My mother at Scott Peacock's dinner table.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: Marion
The last few days of our trip are spent with Chef Scott Peacock in Marion, AL. On Tuesday afternoon we meet Scott outside his house which is surrounded by magnolia trees and pink blossoming bushes. We spend a few hours driving around the once-stately town of Marion, peering out the car windows past hedges and pokeberry trees at a mix of beautiful antebellum style houses and crumbling gated properties. Then we head back to Reverie, a completely preserved and restored mansion owned by a friend of Scott's where we will stay for the next two nights, to freshen up for supper. We arrive at Scott's house at dusk, candles and what's left of the sunlight are the only things illuminating the downstairs rooms and kitchen. The house is in the beginning stages of what will surely be a stunning renovation and Scott has already put his mark on it with a wild collection of everything from antique French gynecological exam lamps to feather edge ceramic platters, old spooky portraits and birds nests
Scott cooks for us in his candlelit kitchen, which which was painted pink by the previous owners, mixing corn muffin batter and juggling 5 different pots over finicky flames. My mother and I wander through the rooms in the house sipping wine and taking in photographs, and his grandfather's encyclopedias, his collections of books on painting, quilting, cooking, and Alabama. Scott puts out celery with pimento cheese, almost a currency in these parts he tells me, and sugary sungold tomatoes. Dinner includes butter beans, lady peas, pink eyed peas with okra, stewed squash and sweet onions, garden tomatoes with Southern mayonnaise (peanut oil instead of olive or corn oil) and corn muffins. This is true comfort food. The vegetables Scott cooks for us are all local and I love that I'm getting a chance to eat crops from nearby lands, pulled up by farmers who still manage to grow on a scale that's accessible to the people in their community. For dessert, we're treated to blanc mange and shortbread with roasted peaches and figs from Scott's tree.
In Tennessee it felt much harder to rout out the great, local produce that I had envisioned finding everywhere on my trip. But, as friends had pointed out to me, to be able to sell straight from the source every day, someone has to run those farm stands and physically be there. And that's one less person on a farm, helping
A page from Mary T.'s recipe scrap book: Country store tomatoes and fried onion rings
Breakfast the next morning is Scott's corn muffins from the night before and big, tangy, thick-skinned black grapes that we ate lazing under the fan on the porch. My idea of hot, formed in Tennessee, has been entirely redefined under the weight of the wet heat down in Alabama. The temperatures and steam at 9 a.m. stymie the desire to do much more than breathe slowly and sip water. Before 10 I have sweat through a t-shirt but don't have the wherewithal to change.
Later that afternoon we visit Mary Ward Brown (also known as Mary T.), a writer and good friend of Scott's who has grown up in Marion, and whose parents owned the general store and saw mill in town when she was a little girl.
Coconut Pie at Mary T.'s house.
Mary brews tea according to Scott's recipe (Lipton is preferred here, not Luzianne) and serves it unsweetened to go with sugary coconut pie. Scott has a memory of a recipe called 'Country Store Tomatoes' that Mary T. once shared with him but can't quite remember what it is. Mary digs out a recipe album and after Scott reads the recipe out loud, I get to page through the book. It's overflowing with clipped articles and typed and handwritten pages with recipes for things like 'meat salad,' 'cheese ball appetizers,' and 'Southern casserole.'
Mary is 95, lives alone and doesn't care to cook much anymore. Scott, genteel as he is, brings along beans, blanc mange and other leftovers from the night before in mason jars, the tops of which he loosens slightly for Mary before filling her fridge with them.
Chickens on the Spencer's farm in Marion Junction, AL
From Mary's, we go to a farm in Marion Junction owned by Chip and Laura Spencer. The farm is set back far from the road on a long winding path, lined with live oaks and is home to the Spencer's bees, goats, chickens, pigs, cows, fowl, and dog, Hank. The Spencer family is a homesteading one. Laura was a teacher and now works on the farm where she makes honey, goat cheese, and beauty products and by and large feeds her family from the farm. Her husband Chip, whom Laura refers to as the 'mad scientist,' is the primary architect of the farm and among other things, has built a system that collects rain water in a barrel and then using a pump and sprinkler system, sprays their roof for minute-long intervals every hour during the day to keep their house cool. The house's dining room is a mini museum of the products that Laura makes and the food she 'puts up' during the season. The shelves are lined with jars of tomato sauce (Chip and Laura have a tradition of eating pasta for dinner every night that goes back to their dating days), pickled jalapenos, goat feta, pickled eggs, and corn salsa.
Pickled eggs and salsa put up by Laura Spencer, Marion Junction, AL
We head back to Scott's house, which still smells sugary and spiced from last night's dessert. He lights candles and plies us with little glasses of wine and we relax into his graceful hospitality again, nibbling on celery and pimento cheese. I get his recipe for it. It was one of the signature dishes when he was the Chef at Watershed in Decatur, GA. It is, as so many recipes that I have asked for down here are, deceptively easier said than done.
Breakfast on our last morning in Marion will be biscuits that Scott has offered to teach me to make. Friends in Tennessee have convinced me that a good biscuit is in the flour but Scott says it relies on good lard and condemns watery and hastily cooked ones. While he is showing me how to make the dough, I ask him about the biscuits of his childhood, and if the ones he is making are similar to what he grew up with. He tells me the biscuits he grew up with started with his mom banging a can on the counter. Admittedly, I had a misguided preconception that, down here, everyone's mama and grandma not only cooked, but were good cooks.
Scott has everything set up for biscuits: Lard, flour, baking powder, salt, and whole buttermilk -- that's it, and that's all it should be. He picks a spoon to stir with that he is attached to, one that he bought more than a decade ago with Edna Lewis, a Southern food advocate with whom he has written cookbooks. We talk about sentimentality attached to cooking tools and I think of my grandmother and my father and their tools, which I still use to cook today.
Biscuits and jam
The dough gets turned out onto the counter. Somewhere my mother is puttering around, taking photos of the beautiful things that Scott has filled his home with. Biscuits are rolled and punched -- always without twisting -- and then set on a baking sheet and popped into the oven. The scraps are baked off for something good later on, waste not...
While we wait for the biscuits to bake, we eat bowls of goat yogurt and warm honey from the Spencers' farm. The biscuits that have cooked up fastest are pulled first and cool on a wire rack. Blackberry jam from a neighbor, fig jam from his own tree, good butter and salt are on the table and grits, white and peppery and deliciously gritty, simmer on the stove.
When they are served, I take two biscuits right away, butter them and top them with honey, jams, and salt. The honey, butter and salt combo is perfect, and after two big bowls of grits, I help myself to two more biscuits.
All too soon the meal is over. I am full but not stuffed and it's time to go. Birmingham is next. I leave with a jar of pimento cheese and the promise that I'll be back soon.
Display at an antique emporium. Birmingham, AL
Birmingham is a blip. I have grand plans of fitting in a real lunch and then dinner, but eating biscuits and grits and yogurt until 11 a.m. leaves me way too full to even attempt a real lunch. We spend the afternoon antiquing through some emporium-style stores. At one point, looking for parking, my mother and I passed Full Moon Barbecue and I really considered muscling in at least a half rack of ribs. I get dissuaded. Dinner that night will be at Frank Stitt's Highlands Bar and Grill and we only have a few hours. I give up, reluctantly.
Highlands Bar and Grill comes highly recommended by friends in New York and locals alike. Dinner is downright lovely: a warm and delicious meal that includes fried seafood with gobs of remoulade, fresh figs, Cornish hen, grilled veal, sweet summer corn, buttery grits, peach cobbler and sublime hoecakes with fresh berries. It's the perfect, cozy topper to a trip that has included meals shared in lunchrooms, pastures, and campsites.
It's getting late and I've been eating big, sprawling meals for days -- not letting a meal go by without trying everything I can, filling myself to the gills.
I'll come back soon, but for now, its time to go home, back to NYC. Lucky me.