Most summers my family would criss-cross the country on extended road trips but we never spent much time in the South. Perhaps it was the humidity and a station wagon full of sweaty kids that propelled us quickly through the region. I’m left remembering hot nights and I think a serving of biscuits and gravy impressed me but otherwise I’m blank on Southern cuisine, especially in Northern Alabama.
So it was a pleasure recently to join a group of fellow travel writers in Huntsville for the NATJA conference. Huntsville, fondly known as Rocket City, is home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which keeps the place on the map but any visitor will tell you, the food keeps them coming back.
For several days wandering the area I dove into Southern menus and while my waistline suffered, my taste buds soared. At home I have a pretty stereotypical Southern California diet – loads of fruit, vegetables, few grains, a bit of red meat and lots of fish. Alabama was a 360 degree turn from that.
Granted I was with a group of guest travelers, so regional dishes were featured and I did meet one slender, local professional who made a point of ordering her chicken grilled with a side salad of lettuce, but she was an exception.
Here’s some highlights from my week long foray and all these establishments are within an hour or two drive from Huntsville:
The spacious new building that the Carlisle’s calls home has recently been awarded the Official Dish of the Year Alabama Food Regional Winner. You can download the winning recipe for Tomato Pie here.
We met Greta and Bob Carlile who took over the truck stop Grandpa started in 1946. He once cautioned Bob “If you put smoke flavor in your sauce, you didn’t cook the meat right.” No smoke sauce today and the variations on BBQ dipping, dressings and desserts made my tummy very, very happy.
Later that evening we rolled into a restaurant snuggled next to the forest and braced above the Miracle Pottery Shop. Another feast ensued but this was full of local, organic ingredients.
J. Spencer’s Restaurant
A pair of local musicians played while I dipped into a generous appetizer, Shrimp and Grits. It was comfortingly cheesy and the tasty shrimp were grilled just this side of medium. The Caprese was disappointing – a few skewers of small sliced tomatoes, topped with one leaf of basil and a cheese I couldn’t identify but knew it was only distantly related to mozzarella – The one misfire of the night. Wanting to spare myself no treats I ordered Peanut Butter Pie, then shared it while sampling a dark, German Chocolate Cake and sticky sweet Caramel Cake. The sweetest part of the evening wasn’t on the menu as we headed downstairs to peruse the Miracle Pottery Shop. Valinda Miracle is the inspiration behind the restaurant and the shop. She’s up early 6 days a week and at the pottery wheel the better to fill orders that come in from around the world.
We slept that night on top of Lookout Mountain at the Mentone Inn. Filled with vintage memorablilia our rooms were comfortable and quiet. Morning found me downstairs just as the coffee pot filled. I wasn’t prepared for what followed – a huge brunch of Southern goodness. The dishes included apple turnovers, smoked bacon, eggs Florentine, grits and biscuits, hash brown casserole and tomato pie. Determined to taste everything I finally pushed away from the table desperate to get out into the morning air and walk a bit before getting back on the road.
Mountain Parkway Grill
The Mountain Parkway Grill is filled with colonial antiques and hardwood furniture. We sat in a large side room and could select from the salad bar as part of our meal. Soon platefuls of corn tots, onion rings, cheese sticks and mushrooms covered the table, each dipped in a thin, tasty batter. Lunch could’ve stopped right there but the BBQ Stew called my name and I was glad to answer. We shared home made Coconut Cake and spoonfuls of Banana Pudding before heading out for the afternoon’s activities.
As the day drew to an end we pulled over to take pictures of cotton fields and then drove another mile to an intersection. The low lying, Greenbrier Restaurant was the only building in the midst of soy bean and cotton fields. It felt like half the county was there for Sunday dinner but I was told the football game kept most of the crowd at home.
Founded in 1952, barrels of catfish from the nearby river once stood near the front door. They were selected, skinned and served fresh. Today WW2 toxins from nearby bases make river fish inedible but delta catfish farms keep the restaurant supplied.
Soon bottomless baskets of fried pickles, hush puppies and sweet potato fries were plopped onto our tables. As it was a dry county, sweet tea filled huge glasses and plates of catfish, chicken and BBQ followed. It was a feast, our last of the trip and took me hours to tame.
That’s just a smattering of local northern Alabama eating establishments within an hours drive from Huntsville. It’s an adventure in Southern cuisine I look forward to continuing one day.
Interested in preserving your weight and getting home from the South in the same dress size?
Consider these diet tips:
- Have dinner at lunch – You’ll find great selections at local eateries and stretch your travel budget. Also having a filling lunch gives your digestion hours to work before bedtime, when a full tummy can lead to a restless night.
- Explore the menu and try everything on your plate. At least a few bites of each item won’t disturb your metabolism as much as piling it in.
- Portion the plate but cutting items in half and ask for a to-go container when your meal first comes. This is a great trick if you’re traveling solo or as a couple. Portions were overly-generous on my trip and if that’s any indication of local trends then taking part of your meal with you to enjoy later is a great idea. It’s easier to keep from over-eating when you cut portions in half at the beginning of the meal and pack it up before you dig in.
- Share. Share. Share. I was lucky enough to be at a table with at least 6 others and we’d always request extra small plates to be able to share our meals. It worked beautifully. I’d never have discovered that Caramel Cake or Double Doobie Cookies on my own.
- Swilling big cups of sweet tea can be enough to put the uninitiated into diabetic shock. Make sure you have lots of ice or ask for half and half mixing sweet and unsweetened tea. Make sure your tea isn’t sweetened before adding sugar ( I ruined a most anticipated big gulp-sized cup.)
- Ask for dry cole slaw. Really. You may just love mayonnaise but it can be overpowering when you’re also diving into a plateful of fried chicken. Dryer cole slaw, with less dressing, helps you get roughage and avoid a few extra oily calories.
- Order a dessert or two for the table and have a few bites. Don’t deny yourself!
- Some counties are ‘Dry.’ If you’re going out for dinner and anticipate a nice glass of Merlot with your meal avoid disappointment by asking whether alcohol is available before you go and bring your own if it’s an issue.
- Drink lots of water during the day. It’s filling and will help your digestion. It’s not recommended to drink large amounts of water, or any liquid, with your meal as it dilutes digestive juices. Or so I’ve been told by Ayurvedic Physicians…