MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA—Jerry Kyser’s business card has one side in English, the reverse in Korean, recognition of the city’s influential Hyundai automotive community. The successful Montgomery businessman and restaurateur exemplifies the enlightened entrepreneur. Southern to the core, Kyser has a broad world view but keeps his local irons glowing. Central, Kyser’s upper-scale gourmet restaurant combines architectural restoration with contemporary design and amenities, while another venture, Martha’s Place, a popular soul-food establishment headed by namesake Martha Hawkins, packs in tour bus diners and hungry locals. Both are emblematic of how well delicious food plays today down in Dixie.
Tourism is one of Alabama’s a growth industries, and the state’s promotion, “The Year of Alabama Food,” harnessed the national farm-to-table trend and blended it seamlessly with Alabama’s agriculture, arts, history and heritage. One prestigious example is the internationally acclaimed Alabama Shakespeare Festival with a full season of classic plays by the Bard interspersed with traditional theatrical productions and original works by the Southern Writer’s Project.
Montgomery’s cuisine occupies a status alongside impressive cultural heritage. Country music’s Hank Williams is buried here and the city was the birthplace of singer Nat King Cole and literary legend Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. A young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived here. and the first church where he preached, Dexter Avenue Baptist, is in full view of the Alabama State Capitol, the birthplace of the Confederacy.
Ironies abound in Alabama, making a visit even more interesting.
The best way to begin a visit here is a leisurely traditional lunch of fried catfish with coarse-ground cheese grits and banana pudding for dessert. The quiet little city has a special place in American literature. Harper Lee and Truman Capote grew up here as next-door neighbors, going on to become staff writers for The New Yorker, and then famous authors. Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, has exalted global status. And when I hear the haunting “Moon River,” I dream of Holly, the character created by Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, portrayed on the screen by lovely Audrey Hepburn.
The old courthouse on the city square is a magnet to masses from all countries, drawn to this gentle Deep South city by the drama and tragedy told in Ms. Lee’s novel. Walking the grounds, a visitor sees a mailbox with the address marked as “Mockingbird.” Inside the building is a wonderfully curated museum. Relatives of both literary giants live here (as does Harper Lee) and conversations resonate with authenticity.
Like Harper Lee, Truman Capote’s childhood in Monroeville enriched him as a writer. In Self Portrait (1972), Capote wrote that, “as a child, I lived until I was ten or so with an elderly spinster relative in a rural, remote part of Alabama, Miss Sook Faulk. She herself was not more than twelve years old mentally, which is what accounted for her purity, timidity, her strange, unexpected wisdom.” He wrote two stories about Sook: A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor.
Inside the historic structure is the perfectly preserved courtroom, complete with the judge’s bench displaying a timeworn King James Bible resting close to a gavel. The jury box sits near the bench and witness stand, much the way it looked in the movie starring Gregory Peck portraying defense lawyer Atticus Finch. The balcony where the local African-American spectators watched the trial of Tom Robinson with the white children glows with images of Scout and Jem.
Stereotypes abound about the South. The great journalist Marshall Frady in his book, “Southerners,” described it as “America’s Ireland.”
It may surprise some that Capote grew up in Monroeville. From time to time, more than a few fellow travelers told me that he was a New Yorker. Ms. Lee’s Atticus Finch appears to be a composite of heroic figures who defended and championed the black, the poor and the oppressed and ferociously fought a system stacked against them. Montgomery’s legendary federal Judge Frank Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Baptist ministers Will Campbell and Clarence Jordan are a few who walked the path Atticus followed.
The courtroom in the Monroeville courthouse was meticulously re-created in Hollywood for the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird, which earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award. The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch America’s number one cinematic hero. Thanks to their timeless stories, the small town that gave the world Truman Capote and Harper Lee is known as Alabama’s Literary Capital.
One memorable line from the movie has endured: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” Scout [Jean Louise] is told to stand by Reverend Sykes when Atticus is leaving the courtroom. She is unaware that all the black spectators with her in the balcony, out of respect for Atticus, were standing.
Long ago in the Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter, I found a signed copy of Truman Capote’s tender masterpiece, A Christmas Memory. The final words resonated as I walked around Monroeville on a scorching summer afternoon.
“Home is where my friend is, and there I never go . . . [A] morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: ‘Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!’ And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why . . . on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”
Long ago, the Spanish and French settled this important port city where the nation’s oldest Mardi Gras is celebrated. Rivers converge here in the bay providing a rich estuary for fish, shrimp and oysters, and city officials attest that no visitor is disappointed by the local cuisine. My return visit confirmed that Mobile merits the distinction as a major culinary destination.
Mobile’s esteemed gourmet chef, George Panayiotou, won’t tell you he is leagues better and more talented than most of the overflow of chefs and cooks too often called celebrities. Panayiotou not only oversees the food operation at other top-tier Mobile-area restaurants, but he’s a cooking magician in the kitchen. He prepares exquisite dishes, and with his magic touch, there is transformation. Along with a group of writers, I knew it was time for lunch with George at Felix’s Fish Camp, a heralded restaurant on Mobile Bay.
Plump raw oysters were served as starters. Either a Cru Chablis or a Chardonnay like the St. Francis Sonoma County pair perfectly with raw bivalves. Felix’s features a West Indies Salad, a popular item inspired by a recipe from nearby Dauphin Island. It’s distinguished by marinated lump crabmeat. “Crab is plentiful here,” the chef said, “and the flavors honor Mobile’s food traditions and Caribbean influences.”
Turtle soup, a Gulf Coast favorite, is served; strong aromatics like cloves and bay leaves are subdued by a generous amount of Sherry. George’s version–which pairs perfectly with the white Bordeaux, Secret de Grande Bateau (2010)–is equal to my other favorite at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Note that the turtle meat is commercially produced at a farm much like trout and catfish.
Almost a stand-alone meal, George Panayiotou’s spectacular soft shell crabs are sautéed and served on fried green tomatoes with a choice of his original Almondine, Meuniere or Hollandaise sauce. This dish is divine with a glass or two of Sancerre from the Loire Valley.
Entrees at Felix’s are bountiful and presented with South Alabama flair. George prepared a broiled grouper topped with shrimp and crabmeat served with another signature sauce. While I ordinarily avoid rich dishes, this was pleasantly light with the flavor and texture of the fish intact, providing added enjoyment. A Bordeaux Rosé, particularly Le Rosé de Clarke (2010), one of the most unsung noble wines, fit this regal dish like a model’s hand in an elegant glove.
George makes a whipped-cream-topped lemon icebox pie that took me back to my childhood, when my mother, an Alabama girl and skilled self-taught cook, served her own version nestled in a graham cracker crust, covered with meringue This Deep South classic soars when accompanied by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey on ice or served Irish-coffee-style. I began having this with dessert several years ago at the suggestion of Lynne Tolley, a cookbook author and a Jack Daniel descendant.
I neared the completion of a long-postponed pilgrimage. There was, however, one more stop to make. Hank Williams’ grave is high on a hill overlooking Montgomery. Joined by the accomplished journalist Michelle Winner and guided by the city’s renaissance man, Sam Bonfe, we took photos and then headed down to Montgomery’s impressive farmers market to devour just-picked Alabama white peaches. Although the day was still beginning, we longed for flutes of chilled Champagne
At the end of the journey, I recalled George Panayiotou’s friendly proclamation, a perfect description of Alabama’s yearlong celebration of the state’s amazing food culture: “If you leave hungry, it’s not our fault.”