Fiesta, Alabama’s largest celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage, will hold its 17th annual festival Saturday, Sept. 28 in Birmingham’s Linn Park from noon to 8 p.m. Everyone is invited to join Fiesta to celebrate the rich and storied history of Alabama’s Hispanic community, as well as its 200 years of statehood, as part of Alabama’s Bicentennial.
Fiesta provides the opportunity for more than 15,000 patrons to journey through more than 20 represented countries and experience the best of Hispanic art, music, food and dance. The festival gives Alabamians the chance to experience Latin America in their own backyard. Fiesta features two music stages, authentic Latin food vendors, a cultural village, a community village, children’s activities, a health and wellness village and more.
Regular tickets are $10, with children ages 12 and under free with a ticketed adult. To purchase tickets, visit fiestabham.com.
Hunter Key Underwood buried his coon dog Troop at the site of the future Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Colbert County. Underwood buried Troop in one of their favorite hunting sites, a pine bluff named “Sugar Creek,” and marked his grave with a large stone engraved with his name and birth and death dates. Today, the cemetery is the final resting place of more than 150 coonhounds with headstones made of wood, granite, and natural stone. The Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association maintains the cemetery — which receives nearly 7,000 visitors each year — and hosts a celebration each Labor Day to commemorate the cemetery’s founding. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1425
Submit Your Images! November Theme: “On the farm” Deadline for November: September 30
Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124
Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.
By Kylle’ McKinney Social Security turns 84 this year. With more than eight decades of service, we’ve provided benefits to one of the most diverse populations in history. Regardless of background, we cover retirees, wounded warriors, chronically ill children, and people who have lost loved ones.
Knowing that we cover so many different people, we’ve created People Like Me webpages that speak to specific audiences. Sharing these pages could make a positive impact on someone’s life. Here are a few that might speak to you.
Do you know someone who needs to start saving for retirement? No matter where they are in their careers, Social Security can help. It’s never too late to start planning. We offer two pages, one for people early in their career at socialsecurity.gov/people/earlycareer and one for people who have been working for a while, socialsecurity.gov/people/midcareer.
Social Security plays an important role in providing economic security for women. Nearly 55 percent of the people receiving Social Security benefits are women. Women face greater economic challenges in retirement. First, women tend to live longer than men do, so they are more likely to exhaust their retirement savings. A woman who is 65 years old today can expect to live, on average, until about 87, while a 65-year-old man can expect to live, on average, until about 84. Second, women often have lower lifetime earnings than men, which usually means they receive lower benefits. And, third, women may reach retirement with smaller pensions and other assets than men. Share this page with someone who needs this information and may need help planning socialsecurity.gov/people/women.
We proudly serve wounded warriors and veterans. They endure sacrifices to preserve the freedoms Americans treasure. Many of them do not know they might be entitled to benefits. Share our resources with them to make sure they are getting the benefits they deserve. socialsecurity.gov/people/veterans.
If you didn’t see a page that is important to you here, check out our general People Like Me page at socialsecurity.gov/people.
Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fifty years ago, it was a humble bug collection. Today, it’s a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art, hands-on, fully immersive museum, with more than 62,000 square feet of space dedicated to the study of all aspects of nature.
This is the Cook Museum of Natural Science in Decatur, which opened in June after being closed for three years while the new location was being planned and built. The non-profit museum allows visitors to learn about nature through a vast array of exhibits and interactive experiences, designed to captivate kids of all ages.
In the late 1960s, John Cook Sr. of Cook’s Pest Control started opening his private collection of insects – which until then had been used primarily for employee training – by appointment to various groups in North Alabama. The collection grew to include mounted wildlife, and the original museum opened in 1980 with additional displays of rocks, minerals, fossils and insects.
Children and adults alike enjoy the wonders and mysteries of cave exploring.
In its more than 30 years of existence, what was the Cook’s Natural Science Museum welcomed more than 750,000 visitors. But in 2012, the Cook family was at a crossroads about the future of the old museum after John Cook Sr. died in 2009.
“The Cook family had the museum for so long that they did not want to close it, but they were not sure what to do,” marketing and public relations manager Mike Taylor says.
After extensive market research, in 2015 the decision was made to build a new museum. After closing the old museum in 2016, the Cook family began moving their existing collection into the new museum while acquiring additional artifacts for the new location.
The biggest challenge the new attraction faces is describing the number of new features to those familiar with the original Cook Museum. “It is hard to put the museum into words,” Taylor explains. “You have to come see it.”
All about nature
There are eleven different themed galleries dedicated to the diverse habitats of Alabama, the Southeast, and North America, including a life-size replica of a cave and a mesmerizing collection of rocks and minerals on display from different parts of the world.
North Alabama’s space industry is represented at the new museum with a meteorite from the original location. Visitors can learn about the whooping crane, common at the nearby Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, in the Rivers and Streams Gallery. Meanwhile, the Arctic and Desert Gallery helps the visitor compare and contrast wildlife from those particular regions.
Mr. Cook’s original insect collection, along with hundreds of new species of insects, is available for viewing in the Wonderful World of Insects.
Giant aquariums hold different types of jellyfish and saltwater fish in the Oceans Gallery, while a large beehive stores as many as 60,000 live Italian honey bees. There are even live baby alligators acquired from an alligator reservation in south Alabama along with displays of other various reptiles from North America.
Trained staff members, including an on-site veterinarian, are tasked with treating the live animals humanely. Once the animals outgrow their space in the museum, the museum will release them back into their appropriate habitats.
Keeping kids interested
The museum’s different hands-on exhibits, which include a virtual game that involves balancing the Earth’s atmospheric conditions and a station where you can digitally design a seashell, allow visitors to discover the planet through various ways of learning.
Everyone enjoys getting their hands in the sand in this display.
Photo courtesy Cook Museum
“We put a lot of thought and money into the different types of learning showcased in the different types of exhibits,” says Kara Long, manager of collections and gallery experience. Children can burn off energy by peering inside a life-size beaver lodge, walking on a rope bridge above a replica of a Southeastern forest, or crawling around in the museum’s insect-themed playground.
To get students interested in nature, different classrooms inside the museum will hold various programs to encourage future careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. “Using a child’s internal motivation to explore and learn, we can help them develop an early appreciation, sense of wonder, love, and respect for the natural world that is so awe-inspiring,” Taylor says.
The museum will also host field trips, birthday parties, and sleepovers to encourage children and young students to visit the attraction. “There is already interest from across Alabama who want to take their students on a field trip to our museum,” Taylor says.
The museum also serves as a community center for Decatur, with a cafe and meeting space for events. It will also serve as a regional attraction for north Alabama and the Southeast.
“This museum is a rising tide for North Alabama,” president and board chairman Brian Cook says. “We see this museum as being a significant part of regionalism and are thankful for the many sponsors in North Alabama and beyond who made this museum possible.”
Cook is thankful that his grandfather’s legacy will live on with the new museum. “I recently asked my grandmother if she ever imagined that opening the doors to a few small school groups or Boy Scouts back in 1968 would lead to this,” Cook explains. “She laughed and said, ‘no, I never saw this happening.’”
For more information on the museum, visit www.cookmuseum.org.
In the heart of lovely Eufaula, Alabama, stands a statue like no other. About waist high, under shady trees, it is a testament to a town hero, Leroy Brown. What’s so unique about that you ask?
Leroy Brown is a fish.
Leroy was a larger than life, livin’ large, largemouth bass. This is the story, his legend, a fish tail – I mean tale.
On a sunny Eufaula Lake day in 1973, Tom Mann caught the bass that changed his life. “Dad knew something was different when the line yanked,” recalls his daughter, Sharon Mann Dixon. “Leroy weighed less than two pounds but fought hard because he was a king and knew it.”
Now most fish caught in Eufaula – “Big Bass Capital of the World” – are either destined for the trophy case or a rendezvous with tartar sauce. In addition, the boisterous bass was not reeled in by an angling amateur. Tom Mann was an expert, owner of Mann’s Bait Company, Tom Mann’s Fish World, and a fishing lure inventor.
Tom Mann with the Leroy Brown headstone before it was moved to downtown Eufaula.
Typically gamefish and fishermen are adversaries but not this time. The little fish with the barracuda attitude went home with Tom and placed in the family’s cement pond. Later he was transferred to Mann’s Bait Company’s 18,000-gallon aquarium. Sharon noted, “He instantly owned the tank.”
The aqua-pet was hand fed minnows. It was trained to jump through a hoop held over the aquarium’s water surface. When Tom walked to another side of the massive aquarium, Leroy followed from the inside looking out.
“Its weakness was strawberry jelly worms – dad’s invention,” adds Sharon. “That’s the bait Leroy was caught on.” If other lures didn’t interest Leroy, his majesty the fish allowed tank mates to eat it.
“He was also a ladies’ man,” smiles Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs, who fondly recalls the fish’s life and times. “Leroy had several girlfriends and shielded his love interests from would be suitors.”
But the gilled guy’s heart belonged to Big Bertha, a 12-pound female tank mate. “They were inseparable,” recalls Sharon, who relayed a bittersweet love story. “A critically ill fish typically floats near the water’s surface when it is dying,” she explains, relaying the facts of Bertha’s demise. “In her last days, Bertha floated near the top and Leroy continuously attempted to push her back down, deeper in the water.”
The Mann family named their pet after a popular 1970s song of the day, Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.” The name fit and word spread. Eufaula was seized by fish fame.
People came from everywhere to behold the bass. He received fan mail from around the world. Leroy made the front page of the Atlanta Constitution, was featured in Southern Living magazine, and in news stories as far away as Africa and Australia.
Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs and Sharon Mann Dixon, daughter of Tom Mann, pose with the city’s monument to Leroy Brown, the largemouth bass in downtown Eufaula. The statue would have been Leroy’s burial headstone had thieves not stolen the body. Photo by Emmett Burnett
In August 1980, Tom Mann discovered his prized pet floating. Silence had seized the fish that roared. Leroy Brown died of natural causes.
Tom’s close friend Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S), was consulted. They agreed that Leroy deserved a funeral. Approximately $4,000 was spent on a customized headstone. A casket was made from a satin-lined tackle box complete with strawberry jelly worms to accommodate Leroy in the hereafter.
At Lake Point Lodge, approximately 800 people attended the funeral for a big mouth bass. Pallbearers included Roland Martin and other fishing celebrities. The Eufaula High School Marching Band played “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and Alabama Gov. Fob James declared a Day of Mourning for the fallen fish.
But at nightfall, something fishy happened. Leroy’s casket was not buried the day of the funeral due to intense rain, making the gravesite too wet. The casket was stored in a freezer. Thieves in the night stole the body and left a ransom note: One million jelly worms for Leroy’s return.
Weeks later the remains were found at the Tulsa, Oklahoma Airport’s Lost Baggage department. The fish carcass was never returned to Eufaula nor the grave robbers ever found.
For years Leroy’s monument lay idle, to be discovered by Tibbs, the mayor. “I was fishing at Ray Scott’s fishing lodge in Pintlala and saw it on the property,” Tibbs recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s Leroy Brown!’”
Tibbs met with Sharon Dixon to ask Ray Scott’s permission to return the stone to Eufaula. Scott agreed.
On Oct. 13, 2016, the marble monument to Leroy Brown was dedicated on East Broad Street where it remains today. Tom Mann died in 2005. But the legacy lives.
Last April in a re-enactment coinciding with Eufaula Pilgrimage week, 11-year-old Eufaula Elementary School fifth-grader Mackenzie Young dressed in costume of a largemouth bass. Assuming the role of walking Leroy, she told the story to the assembled. “I am Leroy Brown,” she said proudly with fins raised high. “I wasn’t a large fish but you could tell me apart from the others. I was the most famous fish in America.”
Eufaula Elementary School 5th-grader Mackenzie Young, dressed as the legendary largemouth bass, portrays Leroy Brown during Eufaula’s Pilgrimage Celebration in April. She is the 11-year-old daughter of Scott and Lauran Young, of Abbeville. Photo courtesy of Lauran Young
Visitors constantly question Mayor Tibbs, asking is the story true? “We answer yes, it is,” Eufaula’s municipal leader notes. “Of course, some of them look at you funny when told we had a funeral for a bass.”
Sharon Dixon works at Southern Charm, a quaint boutique across the street from Leroy Brown’s monument. “I see it from the front window,” she smiles, patting the head of Leroy’s stone likeness. “Every day it brings back memories.”
On the front of the memorial are Tom Mann’s words immortalized in stone:
“Most Bass Are Just Fish But Leroy Brown Was Something Special.”
They have little in the way of material things. But in rural southwest Bolivia – a high desert land of fierce altitude and quiet beauty – the people are modest, hard-working and gracious.
And thanks to Alabama’s electric cooperatives, they will soon have electricity.
This fall, volunteers from five Alabama cooperatives and the Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA) will travel to the municipality of Challapata, in the department of Oruro, to bring power to about 60 households that have never had electricity.
AREA is coordinating the project with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s philanthropic NRECA International Foundation. While some Alabama co-ops have undertaken individual rural electrification projects abroad, this is the first for AREA, which will unite the efforts of individual co-ops under one umbrella for Alabama.
It will be a gratifying, and perhaps life-changing, experience for the co-op employees who will participate.
“These teams return infused with energy and priceless experiences that aren’t comparable to those possible within the borders of our country,” says Matty Garr, vice president of statewide services for AREA, who is helping to coordinate the project.
“Our amazing line workers continually come to the need of our local communities time and time again after storms to restore power,” Garr says. “In Bolivia, they will come to the need of people with so little and spread their light while bringing electricity to drown out the darkness.”
The linemen will spend 11 working days in the area this fall, working on six separate projects to construct about seven miles of line. The project areas are geographically close, but still very isolated. By one estimate, more than a third of the households in the rural areas of Bolivia do not have access to electricity.
The Ende Deoruro utility, out of the medium-sized city of Oruro, is the state electric power distributor and has agreed to connect the Challapata project to its existing system and support the customers, who will receive electricity 24 hours a day.
Julie Young, vice president of business and administrative services at Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, has been on similar projects in Guatemala with the co-op and will be a part of the Bolivian trip. She’s seen how the projects change lives – both of the volunteers and the recipients.
“We heard from old men who said they had waited a lifetime for that day, and now they knew that their children and grandchildren would have a better life,” Young says. “We heard from mothers who expressed their appreciation because their children would have light at night.”
The area of Challapata is an agricultural community located at an altitude of about 12,000 feet, which will be a challenge for the volunteer linemen, who will do much of the construction work by hand.
The residents rely on subsistence agriculture, mainly quinoa and potatoes, with some grazing sheep and alpacas. Most live in very modest homes of stone with thatch roofs; they cook using biomass and have no access to refrigeration, lighting or appliances we take for granted.
“There’s not been one person who has participated in any of these projects who hasn’t been emotionally impacted by the experience,” Young says. “Simply seeing first-hand the excitement and gratitude that people display when they are able to have electricity for the first time in their lives is an indescribable feeling.”
You never know what Barry Fleming might be up to — spinning mud into art, slapping a watermelon slice on a homemade biscuit, provoking and inspiring creativity in his art students, fueling his “live music problem” from backstage at Bonnaroo or scanning a Gulf Coast shoreline for marbled godwits. Fleming is a man of diverse talents, from gifted artist and arts educator to world-class birder, and many interests, from nature to culture to human nature. He’s also a firm believer that life’s experiences, especially those lived in the moment, are essential to the artistic process, and he’s a master at immersing himself in an experience and taking note of every detail. Those observational skills are invaluable to Fleming’s birding, art and teaching, but also to another of his talents – storytelling. When Fleming, who now lives in Opelika, bends your ear in his Tennessee twang, you never know where the story might be going, but you can bet it will be entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking.
– Katie Jackson
You have a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, plants, animals and the environment. When did that affinity for nature begin for you?
I was born in Laguna Beach, Calif., but I was transplanted to Tennessee at age 3, first to Inglewood and then to Hendersonville, which was a growing town at the time with lots of woods and creeks all around. I was a mischievous little kid and my parents pretty much let me go, so I got to be a serious fisher and also got into collecting snakes that I’d bring home and keep in my room, along with crawdads and mice and fish for the snakes to eat. My mom is not an animal person — she doesn’t even like a dog or a cat — but she let me have all those varmints, including the snakes that would escape sometimes in her house. It was a great way to grow up.
When did birds become part of that mix?
It was one bird on one day that did it. When I was in high school, I was fishing out in the headwaters of Drake’s Creek and up on a tree limb right above my head was a black-crowned night heron sitting there in full breeding plumage. I thought, “That’s something I need to know about. I bet you there’s a book that has this stuff in it.” So, I eased myself up to the Hendersonville public library, got me a bird book and started learning all the herons. Once I had those down, I thought I shouldn’t discriminate, so I started learning the other birds.
You admit to having a “live music problem,” an obsession with hearing really good music performed live, and you’re an expert on several musical genres. How did this music thing get started?
A lot of Nashville musicians lived in Hendersonville, so they were always around. I played ball against Conway Twitty, and Barbara Mandrell would show up at church and cry — I don’t know why she cried so much. We’d see Johnny Cash at the drugstore a lot, too. One of the original Oak Ridge Boys, who also sang backup for the Carol Lee Singers at the Grand Ole Opry, lived down the street from us and his son was one of my buddies. He’d take us with him when he sang at the Opry and we would hang out backstage and listen. We knew it wasn’t “cool” music, but we knew some of it was good and we’d show up at the junior high and tell people “Grandpa Jones is just as good as Jimi Hendrix.” They would say “NO WAY!”
Even when you were quite young, I understand you showed a real talent for drawing, but during grade school you were more interested in sports than art. What brought you back to art as a career?
When I got out of high school, I was working construction and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in the local community college. I took a drawing class there and during the final critique at the end of the semester the teacher asked us, “Why does someone become an artist?” Someone answered, “To make money.” “No,” she said. “For fortune and fame?” “No.” “To hang out with good looking people?” “No! You become an artist because you have to.” I was sitting there having a religious experience. I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this.” So, I transferred to Western Kentucky University, where I got a BFA (in painting and ceramics, 1985), and then got my MFA (in painting, 1988) from the University of Tennessee.
During the three decades you taught art at Auburn University (1988-2017), you developed a reputation as an easy-going, supportive professor, but also one who challenged students to think and work harder. What was the most important lesson you wanted your students to learn?
I think my main job is to flip my students’ minds and teach them to be observant and remain open to new things. I think inspiration often comes from life experiences, so I tell them, “If you open yourself up to different kinds of art, or music or ideas, you’ll enrich your life and your art even more.”
To fully admire a mighty oak, you may need to look up. To fully appreciate the might of oaks, however, just look all around. You’ll see oaks and their many contributions to our lives everywhere.
Oaks are native to the Northern Hemisphere (primarily Asia, North Africa, Europe and the Americas) and are members of the genus Quercus, which includes 500-600 diverse species worldwide. Approximately 90 oak species are native to the U.S., and 40 of those — more than any other state in the nation — are found right here in Alabama.
The diversity and abundance of Quercus in our state means we have lots of different kinds of oaks for use in our home landscapes, but it also means that our woodlands and other wild landscapes are stronger. That’s because oaks act as keystone species — dominant species in an ecosystem that support other plants and animals sharing their natural community. Keystone species are so important to their ecosystems that removing them will drastically change, perhaps even destroy, natural habitats.
Oaks are also vital to our species. Like other trees, oaks provide vital functions that support humankind such as turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, filtering and cleaning air and water and holding soils in place. Their strong, beautiful wood is used to construct many of the buildings that shelter us (not to mention boats that move us around, furniture, flooring and so much more) and their bark has medicinal qualities and is also used for inks and dyes.
In addition to meeting many of our basic needs, oaks also provide us with such luxuries as barrel-aged wines and whiskies, earthy-flavored truffles and even the subtle nuttiness of acorns (yes, we can eat them, though they may require a bit of preparation and some are tastier than others). And for eons, oaks have been a source of something of inestimable value to human society — inspiration, from which has sprung art, literature, mythology, symbolism and many other spiritual and cultural touchstones.
Of course, oaks can also beautify our landscapes, and the choices are vast. Oaks are segregated into one of two categories, white oaks and red oaks, based on distinct leaf and acorn characteristics. Both categories, however, offer a wide range of options for tree size (towering giants to petite shrubs) and shape (spreading, towering, rounded and more), as well as diverse leaf types (deciduous to evergreen; lance-like, oval, many-lobed, palmate and many other shapes) and acorn characteristics (large to small, pale to dark and bitter to sweet).
Among these two groups are many long-lived (surviving 200 years or more; the Seven Sisters Oak in Louisiana is believed to be more than 1,000 years old) species but also some with shorter lifespans. Most oaks tolerate a wide range of growing conditions, including droughty conditions once they are established, and oaks typically require only minimal pruning and fertilizer.
Despite all those fine attributes, however, oaks are often snubbed for home and urban landscapes, mainly because they have reputations for being either slow-growing or for overgrowing their space and because their leaves and acorns can make a bit of a mess. But those issues can be overcome if we pick the right oak for the right spot.
Begin by assessing the site (or sites) where you’d like to plant an oak. Determine how much space you have for the tree to grow (both in height and width) and how close the area is to buildings, driveways, parking areas, patios, utility lines and other structures that may cause problems with tree size and maintenance. Also assess the site’s nutrient, sunlight and moisture characteristics.
Now take some time to study up on the many oak species that thrive in Alabama and match your needs to their qualities. An abundance of oak tree information, including specific species traits, is available in books and publications both online and in print. (See a sample list of several free resources in the sidebar). Finally, start looking everywhere for and at oaks — in neighbors’ yards, along streets, in public parks and gardens and in the wild. Seeing them at work will help you pick the perfect mighty oak, even if it’s a mighty small one.
Book looks at how Alabama’s food traditions shape our culture
By Jennifer Kornegay
Alabama is known for its geographic variety and biodiversity, and these differing landscapes and the life they hold (along with other factors) have created a vast cultural diversity too.
In the new book The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods, author Emily Blejwas uses 14 foods, dishes and beverages as a lens to examine what this mixture means and why it’s important. The book explores and celebrates the assortment of places and personalities that prove with their distinct food traditions and foodways that our state is not one single flavor but a delicious multi-layered stew. We are not all fried chicken and sweet tea.
In fact, Blejwas admits that Alabama’s full identity can’t truly be encompassed in the 14 foods (including the two above) that she highlights. But she had to start somewhere, so we asked her to share why she wrote the book, how she decided on her list of dishes and to elaborate on how serving up stories centered on food is such a palatable and powerful way to tell much broader tales.
When did you first get interested in exploring food culture?
It really goes back to me getting my master’s in rural sociology at Auburn in 2005 and 2006. I did my thesis on the Black Belt region. It got me thinking about how to boost economic development in those areas. I was looking at heritage and cultural tourism and was focused on civil rights at first and thought about a book.
When I began talking to the people at The University of Alabama Press (the book’s publisher), it was clear that so much had been done on that topic, and they mentioned food. So, I started thinking about food as a way to stimulate economic growth. The idea for this book grew out of those discussions. I really wanted to use food as a gateway to explore other parts of our history and our state’s story.
Why use food to explore Alabama’s history?
Food is so relatable, no matter where you are from. As Southerners, we put a lot of emphasis on food, but you don’t have to be Southern to understand huge role of food in our daily lives. It is so ingrained in our personal cultures, in our own family traditions. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t have some real connection to food above and beyond eating it to live.
And it evolves alongside our history. Food is also unifier; we’ve gathered around food throughout history. We gather around food still today.
Roasting and eating corn at the Poarch Creek Thanksgiving Pow Wow. Photos by Emily Blejwas
How hard was it to choose only 14 foods?
I knew in the beginning I wasn’t interested in restaurant food, but I started with a long list. I probably had almost 50 items to begin with, and it was difficult to narrow it down. I do have some regrets. I wish I had included Golden Flake chips so I could have talked about football. I wish I had included oysters. But I narrowed it down by choosing foods with the strongest Alabama connection and story.
I felt like catfish had a stronger tie to Mississippi. I felt like the connection to peaches was stronger in Georgia, even though both of those foods are important here. I also tried to spread things out around the state. I didn’t want any one region to dominate the book. I also really wanted the foods to showcase Alabama’s diversity. We are such a broad state. Many people who don’t really know Alabama think mostly of cotton, the Civil War and civil rights, but there’s so much more here too, so many distinct regions and heritages: the Gulf coast, the Wiregrass, the Black Belt, northwest and northeast Alabama.
What was your favorite discovery as you worked on the book?
I went turkey hunting a few times for the book. I was so struck by all of the hunters’ vast knowledge of nature; they knew so much about everything outside and are real naturalists and conservationists. I don’t think I would have known that if had not gone hunting with them, so the experience helped me discover the strong connection between hunting and conservation.
Were there any major surprises that you uncovered during your research?
There were lots of little surprises along the way, but one that stands out is in Alabama’s Native American history. I interviewed some of the Poarch Creek cultural educators and learned that for a long time, many people didn’t think there were any Native Americans left in the state, so it was a real struggle for those who were left to learn their own culture and their food culture. That connection had been broken. They relearned much of it from Creeks who’d been relocated to Oklahoma.
What is your personal favorite out of the dishes and foods in your book?
I would have to say, out of the 14, boiled peanuts. I interviewed a farmer in Macon County for that chapter. He gave me some that had come straight from the kettle and been soaking with jalapeños. I have a really nice memory of stopping for a Coke and eating them on the way home.
And he is also a great example of how open everyone I talked to was; they were all so willing and even eager to share their time and lives with me so easily. A talk about food and food traditions can get pretty personal pretty quickly, and everyone I reached out to and met with was so happy to go there with me.ν