard member. Goodbye law degree. Hello, music career and hello, Mary Lynn. “I owe everything to this wonderful girl,” he smiles, glancing at his wife of 65 years.

Long’s wife recalls, “He was the director; I carried the American flag in his band,” and she adds with a laugh, “John received permission from the principal and my parents to take me to church.” They married in the spring of 1949.

He also led high school bands in Ft. Payne and then Robert E. Lee in Montgomery before assuming his Troy University legacy. “I was fortunate to work with great men like Dr. Adams and Dr. Hawkins,” he says.

President Hawkins adds, “Dr. Long is a teacher first, but Troy alumni in all fields, from medicine to business to law, have benefited from his wisdom. He is an institution within an institution.”

And he is the master of what acquaintances call “Longisms.”

“He had so many quotable quotes, we would repeat them to our own kids through the years,” recalls former band student and Troy University Chief of Police, John McCall. Some favorites:

“There’s only one job you can get where you start at the top: ditch digging.”

“There’s nothing greater than being a broke college student and there’s nothing sadder than being a broke college graduate.”

“Band is spelled, F-U-N.”

His passion is kindled with concern. “Music broadens your horizons,” Long said. “It makes you appreciate living more. But unfortunately I see many schools – high schools and colleges — cutting back. It worries me. But of course music is my life, what else would I say?” he smiles.

And after a pause of reflection, he states his philosophy, “Music is a lifetime of joy. It has been for me. No matter how technological you get, there is always joy in music.” A

Capturing life

Muralist Wes Hardin, who lives in Dothan, has been working on his current project for several months.
Muralist Wes Hardin, who lives in Dothan, has been working on his current project for several months. Photos by Mark Stephenson unless noted.

Artist’s murals preserve a city’s history

By Allison Griffin

The small stroke of the paintbrush, not even an inch wide, is dwarfed by the massive mural on the large brick wall. But the artist, Wes Hardin, patiently continues to paint, stroke by stroke, layer upon layer, color upon color.

Slowly — this mural has been in the works for months — the scenes take shape, and the characters come to life. And well they should; the portraits in this mural are of people who actually lived in Andalusia, a small south Alabama town that now boasts more than half a dozen of Hardin’s murals.

This mural is his, and Andalusia’s, most ambitious: 18 feet tall and 127 feet long, it’s a combination of seemingly disparate themes: a tribute to Covington County’s law enforcement, and a representation of some of the downtown’s long-ago businesses and storefronts. They’re tied together with a fictional parade, which was Hardin’s suggestion; it seemed like a good way to incorporate multiple, unrelated people in the same painting, and also to make the storefronts, which by themselves aren’t necessarily appealing visually, more interesting.

There are more than 60 faces in this mural, which have required a tremendous amount of planning, research and two full notebooks of photographic material that Hardin uses for reference. And the process of painting, with so much detail and so many faces, seems almost painstaking.

“It’s slow, because unlike the other pieces I do, I’ve got one or two subjects, and you just attack it,” Hardin says. “Here, I’ve got changes in colors and shade and distance. The dark color in the background’s not the same as the color in the foreground. There are so many different changes.”

See a video of Wes Hardin at work

ANDALUSIAMURALFISHEYE
This ambitious parade mural in Andalusia is 18 feet tall and 127 feet long. Hardin, who was raised along the Gulf Coast, started painting in high school. His introduction to large imagery came early, thanks to a teacher who let students paint on the school walls.

His first commission was at a Panama City, Fla., community college, to paint the story of the English literature hall. After studying illustration and ad design at the Art Institute in south Florida, he continued to build a portfolio of work done on walls, buildings, on gym floors and in stadiums, working for private and corporate commissions as a freelance designer and illustrator.

He became creative director of an outdoor company in Dothan several years ago, and now continues to live and work there as a portrait artist and muralist. Dothan features several of Hardin’s impressive murals — a salute to Fort Rucker, one on Wiregrass contemporary music and a tribute to the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the state.

Dothan was also how he came to Andalusia’s attention. Several years ago, retired Andalusia educator Pat Palmore and her husband and some friends vacationed in Vancouver, British Columbia. While traveling, the group saw signs advertising the city of Chemainus, which had become known as a “mural city.”

This mural recalls Covington County’s cattle industry.
This mural recalls Covington County’s cattle industry.

“It was just like an outdoor art gallery. It was just absolutely beautiful,” Palmore says. That small town needed to make a drastic change after the mill that employed many of its residents shut down; city leaders decided to turn the town into the mural capital of Canada. They commissioned artists from across North America and Europe to paint a series of murals.

At the time of the Palmores’ trip, the town reported having as many as half a million people to tour its murals. As a town on the route to the ski slopes, it had a natural traffic draw, and the city leaders capitalized on it.

“I thought, we just have to do murals in Andalusia, not only to show our history, but to make it beautiful like Chemainus,” Palmore said, perhaps also luring tourists to stop on their way to and from the Gulf Coast beaches. Others in Andalusia knew of Dothan’s murals, and learned about Hardin; he has also done eye-catching murals in Brewton, Colquitt, Ga. and Blakely, Ga.

The city put together a murals committee, which Palmore helps to spearhead, and commissioned Hardin to do the first mural, which was the “Legends of Andalusia” on the side of a local radio station just off the court square. He has done several others, including a salute to Covington County’s early school days and a series dedicated to utilities, with one panel that depicts the early days of rural electrification.

The partnership has been beneficial for both Hardin and the city. The murals allowed Hardin, a full-time artist, to keep working through the lean years of the recent recession, and his work now helps the city draw tourists and sightseers. Andalusia, like most of the towns for which Hardin has done commissions, has to raise all the money for the murals, either through grants or private donations.

Palmore said Hardin, in addition to being a gifted artist, has been “absolutely delightful” to work with. “He wants to do everything to please us, and to get everything we want on the mural. He’s so good to help us.”

In whatever town he’s working, Hardin becomes a familiar sight to residents; most of his works take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to complete. (The parade mural, which he started last fall, is a notable exception, due to its size and complexity. Cold or wet weather also delays his work.)

Passers-by drop by frequently while he’s working, sometimes just to say “good job,” but sometimes they’re moved to park their cars and strike up a conversation.

Hardin’s “School Days” mural honors the city and county schools in Covington County.
Hardin’s “School Days” mural honors the city and county schools in Covington County.

During an interview and photo session with Alabama Living earlier this year, longtime Andalusia resident Jean Thomas stopped by. A portrait of her husband Don, now deceased, is one of several in the law enforcement tableau. Thomas felt that her husband’s portrait didn’t look like him, and told Hardin so; he had to reassure her that he was still in the working stage and that he would go back over the portrait about three times.

“He’ll look just like that picture,” Hardin said, pointing to an old photo he was using as a reference. “Is that going to be OK?”

Reassured, Thomas said yes, complimented him on his work and talked a little about her late husband, who was a game warden for more than 25 years. Residents often stop and tell him their personal stories, as another woman did while Hardin worked on a portrait of a man named Pap Gantt.

“She started talking about him, so now, it will mean more to me to paint it, and have a sense of who he was,” Hardin said. He doesn’t consider it an intrusion at all, and good-naturedly talks with curious onlookers.

“We’ve had good response to this character in front here, who leads the parade, J.D. Shakespeare,” a well-known former police officer. “A boy he actually raised after his mother and father had passed (came by to see the painting), and he got tears in his eyes talking about Mr. Shakespeare and how he watched after him and made sure he was on the right path. So there’s great stories here.”

Having opinions about his work is a good thing, Hardin said, because it means they feel a sense of ownership of it.

“I’ve never had any vandalism. I can’t explain that, but people feel a certain pride, because it’s theirs. They’re very gracious and they thank me, but it’s theirs.”

Cullman’s murals weather devastating tornado

By Allison Griffin

Mural_Cullman

The tornado of April 27, 2011, cut a swath through downtown Cullman, irrevocably changing its landscape. The courthouse and nearby emergency management building took a direct hit, as did two school buildings, the First Baptist Church and numerous businesses.

“Our town was just a mess,” recalls Dot Gudger, past president of the Cullman County Historical Society.

Also damaged was one of Cullman’s downtown murals, a colorful homage to the town and its 1880s beginnings. The top right portion of the wall crumbled against the winds of the tornado. The decision was made to repair the damaged portion; the bricks have been replaced, and the building’s owner also added windows during a remodel, so its appearance is much different than it was originally.

But the town pulled together to rebuild after the storm, and its dozen murals, which include a tribute to the Cullman Electric Cooperative, still stand to help tell the story of the town’s history. And, much like the murals in other towns and small cities, they attract a number of tourists, Gudger said.

Such murals also help strengthen public-private partnerships, said Elliot Knight, visual arts program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts. In many cases, the buildings are privately owned, so permissions have to be secured for the murals.

“A building owner could get really excited about telling a particular part of that history, and it’s really a win for them, to bring more attention to their space and beautify their location, but also for the community as a whole to benefit,” Knight says.

Gudger says such partnerships were crucial in Cullman, where business owners agreed to let the artists paint on their exterior walls. But just as important were the talents of the painters — Jack Tupper, Bethany Kerr and Donald Walker, all local artists, did Cullman’s murals, in some cases for free. And local organizations made generous donations toward the murals’ creation.

“Cullman is the most giving town,” Gudger says.