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‘Amazing Alabama’: A coloring book journey through the state

Story and photos by Lindsay Miles Penny

Writer and illustrator Laura Murray always knew she wanted to be an artist.

From sketching porcupines as a child, to an extensive 15-year career working in all facets of the graphic design, marketing and print industry, Murray eventually developed her company, Alabama Pen & Paper, and most recently, created Amazing Alabama: A Coloring Book Journey Through our 67 Counties.

The one-of-a-kind book features line drawings of the iconic and lesser-known sites from each Alabama county. Companion text, authored by Murray, identifies the pictured elements, giving an educational snapshot of the unique locations, landmarks and traditions across the state for adults and children alike.

“Two years ago, my husband and I were at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, and I was on a mission to find a state of Alabama coloring book, but there wasn’t one,” Murray says. “I went back home and threw together five or six pages of what I thought an Alabama coloring book should have, and sent it to my friend at NewSouth Books in Montgomery. Within five minutes, she emailed me back saying, ‘We love it and we want to see more!’”

Travel, photos and research

Although not an Alabama native, Murray, an Auburn resident, quickly developed a love for the state she now calls home. The creation of Amazing Alabama involved many miles of travel through the byways of the state, photography and research.

“For the most part, I started researching a county by going to the Encyclopedia of Alabama,” Murray says. “We are so fortunate to have such a neat and diverse online resource. If I were stumped about what to include for a county, I’d contact historians and friends all over the state. Several counties evolved a couple of times after I would visit them in person or decide something should be added from my research.”

The release of the book coincides with two significant bicentennial celebrations: the 2017 anniversary of Alabama becoming a territory and the 2019 anniversary of Alabama becoming a state.

“Not only is Alabama geologically diverse from the beaches to the Black Belt to forests, but Alabama is home to a lot of firsts,” Murray says. “A lot of neat stuff has happened here, from the Muscle Shoals Sound to Jesse Owens to the Civil Rights movement – Alabama is really a special place, and it has become so special to me.”

Though it’s her first published coloring book, Murray has drafted many coloring pages through the years.

“Before I began my own business, I decided to take a summer off from work to spend more time with my kids, and really decide what I wanted to do with my life,” Murray says. “I began drawing coloring sheets for my girls, and loved it so much that I started Alabama Pen & Paper, designing coloring sheets, note cards, stickers – anything you can color.”

Murray credits her father, to whom the book is dedicated, for instilling a love for exploring new roads and finding the quirks and hidden gems of the state.

“Growing up in Athens, Ga., my dad could turn a weekend trip to the driving range or county dump into an epic adventure,” Murray says.

From drafting the concepts to selecting the book’s paper, Murray had a hand in overseeing full production.

A conversation starter

“Working on Amazing Alabama really combined my experience in the print and digital worlds,” she says. “I wanted a nice, thick paper that could be colored on without bleeds. I painted the front cover and helped with the book’s layout.”

To create the pages, Murray began using a notepad, pen and pencil, and scanned her sketches to her computer. To achieve the clean, crisp lines she preferred, she used a graphics tablet, digitally drawing with her pen and pencil.

Initial design for the book began in May 2016 and the final drawing was sent to the publisher in January.

“It’s so neat to see folks flip through the book and find their home counties,” she says. “It’s definitely a conversation starter, and can even be used as a travel journal. My goal is to visit the counties I have not been to yet, and color them as I go.”

Murray says a coloring book journey through Georgia is in the works.

“I’ve already started Georgia,” she says. “It’s quite a bit bigger than Alabama with almost three times the amount of counties, so it will take longer to complete, but I’m working on it.”

Amazing Alabama is $9.95 and available at all major book retailers and in bookstores and gift shops across Alabama. The book is also available directly from the publisher, NewSouth Books, at its Montgomery location,, or by phone at (334) 834-3556.

Alabama People: Ben Russell

One of Alabama’s most generous philanthropists is Ben Russell, the chairman of Russell Lands, Inc., the state’s largest recreational development company, and grandson of Russell Corporation founder Benjamin Russell. He and his wife, Luanne, founded the Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin in 1989, where seriously ill children and their families can come for rest and restoration in a 66-acre picturesque and safe environment. In 2001, they opened the Children’s Harbor Family Center in Birmingham that provides counseling, education and other services for chronically sick children and their families. The center is connected to the state-of-the-art Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children, to which the Russells donated $25 million. Alabama Living got to chat with Russell recently at his office in Alexander City. – Lenore Vickrey

A lot of folks know you for the philanthropic work you’ve done. What motivates you to give back?

I’ve thought about that. Other than that it sort of seems natural, I told Jim Ray (longtime former director of Children’s Harbor) that only a thin veil separates those fortunate of us from those who are the opposite…. Fortunate people are able to have more things than they can get around to. I enjoy children, of course, and I relate to children as everybody does. I’m just fortunate to be able to do that.

What entity have you been most involved with?

That would have to be Children’s Harbor. We planned for it to be a recreational center for children because the site lent itself to that. It’s (become) an activity center for numerous child care groups, and then of course came the Family Center in Birmingham. Now with the new hospital, everybody gets to walk right past our doors. Obviously there are needs that are  interminable. You can’t do half of what needs to be done.

But you’re doing so much!

Well, it’s been a blessing. People have come around to support it. It’s a thing that will just go on. That’s what I think is really an accomplishment.

I wonder what kind of state Alabama would be without people like you.

Oh, I think they’d get along fine.

At Children’s Hospital, you and you wife have been quite generous in building a wing there named for your grandfather. How did that evolve?

I’d been on the board up there and that’s the greatest organization you’d want to work with, and the most appreciated. Everywhere I’d go, people would speak to me about that. That’s how we knew our counseling service was needed, because you know when kids are sick, there are family problems, the dad loses his job, and so on. And for indigent people who are just barely getting by, it’s crucial. At any rate, our involvement through them was a natural.

And your grandson was treated there.

Yes, after the new hospital had been open two or three months, Benjamin (Hendrix) was diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s an only child of our only child (their daughter, Adelia). But luckily he’s completely over it and has turned into a fine young man. He holds a number of state records in powerlifting. He’s a small person, but he’s the strongest guy on the football team (at Benjamin Russell High School). He worked up here in the summer, physical type work. He’s all fired up about football.

Speaking of football, I know you’re a big Alabama football fan.

I went to Mercer University first, then Alabama. We go to about three games a year now. Unlike our competitors, we claim not to get “Auburn-iacal” about that! It’s predominantly Auburn fans around here and some people are pretty serious about that. Russell supports Auburn a lot. It’s a good relationship. But I just love to tell Auburn jokes!

(To cover all the bases, under construction on the Russell Lands property is a clock tower named “Benny Chimes at Timer’s Corner.”)

I understand you’re also a pilot, a painter and an author.
My mother was an artist. I like to sketch trees, that’s just a hobby. The book I wrote is “The Author.” I wish I’d put a question mark at the end of the title, because the question is, who wrote that part? It’s about a novel within a book, about a plot by the Russians to hide bombs in the United States. I published it myself. I still like to write.

(An employee notes in our interview that it’s not unusual to see Russell working on the property, sometimes late in the afternoon.)

Someone was driving by late one Sunday afternoon and passed an old guy operating a piece of equipment on the side of the road. They said, “I thought Russell Lands was a pretty upstanding organization. Do they have indentured servants or something? This poor old guy was getting off that bulldozer, his clothes were nasty, and he looked about 80 years old. What kind of organization is that?”

Well, that guy was me!

Switch things up with stylish, efficient lighting for your home

By Patrick Keegan and Brad Thiessen

Q: After 20 years with the same lighting in our home, it’s time for a change. I’ve done some research and there are so many types of light fixtures and bulbs it’s making my head spin! How can I select something practical, affordable and efficient?

A: This is an excellent question because we often take lighting for granted. We choose fixtures and bulbs without thinking through some of the more important issues, such as specific lighting needs of the room, how fixtures work together and how to save money on energy bills.

Saving energy starts with choosing the correct bulb. Efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs between 40 and 100 watts, which took effect in 2012, led to the halogen bulb (also known as energy-efficient incandescent). These bulbs are at least 25 percent more efficient than the old incandescents. The other two common types of household bulbs, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), are even more efficient.

The right mix and strength of ambient and task lighting will result in the best illumination with lowest energy use.
COURTESY; Creative Commons License estimates that you can save $75 a year by replacing the five most-used incandescent bulbs or light fixtures with ENERGYSTAR-certified LED or CFL lighting.  Of the three types, LEDs tend to save more money over the long run, and LED prices have decreased in recent years. A downside of CFLs is that they contain a small amount of toxic mercury that can be released into your home if one breaks.

When you’re considering which type of bulb to buy, consider both watts and lumens. Watts indicate how much energy (and therefore, money) is used to produce light. Lumens indicate how much light the bulb produces. A handy comparison is that an 800-lumen bulb is about equal to the amount of light from a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb. offers an excellent guide to understanding bulbs.

Bulbs also give off different colors of light, known as color temperature. If a bulb burns out—or in the case of an LED, as it dims over time—it can be challenging to find a replacement that matches other lights in the room. If the variation bothers you, you may want to purchase and install bulbs of the same brand and wattage for the entire room or area at the same time.

Installing dimmers instead of on/off light switches is a good way to save energy while giving you greater control of the amount of light in the room. Not all bulbs are dimmable, so be sure to check the label on the bulb. It’s worth considering whether you have the right number and the right location for light switches. We recommend hiring a licensed electrician if you decide to install new lighting and switches.

Now that we’ve covered bulbs, let’s move on to fixtures. Different types of fixtures have different functions. Ambient lights such as sconces and glass-covered fixtures provide gentler overall lighting, while directional fixtures such as pendants, desk lamps and track lighting provide task lighting that focuses on areas where work is done. Not all bulbs can be used in an enclosed fixture or work outdoors.

As you choose a light fixture, make sure it can provide the correct level of brightness, with an appropriate size and number of bulbs. It can be disappointing to install a ceiling light with the style you love, only to realize it doesn’t provide enough light for the room; or the opposite, that your room is flooded with too much light, which also wastes energy and money. It’s not a good idea to mix bulb types in a fixture, as the excess heat from an incandescent or a halogen light can diminish the performance of an LED. 

The Lighting Research Center website ( provides a resource page with many sample lighting layouts for every room in the home, which you can find by entering the phrase “lighting patterns for homes” in their website’s search engine. Home décor sites like Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, HGTV and similar sites also give excellent lighting explanations, plans and ideas.

It’s always a good idea to check with your local electric co-op as they may offer energy audits or lighting product rebates.

With a little planning, you can have a well-lit energy efficient home you’ll enjoy for years to come!

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.

How Sweet It Is

Does your family prefer marshmallow topping, crunchy pecans or are you a family divided? If you’re ready to shake things up a bit, check for a few traditional and some not-so-traditional sweet potato casserole recipes. Food stylist and photographer | Brooke Echols

By Jennifer Kornegay

     A plump turkey, its skin golden brown and crisped by either hot oven air or scalding oil, is the undisputed star of the Southern Thanksgiving table. A chorus of side dishes circles it, and the queen of these back-up singers is usually some iteration of the sweet potato casserole. With the inclusion of sugar and sometimes, a crowning cloud of mini marshmallows, the orange tuber’s inherent subtle sweetness is amplified to an intensity that really should land this dish on the dessert table.

     When given some thought, the addition of marshmallows to the sweet potato casserole is especially odd. Sure, particularly around holidays, we sometimes glaze ham with brown sugar or maybe molasses, but we don’t usually embellish vegetables or other savory foods with candy. We don’t top baked potatoes with gumdrops. We don’t stuff our turkeys with jellybeans. So where did the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows come from?

     It isn’t a Southern invention. Despite its prevalence in our feasts to celebrate an attitude of gratitude, it originated as a marketing ploy of a marshmallow maker in Massachusetts in the early 1900s. The company was looking for a way to boost sales of its brand new treat by disseminating recipes for the home cook that called for marshmallows as an ingredient. This type of sweet potato casserole, today a beloved Thanksgiving tradition in our region, is actually corporate propaganda cloaked in the seemingly innocent pleasure of puffed-sugar fluffs. And, after its initial introduction, it was eaters in the Northern United States who gave it the popularity that pushed it to “classic” status.

     So, if you enjoy this addition to your plateful of turkey-day foods, thank a clever marketing mind. If you don’t like it, blame the Yankees. (And rest assured, we’ve got many recipes sans marshmallows for you in this month’s recipes.)

Cook of the Month 

Courtney Walker, Dixie EC 

“It was actually an accident,” said Courtney Walker of her Mediterranean Baked Sweet Potato recipe. It was a happy accident though. She makes baked sweet potatoes a lot, and one night, was eating one with another dish that had her tomato and parsley topping on it. “I got a mouthful of both, and I loved the combo, so I decided to create a dish around that bite,” she said. The result is her healthy, filling side that can actually be an entire meal. “With the hummus in the sauce, it really satisfies your appetite,” she said. And she encourages people to play with the flavors to find what they like best. “You can add or take away the amount of garlic, and the optional toppings are truly optional,” she said. “But, they are really good.”

Mediterranean Baked Sweet Potatoes

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, halved
  • 1/2teaspoon each: cumin, coriander, cinnamon and smoked paprika (or regular paprika)
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Squirt of lemon juice, optional
  • 2tablespoons olive oil
  • Garlic Herb Sauce:
  • ¼cup hummus
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • 2tablespoons dried dill or to taste
  • 2teaspoons minced garlic
  • Water or unsweetened almond milk (enough to thin it out)
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Optional toppings:
  • ¼cup diced tomatoes
  • ¼cup chopped parsley
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Chili sauce, to taste and add fresh garlic

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Rinse off potatoes, dry and slice each in half.  Combine cumin, coriander, cinnamon and smoked paprika. Sprinkle lightly over cut side of potatoes, adding a squeeze of lemon juice if desired. Place face down on pan and rub with oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Cook for 30-40 minutes until soft. While the potatoes are roasting, prepare your sauce. Add all sauce ingredients to a bowl and blend well. Only add enough water or almond milk to thin it out, but be careful not to make it runny. Taste and add ingredients to your preference if needed. (Note: if you don’t like hummus, substitute with tahini.) Prepare the parsley-tomato topping by tossing all ingredients together. When potatoes are cooked and tender, mash the center down, top with the sauce and garnish with the tomato topping. Sprinkle with a little more dill or lemon if desired.

Sweet Potato Crunch

  • 1½ cups plain flour
  • ¾ cup finely chopped pecans
  • ¾ cup margarine, melted


  • 3 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and     mashed
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Topping:
  •   8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  •   2 cups powdered sugar
  • 8-ounce container Cool Whip
  • Additional chopped pecans

In a bowl, combine flour and pecans. Stir in margarine. Press into a greased 13×9-inch baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. In another large bowl, add sweet potatoes, sugar, butter and vanilla; stir until smooth. Spread over crust.

For topping: Beat cream cheese and powdered sugar in a mixing bowl until smooth. Fold in Cool Whip. Spread over filling. Sprinkle with pecans, if desired. Refrigerate overnight. Yield about 12-16 servings.

Peggy Key

North Alabama EC

Sweet Potato Biscuits

  • 1can Grands Flaky Biscuits
  • 1package sweet potato patties
  • 1 stick oleo
  • 21/2 cups water
  • 2cups sugar
  • 2tablespoons white Karo syrup
  • Cinnamon, for sprinkling

Melt oleo in a 9×11-inch baking dish. Heat water to a simmer; add sugar and Karo syrup. Mix and boil for 10 minutes. Pull biscuits apart into halves. Place one sweet potato patty between two biscuit halves. Crimp edges together and place in dish of melted butter. Pour hot sugar mixture over biscuits. Sprinkle with cinnamon and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Shena Blocker

Covington EC

Candied Sweet Potatoes

  • 5 or 6 medium sweet potatoes
  •   1¾ cups Dr. Pepper
  •   1¼ cups sugar
  •   ¾ stick butter
  •   ¾ teaspoon salt

Parboil sweet potatoes for 10 minutes. (Cook’s note: I like to bake them for better flavor.) Slice sweet potatoes and place in baking dish. Combine all remaining ingredients in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes to create a syrup. Pour syrup mixture over sweet potatoes and bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, basting sweet potatoes several times. Juice will not be very thick.

Joyce Mathis

Tallapoosa River EC

Yummy Yam Bread

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, baked and mashed
  • ¾ cup melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple, undrained
  • ¾ cup chopped nuts or raisins
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting the top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour mixture into two greased loaf pans or one tube pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar. (Cook’s note: Adjust baking time to pan size and desired doneness.)

Peggy Lunsford

Pea River EC

Southern Sweet Potato Pie

  • 1 cup mashed sweet potatoes
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 12/3 cup sugar
  •   ¾ cup evaporated milk
  •   ½ cup butter, melted
  •   ¼ cup light corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  •   ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of salt
  • 9-inch unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together all ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Pour into pie shell and bake for 55-60 minutes. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a dash of ground nutmeg. For a more dense pie, use 1½ cups mashed sweet potatoes instead of 1 cup.

Charlotte Graves

 Sand Mountain EC

Additional Recipes!

Sweet Potato Casserole

  • 5-6 medium-size fresh sweet potatoes
  • 2 sticks butter, melted
  • 1 cup yellow cake mix (I used the Martha White small box)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • Optional: chopped walnuts or pecans and coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash, peel and cut potatoes into ½-inch disks. Place in 9×13-inch pan. In medium-size saucepan, melt butter. Add cake mix, sugar and vanilla, cooking and stirring to make a sauce. Add any optional ingredients, if using. I add pecans. Remove from heat, stir well and pour over potatoes. Bake 25 minutes, checking for doneness after 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Shirley Rossano

North Alabama EC

Pretzel-Topped Sweet Potatoes

  • 2 cups pretzel pieces (I recommend Snyder’s of Hannover Salted Caramel Pieces)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar, for the topping
  • 3/4 cup butter, melted (1/2 cup for topping, 1/4 cup for potatoes)
  • 1 40-ounce can sweet potatoes
  • 1 5-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Break pretzels into bite size pieces, chop pecans and rinse cranberries. In large bowl, combine pretzel pieces, brown sugar, cranberries, pecans and ½ cup melted butter. Mix well and set aside. In large bowl, combine sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, vanilla extract, small handful of brown sugar and ¼ cup melted butter. Mix until smooth and pour into a greased 2-quart baking dish. Add pretzel-cranberry topping and bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Pamela Martin

Arab Electric Coop

 Sweet Potato Pudding

  • 2 cups grated sweet potatoes
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Miniature marshmallows

Mix all ingredients and pour into a greased casserole dish. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Stir and bake an additional 15-20 minutes. Top with mini marshmallows and brown in the oven.

Mary Segers

Cullman EC

Sweet Potato Casserole

  • 3 cups mashed sweet potatoes
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1/3 cup milk


  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 1/3 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup butter

Mix first 6 ingredients well. Pour into a greased casserole dish. Mix topping ingredients and sprinkle on top of casserole. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-35 minutes.

Charlotte Graves

Sand Mountain EC

Coming up in December…Edible Gifts!

It’s time to spice up our recipe selection and you could be a winner! We are looking for fresh, creative recipes from readers just like you. In addition to our monthly Cook of the Month prize, beginning in January, all cooks who submit a recipe will automatically be entered into a drawing to win a gift basket full of Alabama Living merchandise. Take a look at our upcoming themes and send in your favorite recipes today!

Themes and Deadlines

January: Crockpot | Nov. 8

February: Spicy Foods | Dec. 8

March: Honey | Jan. 8

Submit your recipe here.

Editor’s Note: Alabama Living’s recipes are submitted by our readers. They are not kitchen-tested by a professional cook or registered dietician. If you have special dietary needs, please check with your doctor or nutritionist before preparing any recipe.