23 May / Sweet Home Alabama
The Southern state of Alabama in the United States is as far removed from the healthy ancestral diet of eating fresh, wild foods from the land and the sea, and has held the undesirable title of consistently being one of the top five fattest states in the US. The high-fat, highly processed diet of fried and takeaway fast foods is the likely factor in Alabama’s obesity rate of 32% in 2013. A lifetime of eating fatty foods and sugary drinks takes a toll on the waistline and the integrity of our genes and immunity, with Alabama also having the highest obesity rates amongst school children. But despite the proliferation of cheap and convenient fast food chains in the South, a growing movement to eat healthier is beginning to creep into the diet of Alabamians, and herein lies the lesson for all of Western civilization. What may be too late for the current generation, education and awareness of the link between diet and disease, and a return to eating locally from the land, might just help save a new generation from repeating the dietary mistakes of the past.
Montgomery, Alabama has held great historical significance for the USA, being the capitol of the Confederacy and the location of the First White House and Executive Residence of President Jefferson Davis in the lead up to the US Civil War of 1861-1865. Most significantly in modern history, Montgomery was also the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and a focal point of segregation between white and black. Montgomery is where pastor Martin Luther King was inspired to take up the rights of African Americans, after civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a bus in 1955 segregated between whites and blacks. She was arrested and fined $10, but the chain of events triggered by her arrest, changed the United States forever. Fast forward nearly 60 years since the Rosa Parks incident and 150 years since the Civil War, Montgomery once again finds itself leading a new movement in the 21st century, this time, to revitalize a city’s modern Southern cuisine.
Capturing the techniques and hickory-smoked flavors of slow-roasted BBQ and showcasing seafood from the Gulf Shores, young local chefs are returning to their home state to pioneer the seed-to-table initiative teaching Alabamians to reconnect to the land and the roots of their produce. The seemingly uphill battle to get Southerners to eat healthier cleverly targets the next generation with a simple philosophy of connection. “Give a kid a radish and they may or may not eat it. Teach them how to grow a radish seed, nurture and harvest it, then the radish becomes a product of ownership and pride. I made that!” says Mark Bowen, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the EAT South community farm project.
The Renaissance Hotel’s Executive Chef, John Melton, is just one of the local chefs who has embraced this new way of eating local. His early exposure to the creole and Cajun flavors of New Orleans, combined with the traditions of Southern cuisine has seen him lead the charge in creating signature dishes like his Sweet Tea brined chicken and a decadent breakfast of a Sweet Potato and Duck Confit Eggs Benedict served with a peach infused, legally distilled moonshine called Shine. Home brewed moonshine, hooch or white lightening, is still illegal in the state of Alabama, but the licensing of its first legal distillery since Prohibition brings cultural history to the tables of the gourmet traveler.
Take a walk downtown to a revitalized Montgomery entertainment district and you’ll find upcoming chefs like Leonardo Maurelli III, redefining Southern cuisine at one of the hottest eateries, Central. Although not formally trained in the culinary arts, Executive Chef Leo’s Italian heritage, insatiable palate and his champion of local produce puts him in good standing with some of the country’s top young chefs. From his tender pork jowel cheeks with sweet cornbread and molasses; to his smokey wood roasted rib-eye meatloaf with buttermilk mash and housemade relish; or the blackened catfish with okra stew and Gouda grits – Maurelli has cleverly captured the essence and traditions of Southern Alabama cuisine.
Across town, James Beard Award Nominee chef and owner Wesley True brings an adventurous and farm-inspired cuisine to the tables of Montgomery. Hailing from neighboring Mobile, True honed his culinary skills in New York City before returning to his home state to be a part of the regional Southern cuisine movement. His restaurant, True, sources produce within a 50 mile radius inspiring visually masterful dishes like his Taste of Spring of seafood mousse, poached Gulf shrimp, red pepper ice cream, spring pea dashi broth, finished with Gulf squid ink. Like Maurelli, Chef True has stuck to his roots and incorporated much of his Southern influence into his signature plates. “No modifications please!” stipulates his menu.
The power and respect of the rock star chef has returned to the culinary scene in Montgomery. But this time, it has all the cultural heritage, historical story and health of eating from the land.