BRENT ROSEN is a raconteur and pontoon boat captain on Lake Martin Alabama. He is interested in Southern food and Southern culture. He blogs at southxmidwest.com and is on twitter at @brentlrosen.
The air was thick with lamb and twang, cigarette smoke mingled with fog, light from a passing pick-up cut a harsh beam through the incandescense spilling out from doors and windows. Late as usual, dozens mingling already, beer and wine in hand, standing in circles or sitting on the seats and arms of broken old wicker furniture. The Yellow Hammer was no longer open for business, but the Waverly, Alabama restaurant was packed. The evening marked the official kick-off party for the Old 280 (Waverly) Boogie.
The Boogie celebrates tranquility. At one time, State Highway 280 bisected the city of Waverly, a noisy mess of a road connecting Auburn to Birmingham with Lake Martin in between. When the highway department re-routed the road, residents celebrated with a street festival, all 200 or so of them boogeying in the now empty streets. The festival has since become an annual institution: music, food and arts, with Standard Deluxe, Waverly’s tent-pole resident, providing the inspiration and the advertising.
The Friday party gave guests an excuse to get a head-start on the festivities. Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse cooked an entire lamb sourced from Randall Farms outside of Auburn, and our hosts for the evening, the Sims family – Waverly residents and Wickles Pickles owners, provided jars of every variety of their pickled delights for sampling. The Back 40 Beer Company played an equally important role, providing refreshment and liquid dance-floor courage.
Despite its rural location, the Yellowhammer demonstrates the best in urban renewal. The Yellowhammer’s transformation from restaurant to event-space was another in a long line of re-purposings. Originally, the building hosted one of the earliest car dealerships in the state of Alabama. The Yellowhammer wears this ancestry with retractable garage doors, multiple ramps and vaulted ceilings. Since the dealership moved, the building has been a number of things, most recently a nearly secret destination for fine dining. Over the years, the building earned its weathered, sun faded, cracked patina from years of exposure to Alabama’s unpredictable and extreme climate. The spot is classic, beautiful, a relic that feels current.
That night at the Yellowhammer attendees spanned generations, grandparents, parents and children – eating, drinking, dancing – celebrating together. Sitting in what once served as the main dining room, munching on lamb and butter beans covered in Wickles hot pepper relish, listening to a duo banging out Americana music with an abbreviated drum set and guitar, one realizes the cultural ascendency of Alabama. Pop-up restaurants, local food, folk-infused indie rock, weathered, timeworn buildings: these form the fabric of Alabama, enjoyed without self-importance or an ironic filter.
This is the Alabama emulated across the country, a place where community is valued. This is the Alabama of the Front Porch Revival, but don’t worry. They are willing to share.
In May of 2011, three separate tornado systems crossed the state of Alabama, bringing destruction throughout the State. The Tuscaloosa tornado received the heaviest coverage, especially because of Alabama’s National Championship football team, but communities across the state suffered deeply. Chef Leo Maurelli, then at the Hotel at Auburn University, wanted to help. Chef Leo reached out to his entire network – chefs, brewers, cheesemakers, farmers, producers – to put on an event called Chefs to the Rescue. There were 24 chefs, breweries and wineries that participated, and 100% of the funds raised were donated to the tornado relief effort.
At the close of the event, Chef Leo and the participants looked around and realized an incredible team was assembled. The chefs, the breweries, the winemakers, all came together under one banner, while still representing their own restaurants and businesses. This gave Chef Leo an idea: what if the membership didn’t treat the tornado relief event as a one-off? What if there was a supportive group of like minded chefs, brewers, and producers who could support each other’s initiatives, spread the word about each other’s projects, come together for more events in the future, and overall promote Alabama food and culture?
Chef Leo took his idea to Tasia Malakasis of Fromagerie Belle Chevre and to the Back Forty Beer Co for feedback. The initial concept was to continue their mutually beneficial support, as Chef Leo used Belle Chevre cheeses in his dishes and featured Back Forty beer at beer dinners, but with an eye to further promoting each other with special events. Soon Chef Leo contacted more friends, and eventually Chef Rob McDaniel, Chef David Bancroft, Chef Graham Hage, and the Sims’s from Wickles Pickles joined the effort. During their initial meeting at SpringHouse the group came up with a name: The Front Porch Revival.
The SpringHouse dinner, and the discussion, the drinks and the dreams exchanged, made it evident that the idea behind the Front Porch Revival belonged to none of the members individually. The Front Porch Revival, while made up of unique individuals and businesses, shared a unity of purpose. The members decided to pool their resources and networks, allowing them to promote talented artisans to a wider audience. Their collective strength would be used to highlight Alabama’s food and culture innovators.
When people, both inside and outside of Alabama, think of Alabama food, two names come to mind: Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt. They are the godfathers, originators of Alabama’s food scene. The Front Porch Revival is about what’s next.
The inaugural event in Gadsden, Alabama demonstrated the value of the Front Porch Revival’s combined network. Gadsden is a medium sized city (by Alabama standards) of about 37,000 in North Alabama. The Back Forty Beer Co. calls Gadsden home, headquartered downtown in an old warehouse fitted with modern brewing equipment. On March 31, 2012, Back Forty turned its building into a carnival of beer, food and music. FPR’s chefs cooked whole hogs, boiled crawfish, inserted fresh Alabama corn into classic Mexican dishes, provided samples of artisanal goat cheese and garnished many of the dishes with selections from Wickles Pickles. None of the members knew what to expect when the festival was announced, and early in the day there was anxiety about the turnout.
There was no reason to worry. The event opened at 1:00 p.m., and all of the 500 or so tickets were gone by 2:30. The brewery was packed, lines forming at each of the food stalls where the chefs explained that almost all of the ingredients for the dishes were grown or raised sustainably in Alabama. When the rain came, as it often does in March, everyone piled inside the taproom and rode out the storm drinking more of Back Forty’s beers in pint glasses, stickers proclaiming the beer “liquid folk art” littering the room. The event successfully showcased the members while also providing a helluva party for the people in Gadsden.
The Front Porch Revival brought the spirit of the Gadsden event to Montgomery a few months later for the Alabama All-Star Food Festival. The Food Festival invited chefs and restaurants from around the state to participate, with each participant preparing a small dish for the festival-goers to sample. In all, around 30 chefs and restaurants participated, serving everything from shrimp and grits to ice cream. The participants submitted the ideas for their dishes in advance, allowing the festival organizers to pair the participants with local farmers and producers who provided ingredients for the dishes. Many of the farmers and producers attended the festival, amazed that people were actually interested to hear about their farms and ranches. It was a great way to connect festival-goers with the people who really produce their food.
The All-Star event featured many of the members of the Front Porch Revival. Chef Leo and Chef Hage, of Zazu in Auburn, manned the Front Porch Revival stall, serving a dish of andouille sausage and cole slaw with a corn muffin. Meanwhile, Chef McDaniel and Chef Wesley True, of True and Midtown Kitchen in Mobile, hosted a cooking demonstration where they prepared dishes made entirely of Alabama ingredients. Back Forty was on hand, providing samples of Naked Pig, Kudzu, Truck Stop Honey Brown and Frecklebelly to the thirsty masses.
The event successfully raised money for the Hampstead Institute, The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, and the Montgomery Area Food Bank. The event also successfully showcased the talents of the Front Porch Revival. The Montgomery Advertiser ran an article about the best eight bites at the event, and, of the eight, the Front Porch Revival was involved with three: Chef McDaniel made a salad with poached Alabama shrimp and vinaigrette dressing, Chef True prepared a desert of roasted tomatoes and strawberries with zucchini cake and balsamic ice cream, and Belle Chevre was also recognized, as a mousse made out of their goat cheese topped a Beet and Lavender Gazpacho prepared by the chefs from Montgomery’s Roux restaurant. Building on the momentum of the All-Star food festival, The Front Porch Revival will be back in Montgomery hosting its own event in late summer.
If the windows are the eyes of the house, and the kitchen is the heart, then the front porch is the house’s Internet connection. The front porch does everything that facebook does: you can connect with friends, exchanges news, publicize events, traffic in memes; but without being filtered through a keyboard and a screen. The front porch offers access to reality, and nothing about sitting in a rocking chair and visiting with your neighbors is virtual. Yet today, even in the South, many people spend most of their outdoors time on their back porches, if they even go outside at all. The back porch provides access only to invited guests, an area closed off to the wider world.
The Front Porch Revival’s name doubles as its mission. Too many food artisans and producers end up in their own little worlds – their back porches – apart from each other, focused on their own businesses, brands and identities. The Front Porch Revival brings the people back out front, making beneficial collaboration possible while allowing the neighbors to see all of the incredible things going on in Alabama’s food and cultural scene. The Front Porch Revival focuses on the future, a future where like-minded people working together can showcase their talents, seek out other talented people to promote, and emphasize the pleasures of eating, drinking, and living in Alabama. A new generation of Alabama chefs, artisans and producers is coming. If you don’t already know who they are, the Front Porch Revival will make certain that one day soon, you will.