You can’t live in Alabama for long without trying most of these, but some will take effort:
1. Know barbeque. This is a lifelong pursuit, but start ‘em young and they will be able to speak with authority in Texas, North Carolina, or Memphis and declare whether the Q is worthy of an Alabamian’s palate. At minimum, the Alabama native should have tasted barbeque from:
- Dreamland – in particular, the ribs
- Full Moon – for dessert, chocolate dipped cookies for the kids (three layer carrot cake for mom)
- Jim N Nick’s
- Bob Gibson (Decatur) – white sauce is a must
- Greenbrier (Madison)
- The Shed (Mobile)
2. Celebrate the meat and three. Just about every town has a steam table that slops up the best fried okra, butter beans, and ubiquitous cheese-topped casserole. Of course your kids should know fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, biscuits and cornbread. (Everybody wants to blame our lard for the diabetes epidemic, but I bring your attention to the honey buns, cheese curls and sodas that are dispensed from vending machines).
3. Speaking of fried: Every Alabama kid must have tried fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and fried pies. For heaven’s sake, we’re not suggesting a steady diet of these things, we’re just saying they are what makes you a blood-brother with your southern cooking heritage. These can’t come from Cracker Barrel, either (nothing against the CB). They should come from a greasy spoon, hole in the wall, or grandma’s stove.
4. Dine in a “white tablecloth” restaurant. It’s taken a few James Beard awards and Iron Chef victories, but Alabama is finally getting recognition for its inventive chefs. There are all sorts of wonderful restaurants in the state, and Southern Living has done its best to keep us informed. The kids should be old enough to appreciate the effort, flavor, ambiance, and cost of such a meal (wait, will they reach that point before they have a home mortgage?), but don’t let them get through high school without having experienced fine dining.
In Birmingham, good choices include:
- Highlands – the wait staff are top notch and your kids could learn from their respectful, courteous demeanor. Let the kids know that good manners and service pays off, because we’ll be tipping 18 – 20% of the bill.
- Hot and Hot Fish Club – tiny dining area and a wait, even with reservations, but worth it
- Bottega – bonus: with high ceilings and stone surfaces, this place is so loud that you can’t create create much of a stir. Dine outside next to the fountain if you want to be sure any noise is disguised.
5. Attend a fish fry. There are volunteer fire departments that have been having regular fish fry fundraisers for over 20 years. (Check out Underwood-Petersville in North Alabama.) Is the primary purpose of these volunteers to fight fires or fry fish? Who cares! Just don’t cause a careless fire and distract them from their higher purpose. (A catfish plate at Cypress Inn is an alternative, although you completely miss the firefighter aspect.)
6. Have homemade peach ice cream, preferably at Peach Park in Clanton. Nobody can get down I65 without spotting the giant peach water tower, and that’s your signal to prepare for ice cream. The bushel baskets full of peaches, the whir of ceiling fans, even the occasional fly, is the authentic summer experience.
7a. Eat Royal Reds on the Gulf. Once a kid has developed a certain amount of manual dexterity, it’s time for her to put away the popcorn shrimp and move on to peel ‘n eat. Order Royal Reds by the pound at a steamer (every Alabama beach has them) and head outdoors to devour them. The shells are easy to remove and the shrimp is perfectly flavorful, not too hot, and needs very little in the way of accompaniment. (For the uninitiated, the heads are gone, so “ewww” will not be tolerated.)
7b. BONUS Know how to make your own cocktail sauce. Consider this a clever party trick to impress anyone not blessed to live within a day’s drive to the Gulf. All you will ever need is ketchup, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce. Any kid likes to experiment with ketchup, and there is absolutely no harm that can come from getting this wrong.
8. Have a meal in one of the “local” chains: Milo’s for a hamburger with the special sauce and the extra dab of meat that makes no sense. Guthrie’s for the original chicken fingers and sauce. Jack’s for a biscuit, especially if you are in a small town and can join the elder statesmen who gather there for breakfast.
9. Eat peanuts – both fresh roasted and boiled. Kids, there was an economic crisis in Alabama even before Mercedes came here to help revive us. The soil was exhausted and the crop yield was weak. Enter George Washington Carver to show us the benefits of crop rotation and the wonders of the peanut.
You have to try fresh roasted peanuts at the Peanut Depot (Morris Avenue) or the Nuthouse in Mobile, an experience that shames popping a tin of nuts from the grocery. As for the boiled variety, you can’t go down a road in south Alabama without coming across a gas station or produce stand selling boiled P-nuts. You’ll be amazed by how the same peanut can taste so different depending on the preparation.
10. Sip sweet tea. Tea is the universal, centuries-old beverage, but it took the southern heat to inspire sweetened tea over ice. Sweet tea is a primary indicator for when you’ve strayed too far from home, geographically speaking. When the restaurant doesn’t serve sweet tea, you’ve gotten lost.
Any good restaurant should serve fresh-brewed tea. Barbeque joints and meat & threes are reliable sources of strong sweet tea.