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AREA, Alabama Living to celebrate anniversaries

The Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA), which publishes Alabama Living, officially turns 70 later this year, and the magazine itself will turn 70 in early 2018.

We started looking back through the magazine’s archives to learn more about our early years. But we’ve realized that some of our readers may hold some valuable information, about both the magazine and our association.

AREA’s first publication was called the Alabama Rural Electric News, and was published as a broadsheet newspaper beginning in January 1948.

In September 1967, the publication became AREA Magazine, and in January 1968 debuted in a standard magazine format.

A little more than 20 years later, the magazine became Alabama Living, in part to distinguish it from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which was an agency of the U.S. Agriculture Department but was long associated with rural electrification. Alabama Living officially debuted in May 1989.

Then, as now, the magazine is published each month as an information and educational service to members of rural electric cooperatives in Alabama.

Do you have any early copies of the Alabama Rural Electric News? We may feature you in an upcoming issue!

We’re also interested in stories about AREA’s beginnings, when it was located on Lee Street in downtown Montgomery. Perhaps you have a friend or family member who was a member of the first AREA board, or you have some correspondence from the cooperative leaders who were instrumental in AREA’s formation and early years.

To let us know about the beginnings of either the magazine or the association, send an email to Allison Griffin at, or send her a note at P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124.

Alabama Snapshots: Before and After


Boomer’s, a miniature Australian Shepherd, beautiful red tri-colored coat before and after his summer cut. SUBMITTED BY Julie Johnson, Troy.
Joe Young performing a concrete break at a 4th degree Black Belt Test. SUBMITTED BY Onita Young, Vinemont.
I have been painting these Christmas ornaments made of dried okra for more than 20 years. SUBMITTED BY Jeanie Motes, Tyler.
Joe Young performing a concrete break at a 4th degree Black Belt Test. SUBMITTED BY Onita Young, Vinemont.
Rachel and Andrew before and after braces.SUBMITTED BY Audra Wilson, Monroeville.

Rural Alabama’s health:

A major public health concern

Many people think that rural areas are not as important as more urban areas with larger numbers of people.  This is far from the truth.  Rural areas are the sources of the vast majority of materials, resources, and necessities, such as food, that everyone must have to survive.  Having healthy and vibrant rural areas is important to everyone.

Rural Alabama is plagued by numerous health status concerns combined with a lack of healthy population growth. This lack of healthy population growth creates difficulty in attracting and keeping health care providers. Twenty-four rural counties have smaller populations today than they had in 1910.  More disturbing, 41 counties are projected to have less population in 2040 than they had in 2010.  Alabama’s population growth is projected to be the lowest among all southern states, less than one half of Mississippi’s growth.

Major indicators of the serious health issues facing rural Alabama include the following:

  • Alabama has the 3rd highest death rate among all 50 states and the rate is 10 percent higher for rural residents than urban Alabamians.
  • Life expectancy is three years less for Alabamians than for the nation – 3 ½ years less for rural Alabamians.
  • In 1980, 45 rural counties had hospitals that provided obstetrical service.  Today only 16 rural counties still have such service available.  The loss of hospitals that deliver babies is greater in the 12 counties of the Black Belt Region.  In 1980, 10 of these 12 counties had hospitals providing obstetrical service.  Today only one county (Dallas) still has this service.
  • Only two rural counties (Coffee and Pike) are recognized by the Health Resources and Services Administration as providing the minimal primary care service that is needed. None provide minimal dental service that is needed for low-income (Medicaid) residents, and none provide minimal mental health service.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has a long history of recognizing the importance of rural health. This Department has housed Alabama’s official State Office of Rural Health for many years. In addition, ADPH officials, including State Health Officer Thomas Miller, M.D., were the founders of the Alabama Rural Health Association in 1991. This non-profit organization operates independently but closely shares rural health interests and concerns with the ADPH.

For additional information on rural health concerns and this association, please visit

Editor’s note: Alabama Living congratulates Jim McVay, Dr. P.A., former director of the Bureau of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease of the Alabama Department of Public Health, who wrote our “Healthy Living” column for the past few years. Dr. McVay retired Dec. 31 after 42 years with the state of Alabama.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Quilt contest

Mrs. Thelma Bradley is surrounded by her daughters (from left to right) – Top row: Judy Howard, Mary Conn; Bottom row: Linda Partin, Joan Bishop

Founder’s mother inspired 2017 quilt contest theme

Linda Partin, longtime employee at the Alabama Rural Electric Association (publisher of Alabama Living), conceived of the idea for a statewide quilt contest in 2000. She’s organized the biennial event ever since, and this year’s competition holds a special meaning for her.  Linda’s mother, Thelma McBrayer Bradley, passed away July 3, 2016, just 25 days short of turning 99. Sixteen years ago, when Linda first told her mother about her idea for a quilt contest, Mrs. Bradley was happy to help her get it started.

“She told me how many squares, what size they needed to be, and all of the particulars,” Linda remembers.  “She always wanted to know what the theme was and how it was going.  She was so proud that I was able to meet two Alabama first ladies through this project and she was so, so much a part of this project.”

But after her mother’s funeral, Linda found it hard to get started on the contest prep for this year.  “It was too hard,” she says.   “It was too much entwined with her.  As I was getting ready to cancel the program for this year, I prayed, and cried, and decided what better way to honor her, than by doing this ninth quilt in her memory and in honor of all our hardworking moms.  I called my sisters and they all thought it was a wonderful idea!”

Helping in the healing process for others

So the theme, “In Honor of Mom,” was chosen.  “This year’s quilt project is probably doing more to help in my healing process than anything I could have done.  And, I am finding out from some of the quilters that is doing the same for them.  As they call and write, I am getting comments like, ‘Working on this helps me remember times I spent with my Mom,’ and ‘Thank you for doing this.  My Mom was a quilter and she can’t do it anymore, but she taught me.’  One lady said she is making her quilt square from some of her Mother’s clothing.”

Quilting has a long tradition in Linda’s family. Mrs. Bradley, who was born on a family farm in Rowan County, KY, near Morehead, quilted with her own mother.  “My grandfather built a quilting frame that could be raised to the ceiling when they weren’t working on it and lowered so that they could work on their latest quilt whenever they had the opportunity,” Linda says. “When she was a little girl, she and her Mom would get up before daylight.  They had no electricity, so they couldn’t wait until the sun came up and they could lower the quilt frame and work on the quilt.  All my life, Mother kept us in quilts and one of the most fun things to do was to sit and listen to her tell us stories of when she grew up on the farm and sit on the quilt, looking at the different fabrics and pick out the ones that were made from scraps of my dresses.  She had four little girls and made all our clothes. A professional seamstress, she owned a dress shop before I was born, made many of her nieces’ wedding gowns, her daughters’ wedding gowns, she upholstered furniture, and she even made a car top at one time.

“Today, quilting is an artform, but it was a way of life then.  She came from a family of eight and no central heat and no electricity and quilts were for warmth.”

Linda says her mother was “always working on something or other and most of the time I didn’t even know what it was. In her older years, she crocheted lap throws for the elderly (who were younger than she was) to be used on wheelchairs. When her hands became so twisted with arthritis, the lap throws took too long, so she started crocheting baby caps for an organization called Newborns in Need.  She made close to 400 lap throws and more than 3,000 baby hats.”

Besides organizing the AREA quilt contest, Linda herself makes quilts for her own six grandchildren “except the 2-year-old.  His will be next year.  Any ideas for a quilt to do for a then 3-year-old grandson would be greatly appreciated!”

Deadline for submitting your square for the 2017 AREA Quilt Contest is Jan. 27. Email or call 334-215-2732 for an entry packet.

Consumer Wise: Remodeling the heart of your home

Your refrigerator is probably the most important appliance in your kitchen – choose and place it wisely to save energy.

Tips for an efficient kitchen remodel

By Patrick Keegan and Amy Wheeless

Q: My family is planning to remodel our kitchen in the coming months. The remodel will be pricey, but we hope to incorporate energy efficient features that will help reduce our energy costs. What are some things we can do to make sure our kitchen is as energy efficient as it can be?

A: Undertaking a remodeling project in any part of your home gives you the chance to make a space work better for your needs—including reducing your energy use. For many households, the kitchen is the heart of the home—meaning it is used the most—so incorporating energy efficiency measures here can have a real impact on your energy bills.

Before starting a remodel, consider having a home energy audit completed by a certified professional. This energy assessment can help you identify major efficiency issues in your kitchen that you can address as you remodel. The audit can also identify other large efficiency investments your home may need that could make sense to invest in at the same time. For example, upgrading your heating and cooling system and ductwork during the same time as your kitchen remodel could be more cost-efficient than completing two separate projects.

Below are some additional tips and thoughts to consider while you go through your kitchen remodel:

Kitchen layout and design

During a remodel, homeowners often want to expand the kitchen. However, bigger isn’t always better—and enlarging the footprint of your kitchen will likely mean higher heating and cooling bills. Consider whether a more efficient layout in your kitchen could prevent a need for expansion.

The design phase of your project is also when you will decide on placement of your major appliances and kitchen features. There may be opportunities to shorten plumbing runs to make hot water delivery to your sink and dishwasher more efficient and to add plumbing insulation to reduce heat loss. Also think about heat sources in your kitchen and how they will affect your refrigerator—placing your refrigerator in a very sunny spot or next to your oven will make this appliance work harder and use more energy.


If you are replacing any kitchen appliances, look for ENERGY STAR-certified refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers to help save energy. In particular, refrigerators that are ENERGY STAR-certified will use about 10 percent less energy than standard models—and up to 40 percent less energy than a refrigerator from 2001. Once it is replaced, rather than moving your old refrigerator into the garage where it could use even more energy, ask your electric co-op how you can recycle it. They may even offer a program that hauls away your older appliance.


Many remodeled kitchens incorporate lots of windows to ensure a bright, naturally-lit kitchen. Using natural light can make your kitchen feel more open and reduce reliance on overhead lights, but beware of overheating the room in the summer. When thinking about your windows and lighting, consider your home’s climate and orientation and how to use natural light strategically.

In addition to overall lighting, a kitchen needs bright task lighting. Installing individual task lights on separate switches can help minimize the energy you use for lighting. Throughout your kitchen, install ENERGY STAR light fixtures and bulbs, which are certified for energy savings, high quality and performance.

Kitchen ventilation

Increasingly, homeowners are installing professional-looking hoods above stoves in their remodeled kitchens. Be sure to pick a high-efficiency model sized for your needs and install it so that it vents directly to the outside. Remember that running a hood exhaust fan more frequently than needed can make your heating and cooling system work harder, as conditioned air is pulled outside.

Overall comfort

The kitchen is often a family’s gathering place, so installing zonal heat in this space could make sense—you could turn up the thermostat for the kitchen without warming the entire home.

Other ways to ensure that the kitchen is a comfortable room for your family are to address any building envelope issues noted in your energy audit: for example, increase wall and attic insulation, address duct and air sealing needs, invest in efficient windows and install window coverings that help block hot summer sun and blustery winter wind.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Amy Wheeless of Collaborative Efficiency. For more ideas on energy efficient kitchen remodeling, please visit:

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to for more information.

Alabama Recipes: Comfort food

Polish Casserole

Soothing, nostalgic, as much about solace as sustenance…


When we were brainstorming ideas for 2017 recipe themes and comfort food came up, it instantly claimed one the 12 spots and was never challenged, even as lots of other great topics emerged. That’s no surprise. Everyone loves comfort food. But what is it, really?

Almost any dish designated “comfort food” shares at least one of a few common characteristics: filling, soothing, nostalgic, as much about solace as sustenance. But beyond that, the specific recipes that we each deem “comforting” are as varied and different as we are. And often, it’s as much the story behind them as their taste or texture that brings us such satisfaction.

I was introduced to the dish that today tops my list of comfort foods — red beans and rice — in a rather uncomfortable way. My family was having dinner with friends one night, and red beans and rice, made by our New Orleans native hostess, was on the menu. As the adults at the table passed around a bottle of Tabasco, sprinkling its tangy heat into their steaming bowls, I asked my mom what it was. I was about three. She decided on a “show not tell” approach to answer my question and put a single drop on her index finger and held it out for me to try. I did, and my tender toddler tongue was torched. I screamed, and my mother was mortified by her mistake.

Turns out, my mom had no idea how hot Tabasco was. She’d never had it either. The memory of that meal ceased to be unpleasant many moons ago; it’s now one my family laughs at. And it didn’t turn me off red beans and rice either. She got the recipe from that friend and made it regularly throughout my childhood. Even though there’s nary an ounce of Cajun or Creole heritage in my family, silky soft beans surrounding smoky, salty sausage, their flavors soaked up by fluffy white rice and punctuated by several dashes of Tabasco, tastes like home to me.

I’m sure you’ve already got a few dishes that hit the same spot for you, but check out this month’s reader-submitted recipes – some simple, some classic, some presenting familiar favorites (cheeseburgers!) in new ways – and add a few more to your list.

Cook of the Month

Whitney Bennett, Wiregrass EC

Whitney Bennett has been making her homey, hearty Chicken, Corn and Bacon Chowder for about three years. She adapted a basic corn chowder recipe to fit her family’s tastes. “We like meat, and my three girls love chicken, so I added that. And then bacon makes everything better,” she said. She loves that the rich and creamy soup is easy enough to make any time, although she usually reserves it for the colder months. “It’s so simple to do. We eat it mostly it the winter,” she said. “It really warms you up from the inside out.”

Chicken, Corn and Bacon Chowder

  • 1 pack of bacon
  • 2 cans of whole kernel corn
  • 3 boiled chicken breasts
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ chopped onion
  • 4 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Cayenne pepper, optional, to taste

Cut bacon into small pieces and fry, reserving the grease for later. Drain and set aside. In reserved bacon grease, cook chopped onion and minced garlic until transparent, about 2-3 minutes. Drain and set aside. In a stock pot, heat 2 tablespoons of bacon grease and add ¼ cup of all-purpose flour, mixing well to create a roux. Once the mixture has thickened, gradually whisk in chicken broth. Add onion, garlic, corn, chicken, bacon and spices. Let it simmer for 15-20 minutes on low heat. Once it is warmed through, add heavy cream and simmer an additional 5-10 minutes. Add water if the chowder becomes too thick. Cook’s note: 1 rotisserie style chicken may be used in place of boiled chicken.

My Good Cornbread Cake


  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1½ cups Martha White Corn Meal Mix (Hot Rize)
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons egg replacers (can also use flax seed)
  • Vegetable oil

Mix dry ingredients first. Then add almond milk, syrup and egg replacers to get the consistency like pancake batter. Add extra milk, if you have enough, or water until you get the pancake consistency. Put ¼ cup oil into a cornbread pan or a cast iron skillet to coat, and put the pan into a 425-degree oven. Heat until hot. Remove the pan and pour the oil into the batter and mix very well, then pour the batter back into the pan. Cook for approximately 20-25 minutes at 425 degrees.

Editor’s Note: A common formula for replacing eggs with flax seed is 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds plus 3 tablespoons of warm water-equals one egg.

Wilma Jackson, Central Alabama EC

New Orleans Red Beans and Rice

  • 1 pound small red beans, rinsed and soaked at least four hours, or overnight
  • 2 cups Kielbasa sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 cup cooked ham, cubed
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • ½ cup celery, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups water (or enough to cover bean mixture)
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 3 cups cooked rice

Combine all ingredients except rice into slow cooker. Cook 6-8 hours on low, stirring once. Serve over rice. Cook’s note: Remove some of the beans and juices just before serving, mash them, and pour back into the pot for a thicker mixture if desired.

Tammy Formby, Marshall-DeKalb EC

Chicken and Dumplings

  • 3 cups boiled, cut up chicken
  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 2 boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon shortening
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¼ cup broth or milk

Mix flour, salt, baking powder and shortening together; add egg yolk and milk or broth. Mix together to make a stiff dough. Roll the dough thin on a floured surface and cut into small squares. Lay squares on waxed paper about 30 minutes to dry out. Drop the squares into boiling broth and chicken soup. Cook 8-10 minutes, gradually adding the chopped chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add chopped eggs. Cover with tight lid and let sit 30 minutes. Cook’s note: The dumplings can be made ahead and frozen. Place them on cookie sheets until frozen, then put into freezer bags for later use.

Philena Peterson, Baldwin EMC

Polish Casserole

  • 4 cups uncooked penne pasta or any other pasta that holds sauce
  • 1½ pounds smoked Polish sausage, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 2 10¾-ounce cans condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
  • 1 16-ounce jar sauerkraut, rinsed and well drained
  • 3 cups shredded Swiss cheese, divided
  • 1½ cups 2 percent milk
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the sausage, soup, sauerkraut, 2 cups of cheese, milk, onion, mustard and garlic. Spoon into 2 greased 8-inch square baking dishes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake uncovered 45-50 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Serve with garlic bread and a green salad.

Cook’s note: This dish is good, filling and freezer friendly. Freeze up to 3 months; to use, thaw in refrigerator overnight. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until golden brown.

Kay Moore, Cullman EC

Bacon Cheeseburger Chowder

  • 1 pound ground beef, browned and drained
  • 1 tablespoon dry onion flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dry green pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2½ cups milk
  • 1 pound potatoes (about 2 medium), peeled and diced
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 tablespoon beef bouillon granules
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (any kind)
  • 3 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled; reserve until ready to use.

When the beef is drained, add the flour and stir until blended. Pour all ingredients into a large slow-cooker and cook on low for 6-7 hours. Add bacon before serving.

Peggy Key, North Alabama EC

Southern Comfort Chicken

  • 2½ cups cubed chicken
  • 1 garlic clove, finely diced, or equivalent
  • 1 medium onion, sliced in rings
  • 5 medium potatoes, diced
  • 1 cup of frozen carrots, thawed
  • 1 pint of heavy whipping cream
  • ½-1cup water
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • Parsley, salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet or Dutch oven. On medium low, cook chicken until no longer pink and onions are tender, stirring as necessary. Add garlic when “almost” done. (Do not drain any juices!) Stir in carrots, potatoes and whipping cream. Add seasonings and enough water to cover potatoes. Let simmer for 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Cyndi McConnell, Baldwin EMC

Cheesy Southern Mac and Cheese

  • 16 ounces elbow macaroni
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1½ cups white cheddar cheese (reserve 1/2 cup for top)
  • 4 cups extra sharp cheddar cheese (reserve 1 cup for top)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare macaroni according to instructions on box. Drain and return to pot.

Add 1 cup white cheddar, 3 cups extra sharp cheddar, eggs, milk, butter, and cream cheese to pot. Add salt and pepper. Pour into 9-inch by 13-inch casserole dish or pan. Cover with remaining 1 cup extra sharp cheddar and 1/2 cup white cheddar. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Lisa Johnson, Tallapoosa River EC

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 7 cups chicken or turkey broth
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 3 carrots, sliced or diced
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped or diced
  • 1 teaspoon dried minced onion flakes
  • 1 cup cooked chicken or turkey, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked elbow macaroni (can use egg noodles)
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

Put the first 5 ingredients into a large cooking pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Keep covered and turn heat to low; simmer for 45 minutes. Add the chopped chicken or turkey, macaroni and parsley; stir and simmer (covered) for 20 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Julie Williquette, Joe Wheeler EMC

Recipe Themes and Deadlines:
Mar. Lemons Jan. 8
Apr. Easter Meals Feb. 8
May Shellfish/Shrimp Mar. 8

Coming up in February…
Cooking for Two!

Outdoors: Big cats

A rehabilitated Florida panther is released back to the wild in Okeechobee County, Fla., in January 2015. The Florida panther is an endangered subspecies of cougar; cougars were the only big cat species native to Alabama.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Big cats prowling Alabama? Not likely!

Every year, hunters and other outdoorsmen report seeing large cats in Alabama and other eastern states where none should exist.

Cougars, also called mountain lions or pumas, once ranged from northern Alaska to the tip of South America. The eastern subspecies roamed over most of North America east of the Mississippi River, but allegedly went extinct in the 1940s. About 100 Florida panthers, another cougar subspecies, still live in extreme southwestern Florida.

“Cougars are the only big cat species to historically call Alabama home,” says Thomas E. Harms, the large carnivore biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Their historic range covered the whole state and they were common here.”

Fearsome predators, cougars can weigh more than 200 pounds and easily bring down deer, elk, cattle and other large animals, even humans! Since the earliest colonization of North America, people tried to exterminate cougars and other predatory threats to themselves and their livestock. As the human population grew, forests became croplands and pastures. By the early 20th century, few large cats remained east of the Mississippi River.

“The last confirmed cougar killed in Alabama was in St. Clair County in 1948,” Harms says. “Since the 1960s, nothing has been confirmed.”

In 1961, a cougar track was confirmed in Clarke County. In the late 1960s, another track was found in the same general area. Also in the late 1960s, an Alabama conservation enforcement officer found a cougar den with cubs in northern Baldwin County.

The Endangered Species Act placed big cats in most states under federal protection. For decades, known cat populations in protected areas began increasing. Expanding populations may force young cougars to spread out to find their own home ranges. A solitary and incredibly elusive adult cougar might call several hundred square miles home.

“Cougar populations are on the rebound,” Harms says. “As a biologist, I cannot say that a cougar doesn’t exist in Alabama, but we have nothing to confirm that they do reside in or are passing through the state. There have been confirmed sightings in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.”

In November 2008, a man shot a healthy 140-pound fully clawed male cougar on the Georgia side of West Point Lake, which straddles the Georgia-Alabama line near Roanoke, Ala. DNA evidence confirmed it as a Florida panther, which possibly wandered up from Florida.

Each year, people report seeing not just big cats, but black panthers. “Panthers” never existed as a distinct species, but people often call cougars, South American jaguars and African leopards “panthers.” No documented cougar in history ever had black fur, although bobcats sometimes occur in black or melanistic phases. The scientific name for cougar, Puma concolor, means “cat of one color.” Leopards and jaguars can occur in black phases.

“Genetically, it is not possible for cougars to have a black phase,” Harms says. “Most pictures of black cats circulating around are pictures of the black phase of a jaguar or leopard or a regular black house cat, but I will not discourage anybody from sending me a picture for verification.”

People reporting “black panthers” usually see something else such as Labrador retrievers, raccoons, small bears, big house cats, coyotes, foxes, feral pigs or dark-colored bobcats. People could possibly see a genuine cougar in silhouette, dark shadows or caked in mud. Many big cat reports occur at night or during low-light conditions when distinguishing colors becomes extremely difficult. Sometimes, people might see an actual tan cougar, but remember it as black because that’s what they wanted to see.

One afternoon, my son and I drove through a wildlife management area. Canals paralleled the road. We spotted a large dark animal crossing the road about 75 yards ahead of us. Both of us immediately thought “cat,” because of how it moved, its size and long tail. I stepped on the gas. Seconds later, we reached the spot where the “black cat” disappeared and saw a very large, but normal, brown otter swimming in the canal. We didn’t expect to see an aquatic otter crossing the dry road in mid-afternoon. In the distance and because of the way light filtered through the trees, the silhouetted otter looked black.

Another long-tailed cat, a jaguarundi, resembles a small cougar. About the size of a large house cat, a jaguarondi at 25 yards could look like a lion 100 yards away. These South American felines range as far north as southern Texas, but have been released in Florida.

“There have been reports of jaguarundis in Alabama, but we have not been able to confirm them,” Harms says. “Jaguarundis can be hard to differentiate from a regular house cat. They are similar in size and color.”

Anyone shooting a cougar in Alabama could face severe penalties. People who think they have spotted a cougar, tracks or other evidence should contact Harms or the nearest district wildlife office.

“If we believe that is it a credible sighting, we would investigate further. Try not to disturb any evidence, if possible.”

Contact Harms at 251-626-5474 in the wildlife office in Spanish Fort.

Gardens: Growing a happy, helpful new year

The start of a new year is the perfect time to think about all the things you hope to accomplish in the coming months in the garden. It’s also a nice time to figure out ways to help others. And you can even combine the two!

Here are a few ideas to kick-start a 2017 garden to-do list for yourself and for others.

Gardening for yourself

Make a list of things you want to do in your 2017 garden and include any garden problems that need to be addressed. A prime example: If last year’s drought killed plants and lawn areas in your yard, plan ways to repair the damage or reimagine a lower maintenance, more drought-tolerant landscape.

Peruse gardening websites or other online resources or curl up with seed and plant catalogues, books and magazines, which you can buy or borrow from your local library or gardening friends.

Collect your ideas in a central, easy-to-access location. Pinterest or another online idea organizing application or website can help with this if you’re tech-savvy. If you prefer to hold ideas in your hand, buy a garden journal/organizer or make one from a loose-leaf or spiral-bound notebook. (Get one with pockets, where you can store pages from magazines, brochures and other printed material.)

Visit public gardens for inspiration. A nice list of Alabama’s public gardens is available at

Attend winter gardening workshops and presentations. Check with local garden clubs, public gardens, nursery and garden centers, Master Gardener groups and local Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices for options.

Become a Master Gardener. Many local Master Gardener groups are accepting applications for 2017 classes, which typically begin in the spring or fall of the year. Check with your local Extension office or go to or for more information on this program.

Gardening for others

Pitch in. Offer to help relatives or neighbors who may not be able to keep up with their own yard work or gardening duties.

Volunteer. Check with your local school system, chamber of commerce, Extension office or with other community action groups to see what garden volunteer opportunities are available in your area.

Donate. Many non-profit gardening organizations and projects rely on philanthropic support for their programs. Look for ones that fit your ideals and make a donation of money or in-kind supplies and services.

Heal. Therapeutic garden-related projects may well be underway at your local hospital, senior center and through other community service programs (see sidebar for one very special project that needs both volunteers and donations). Ask around to see if one exists in your area—or start one yourself!

These are just a few of the many ways you can make 2017 a year of gratifying gardening, but there are many more. Spend time this month exploring the options and if you have unique ideas of your own send them to me. Perhaps we can share them with other readers in future columns!

January Tips

      •  Plant shrubs, trees, fruit trees, roses and spring-flowering bulbs.
      •  Prune fruit trees and summer-blooming shrubs.
      •  Order seeds and plants for spring gardening.
      •  Keep birdbaths and bird feeders clean and full.
      •  Start a compost heap or turn existing ones.
      •  Plant hardy annual flowers and vegetables
      •  Sow seed for lettuces, cabbage and broccoli in cold frames.

A prescription for garden healing

We gardeners know the many physical and emotional benefits of gardening and now, thanks to a partnership between the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Master Gardener program at Auburn University, those benefits are being shared with others.

The two organizations are working together to conduct a gardening intervention study, Harvest for Health, that pairs gardeners with cancer survivors in an effort to help survivors increase their intake of healthy vegetables while improving their physical function and quality of life.

For the study, funded through the National Cancer Institute, researchers are seeking 426 cancer survivors age 65 and older in 31 Alabama counties to work with Master Gardener mentors. Participating survivors receive all the gardening supplies — including garden beds (either raised or wheeled containers that make it easier to garden) — and all the help they need to tend their garden.

To learn more about the project, including which counties are participating in the study, details about criteria for participation, how to become a mentor or how to donate to the study, call 1-844-GROW-GR8 or send an email to or

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


Alabama People: Dr. Ed Bridges

Alabama history: a fresh perspective

Ed Bridges, for 30 years the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, recently published a new bicentennial history, Alabama: The Making of an American State. Released last fall by the University of Alabama Press, the book is a comprehensive resource for anyone seeking a broad understanding of Alabama history. We talked with Bridges about the book, which in some ways, he says he’s been working on all his life.

– Lenore Vickrey

Why is it important for Alabamians to understand our state’s history? 

If you think about it, our understanding of history sets the framework for all of our ideas and attitudes—not only about public policy issues, but about encounters we have with people of different backgrounds. To make the best of our opportunities, being as knowledgeable and informed as possible is very helpful. I also think that having an understanding of the concerns and issues of other people helps us work with them more effectively. There are many other reasons, but it also seems to me that we are enriched and broadened as people if we can see ourselves in the larger flow of life of which we are a part.

What is your favorite period of Alabama history?

I love the whole story. My book is divided into seven chapters, which reflect the period divisions that make most sense to me. Each chapter or period seems to have its own narrative arc that is powerful and profound in its own way. And each has its own clusters of people and events that give the big story of the period flesh and life. But then seeing the way these periods flow and link together makes for a big history of Alabama that I think is wondrously rich.

Announcements about the book say it gives readers a “new perspective” on the social, political, economic and culture forces that have shaped the state.  Can you elaborate on that “new perspective”?

We have not had an overview of Alabama history written for the general public in decades. Over the course of this time, scientists and engineers in Huntsville helped send a man to the moon. The system of segregation was abolished. The structure of Alabama’s heavy industry and textile manufacturing changed profoundly, and hundreds of thousands of people moved from farms to cities. We are now part of a global community shaped by sweeping technological changes that hit us with accelerating speed. Having lived through these changes causes us to see the world differently than we did a half a century ago, and I think we need history books that include these more recent stories and that reflect what we have learned from them.

Now that the book is published, what is your next project?

I’m very much involved in helping with the state’s upcoming Bicentennial celebrations, which will begin in March 2017. For two and a half years, covering the years that began when Alabama became a territory and ended when we became a state, groups across Alabama will be developing programs and activities to commemorate our history—the whole story of how we became who we are today. It should be an especially wonderful time for more exploring of Alabama history more deeply.

What do you read for pleasure in your spare time?

I love the “great courses” programs and am doing one now on the Italian Renaissance. I also try to mix serious works, such as Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and the building of modern New York city, with fun reads, such as The Boys in the Boat, about the U.S. rowing team in the 1936 Olympics—which, by the way, is a wonderful book. And I am going back to dig out some of the classics I missed along the way, such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Can you think of a richer feast than that?

Worth the Drive: Albany Bistro

Chef Jake Reed crafts a sustainable menu sourced from local gardens and farms that changes each season.

Seasonable, sustainable foods star at Albany Bistro

Story and photos by Jennifer Crossley Howard

Albany Bistro sits on a tree-lined street in one of Decatur’s two historic enclaves of Victorian homes, a crossroads for the city’s characters with a reach that extends across town and soon across the Tennessee River.

Open since 2009, the neighborhood restaurant integrates a local sustainable approach to its menu of signature dishes such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Fried Green Tomatoes with mozzarella and chipotle mayonnaise. Pets are welcome outside.

Executive chef and owner Jake Reed and managing partner Rick Brown work with farmers to bring local food to their tables and host community farm-to-table dinners while trying to revive interest in expansive bike trails through the inaugural Chefs Against Hunger bike ride, held in early fall.

“We want to make it cool to go to Lucky’s (a local supermarket) or Albany Bistro by bike,” Reed says.

Composting, growing an urban garden outside their doors, decreasing transportation of food by localizing sources and recycling are some of the practices they’ve woven into the business. The physical interior is loyal to sustainability, too. Save the aluminum chairs in the dining room, most of the decor also had a prior life.

So too, did Reed and Brown. Reed worked his way up the Nashville restaurant scene for years until the 2008 economic downturn sent him to Decatur to attend nursing school.

While moving a carload of possessions home each weekend, Reed’s favorite place to grab a sandwich for the road, Back Order Gourmet Deli, closed and went up for sale. By February 2009, Reed had signed a lease to open Albany Bistro.

“Everything just kind of fell into place,” he says. Opening a restaurant was a dream always that lingered in the back of his mind.

“I didn’t think it would happen at an early age,” Reed says. “I kind of thought it would be my retirement plan. It was kind of providence.”

Brown, who has an engineering background and has fostered much of the sustainability, needed a break from the tedious detail at his former job.

“One day I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” he says.

He welcomes the relationships with customers. “I love talking to the folks,” Brown says.

The vision for the neighborhood bistro has constantly evolved. When it opened, the interior boasted farm tables and mismatched china and had an overall rustic feel.

The bistro boasts side and front outdoor seating, the setting for pet friendly events held throughout the year.

These days it looks like a chic local hangout off a sidewalk in Manhattan with glowing candles, mirrors, metallic accents and white linen tablecloths. Reed and Brown kept the exposed brick and hexagon-tile floors Back Order had refurbished.

A seasonal menu offers much opportunity for Reed to experiment with dishes, such as his beloved Strawberry Grilled Cheese. On paper, he thought there was no way it would work, but on the stove it became a hit. But when strawberry season is over, so, too, is the sandwich.

“People love it, and they are so upset when strawberry season ends,” Reed says.

Farm-to-table dinners take Reed and Brown to remote farms, from Mooresville to Tennessee, where even meeting sparse culinary necessities can be a long shot.

“Our requirements are one electrical socket and one light bulb,” Reed says.

Albany Bistro’s residential location has only boosted patronage. Neighborhood regulars walk down from their bungalows while travelers along I-65 are willing to drive a bit for a reprieve from fast food.

“That has really been one of the things that’s surprised me is the amount of traffic we get from the interstate,” Reed says. “That has changed the way we market, seeing that progression.”

Soon Albany Bistro’s influence will extend beyond the city limits of Decatur to a second restaurant that will have a different name but the same sustainable approach and charm. Reed and Brown plan to open their second restaurant in north Alabama by spring 2017.

Albany Bistro
1051 Grant St. SE
Decatur, AL 35601

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday (brunch)