Robert McCammon is the only living Alabama author to have a book named to PBS’ “The Great American Read” list of 100 beloved 100 books. (Harper Lee, who died in 2016, topped the list with To Kill a Mockingbird). McCammon’s apocalyptic novel Swan Song, co-winner (with Stephen King) of the 1987 Bram Stoker Award, was #94 on the list. It is one of 23 novels the Birmingham native has written since graduating in 1974 from the University of Alabama, where he was editor of The Crimson White. Many are bestsellers, including his 1978 breakout novel, Baal, Boy’s Life and Gone South. Although he enjoys a loyal international fan base, he still lives in Birmingham. We talked with him as he was wrapping up his latest book in the popular Matthew Corbett historical fiction series. – Lenore Vickrey
When did you first begin writing?
I remember writing a story about an invasion of giant grasshoppers and reading that to other kids in my first grade, so I guess I would’ve been six. When I was a freshman at Banks High School in Roebuck they had a writing contest that I won with a story about a dying soldier in Vietnam. The prize was $10, but the real prize was that a teacher—one of the contest judges—had written on my paper the question, “A freshman wrote this?” that I suppose was directed to the other judges. That, unfortunately, was the first and last year they had the contest.
You’ve talked publicly about the lack of encouragement for your writing that you received at the Birmingham Post-Herald, where you worked on the copy desk. Was there any professor at UA who did see writing talent in you, and encouraged you to pursue that?
Yes, there was, though I’ve forgotten his name. He was a creative writing teacher, and he seemed to like my work, but it became weird because whenever any of the other students read his or her work this professor would look at me and say something like, “What do you think about that story?” So it became a bit uncomfortable for me, being expected to give my opinion on everyone else’s efforts!
What’s your typical pattern for writing these days? Do you have a secluded place in your home where you do your research and writing?
Late night, starting around ten or so and going until I’ve figured I’ve done enough, which can go on all night. The night belongs to me. I’ve always been a night person and remain so. Many years ago—many years!—I had to write down all my questions about a subject and trek to the library, but of course now with the internet that’s not necessary. But I’ll tell you that I could never write the Matthew Corbett series (set in the 1700s) without the internet of the 21st century…there are just too many things that demand research. If I had to go to the library to look up everything, each book would take years to write!
Tell us about the online video you star in, “My Creations.”
A friend of mine is a film director. I told him what I wanted to do and that I had the song—or the “rap”, if you please—and we went from there. I do believe it’s the first music video ever made by a fulltime writer who is not also a working musician. The reaction has been exactly what I hoped…that it was just “fun,” and we really had a great time doing it. (Watch the video at robertmccammon.com)
I read that your next project was The King of Shadows, in the Matthew Corbett series, followed by a book of short stories. Is that still on track?
Yes, still on track. I’m hoping to finish The King of Shadows next month and then I’ll be doing a book of Matthew Corbett short stories before I do the final book in the series. After that I have a couple of other projects in mind that I’m looking forward to. Several years ago I was planning to retire when I got to “my age,” but now…no way.
As time goes on, what book or books of yours do fans seem to appreciate the most?
Swan Song, Boy’s Life and the Matthew Corbett series. Of course, sometimes I get comments from people who’ve just read my first few books and love those. Sometimes it hits you out of the blue that a reader says a book you wrote 30 years ago has had a profound and positive influence on either them or a loved one. The Wolf’s Hour has a pretty large following too, and I’m always getting requests to do a sequel to that, which is why I did the semi-sequel The Hunter From The Woods a few years back. But people want more. Which is good for me!
What books would we find on your nightstand?
You would find a mix of history, books on music and books on board games (which I collect, and I have thousands of them) and also a few of my also-vast collection of science fiction magazines like Analog, Fantastic, Worlds Of If, and Amazing, which introduced me to reading as a kid and I now have every one of the issues that (no joke) my grandmother threw away! Now if only I could afford to get back all the Batman comic books of the 1950s and 1960s that she tossed out!
Fall fruit season is here, a time to enjoy locally grown apples, pumpkins, pears and many other Autumn-ripening favorites, including a newcomer to the fall lineup — Alabama-grown kiwifruit.
These darling egg-shaped super-fruits, which are packed with exquisite flavor and exceptional nutrition, are native to China where they have been revered and cultivated for centuries. Kiwifruit gained its current name and an international fan base after growers in New Zealand successfully commercialized and marketed the crop. Large-scale production soon expanded to other countries, including Chile, Italy and the U.S., primarily in California, which established a thriving kiwifruit industry in the 1980s.
About that same time, Auburn University horticulture professor and small fruit expert Billy Dozier saw potential for this semi-tropical fruit here in Alabama. Working with Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station researchers across the state to evaluate kiwifruit varieties and their cultivation requirements in our southeastern growing conditions, Dozier soon identified one the biggest challenges for kiwifruit production in Alabama: our winter. Or, rather, our lack of winter.
According to Matthew Price, director of the Chilton Research and Extension Center in Clanton, which has been the hub of Auburn’s kiwifruit research all these years, kiwifruit are much like apples and peaches. To properly set fruit, they must be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for a specific number of hours each year, which can be a challenge here in mild-wintered Alabama.
Dozier and his team addressed that issue as they developed new varieties of kiwifruit designed to thrive in Alabama. To date, Auburn has released five patented cultivars including one of the fuzzy-coated, green-fleshed, sweet/tart-tasting kiwifruit that we’ve all grown to love, as well as several smooth-skinned, yellow-fleshed, tropically flavored (think pineapple/mango) golden kiwifruit cultivars, which possess an extra special quality.
“Golden kiwifruit require 750-850 chilling hours, depending upon the variety, whereas most green kiwifruit varieties require over 1,000,” Price explained.
It took some three decades, but in 2014 Dozier’s vision truly took root. That’s when Clint Wall, one of Dozier’s former students, and his wife Jenny began planting AU Golden Sunshine kiwifruit at Alabama’s first commercial-scale kiwifruit operation, Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative in Reeltown. The orchard now is home to more than 40,000 vines which are already producing enough fruit to supply select grocery store chains in Alabama and beyond, a market that holds great promise for further expansion.
Kiwifruit is also a promising crop for gardeners who want to harvest some of their own fall gold and green, though the growing the fruit does require a degree of effort — and at least two plants. Why two? Because kiwifruit are dioecious (male and female flowers are produced on separate plants), so at least one plant of both genders (or up to four females for each male) are needed for pollination.
“On top of that, care must be taken to ensure that the vines bloom within the same time period,” Price says. “If they don’t, there will be no pollination, which means no kiwifruit.”
Kiwifruit have a lot to offer, but they also expect a lot from their growers. They need well-drained soils, trellises to support their heavy vines, significant amounts of water and fertilizer and extra protection from spring freezes and a variety of pests.
“Kiwifruit is a labor-intensive crop,” Price admits, “but for a home gardener with just a few vines, it is very doable.” Plus, he says, “Kiwifruit are packed with so much flavor and nutrition, it’s worth the time and effort to grow your own.”
Now is a prime time to find locally harvested kiwifruit at area grocers and farmers markets, and also to see the kiwifruit plantings at the Chilton REC, which welcomes visitors and is open most weekdays. (Call ahead at 205-646-3610 to check hours or schedule an appointment.)
In addition, information on growing kiwifruit is available through local Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices, from Petals from the Past nursery in Jemison (205-646-0069) and from other reputable kiwifruit plant suppliers.
• Cut and preserve herbs for use during the winter.
• Save seed from flowers, vegetables and herbs.
• Plant shrubs, trees and perennials.
• Plant lettuces, spinach, turnips, radishes, onions and garlic.
• Test soil and add amendments as needed.
• Prepare garden tools, equipment and supplies for winter storage.
For more than three decades, the Sharp family has served top-notch food at its chain of Top O’ The River restaurants across eastern Alabama.
Top O’ The River first opened its doors in Anniston in 1982. The family later added locations in Gadsden in 1983 and Guntersville in 2002, along with a location on Pickwick Lake in Tennessee in 2012. Having multiple locations allows the Sharps to expand their brand while being close enough to their home to maintain day to day business operations.
“We had family members that wanted to expand the business within controllable distance,” says Bill Sharp, who oversees operations at all locations.
The star of the menu at Top O’ The River is the farm-raised catfish and fresh seafood. Twice a week, seafood is brought in from the coast, while catfish comes from Mississippi weekly.
“We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer likely are our only one.”
Before the main course, instead of hush puppies, each table gets a complimentary skillet of made-from-scratch cornbread that is mixed with jalapenos, corn, and scallions. The signature mustard greens often accompany the cornbread.
“We decided cornbread complements the coleslaw and greens more than the hushpuppies, so we include those with the entrees,” Sharp says.
In 2019, the Alabama Tourism Department named the Gadsden location’s catfish and mustard greens as one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” (The Guntersville location also got a place on the list for the fried pickles.)
The most popular entree on the menu is the “riverboat special,” which includes a half pound of catfish, hushpuppies, a choice of baked potato or fries and an order of cornbread, coleslaw and pickled onions. Other seafood items include shrimp, shrimp scampi and crawfish.
Those in the mood for something other than seafood or catfish can order prime cut steaks and chicken, while the hand-battered fried pickles and onion rings are favorite appetizers.
All menu items are cooked to order; the batter used for the catfish, seafood and chicken is the same recipe used since opening day.
Top O’ The River’s website bills itself as one of the Southeast’s largest catfish and seafood restaurants. Each location can seat up to 700 people along with banquet facilities that can seat up to 200 for private events. During busy nights, as many as 100 employees are on hand at the Guntersville location to ensure that the process of seating and serving customers runs as smoothly as possible.
“To serve a large number of people in a short amount of time, every facet of our operation must be efficient,” says Chad Opdycke, general manager of the Guntersville location.
With such a vast seating area, the Guntersville location can turn over groups of customers as many as five to seven times on weekend evenings. “We always pride ourselves in not letting the customer wait once they sit down,” Sharp says. Those eating at the Guntersville location can pass the time while waiting for a table admiring the large aquarium that displays different types of fish.
For those who want to dine with a view, the Gadsden location overlooks Neely Henry Lake, while the Guntersville location has views of Lake Guntersville. “The main comments we get for the water views is that customers are willing to wait for a window seat,” Sharp says.
The Guntersville and Gadsden locations also have a marina where those out on the water can arrive by boat and come inside the restaurant to dine.
Despite having a large clientele of locals, some customers drive from as far as Birmingham and Huntsville to eat at one of their locations. “It is not only an honor but a little bit of added pressure to have customers drive from miles away to eat with us,” Opdycke says. “We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer like they are our only one.”
The consistency in food quality and customer service and having the same menu at all locations has changed little since Top O’ The River first opened.
“Consistency sounds easy, but that can be the most difficult part of this business,” Sharp says. “Customers know what to expect when they arrive.”
Despite the large staff, employees feel like a member of the family, which translates to the quality customer service that guarantees repeat business. “Treating our employees like family creates a fun and positive work environment, which helps with employee retention,” Opdycke says. “I feel like our employees extend this same treatment to our customers.”
Cast-iron cookware was created several hundred years ago and got heavy use in the 1700s and 1800s. In the 20th century, pots and pans made from other materials like aluminum began to edge it out, pushing it to the dark confines of the back cabinets where unloved and unused kitchen tools languish.
But it’s made its way back. Cast iron has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and is now the go-to cookware for many chefs and home cooks who put more modern pieces aside in favor of the tried-and-true staple.
Need proof? Lodge, the largest U.S. manufacturer of cast iron, founded in 1896, says the last few years have brought some of the best sales in the company’s century-plus history. And there are new cast-iron makers like Smithey Ironware and Butter Pat Industries jumping into the market. Want evidence that its fanbase is still growing? There’s an entire magazine devoted to cast-iron cooking.
So how has cast iron’s appeal endured and why is it now thriving? There are multiple reasons. It’s almost indestructible; rust is its only true enemy. It’s naturally nonstick, so there are no health concerns about chemical coatings. It’s an excellent conductor of heat, and it heats evenly, making it highly versatile and good for all kinds of recipes, delivering good sears on meat, better browning on cornbread and extra crisping to the crust on fried chicken. While some of the newer, smaller cast iron companies charge a pretty penny for their pieces (and they’re worth it; there’s a lot of skill going into them), most cast iron is still very reasonably priced.
Cook of the Month: Suzy Shephred, Pioneer EC
Suzy Shepherd felt the need to share her recipe for Cream Cheese Cornbread to encourage folks to use their cast iron skillets and branch out beyond basic cornbread. “I use my cast-iron skillet for so many things, but I never make any version of cornbread in anything else,” she says. “And this cornbread is a bit different and so delicious.” It’s a recipe she created on a whim, modifying other cream cheese cornbread recipes she’d seen by leaving the cream cheese in chunks. “That gives it such a great texture,” she says. She was thrilled to find out she is this issue’s Cook of the Month, but we don’t think she should have been too surprised. She entered the recipe in another contest years ago, and it took home first prize.
Cream Cheese Cornbread
1 cup self-rising flour
½ cup cooking oil
1 8-ounce package cream cheese (keep cold)
1 14-ounce can cream corn
2 whole eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Add 2 tablespoons oil to a cast iron skillet and heat until hot on top of stove. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together except cream cheese (keep cold until ready to use.) Cut cold cream cheese into small squares and fold into mixture. Pour into hot skillet, turn off heat and leave on top of stove a few minutes, then place in hot oven and bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Great served with soups.
Iron Skillet Peach Pie
6 large peaches, peeled and sliced
1¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla flavoring
½ teaspoon almond flavoring
3 frozen regular Pet-Ritz pie shells
¾ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
Cinnamon, to taste
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Place peaches in a large bowl. Add 1 cup sugar, zest, lemon juice and flavorings. Stir gently to combine. Melt ½ cup butter in iron skillet, add brown sugar and stir. Top mixture with one pie shell. Add half of the peach mixture and sprinkle with cinnamon. Top with second pie shell. Add remaining peaches and sprinkle with cinnamon. Make several slits in last pie shell and carefully top peaches. Pour remaining ¼ cup butter on pie shell, using a brush to distribute evenly. Sprinkle with ¼ cup sugar. Bake for 60 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
Wanda Stinson, Pioneer EC
Broccoli and Kielbasa
1 link kielbasa, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
Large bunch broccoli (without stems), chopped
1 cup onions, red, white or shallots
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons butter, olive oil or ghee, divided
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until caramelized; then add garlic and cook until soft. Add the red wine vinegar to the pan and mix with shallots and garlic. Add kielbasa and sauté until brown. Add the remaining butter, broccoli, paprika, salt and pepper and toss to mix all ingredients and coat the broccoli with butter and seasonings. Sauté the broccoli, add a splash of water and put a lid on the pan. Cook until the broccoli is soft, stirring occasionally. Top with fresh parsley and red pepper flakes if you like a little heat.
Jana Baron, Baldwin EMC
Cajun Shrimp (cover photo)
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
½ onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 serrano peppers, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1½ pounds shrimp, peeled and
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
In a large skillet, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onion, serrano pepper and celery until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Transfer vegetables to a bowl. Add remaining olive oil to the pan. Add shrimp in a single layer and season with salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning. Cook until no longer pink, 1-2 minutes per side. Add vegetables and lemon juice and toss until combined. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Chocolate Chip Blondie
1 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
11/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 cup pecans
Cool Whip or ice cream for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat iron skillet well with cooking spray. Mix melted butter with white and brown sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and mix together with butter and sugars. Then add flour, baking soda and salt. Fold in chocolate chips and pecans. Pour mixture into cast iron skillet and cook 35 to 40 mins. May serve warm with ice cream of choice or serve cool with Cool Whip.
Michelle Rogers, Franklin EC
Flat Iron Skillet Buttermilk Biscuits
2 cups White Lily self-rising flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 stick cold butter (not margarine), grated or cut into small pieces
1 cup cold buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously grease your flat iron skillet with butter flavored Crisco or lard. Place skillet in oven and heat approximately 12 minutes while mixing your biscuits. You will get a soft buttery texture on the inside and crisp bottom from the hot skillet. Mix flour and sugar. Use your fingers to work the butter into the flour. Don’t overmix. You want some butter pieces throughout your biscuit. With a wooden spoon, start in the center of mixing bowl gradually pouring in the buttermilk until the dough comes together from edges of bowl. The dough should be slightly sticky but well formed. Remove skillet from oven (be careful, it’s hot). Dump the dough onto a floured pastry board; knead gently 3 times. Press the dough to 1-inch thickness. Cut the dough with a biscuit cutter into 8 biscuits, placing each biscuit 1-inch apart on the hot skillet (hear the sizzle). Bake at 400 degrees 20-24 minutes until golden brown. Split and slather with tomato gravy or your favorite preserves.
Jackie Skelton Vice, Black Warrior EMC
Classic Chicken Pot Pie
2 refrigerated pie crusts, softened
1/3 cup butter (unsalted)
1/3 cup onion (finely chopped)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
21/2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, cooked as directed on package
Place one pie crust into 10-inch cast iron skillet and reserve second crust to put on top of pie. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a 2-quart saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and cook 2 minutes stirring frequently until tender. Stir in flour, salt and pepper until well blended. Gradually stir in broth and milk, cooking and stirring until bubbly and thickened. Stir in chicken and mixed vegetables. Remove from heat. Spoon into crust-lined, 10-inch cast iron skillet. Top with second crust; seal edge and flute. Cut slits in several places in top crust. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until crust is golden brown. During the last 15 to 20 minutes of baking, cover the edge of the crust with foil to prevent excessive browning. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.
Linda Jo Letson, North Alabama EC
New England Boiled Dinner
3 to 4 pounds corned beef brisket
8 small onions
8 medium carrots
4 potatoes, pared and halved or quartered
2 turnips cubed (optional)
1 medium green cabbage, cut into wedges
Place brisket in large cast iron kettle. Cover with cold water. Cover tightly and simmer 3 1/2 hours or until tender. Skim fat from liquid. Add onions, carrots, potatoes and turnips. Sprinkle with caraway seed. Cover. Simmer 20 minutes. Remove meat to warm platter. Add cabbage to kettle; simmer uncovered 10 to 15 minutes longer or until vegetables are tender. Serves 8. Note: To carve meat, cut thin diagonal slices across the grain at a slanting angle.
Janice Bracewell, Covington EC
How to: Re-season your cast iron
Seasoning refers to a layer of fat that’s baked onto the interior surface of cast-iron cookware and is what makes pieces non-stick. Most cast-iron pieces made today come already seasoned, but over time, they need to be re-seasoned to keep them in good working order.
Here’s how to do it:
Use a bit of the fine steel wool and warm water to rub iff any rust.
Dry it completely and spread a thin layer of vegetable oil or shortening around the inside with a paper towel.
Place it upside won in your oven and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. (Put a sheet pan covered in foil underneath it to catch grease drips.
Le tit cool to room temperature in the oven.
$50 prize and title of Cook of the Month
Themes and Deadlines:
January: Soups and Stews | October 11
February: Pork | November 8
March: Peanut Butter | December 13
Please send us your original recipes (developed or adapted by your family or family members.) Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year.
3 ways to submit:
Mail: Recipes, P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124
To be eligible, submissions must include a name, phone number, mailing address and co-op name.
Alabama Living reserves the right to reprint recipes in our other publications.
Identify and place this Alabama landmark and you could win $25! Winner is chosen at random from all correct entries. Multiple entries from the same person will be disqualified. Send your answer by Oct. 11 with your name, address and the name of your rural electric cooperative. The winner and answer will be announced in the November issue.
Submit by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail: Whereville, P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124.
Contribute your own photo for an upcoming issue! Send a photo of an interesting or unusual landmark in Alabama, which must be accessible to the public. A reader whose photo is chosen will also win $25.
It’s hard to miss the bright pink back end of a Volkswagen Beetle at the Our Place Diner on U.S. Highway 231 in Ozark. Tyler Wright, who bought the restaurant in 2016, provided some background: The bug used to have a trailer hitch where the other half of the car should be. A man named Mr. Judah used it in parades, pulled behind a car. Homecoming kings and queens and mayors would ride in the back half. Shortly after the previous owners opened the diner in June 2008, they bought the bug from Mr. Judah to attract customers. They would move it all around the property “because it drove people crazy.” After Wright bought the restaurant, he found that people didn’t know where Our Place Diner was, but when he described the pink VW bug, the response was always, “I know exactly where you’re talking about.” Wright had it repainted and put on a permanent slab and says customers love it.
And Mike Brakefield of Covington EC sent in a photo (above) of two young relatives who couldn’t resist a picture with the landmark!
The randomly drawn correct guess winner is Sara Deese of Wiregrass EC.