Three Days in Alabama
Downtown Birmingham by Clark Tibbs
In Alabama, the landscape sways from the cool depths of Cathedral Caverns to piney thickets around Talladega to a glittering coast, making it one of the nation’s most biologically diverse states. Now and again, extraordinary phenomena occur too. In 1833, the Leonid meteor shower rained light on a November night, and almost 200 years later, the phrase “Stars Fell on Alabama” still echoes.
Such mysteries unfold here. Time passes. New meanings and inspirations emerge. The photographer William Christenberry turns his camera into a capsule of Hale County textures. A young woman from Monroeville, working odd jobs in New York City, coaxes small-town intimacies and injustice into To Kill a Mockingbird. In the Shoals, the Yuchi people call the Tennessee River the Nunnuhsae, or “the Singing River,” and songs indeed poured forth capturing hearts and souls worldwide.
Alabama’s expressions of beauty are varied and anything but simple. In our latest guide we explore its depths. Come along for three days here, and learn more at Wildsam Alabama.
Greek and Threes in Birmingham
Both self-explanatory and tantalizingly mysterious, the term “meat and three” shows up across the South. But in Birmingham, this plate lunch tells a specific story of the city’s people. Basically, it comprises a plate (or styrofoam clamshell) bearing a protein and three vegetables–the latter, with poetic license. While more recognizable country-cooking and soul-food variations abound throughout the metro area (Eagle’s Restaurant, a must), Birmingham distinctly claims the “Greek and three.” When Greek immigrants and descendants started restaurants here, these innovators embraced time-honored Southern sides like mac and cheese and collard greens alongside saucy keftedes (meatballs) and pastitsio (baked pasta). Four keepers of the flame:
THE BRIGHT STAR Just outside city limits in the industrial suburb of Bessemer, this portal to another time has been serving fish, steaks and mile-high pies since 1907. For lunch, order the fried red snapper throats swathed in lemon-butter sauce with Greek potatoes and shredded cab-bage, then behold the singular glory of pineapple-cheese pie.
NIKI’S WEST The cafeteria-style steam table stretches into infinity. Items of note: lemon-pepper catfish, lamb with mint jelly, turnip greens. The stacked dessert case prompts further dilemmas.
JOHNNY’S Don’t let the line deter you, or the very-not-historic strip-mall location. Timothy Hontzas’ daily circus serves his family’s recipes with fresher techniques and farm-sourced ingredients. Chicken thighs in a haunting honey-chipotle-coriander drizzle; charbroiled souvlaki in a near-nuclear garlicky lemon-tahini sauce; or fried Bayou La Batre shrimp with tangy, remoulade-esque “comeback sauce.”
- TED’S Passed down in 2000 from an established area Greek family to a more newly arrived one; Tasos and Beba Touloupis originally came to Alabama to study aerospace engineering and psychology, respectively. Their career pivot helped preserve a city institution, where they continue to serve Ted Sarris’ Greek chicken and pastitsio. Pro protein moves: fried chicken livers, spaghetti and meat sauce or fried grouper.
Float, Fish or Flower-Gaze
Flow with one of the most biologically diverse rivers on the planet, the teeming Cahaba. A 194-mile waterway running from Birmingham to Mobile Bay, the Cahaba is home to more native fish species than any other similarly sized river in the country–131 compared to, for example, the Colorado River watershed’s 25. Of those species, 18 of them are only found in this river alongside 13 mollusk species. Amidst all its wonders, the river has routinely been abused by urbanization, wastewater, and pollution. But these threats have ignited new energy to save it, including recent plans to reconnect it to the Alabama River, restoring an ecological super highway.
FISH Fly-anglers frequent shady shallow spots like Pinchgut Creek and the Highway 280 dam. Bream and crappie are both common catches; redeye bass, more coveted. For a more modern fishing report, follow photographer and bar owner Wes Frazer: @touched.by.an.angler.
FLOAT Lazy river the Cahaba is not. But with prep work, tubing proves mostly tranquil. Wear sturdy shorts and waterproof shoes to prevent below-deck scrapes. Limestone Park Canoe Rental has dozens of doughnuts to rent and trucks that deliver and recover floaters to and from the river’s edge. 1531 Limestone Pkwy, Brierfield
- FLORA Cahaba lilies, also known as swamp lilies, only grow in three states. As if the window to witness their ivory firework blooms wasn’t short enough, their petals only last 24 hours, which makes finding stands of flowers rising out of the water feel extra magical. To see and smell their honeyed bouquets up close, launch a canoe or kayak at the Cahaba Wildlife Refuge, which also provides guided lilly tours. 407 Baby Bains Gap Rd, Anniston
Biscuits, Birds and Blue Hands in the Black Belt
This secluded, sylvan patch of Alabama, and home to GEE’S BEND QUILTING COLLECTIVE, holds both painful history and progressive movement. Named for its rich raven soil and its Black-majority population, many descendants of enslaved cotton workers and, later, sharecroppers, Alabama’s bucolic Black Belt scenery recalls Upstate New York with its small farms, roads winding through meadows, and produce stands that lead into historic town squares.
In a shade-dappled clearing of State Route14 sits Heard Cemetery, final resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder by police in 1965 sparked the march from Selma to Montgomery. Jackson’s gravestone–bullet-pocked and flower-crowned–provides a key to understanding both sides of the Black Belt: its pangs of the past and its people pushing forward. For an example of the latter, meet third-generation farmer CHRIS JOE, who welcomes birdwatchers seeking hawks, kites and songbirds on his family’s Angus cattle farm with their CONNECTING WITH BIRDS AND NATURE TOURS.
Projects by Auburn University’s RURAL STUDIO dot downtown Newbern, from the fire house to the library, all designed and built by students focused on rural living.Their $20K homes, part of the FRONT PORCH INITIATIVE’s efforts to build affordable housing, have been shown at New York’s MoMA and earned the program a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.
Indigo dyed textile by Aaron Sanders Head. aaronsandershead.com
A few miles away, in Marion, chef SCOTT PEACOCK stands in a sun-streaked kitchen.The James Beard winner and co-author with Southern-cooking legend Edna Lewis now hosts waitlist-worthy biscuit-making experiences at historic mansion Reverie.
Over in Greensboro, textile artist AARON SANDERS HEAD grows cosmos and indigo, in a dye garden outside his home, with his partner, musician Tim Higgins. Students leave his natural-dyeing workshops with cerulean-stained hands plus pillows, quilts and handkerchiefs in brilliant blues, oranges and coppers.
Also in Greensboro, baker Sarah Cole, daughter of an Egyptian mother and Alabama-born father, is set to open ABADIR’S in a permanent location. Until then, Cole pops up around town with freshened familiars: coconut yogurt cake, tahini orange rolls and shortbread cookies filled with dates.
Find more itineraries and intel inside Wildsam Alabama including civil rights sites; a coastal road trip; a dedicated, deep-dive section into Alabama music with playlists; guides to college towns and football legends; delightful miscellany from the archives; interviews with songwriter Jason Isbell; Pulitzer-winner Cynthia Tucker; legendary bassist David Hood, and more.