Yesterday I finished five weeks of travel for two major Eater projects scheduled to go live next month. It wasn’t the plan to hop from city to city for quite so long of a stretch — it just happened to work out that way.
The rule of intense travel, job-related or otherwise, is this: You stay sane by staying present. Low clouds in feathery wads over an open highway, agem of a midcentury-modern skyscraper still holding its own among the cranes of new construction, a flowering plant whose name I don’t yet know, the texture of the tile in the hotel shower. If I’m weary, or feeling particularly dislodged, I re-tether myself by zooming in on the details. Nothing, of course, coaxes me to the moment like eating. It’s the meals that keep me grounded — keep me anticipating the next town, the next dining room, the next menu.
Grilled okra and shishitos over whipped goat cheese at Southern NationalI’m thinking about 24 hours in Alabama last weekend that felt particularly gratifying. I flew to Birmingham from North Carolina and drove to Mobile for dinner at Southern National, a restaurant that opened last October owned by chef Duane Nutter and Mobile native Reggie Washington. The pair worked at One Flew South in the E Terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for nearly a decade, making the restaurant such a draw that fans would arrive early for lunch or dinner before a flight.
The restaurant’s name hearkens to Nutter’s style of cooking: a Southern lexicon that incorporates his African-American heritage (he grew up in Seattle and has roots in Louisiana) but isn’t constrained by any entrenched sense of regionalism.
He’ll pair grilled okra with shishito peppers and serve them over whipped goat cheese flavored with cilantro and tossed in a teriyaki vinaigrette. He conflates the ubiquitous dish of mussels steamed in broth with the Southern staple of pork-riddled collards: It turns out mollusks bathing in pot liquor makes all kinds of sense on the palate. So did a thick chicken schnitzel surrounded by mushrooms and greens and just the right amount of mushroom cream sauce. It was a Friday night, and the place was deservedly slammed. Only the sweets left me wanting: There were wintry poached pears for dessert when I was craving local peaches at the height of their season.
Even though I’ve lived in the South longer than any other place in my itinerant adulthood, I’d never before been to Lower Alabama. I drove the 21 miles to the town of Theodore (population: 6,130) along Mobile Bay for lunch at Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant, which popularized a local specialty: West Indies salad. It’s a simple dish of picked, cooked crab marinated in vinegar, oil, ice water (an essential ingredient), salt, and pepper. Current owner Bill Bayley, Jr. stays faithful to the recipe developed by his father, Bill Bayley, Sr., who began a previous incarnation of the restaurant in 1947.
Being a crab freak, I’ve longed wanted to eat this dish at its source. The bits of meat in the salad were oddly shaped (some hunks, some wisps; this is the way with crab) and sunny-sweet summer fresh in flavor. I ignored the packaged crackers on the side and ate spoonful after spoonful of crab straight from a big bowl. Everything I loved about the culinary South rang through my body for those happy minutes.
A little bit up the road there was a roadside stand selling fruit from Chilton County, the seat of the state’s finest peaches. I picked a basketful of orbs that were exactly ripe, though I waited four hours, after the drive back to Birmingham, to savor one — which I did leaned over a lined trash can, the juices running down my fingers while I polished it off.
Dinner that night was at Birmingham’s crown jewel, Highlands Bar and Grill, which is on Eater’s list of the 38 Essential Restaurants in America; in May, Highlands owners Frank and Pardis Stitt claimed the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant after 10 finalist nominations. Their longtime pastry chef, Dolester Miles, also won the award for Outstanding Pastry Chef that night. I can’t think of a restaurant dessert I anticipate more than her barely sweetened, biscuit-topped peach cobbler.
That night I met three incredible men for dinner at Highlands: Leonard McCants, George McCalman, and Scott Hocker, all of us current or former journalists, all of us visiting Birmingham. In San Francisco a couple of weeks earlier, Leonard and I had been at dinner with Rachel Levin, Eater’s San Francisco critic, and we’d realized we would be in Alabama at the same time. The three of them were heading the next day to Montgomery to visit its powerful and newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Our dinner together was the kind that sustains me on the road: loud laughter; smart, wise words; so much sublime food. We ate last-of-season soft-shell crabs, the restaurant’s signature baked grits with prosciutto and mushrooms, a take on bouillabaisse with local seafood, and venison with lady peas and peach relish. I watched Leonard and George take bites of Highland’s peach cobbler for the first time, shaking their heads in awe and joy.
The next morning, to extend the memory of the cobbler, I gave the three of them the rest of the peaches that I’d bought at the roadside stand. Then I was off — steering my rental car westward toward New Orleans.
Your roving critic,