I have a deep respect and admiration for the work happening at Rural Studio, located in Hale County, Alabama. Founded in 1993 by the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, the studio is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
After having the chance to visit the stunning Yancey Chapel in 2008, I noted on the Journal that “the work and life of Samuel Mockbee is a yardstick for us to hold up to our lives each and every day to take measure of the road that we walk on this planet.”
I will be heading to Hale County this weekend, for a special dinner and pig roast as part of their yearlong 20th anniversary celebration. My friend (and acclaimed chef) Scott Peacock is preparing the menu and family-style meal. The evening will be a celebration of Rural Studio and an acknowledgement of their ongoing community project at Rural Studio Farm—where students are working to construct a greenhouse, irrigation system, planter beds, and more. In fact, a few of the vegetables that will be served over the weekend were grown by students at the farm. The Hale County community is contributing to the dinner, providing fresh hen eggs for deviled eggs and the local pig that was raised to be roasted just for this occasion. Friends of Rural Studio are also making contributions—Alabama Chanin donated 170 organic cotton jersey napkins for the event, which students of the studio will manipulate and design for the dinner. It will be an evening filled with laughter, community, delicious food, and storytelling.
Scott recently spoke to us about his connection to the studio, growing up in south Alabama, and his philosophy on good food and sustainability.
AC: What is your connection to Rural Studio?
SP: I’m a longtime admirer of Rural Studio, whose work and mission I find endlessly inspiring. Four years ago, when I made my return to Alabama, I was given an introduction to the studio by my late friend, the wonderful writer, Mary Ward Brown. Since then, I’ve given talks and workshops and become a member of the studio’s advisory board. Newbern, where Rural Studio is headquartered, is only 20 minutes of country road from where I live in Marion—which, in rural Alabama, is practically next door. They are one of my very favorite neighbors.
AC: What is the focus of the dinner you are preparing?
SP: My hope is that the dinner will be an honest expression of community and caring. People and place. All of which I regard as hallmarks of the very best Southern cooking. And, for that matter, the work of Rural Studio.
AC: The Rural Studio philosophy suggests that everyone, both rich and poor, deserves the benefit of good design. Does this intersect with your outlook on food?
SP: Completely. Good food—pure, wholesome food—should be democratic and available to everyone.
Unfortunately, that’s not the system we live in at present. One of my favorite Rural Studio projects is the 20K House, a quality single-family dwelling—beautifully, carefully, and simply designed—that can be constructed using ten thousand dollars’ worth of local materials and ten thousand dollars of local labor. It is a model within reach that challenges the mindset of what quality, affordable housing can be.
I think there are applications here to the way we view and think about the production of food.
AC: Growing up in south Alabama how was your sense of community developed and how have you related that with your cooking?
SP: Hartford, Alabama, where I grew up, is such a small place. I didn’t think it was remarkable in any way when I was younger, but of course it formed me in ways I am still discovering today and hope I will continue to realize the rest of my life. I was discussing this with my father once and he proudly remarked, “All those things you didn’t even know you were recording.”
At my mother’s and grandmothers’ tables there was a strong awareness of where our food came from that made it distinct. Comparisons were made between vegetables we grew, those grown by friends and neighbors, and those that came from Mr. Spear’s Market or the Piggly Wiggly. Within the community, individuals were distinguished by who grew the best corn or made the best pound cake. At church suppers, dinner on the grounds, funerals—all incredible food events when I was a child—there was deep appreciation and a lot of jockeying for the best dishes. People in Hartford had certain ways of cooking peas that were different from the way peas were cooked in Slocomb, 6 miles away, or where my father’s mother lived, way in the country. There was a uniqueness that set us apart and also bound us together. I totally took all of it for granted, of course.
But even then, I realized that it’s a very different experience to cook or eat food grown by someone or from somewhere you know.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, a lot of our work, designs, and philosophies are based around using age-old techniques, like hand sewing and quilting. We believe in celebrating the “living arts” and community-building traditions (like quilting circles). We love The Gift of Southern Cooking and how you and Miss Lewis wove storytelling, memory, and tradition into your recipes. Can you elaborate on your philosophies on food?
SP: To me, food is all about relationships. To have a relationship with your farmer, with your community, with the people who prepare your food, with yourself, and even with the ingredients themselves is so important. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m there because I’ve been inspired—by people, by stories, by my surroundings. The dinner is being served family-style, so that people will interact with one another, serve food to one another, and hopefully, build relationships—with each other and the food.
AC: What do you plan to serve at the dinner?
SP: This is catfish country, and a local supporter of Rural Studio is bringing some catfish to fry. We will serve small catfish bites as a starter course, alongside coleslaw (featuring local cabbage), and cheese and pepper jelly (donated by a client of Rural Studio). It is amazing how this community has come together in support of this spring celebration. Ladies have been saving their hen eggs for me, for deviled eggs. I’m really excited about the first course—a vegetable stew that I’m cooking over an open fire in a 40-gallon copper kettle. Then, there will be roasted pig, alongside a HUGE green salad. My dear friend Jenny Eason—who actually gave me my start as a kitchen professional—is bringing 60 pounds of lettuce up from Tallahassee, Florida. Other cooks I’ve worked with in the past are coming to help with the dinner and I’m thrilled to be working with them again. And of course, I’m serving my mother’s recipe for fried hot-water cornbread.
AC: That all sounds amazing. Dare I ask what you are serving for dessert?
SP: Homemade banana pudding—all locally sourced, except for the bananas, of course.
Thank you to Scott for answering our questions—I’ll see you this weekend.
To learn more about Rural Studio, visit their website, or check out our friend Jack Sanders’ documentary, Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio.
Photos courtesy of Rural Studio/Auburn University/Timothy Hursley.