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ON THE ROAD WITH THE SFA: Alabama

southern food and cooking

What do barbecue ribs, fruitcake, and Greek-style snapper have in common? They’re all made in Alabama, this month’s feature state. 


 

1. Pigskin and Pork: A Road Trip 

The last three BCS National Championships were won by teams from the Yellowhammer State. Though Auburn is off to a rocky start, Alabama is generally a pretty good place to be come football season. Whether your battle cry is “War Eagle” or “Roll Tide,” the SFA’s Southern Barbecue Trail has you covered for tailgating fare just a pigskin’s throw from the ’Bama and Auburn campuses. 

Archibald’s Bar-B-Q 

1211 MLK Blvd, Northport, Alabama
Distance from Bryant-Denny Stadium: 3.2 miles 
Go-to dish: Ribs 

 southern barbecue alabama southern barbecue alabama

A native of Northport, George Archibald spent years working in a steel mill—his wife, Betty, worked at a paper mill. In 1962 the couple opened Archibald’s Bar-B-Q. George Archibald, Jr. was twelve years old when he started working in the family business. Today, he and his sister, Paulette Washington, run the business their parents started. Not much has changed: The vinegar-based sauce recipe is still a secret, but if you bring your own jar, you can take some to go. Loyal customers drive up even before they open the doors at 10:30 a.m. Whether you take a plate to go or settle into one of the picnic tables outside, you’ll savor some legendary Alabama ’cue. 

Chuck’s Bar-B-Que  

905 Short Avenue, Opelika, Alabama
Distance to Jordan-Hare Stadium: 8.1 miles
Go-to dishes: BBQ Sandwich, “chipped” (shredded) or chopped; Brunswick stew

southern barbecue alabama southern barbecue alabama 

Chuck Ferrell, along with his wife, Bonnie, founded Chuck’s Bar-B-Que in Opelika in 1976. Most weekdays you will find him shrouded in wood smoke, tending a pit filled with pork butts. Chuck’s pate is balding and his neck is creased by wrinkles, but his brown eyes flash. Though his devotion to Christ is so profound that he keeps a stock of personalized religious tracts by the cash register, this is a man who wields a pitchfork for a living. Speaking of that irony, Chuck says, “The devil missed out on one with a lot of practice.”


 

2. Alabama Character: Marie Rudisill

(1911–2006)

Winner of the SFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001

The late Marie Faulk Rudisill achieved a peculiar sort of fame in her last years as “The Fruitcake Lady” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. When she wasn’t critiquing the likes of Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise on their cooking technique, Rudisill dished out hilariously frank guidance as the show’s advice columnist. 

To fans of Southern literature, Rudisill is remembered as the aunt of Truman Capote. Capote spent most of his early childhood living in Monroeville, Alabama, with the extended Faulk clan, which included Marie and her elderly aunt, Sook Faulk. Faulk—specifically, her prolific baking of holiday fruitcakes—was later memorialized in Capote’s autobiographical short story, “A Christmas Memory.” (Audio here, read by Capote.) 

In 1989, Rudisill published Sook’s Cookbook: Memories and Traditional Receipts from the Deep South. It’s one of SFA director John T. Edge’s favorite cookbooks (read his ode to her from our 2006 BOTS issue at the end of this piece), filled with Faulk family recipes and vivid portraits of characters such as Victorio, the Apache bootlegger. The recipe for Sook’s Famous “Christmas Memory” Fruitcake has perhaps the best—and most unsettling—transition between recipe heading and ingredient list in all of culinary literature. 

Everybody knew that Victorio had a wife, but none of us had ever seen her. Truman read somewhere that among Apaches it was customary to disfigure an erring wife by cutting off her nose. We wondered—did Victorio keep his wife hidden because he had amputated her nose in a fit of drunken jealousy? We never found out.
2 1/2 pounds Brazil nuts
2 1/2 pounds white and dark raisins, mixed


3. The Greek Gods of Birmingham 

You can’t talk about food in Alabama without nodding to the essential role of Greek Americans in establishing the Birmingham restaurant scene. From hotdogs to white-tablecloth dining, Greeks in Birmingham have blended their own food traditions with those of the American South for more than a century.  

southern food alabama

Photos by Stacy Craig of the Bright Star Restaurant.

One of the grandest examples of this phenomenon is the Bright Star. Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907, The Bright Star is Alabama’s oldest restaurant. It has been in its current location in the steel town of Bessemer, just outside of Birmingham, since 1915. Bill and Pete Koikos, great nephews of Tom Bonduris, took over the restaurant in the 1920s. Bill’s sons, Jimmy and Nick Koikos, still work the floors and the kitchen, serving an encyclopedic menu that owes debts to both Greece and the American South. The interior of the restaurant is true to its 1915 glory, with hand-painted wall murals, a marble-tiled floor, and private, curtained booths. 

southern food alabama

In a 2004 interview, Jimmy Koikos told SFA oral historian Amy Evans that the restaurant was a symbol of opportunity for the Greek-American community. “Mr. Bonduris wasn’t educated, but he was very smart and a good businessman. He said, ‘This restaurant is a Bright Star’—with a vision of nothing but a land of opportunity. We’ve had the same neon sign there since 1941.”

 


 

Odes to My Favorite Things

Heralding some of the most colorful foodies in the South. 

by John T Edge 

Oldest Living Cookbook Author Tells All

YOU MAY KNOW MARIE RUDISILL as the Fruitcake Lady from the Tonight Show. She first appeared onstage with Jay Leno in December of 2000, teaching Mel Gibson to cook. Marie, who had just written a book, Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook, was sassy. She was bawdy. She did and said things that only a nonagenarian can get away with. In 2001, she returned to Burbank to stuff a turkey with Hugh Grant. While the cameras rolled, she cupped Grant’s rear and, judging its curvature, called it—if my memory serves—“a nice little biscuit.” 

Since 2002, the native of Monroeville, Alabama, has served as the show’s advice columnist. In a recurring segment, “Ask the Fruitcake Lady,” Marie—dressed in a severe black suit, her gray hair pinned in a bun, her talon-like fingernails lacquered red—addresses matters of fidelity, grooming, and bathroom etiquette. She is combative. She does not suffer fools. She uses decidedly unladylike expressions like pecker and lazy son-of-a-bitch.

Her performance is camp. But her outré Southern pedigree comes honestly. Marie is the sister of Truman Capote’s late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk Persons Capote, who committed suicide in 1954. Capote called Marie “Aunt Tiny.” She helped raise him. And like her nephew, who was a Johnny Carson–era Tonight Show favorite, she now employs cathode rays to her advantage. But, as was the case with Capote, Marie will not, upon her passing, be remembered by the demi-monde for the flame and spittle and slur captured in television appearances. Nor will she be remembered for the fruitcake book.

Marie Rudisill will be remembered as the author of a slim 1989 volume, Sook’s Cookbook: Memories and Traditional Recipes from the Deep South. Using plantation daybooks from the early 1800s as her primary sources, weaving in character studies of friends and neighbors and relatives from Monroeville, she wrote one of the best cookbooks to hit Southern shelves. It’s a portrait of place. It’s a portrait of people. It’s full of recipes for green olive jambalaya and watermelon rind preserves and poinsettia cake. Sadly, it’s now out of print. 

I love that book, but my recollections of Marie will be more personal. After I helped her with a book-deal negotiation, Marie phoned. She was, at the time, eighty-nine. And she was effusive in her thanks. “I’ll do anything for you,” Marie said, her tone raspy, her timbre bright. After a three-beat pause, she added, “Except sex.” A hail of cackles followed. And soon after, a dial tone.

Read the full article in Best of the South 2006

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