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WTD: The Depot

Among the specialties at The Depot in Auburn are fresh oysters, like these White Stone oysters from Windmill Point, Va., and Gulf Amberjack with Hoppin’ John Risotto, Braised Collards and Crawfish Butter. Inset: Executive chef and co-owner Scott Simpson.

By Allison Law

Photos by Mark Stephenson

The trains no longer stop at the historic Auburn depot, but they continue to charge down the tracks outside the landmark, lending a charm of times gone by to the upscale restaurant that now occupies the beautifully restored space.

While The Depot is rooted in history, this gulf-coastal restaurant is pushing the boundaries of Alabama’s culinary scene, bringing globally inspired cuisine to the heart of the South with ingredients sourced locally and from both coasts.

Executive chef and co-owner Scott Simpson is a California native, but has extensive experience working abroad and studying under some of the world’s finest chefs. That international background – he’s worked as a chef in South America, the Caribbean and southeast Asia – is evident in the menu.

“My idea was to bring Gulf coastal cuisine with a worldly flair to Auburn,” Simpson says, taking a break after a busy lunch service. “The idea is to either bring international or exotic products and put a Gulf coastal flavor to it, or take local Gulf catch and seafood and try out other items available locally, and present it with a more international, ethnic, cultural preparation.”

As an example, he notes on the menu a fish that he has flown in overnight from Hawaii, which he serves with a kimchi fried rice and Korean pear glaze. But even with exotic preparations, Alabama diners will still find entrees that are familiar and non-intimidating: Carolina Mountain Rainbow Trout, Gulf Amberjack and Blackened Blue Crab Cakes, to name a few. And the rotating daily specials always feature at least six different oysters, sourced from the Gulf and both coasts.

A new life for an old landmark

Simpson came to Auburn in 2014 to become executive chef and culinary educator at The Hotel at Auburn University, and as a culinary instructor in the school’s hospitality program. Matt and Jana Poirier, who own The Hound in Auburn, wanted to expand and create another concept restaurant; they reached out to Simpson for ideas and to gauge his interest.

Simpson felt the area lacked a high-quality seafood-focused restaurant. The Poiriers found the depot location, which had fallen into disrepair over the years (the last passenger train pulled into the depot on Jan. 7, 1970.) They worked with the city to restore the landmark and make it suitable for a restaurant, while maintaining the integrity of the historic structure. The Depot restaurant opened in September 2015.

The result of the renovation is an inviting, spacious atmosphere – a classic look with industrial, 19th-century touches. Pieces of its past have been retained: The heartwood pine that was once the trail platform is repurposed into the chef’s table, bar and hostess stand. Original doors were restored. The black and white floor tiles harken to another era.

The Depot is one of several establishments that has helped boost the culinary scene in Auburn and Opelika. Simpson says professors and business people have been exposed to nice meals in other places, so the demand is there. And the area pulls diners from Columbus, Ga., and Montgomery, so there’s obviously a desire for more options and upscale dining.

Its clientele is not the younger college crowd that’s constantly on social media. “What gets the social media exposure is not really representative of what’s coming up in our community,” Simpson says.

Exceeding expectations

The Depot started out with dinner service, but soon branched into lunches – designed to be fast and affordable, but still well-prepared – as well as brunch on weekends.

“For lunch, I tried to grab iconic dishes from all over the world,” Simpson says. “With lobster, what’s the most famous worldwide lobster dish I could do? I went with a Maine lobster roll. I tried to pick some great fish tacos from Mexico, and do them as authentic as possible.”

The same attention is put into the dishes that originated a little closer to home. The Gourmet Gumbo, for example – with Cajun andouille, Poblano rice, crawfish and Gulf shrimp – gets comments from diners who say it’s better than any gumbo they’ve had in New Orleans.

In addition to the regular menu, there are happy hour specials – like all-you-can-eat mussel night, or dollar oyster night – each one paired with cocktail specials. The seats are always full, Simpson says. The occasional wine dinners sell out with little promotion.

The seafood may be the star, but the meat and poultry entrees receive just as much praise. A diner told Simpson recently that The Depot’s New York strip was the best he’d ever had, and that he’d eaten at steakhouses all over the country.

“We want people to be blown away, to exceed their expectations,” Simpson says, “and make sure that eating here is a noteworthy, lingering memory.”

The Depot

124 Mitcham Ave. Auburn, AL 36830

334-521-5177 Online:

(reservations recommended but not required, and can be made through the website)

Hours: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday;

5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday;

brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

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Do you think your income-related Medicare premium is incorrect?

Medicare is our country’s health insurance program for people 65 or older. Certain people younger than 65 can qualify for Medicare, too, including those with disabilities and those who have permanent kidney failure.

If you’re a Medicare beneficiary who has been informed that you must pay more for your Medicare Part B or Medicare prescription drug coverage premium because of your income, and you disagree with the decision that you need to pay a higher premium amount, you may request an appeal. The fastest and easiest way to file an appeal of your decision is by visiting

You can file online and provide documents electronically to support your appeal. You can also file an appeal online even if you live outside of the United States. You may also request an appeal in writing by completing a Request for Reconsideration (Form SSA-561-U2) at

If you don’t have access to the internet, you can request a copy of the form by calling us at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Learn more by reading our publication Medicare Premiums: Rules for Higher-Income Beneficiaries at

Know someone who hasn’t signed up for Medicare yet? They can use our online Medicare application if they:

  • Are at least 64 years and 9 months old;
  • Want to sign up for Medicare but do not currently have ANY Medicare coverage;
  • Do not want to start receiving Social Security benefits at this time; and
  • Are not currently receiving Social Security retirement, disability, or survivors benefits.

Remind them that they should sign up for Medicare three months before reaching age 65, even if they are not ready to start receiving retirement benefits. They can opt out of beginning to receive retirement benefits now once they are in the online application. Then they can apply online for retirement benefits later.

You can learn all you need to know at and easily share these resources with family and friends.


Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at

Tasteful giving

By Stephanie Snodgrass

Brewton couple nourish bodies and souls at pay-as-you-can eatery

Freddie McMillan and Lisa Thomas-McMillan started their Brewton restaurant, Drexel and Honeybee’s, in 2016.

Lisa Thomas-McMillan and her husband, Freddie, are feeding the souls – and stomachs – of those in need, all for free at their Brewton restaurant, Drexel & Honeybee’s.

In Escambia County, the couple is well known for meeting the hunger needs of their community, with Lisa as the driving force through their non-profit, Carlisa, Inc. In their mission, they’ve fed college students, veterans, those at Thanksgiving and Christmas and any person in need. And they’ve never asked for a dime.

The mission

Lisa began campaigning for the hungry in 1995.

“People ask us all the time, ‘Why do you do it?’” Lisa says. “I can honestly say, it’s because God led us here.”

In 1995, Lisa was a cashier at the local Walmart when she ran into a woman having food problems. The conversation revealed 25 others in similar situations.

“That next morning, I started cooking 26 breakfasts and delivering them each morning,” Lisa says. “In my house, in my kitchen. I cooked, and it started something in me. I enjoyed it, and I realized that when you serve people, you feel good. I love that.”

From there, the mission grew. While visiting the local campus of Jefferson Davis Community College (now Coastal Alabama), she saw two students pooling change to buy food from the vending machines. Before long, Lisa was on site, serving up hot Sunday-style meals for students for donations.

For more than 10 years, she used community donations to stock the kitchen’s pantry, supplementing with purchases made from her own pocket.

In 2005, she walked to Washington to gain support for her campaign. She has also authored a book, Living Fulfilled: The Infectious Joy of Serving Others, which relates her journey to help others and is available on Amazon. And as if that wasn’t enough, she added free meals for veterans on Veterans Day and free community lunches on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

“At the college, in my mind, I said, ‘I’d love to own a restaurant where people would pay what they could,’ but of course, I didn’t have any money,” she says. “But, God always provides.

“The thing about hunger is, you don’t know who’s going hungry,” she says. “You can’t see it on their face. You don’t know what’s in someone’s cabinet, or more importantly, what’s not.

“If you’re down and out and struggling, coming to a decent place and enjoying a hot meal can lift your spirit,” Lisa says. “It makes that person feel better about themselves. That’s what we do. Sit down here and no one cares what’s in your wallet. We want you to leave full – full of good food and good company.”

Serving it up

When Lisa heard about rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen, the New Jersey community restaurant where diners can donate or volunteer to cover the cost of their meal, she found the blueprint for her Brewton location.

“I went on his website to see what I could learn, because I knew we could do it (in Brewton); I just knew it,” Lisa says. “We wanted it so bad, and we did it. We’re still working out the kinks, but we’ll get it down.”

It was 2016 when the no-pay restaurant idea took seed. This March, it bloomed inside the Lee Street location Lisa found while scouting locations for the community Thanksgiving meal. It took a year and a half to pay the $45,000 note. Then with a $20,000 grant from the Brewton City Council and “my Visa card,” the couple undertook the massive renovations.

“My husband said we had to get the building paid for before we started the renovations,” she says. “We did. It is everything I dreamed of. It’s a nice building and a nice place for people to come and eat. Anyone – no matter of their ability to pay – can eat at our table.”

And eat they do, enjoying a daily meat-and-three fare of oven-fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken pot pie, hamburger steak, BBQ ribs, fresh vegetables, rice, macaroni and cheese and more.

No cash, no problem

There are no prices posted in the building. Volunteers staff the restaurant and donated food – everything from canned vegetables and garden bounty to wares purchased from local grocery stores – fill plates. When it comes time to pay, diners are directed to a curtained area equipped only with a donation box.

“If you can give, give; if you can’t, don’t – we don’t care,” Lisa says. “That’s between you and God. We don’t worry about that. Freddie said we’re going to keep this restaurant going. We’re going to feed people. Period. We did have a problem with people hearing when you dropped change in the box, but a little fabric in the bottom of the box fixed that.”

To help with costs, the McMillans also accept tax-deductible donations through their non-profit, Carlisa, Inc.

“There is a hunger need in every community,” Lisa says. “Between March and September, we provided 12,200 meals. That’s a lot of food. We only ran out once. The hours are long; the cost is high, but it’s a calling for us. The notes people leave in our box tell us how much a need there is.

“I got one the other day that said, ‘Because of you, a family of four was able to eat today,’” she says. “That’s worth a million dollars to me – the notes like that. I’ve had people come in and say they only had $2. I made her keep that $2, but she left full. The stories like that, that means it’s a wonderful mission.

“My life is full. I get up at 5:30 a.m. I don’t hesitate, grumble that I don’t want to do it. I jump out of that bed, get ready and get on down here. I work until about 3:30 p.m. and know that it’s been a good day.

“I thank God that He gave me the chance, the strength and no ailments to be part of all the blessings He bestows when you reach out to help others,” she says. “This is a community thing. Everyone helps. Without our donations and our volunteers, we couldn’t make it. But we know it’s all worth it in the end.”

Drexel & Honeybee’s is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. and is located at 109 Lee St., Brewton.

Over the Moon (Pie)

A band leads the parade during MoonPie Over Mobile. Photo by Tad Denson

By Emmett Burnett

Mobile celebrates an iconic snack on New Year’s Eve

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Moon Pie!

You heard me – a 12-foot, 600-pound electric pastry with enough LED lighting to guide ships at sea. As thousands cheer, the iconic cake of Carnival illuminates the past, shines on the future, and has a good time doing it.

This is MoonPie Over Mobile, the celebration that puts the happy in Happy New Year.

Randy Garvin, left, and Ryan Lambert, RSA employees, pose with the giant MoonPie during a summer inspection at the RSA Tower. The two men work the controls on New Year’s Eve night for the moon pie drop. Photo by Emmett Burnett

Now in year 11, the Dec. 31 spectacle blends Mardi Gras-like festivities with a Times Square ball drop. Overlooking it all is the mammoth simulated confectionary disc suspended from the top of the RSA Trustmark Tower, 34 stories above downtown Mobile. Meanwhile back on earth, the good times roll.

“Attendance depends on the weather,” says the event’s marketing director, Kinnon Phillips. “We have experienced New Year’s Eve nights that were freezing and then some like summer. But on a good clear evening, 50,000 people are possible.”

Understandably, a giant moon pie with embedded computers and synchronized lighting is a newsworthy event. The drop is seen on CNN, The Today Show, FOX News, Good Morning America, national magazines, a worldwide audience, and ships in the bay.

Kinnon adds, “As far as New Year’s Eve celebrations go, ours is definitely a unique item. Because of the originality, we receive a lot of national attention.” Yeah, it’s different all right. Take the world’s largest edible moon pie, for example.

As the giant electronic circular pasty is suspended above, its edible counterpart is distributed below. Like all moon pies, this one is produced by Chattanooga Bakery. Don’t try this at home.

Mobile’s concoction-in-the round is custom made for the party. It serves 190. Uncut, the crust-encased creamy filling weighs about 150 pounds with an estimated 45,000 calories – if served with Diet Coke.

“Typically we start slicing and serving around 8:30 p.m.,” Phillips says. “It kicks off the event.” But much more occurs on 2018’s final night.

The MoonPie Over Mobile’s midnight drop delights tens of thousands of fans on New Year’s Eve. photo by Tad Denson

More than the Moon Pie

At press time, final details were still unfolding about featured entertainment. Past headliners from all musical genres have included The Village People, .38 Special, Three Dog Night and last year’s George Clinton. Professional entertainers are great, but this is the people’s party.

Typically at least two parades meander through downtown Mobile, ending at Bienville Square. The main procession often features city leaders and special guests. The Second Line Parade includes anybody who wants to be in it.

Participants showcase their strutting skills or lack thereof. Everybody is either in the parade or watching it. Many folks take the opportunity to sign the Resolution Wall, a large banner where goal-driven scribes post hopes and wishes for the new year.

And then it happens. At midnight, moon pie magic begins. A chorus of Auld Lang Syne erupts. All eyes gaze skyward.

Most people have little idea about the behind-the-scenes endeavor of lowering a disc the size of a minivan down a building. It takes coordination, teamwork, and precise synchronization. It takes two men and a moon pie.

The crowd gathers at midnight at the annual MoonPie Over Mobile celebration, now in year 11. A New Year’s Eve tradition is the cutting of the world’s largest edible Moon Pie, which serves more than 100. Photo by Tad Denson

Atop the Trustmark Tower’s late night roof, Randy Garvin huddles in The Moon Pie Building. Beside him is the building’s namesake colossal disc, awaiting activation. Randy’s finger is on the button.

“As soon as I receive the ‘go’ signal, the moon pie starts its 69-second journey,” he says. “It takes 9 seconds to maneuver out of the building and 60 seconds to descend 475 feet, landing exactly at midnight.”

The moon pie is lowered by a track system of three steel cables: Each run through the frame, one on each side and one through the middle of the pie in the sky. The cable trio prevents it from swaying in the wind. And down it goes to the 6th floor landing spot cradle.

Ironically, Garvin, who is RSA’s building manager and has been the moon pie controller for all 11 years, has never seen it drop. “Once I press the button, it moves outside the building and suspends from its cradle. When the moon pie starts dropping I lose sight of it.”

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and City Councilman Fred Richardson are shown cutting the cake. Photo by Tad Denson

The other half of Team Moon Pie is Ryan Lambert, RSA infrastructure engineer. He monitors the event from a nearby building, also high above Mobile. From his perch, Lambert mans the laser light show, oversees fireworks and the Moon Pie drop. He gives Garvin the signal to let it go.

“It’s a really neat job,” Lambert says. “You can expect anything – heat, fog, freezing, every weather combination possible.” But he adds about coordinating the drop, “The key is communications – if communication breaks down, it could fall too late or not at all.” The drop flops.

But in 11 years, MoonPie Over Mobile has run relatively trouble free. It turns the pages of a fresh calendar the way it should be turned – with a glowing pastry above, shining on happy people below. A great start to a new year.n

Alabama’s primary care shortage is greater than thought

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) directs the determination of Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA) in the United States.  According to data provided by HRSA in early 2017, Alabama needed an additional 157 primary care providers placed where the need was the greatest to provide only the minimum (not optimal) service that our population needed.

In determining primary care provider shortages, normally one-quarter of Alabama is reevaluated each year, taking four years to reevaluate the entire state.  However, HRSA requested a complete reevaluation in all states to be completed in late 2017.  Following this complete reevaluation in Alabama, it was learned that our shortage of primary care providers was much greater than was thought.  We needed 321 additional providers placed where the need was the greatest to meet the minimum needs of our population.  This shortage was more than double what had been thought.

The shortage of primary care providers is greater in our rural areas.   Of the 54 counties considered as being rural, only Coffee, Escambia, and the northern part of Covington County are considered to have the minimum service available.  Thirty-eight entire rural counties and five portions of other counties do not have the minimum level of primary care service available to serve the needs of the population.  Seven entire rural counties and four portions of other counties do not have enough primary care service available to meet the needs of the low-income or Medicaid population.

The shortage of primary care providers in our rural areas was already considered to be a crisis.  Knowing that the shortage is more than double what had been thought creates a situation requiring intense actions.  Especially considering the fact that a disproportionate number of our actively practicing primary care physicians are getting older and closer to retirement.  At the same time, our total population is aging, with chronic diseases that require more care increasing.

Alabama’s 2019 Legislative Session is going to be very important to the future of primary health care in this state – especially in rural areas.  Alabama must be innovative in better using our health care resources and technology.

A very innovative concept was proposed in House Bill 20 during the 2018 Legislative Session.  This legislation would have authorized the state to pay the tuition for 25 medical students in Alabama medical schools each year in return for a five-year obligation to practice in an underserved area following the completion of residency training.  This concept would produce a larger number of primary care physicians each year to deal more aggressively with our large primary care physician shortage.

HRSA has a local partner in each state to help gather local primary care practice information used in determining shortage areas.  This partner in Alabama is the Office of Primary Care and Rural Health in the Alabama Department of Public Health.  For determining shortage areas, primary care includes family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and geriatrics.

For additional information on primary care shortage area determination, please visit or contact Alabama’s project director, Niko Phillips, at (334)206-3807 or

Dale Quinney is the founder of Operation Save Rural Alabama,, and a past director of the Alabama Rural Health Association

Ho Ho Holidays at Walt Disney World

A beautiful Christmas tree divides Future World and World Showcase at Epcot.

Story and photos by Marilyn Jones

“Want to go see Santa Claus?” I ask my 3-year-old granddaughter Ainsley as we wait for her parents and uncle to ride Twilight Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. She enthusiastically agrees this is a great idea, so we queue up with other preschoolers this balmy December day to meet the jolly old elf.

You might not think of Santa Claus as a Walt Disney World character, but he is if you are visiting in December. You also may not know one of the best times to visit the land of Mickey Mouse are the first three weeks of December when crowds are smaller, and all the fanfare of the holidays is on full display.

Sunset Boulevard is decked out in traditional holiday décor.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Of all the parks, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the most festive. Its 1930s-era streets are decorated in period finery making a visit here nostalgic and fun.

We arrive early in the day and opt to go back to the hotel in the afternoon to rest and for Ainsley to take a nap. For this park, it works well because two of its most popular holiday attractions take place in the evening.

Sunset Seasons Greetings are projections of Disney Characters – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Olaf and others – sharing their favorite seasonal stories as holiday magic transforms the famous Hollywood Tower Hotel into scenes of the season.

Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! is another over-the-top show combining state-of-the-art projections, fireworks, special effects and music. In December, with the sun setting earlier, you can take in the nighttime fun without being out too late for the little ones.

New for 2018 is Toy Story Land which features special seasonal fun, such as holiday songs on Alien Swirling Saucers.

Magic Kingdom

As soon as we walk through the tunnel under the railway station, a giant Christmas tree comes into view. As we walk along Main Street toward Cinderella Castle, I notice all the shop window displays feature Disney characters in different holiday scenes. Overhead are old-fashioned silver bells and wreaths all along the street.

Other than the beauty of Main Street, there are few holiday reminders unless you attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a specially ticketed, limited-attendance celebration that takes place on select nights. Make sure to check the schedule whether you are attending or not. The days the party takes place, the park closes early.

If you do attend the party, there is an exclusive showing of Holiday Wishes fireworks and performances of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas and Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration stage show with all the characters dressed in their festive finery.

Frozen characters Anna and Elsa, along with mountain man Kristoff and snowman Olaf also present a musical performance. The seasonal show finishes when Queen Elsa presents a gift to everyone in the kingdom by transforming Cinderella Castle into a sparkling, icy centerpiece for the celebration.

Father Christmas greets guests in Epcot’s World Showcase.


Epcot does a great job of bringing the holidays to its visitors. With subtle hints in Future World like vegetable wreaths decorating The Land, to the international extravaganza in World Showcase, the park is a wonderful place to find the holidays.

A massive Christmas tree divides the two worlds. We pass flower beds filled with poinsettias, meet Père Noël in France and sample a few delectable sweets at special Holiday Kitchens.

A fun activity for older children is Chip and Dale’s Christmas Tree Spree scavenger hunt. After purchasing a map and stickers from select merchandise locations, participants travel around World Showcase looking for the famous chipmunks with their ornaments. Once the map is completed, guests can return their completed maps for a festive surprise.

One of the most popular Epcot traditions is the Candlelight Processional. This retelling of the Christmas story features a celebrity narrator accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and a choir. Performances are presented three times each night throughout the holiday season. And the nightly fireworks display, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, features an additional holiday finale.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney Springs

Of all the parks, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the least celebratory of the parks. Only a Christmas tree is present shortly after entering the park.

But new this year is a welcome holiday touch with the inclusion of Diwali, the holiday Festival of Lights in India.

Disney Springs, on the other hand, is alive with festivities. The free Disney attraction offers holiday shopping, dining and entertainment.

The Christmas Tree Trail is lined with custom-decorated holiday trees, each dedicated to a popular Disney theme featuring characters like Mary Poppins, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and many others.

At Santa’s Chalet, Santa Claus is on hand and, from December 25 through 31, Santa Goofy will take over after Old Saint Nick heads back to the North Pole.

If you go:

We visited Disney Springs and all four parks in the span of six days including flight time. If possible, try to add a day or two to relax and visit the many resorts. Each has its own holiday flair and special exhibits, including a life-sized gingerbread house, impressive decorations and themed holiday merchandise.

For more information about visiting during the holiday season:

Alabama People: Stewart McLaurin

Preserving White House history

Alabama native Stewart McLaurin is in his fifth year as president of the White House Historical Association, the non-profit, non-partisan educational organization whose many projects include production of the annual White House Ornament at Christmas time. He was formerly vice president for development at Mt. Vernon, and has held senior positions at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the Motion Picture Association, Georgetown University, American Red Cross and the Department of Energy. McLaurin, a proud graduate of Shades Valley High School in Birmingham and the University of Alabama where he studied American history and political science, is an avid Tide fan who travels back to Tuscaloosa for home football games.  He was eager to talk with us about this year’s White House ornament in time for the holidays. – Lenore Vickrey

How did you come to be involved with the White House Historical Association?

I had known about their work the entire time I’d been in Washington. I started collecting the ornaments when I moved here in 1983. They began in 1981 and I bought the first two to catch up, and now have a complete set. Back then I didn’t know all the other things the association did, and I also knew that the person who’d led the association had been there many years, 22 years when I took over. It wasn’t a job that came open that often, and earlier in my career I wouldn’t have been in a position to take on that opportunity.

Tell us about the ornaments.

They’re very collectible but they’re also teaching tools. Each is designed to tell the story of the White House during a specific presidency. They started in 1981 with Washington. Mrs. Reagan decided that we would feature each president sequentially. That was a very wise decision on her part because it took politics out of the game. Now we’re up to Truman this year (with a few pauses every few years for special recognitions like the bicentennial of the White House in 1989).

The 2018 White House Ornament honors President Harry S Truman and features the Truman Balcony, added to the White House in 1947-48. More info:

How far in advance are the designs done?

We’re about to finalize the 2019 ornament, so the design of the ornament is about six months before its release on Presidents Day weekend. We do that at the site of the presidential library of the president, so for 2018 we were in Independence, Missouri for Truman, and in 2019 we will be in Abilene, Kansas for President Eisenhower.  The ornaments are made here in the United States by a company founded by an American service veteran in Rhode Island. 

How does that work?

It’s a very complicated process. It has to stay a certain weight so the postage stays the same. It’s coated metal so there is some weight and substance to them. Each one is hand made. There’s a machinery process that cuts the pieces from the metal and coats them with the colors they have to have, but all the assembly is done by hand. If you go to the plant you’ll see multiple rooms in assembly lines with people putting on different parts, polishing parts, assembling elements, attaching the ribbon, putting it in the boxes. It’s quite a detailed process all done by hand.

Besides by mail order, where else can you buy the ornaments?

We have three stores in Washington, DC that sell them. We send out a catalog in the fall with ornaments and other education-oriented products. Many post offices also sell them. Church groups, scout groups and others buy them in bulk at a discount and sell them as fundraisers.

In addition to the ornaments, what else does the Association do?

It was founded by Jackie Kennedy in 1961. She thought the White House should represent the best of American furnishings and decorative arts. She knew she would need a private partner to do that, so she created us to be that partner. We teach and tell the story of the White House through many educational programs, teacher institutes, partnerships with other organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs. We publish books and a quarterly magazine, have public program, lectures and symposiums. 

Why is this history important today?

So much of American history has taken place in the White House or impacted those who’ve lived and worked there. Early inventions were deployed and tried at the White House. President Wilson signed the declaration of war in World War I there. So many things have happened in that house, times of mourning and grief. Eight presidents have died in office. On the other side of that coin, it has been the site of weddings (18, according to the association website), and it has been the home of the president and his family. I could work here the rest of my life and not know all there is to know.

Gardens: Take care to prepare plants for winter’s frosty grip

By Katie Jackson

Long winter naps aren’t just for humans. Plants need a cozy rest this time of year, too, and now is the time to tuck them in properly.

Even in winter dormancy, perennial landscape plants have a few basic needs, moisture and warmth being top among them. Their needs, and neediness, vary depending on the type of plant — herbaceous and shallow-rooted woody plants tend to need more winter water and warmth than deeply rooted woody plants, for example.

How well established plants are in the landscape is also a factor: New plantings almost always need additional winter watering and cold protection.

Let’s address moisture first. It may seem counterintuitive to water plants during cold weather, but proper soil moisture helps plants absorb nutrients and warmth from the soil, and winter wind and cold often dry out soil and plant foliage.

How much water do they need? If you received plenty of rain this fall, your soil moisture levels may be fine. If rainfall has been scarce, however, give them a slow soaking before the ground freezes and continue to water every week to 10 days before the first hard freeze. After that, especially if this winter is dry, apply about half as much water as you would in the summer when the soil around the plant’s base is dry to the touch. Try to do any winter watering early in the day, and water only on days when the temperature is at or above 40 degrees F.

Now let’s address warmth. In addition to the warmth they get through soil moisture, many plants need an extra blanket of protection in the form of winter mulch. Mulching helps retain soil moisture around plant roots and also helps insulate the soil from temperature fluctuations, which can push plant roots closer to the surface where they are more easily harmed by freezing temperatures. Like moisture, mulch is especially important for newly planted shrubs and trees and also for tender perennials. Plus, a nice mulching job is aesthetically pleasing.

Though you can apply mulch almost any time of the year, for plants that are particularly cold-averse, experts suggest applying it after the first hard freeze. Place 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch (straw, pine needles, hay, compost, leaves, bark chips and the like) evenly around each plant’s base. Don’t create a mulch “volcano” by mounding it high against a plant’s trunk, though, and leave a couple of inches between the mulch and the trunk to reduce disease and pest issues and increase airflow and oxygen availability to the plant and soil.

Resist the temptation to fertilize or severely prune most plants until spring is on the way. Both practices promote new, delicate growth, which may be damaged by cold temperatures. Plants such as roses and many fruit and nut trees, shrubs and vines actually need a bit of dormant winter pruning but check with an expert if you’re not sure which ones or how much to prune them. You can also trim away weak or dead limbs that may fall in blustery or icy winter weather and take clippings of hollies, evergreens, magnolias and other holiday plants to use for decorations.

In addition to preparing your plants, now is also a great time to tuck your gardening equipment in for the winter. Thoroughly clean gardening tools, power equipment and empty pots before storing them in a secure, protected area.

After your landscape is ready for winter, concentrate on yourself. Gather in a supply of gardening books, magazines and catalogues and to read on those long winter nights and short winter days. There’s nothing like cozying up with a good winter read to rejuvenate — and educate — yourself for the spring to come.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at

Snapshots: Santa through the years

with the Alabama Living staff family

DeAnn Weston Savage, older sister of art director Danny Weston, did not like this particular Santa. She was 4 years old the Christmas of 1978.

Emmie Echols’ (5 months) first Christmas, 2017. Mom is Brooke Echols, graphic designer/advertising coordinator.

Gage Stewart’s (5 months) first, Christmas, 2018. Mom is Laura Stewart, communications coordinator/youth tour director.

Managing Editor Allison Law’s cat, Moe, was not too happy with Santa in this photo, taken for a pet charity fundraiser in 2009.

Creative director Mark Stephenson’s children with Santa, December 1999. Amelia (3 years), Laurel (5), Philip (7) and Jessica (3 months).

Alabama Living Editor Lenore Vickrey visits a Pennsylvania department store Santa, Christmas 1956.

Recipes: Party Time

This holiday season, party hard without the hard work.


Food/Photography BY BROOKE ECHOLS

The holidays are the perfect time to gather with friends and family, and a festive party is an ideal way to assemble. At seasonal social events, we chat and catch-up, strengthening existing bonds and maybe forging some new ones too. And while connecting with other people is the main point, almost anytime folks get together, eating is on the itinerary, so food is an essential ingredient in a successful soiree.

But the food doesn’t have to be fancy. Forget the idea that “holiday party” is synonymous with a banquet of delicacies served on fine china or a feast fit for a king. Don’t worry about conforming to some preset list of holiday flavors like peppermint or gingerbread.

Our busy lives and packed schedules (that somehow manage to get even busier this time of year), often keep us from attending holiday parties. Add to that the idea that any mixing and mingling we’re in charge of needs to be supported by a massive spread of seasonally appropriate dishes, and there’s little chance we’ll consider actually hosting one.

So shrug off any obligation you feel to “go all out” and just do it. Have a party. Bring those you love together to celebrate grace and goodness and whatever else the holidays mean to you. No formal invitations; an email or text will do just fine. No decor other than what you pull out and put up any other year. And don’t bother dragging out and dusting off the fine china or crystal either.

And for the food, keep it simple. It can still be satisfying and delicious enough to ensure your guests don’t leave hungry or unhappy. Need some ideas? We’ve got plenty of them, tried and tested by our readers at many holiday parties past.

Amy Hitchner with son Aiden.

Cook of the Month

Amy Hitchner enjoys both the ease of eating and the taste of Bacon-Wrapped, Blue-Cheese-Stuffed Dates and so do her party guests. “They are always a hit, their mix of savory, creamy and sweet all in one small bite,” she said. They’re also simple to whip up and and can be made ahead. But Hitchner offered a warning: The enticing blend of flavors can make that risky. “You can prepare them up to a day beforehand, and they keep well, but you may not be able to keep from eating them all up before your event if you do!” she said.

Bacon-Wrapped Blue-Cheese-Stuffed Dates

1 pound bacon

18-ounce package blue cheese

1 package of dates (pitted preferred)

1/3 cup brown sugar

Cut bacon strips in half. Stuff dates with blue cheese, enough to see a little poking out. Wrap strips of bacon around dates and place the end of the bacon down on baking sheet. (I suggest using a wire rack over a backing sheet to allow the bacon fat to drip off. This helps to get the bacon crispy.) Once all dates are filled, wrapped and placed on sheet, top each one with a little brown sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. After bacon has cooked through, place dates on a cooling rack. Make sure to place something under dates as the bacon will still be dripping grease. Cool for at least 15 minutes.

Nana’s Awesome Party Mix


2 sticks salted butter

2/3 cup Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons (heaping) Lawry’s Seasoned Salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon cayenne papper

Dry mix:

1/2 package Rice Chex®

1/2 package Corn Chex®

1/2 package Honey Nut Chex®

4 cups Cheerios®

18-ounce bag Pepperidge Farms Pretzel Goldfish®

*Note for cereals: use larger box for lighter flavor or smaller box for robust flavor.

Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees. Microwave flavoring ingredients until butter is melted, mix well. Place dry mix into a large disposable aluminum tray. Evenly disperse dry mix. Pour flavoring evenly across dry mix (making sure the dry mix is evenly coated.) Pouring the flavoring onto the back end of a spoon or spatula will help with an even spread. Every 15 minutes remove the mix from oven and carefully stir to keep the flavoring even. Remove when the mix feels dry (about 2 hours). You can add in other dry items like nuts, other cereals, or candies. If you do, consider increasing the amount of flavoring.

Lucy Manly, Dixie EC

Seasoned Pretzels

2 16-ounce packages mini pretzels

1 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning

1 teaspoon garlic pepper

1 package Hidden Valley ranch dressing mix

12 ounces Orville Redenbacher popcorn oil

Put seasonings in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag and mix well. Add oil and mix well. Add pretzels, mix and turn bag over periodically. Let stand overnight. Eat and enjoy.

Michelle Tucker, Covington EC

Pepper Boats

6 jalapenos

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 container of spicy pimento cheese

3 Red Hot link sausages


Cut jalapenos in half and remove seeds and ribs. Mix cream cheese and pimento cheese in a bowl. Chop Red Hot link sausage and add to cheese mixture. Stuff the pepper boats with the sausage and cheese. Cut bacon and cover the top of the pepper boat. Grill on high, indirect heat for 40 minutes.

Kirk Vantrease, Cullman EC

Cheese Pennies

1 stick (1/2 cup) margarine, softened

½ pound grated cheddar cheese

½ package dry onion soup mix, shaken well before opening

½ teaspoon salt

1cup all-purpose flour

Cream margarine and cheese together. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. Divide dough into fifths. Shape each section into a long “snake” one inch in diameter. Chill. Cut into ¼-inch slices. Spray cookie sheet with cooking spray. Bake slices at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until well browned. Remove immediately and cool completely. Makes 3½ to 4 dozen “pennies.” Store in an airtight container.

Peggy Key, North Alabama EC

Sweet and Tangy Meatballs

2 pounds ground meat (beef, turkey or pork)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 cup green onion, chopped

2 eggs

Salt and pepper, to taste

Garlic powder, to taste

Accent, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup honey

1 cup Sriracha hot sauce

1/2 cup lemon juice

Preheat oven to 365 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat, chopped onion and green onions. Add eggs in one at a time. Season the mixture with salt, pepper, garlic powder and Accent to your preference. After all is mixed well, take and shape meat into 1 to 11/2-inch balls and place on a baking sheet. Once all meatballs have been shaped, bake uncovered for 35 minutes. In a medium saucepan heat olive oil, honey, Sriracha and lemon juice on low heat. Once meatballs are done cooking remove from oven and drain any excess grease from meatballs. Pour sauce mixture evenly over meatballs. Let them cook for another 15 minutes and then serve.

Sharlene Parker, Baldwin EMC

Festive Pecan Rolls

17-ounce jar marshmallow crème                   

1 pound package confectioner’s sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla                                                   

1 14-ounce package assorted vanilla and chocolate caramels

3 tablespoons water

1-1½ cups chopped pecans

Combine marshmallow crème, sugar and vanilla, mixing well with hands. Shape mixture into five 4×1-inch rolls. Mixture will be very dry. Chill for 2 to 3 hours. Combine caramels and water in a microwave safe dish. Microwave for 4 minutes on high until smooth, stirring after 2 minutes. Dip rolls in melted caramel and roll each in chopped pecans, chill 1 hour. Cut in slices to serve.

Ann Varnum, Wiregrass EC

Pizza Pinwheels

2 cans refrigerated crescent rolls

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 package pepperoni, chopped

1 1/2 cups pizza sauce

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out one can of crescent rolls onto wax paper and seal perforations to make one whole rectangular shape. Mix cream cheese, chopped pepperoni, pizza sauce and mozzarella in a bowl until creamy and well combined. Spread half of mixture on crescent rolls. Starting at long side, roll up crescent roll into a log. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 1 hour. (This makes pinwheels easier to slice) Repeat with other can of crescent rolls and refrigerate. After 1 hour, remove first roll and cut into 1/4-inch slices and place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Continue until all pinwheels have been sliced and baked.

Lynn Bowen, Marshall-DeKalb EC

Caramel Popcorn

15 cups popped popcorn

1 cup brown sugar, packed

½ cup margarine

¼ cup light corn syrup

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Divide popcorn between 2 ungreased 9×13-inch baking pans. In a saucepan, heat sugar, margarine, corn syrup and salt. Stir until bubbly around the edges. Continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in baking soda until foamy. Pour over popcorn, stirring until well coated. Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Brenda McCain, Coosa Valley EC

Send us your recipes for a chance to win!

Themes and Deadlines

February: Pasta | Dec. 3

March: Instant Pot | Jan. 1

April: Strawberries | Feb. 4

3 ways to submit:



Mail:  Recipes, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124

Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year. One gift basket winner will be drawn monthly at random and each name will be entered only once. Items in basket may vary each month. 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.