Barbeque lovers are often staunch proponents and defenders of their favorite preparation, favorite meat, and favorite sauce—or lack thereof. Just as there is an entire range of styles of barbeque (everything from pulled pork with slaw to smoked chicken to a plate of burnt ends), there is a whole spectrum of barbeque sauces. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of sugary red sauces; but as an Alabama native, I must wholeheartedly profess my love of our native white barbeque sauce.
Many of you may be unfamiliar with this particular variety of sauce, as it is a North Alabama specialty. But, it is a staple of almost every barbeque restaurant in the area and has found its way to our tables and local grocery store shelves. White sauce is a tangy condiment made of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and pepper. While that might sound a little odd to the uninitiated, those in the know are evangelists for the stuff.
While white barbeque sauce has been served in the area for years, local lore suggests that Bob Gibson of the legendary Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, invented it in 1925. Bob worked for the L & N Railroad Company, but would host barbeques on the weekends, smoking meat over a hickory pit in his backyard. Eventually, his food became so popular that he quit his job at the railroad and opened a proper restaurant.
Those traveling to The Shoals often ask for the best routes into and out of the area. I’m not sure what your definition of “best” may be, but I personally love to travel visually interesting routes, when time allows. For those that have the time and inclination for a scenic drive, I always recommend taking part of the journey on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile historical path that travels from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, and connects the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers. It follows a geologic ridgeline that prehistoric animals followed in search of new grazing land and water sources. The Trace connected tribal homelands of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Native travelers used the same pathways repeatedly, creating natural sunken sections in the ground.
Part of the excitement of living in The Shoals is seeing how the area has changed over the years. Though we have such an impressive collection of musicians in the area—musicians who have been an important part of the American musical landscape—when I was young, it was difficult to find a place to hear live music. There were family gatherings with guitars and impromptu songwriters’ nights—but there was no real place for people to gather and listen to a live band. On the flipside, local musicians—whether upcoming or established—had no place to play, reach their audiences, and try out new material.
The renowned FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound musicians were primarily studio session players. They created iconic sounds, but often during business hours and behind closed session doors. Because those musical talents were being developed in studios and not in bars or venues, we never had much of a music “scene” to speak of. This directly impacted the musicians who eventually founded Single Lock Records. Each learned their trade in makeshift music venues like garages, house shows, or anywhere that would have them.
That is why The Shoals’ newest music venue 116 E. Mobile (conveniently, the physical address) gives locals and visitors a place to see musicians from at home and abroad in a comfortable space. 116 (as it is often called) is located in downtown Florence and is owned and operated by Single Lock Records, in tandem with Billy Reid.
Two hours south x southeast of The Shoals lies the metropolis of Birmingham—that’s how I have it in my childhood memory. It was the 1960s and 70s and we rarely made the trip. At that time, it was a place of strife, and violence, and steel, and, for a small child, the great unknown. It wasn’t until I returned to Alabama in the year 2000 to settle back into my home state that I came to know—and began to understand—this city that lies in the heart of Alabama.
One of the three closest airports to The Shoals is here, in what is called the “Magic City”; many guests who visit our studio choose to fly or take the train to Birmingham and make the two-hour drive through the Southwestern Appalachians to Northwest Alabama.
Officially founded in 1871, Birmingham built itself around railroad transportation and the railroading industry—which is still in operation today, but the major industry that spurred economy and growth was iron and steel production—hard work for strong people. While the manufacturing industry is still recognized as a large presence, other businesses and industries, like medical technology and banking, have strengthened and added growth to the area in the past 50 years.
I first heard of Jones Valley Teaching Farm around 2003. The farm was still a small plot of land located close to The Garage, in Birmingham, Alabama. I drove down one cold winter day to have lunch with (then director) Edwin Marty. There was one hoop house, and running water, and not much else—yet. It was ambitious, and it felt like the beginning of something special.
Later, I heard much more from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q co-founder Nick Pihakis and chef Drew Robinson. Those two so fully believe in the farm’s mission and methods that they back up their beliefs with fundraisers and hands-on support. I am also convinced that the organization can make real difference in the community.
Since my first visit in 2003, Jones Valley Teaching Farm has grown and moved to downtown Birmingham. Since 2007, the organization has expanded their farm and their scope with a focus on educating students, visitors, and community gardeners on how to grow real, healthy food. Today, the farm is a hub of downtown green. The farmers on site use both established sustainable and experimental practices, with the goal of developing a flourishing ecosystem in the heart of a bustling city. They currently grow over 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers and offer their produce for sale on-site and at local farmers’ markets—generating over $45,000 in sales in 2014 alone.
Music has always been an integral part of The Shoals. We are placed along the banks of what the native people have long called, “the river that sings.” W.C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, was born here; legendary producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, is also from The Shoals. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the influential style of music known as the Muscle Shoals Sound emerged from this same musically rich place.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had an abstract idea of the big sounds being produced all around us—but no one ever made a fuss about it. Sure, our neighbors made music for a living, but those neighbors certainly weren’t famous, were they? (Were they?) And so it wasn’t until years later that many in our community began to understand exactly what was happening around us while we were growing up.
“From a scientific point of view, it can be said he [Thoreau] documented for the first time how ecological succession works … The mechanism was animals and weather. Squirrels carry acorns so oak trees replace pine when the pines are cut down. And pine seeds blow over to replace the oak.” – Richard T. Forman
I started writing this piece about two weeks ago. I was talking about succession over trend with a colleague and she asked me to put down my thoughts about how that worked. And so I started…and as I was writing, the question of trend began to appear in the press and this story seems on one hand less important and on the other hand more important. I’ll let you be the judge. In any case, thank you for coming here. Thank you for reading:
There is a small stop at milepost 330.2 on the Natchez Trace Parkway called Rock Spring Nature Trail. I’ve been going to this spot on the Natchez Trace since I was a little girl. Perk, my maternal grandfather, used to take me (and all of the cousins) there en route to Colbert Ferry park on the “other side” of the Tennessee River from our home. From there, we would launch his small fishing boat and run the trotline of baited hooks for catfish (more on this boat and Perk’s trotline coming soon).
Rock Spring is a natural aquifer that merges with Colbert Creek where this nature trail now stands. The creek is a small, meandering stream of rare beauty (see the photo above)—named after George Colbert—who ran the Ferry that crossed the Tennessee River along the Trace before the days of a bridge.
“It is scientifically impossible to leave here unsatisfied.”
–Staggs’s Customer Taylor Smith
Less than five short miles from The Factory is a diner so well known in the Shoals community, locals simply call is “Staggs”—no elaboration is necessary. It is a place where social and economic barriers are ignored or discarded; everyone eats at Staggs, from mayor to millworker.
Staggs Grocery is located in East Florence, Alabama, an area that was once proud home to a booming textile district. The same family has run the market for generations. Taylor Wylie established the business as a meat market over a century ago, but the building was destroyed by fire. It was taken over by Wylie’s son in law, Lester D. Staggs, Sr., and his brother Webb Staggs and revamped into a meat market and grocery catering to families and workers in the textile district. Lynn Staggs, who currently owns and operates Staggs with his wife Pat, took over management after the passing of his father, L.D. Staggs, Sr.
At almost any workplace, you can hear employees talk about their co-workers with a closeness and familiarity; after years of working alongside one another, your officemates can (in some cases) begin to feel like family. In the past, that has actually been the case here at Alabama Chanin. Studio and dye house directress Diane Hall has worked alongside her daughter—who has also been one of our artisan stitchers. Some of our other artisans have been sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, cousins, and almost any other combination of relations. And all these years, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to work with my son, Zachariah, known by everyone here as “Zach.”
The company that has become Alabama Chanin started in New York City, first in Brooklyn Heights and then at the Hotel Chelsea on 23rd street, in a borrowed apartment that was my first hand-sewing studio. The apartment was three rooms and a tiny kitchen. The front room, looking out over 23rd street, housed my bed, ironing board, and sewing center; the middle room was Zach’s. In those early days, he was enlisted to carry wet fabrics to the laundromat around the corner, keep me company on jaunts to the 26th Street Flea Market, and generally assist where needed.
I guess I should have known that he would eventually come to assist me in my design efforts. In fact, at my graduation from the School of Design at North Carolina State University, they asked Zach to stand, as he had completed most of my college education with me. He stood to a round of applause as the youngest “designer” to graduate from the program. (He is blushing as I write this…)
Each week, as the Factory Café staff puts together our menu, they take into consideration the produce and meats available to them from our local farms and merchants. We have developed long-time relationships with growers like Jack-O-Lantern Farms, who provide us with homegrown, seasonal vegetables—using no pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic nutrients. In recent months, we have also begun working with Bluewater Creek Farm, a family-owned sustainable farm in nearby Killen, Alabama.