Alabama Chanin’s Friends of the Café Piggy Bank Dinner for Southern Foodways Alliance, featuring Ashley Christensen, was a singing success last Thursday. Not only did the ingredients sing on the plate, but our diners have adopted the habit of singing to our featured chefs. This time, Ashley Christensen was serenaded with a round of Happy Birthday after an enthusiastic round of applause for her inventive take on Southern cuisine.
As our dinner was held in conjunction with Billy Reid’s Shindig, a celebration of music, fashion, food, and friendship that took place in The Shoals last weekend, we served a new cocktail christened “The Gindig,” in honor of the occasion. The watermelon juice cocktail, featuring Alabama’s own High Ridge Spirits gin, helped get the party started. This gin from a new distillery in rural Bullock County, Alabama, is the first legally produced gin in the state. The combination of watermelon, lime, and gin was the ideal late summer, pre-dinner drink—particularly when served alongside Ashley’s hors d’oeuvres.
Guests—who came from all over the country—served themselves snack style at the bar. Super sharp pimento cheese and Teal Goddess dip loaded with tarragon, anise, and blue cheese were served with toast, celery, and Gulf shrimp.
The first course was a chilled sweet corn soup with Alabama lump crab and marinated local cherry tomatoes. Ashley made the stock for the soup from corncobs to extract the nutty attributes and simulate the experience of eating corn off the cob. The soup was chilled in pressurized canisters that whipped it into a smooth, airy texture. Sommelier, Harry Root of Grassroots Wine, chose the Gruner Veltliner (the signature grape of Austria) “Gobelsburger” to accompany the soup, calling it a perfect pairing with corn.
A combination of watermelon with avocado, basil, Goat Lady Dairy Chevre, and Vidalia onion champagne vinaigrette produced a surprising mix of savory and sweet for a second course. The North Carolina-made goat cheese gave this salad a layer of smoothness. The orangey pink Medocino Rose “Indica” wine paired perfectly.
Diners and staff alike were delighted with the tea-brined pork shoulder that was served as the main entree. The pork shoulder was cooked, according to Ashley, “quick and hard,” soaked in its own juices to develop the smoky tea flavor, shaped into cakes, pan seared, and served on a bed of white acre peas. Fried green tomatoes with a cornmeal crust were perfect pops of brightness especially when dressed with piquillo aioli and charred green tomato chimichurri. After tasting those peas, we completely understand why they are Ashley’s favorite.
“Food is an exploration of race, gender, and class,” John T. Edge shared after the entree. He explained SFA’s academic study of the South through food. He suggested Cornbread Nation 7, one of SFA’s recent compilations of Southern food writing, as a good read to delve into the South’s culture through food and its influence.
Ashley’s amazing menu may have been inspired by North Carolina, but it utilized Alabama ingredients in a way that made them shine. “The language of food always works,” she said. Her approach was to show the mutual love of ingredients between the two states and have the food “sing together as a looking glass of Alabama.”
As we moved on to dessert, Harry Root explained the importance of a sweet wine for dessert. “Dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dessert. Thank you Ashley for not making a snickerdoodle pie tonight.” Harry chose Secco Italian Bubbles, Moscato to pair with the flavorful peach and blueberry pie. This pie had a benne seed streusel with buttermilk ice cream on the side. Needless to say, not a single serving of dessert was leftover.
This dinner was a perfect gathering of friends, creativity, and badass. The bridges being built through full stomachs and open hearts span our region and beyond.
Thank you to Ashley, the Southern Foodways Alliance and John T. Edge, Grassroots Wine, High Ridge Spirits, Josh Quick from Odette, Rinne Allen for photos, and everyone who contributed to ensure the success of our celebration.
Photos courtesy of Rinne Allen.