Going Deeper With Red Dog

By  |  February 26, 2015
Photograph by Ben Couvillion Photograph by Ben Couvillion

Watching Goren Avery work the Highlands Bar & Grill dining room is a pleasure tantamount to savoring a couple of chef Frank Stitt’s farro-stuffed and port-glazed quail. Four nights a week, Avery glides through this burgher temple like a camera grip rolling through a movie set on a well-greased dolly. Beneath the spangling lights here in Birmingham, he bobs and weaves and runs and rips over polished oak floors, between linen-draped tables, alongside French brasserie broadsides.

Avery, who has the look and charm and drive of a less combative James Carville and brings a swivel-necked acuity to his profession, knows how to read this room. Thirty-plus years into a tenure that his colleagues hope will carry past the fifty-year mark, Avery arches back from two-tops more interested in canoodling than ordering, and, like a dunking bird aiming for a glass of water, plunges into martini-thirsty foursomes, suggesting appetizers of beef carpaccio to complement their brimming gin coupes.

Grasping a starched napkin in his left hand and twirling a pair of mod eyeglasses in his right, Avery wheedles and cajoles regulars who know what they want to order before they sit down. He joshes and spurs culinary tourists who, confronted with braised pheasant perfumed with marjoram, can’t pull the trigger on the venison loin swaddled in sorghum gastrique. With a surety that matches the mien of owners Pardis and Frank Stitt, Avery shepherds the flocks who seek purchase nightly in this reliquary of a restaurant, the most vaunted in the South. This place and, by extension, this city, are his domain.

 

Late last year, during a symposium that examined inclusion and exclusion at the contemporary table, the Southern Foodways Alliance honored Avery with the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, given annually to an unsung hero or heroine of the food world, a tradition-bearer whose work and life bear witness to the better impulses of the Southern experience. To mark the occasion, we produced a film, Red Dog, directed by my colleague Joe York. A frame-by-frame study of Avery at the height of his powers, Red Dog is a natural complement to the food section of this issue, which, for the most part, was born of speaking assignments for SFA symposia.

Lolis Elie’s recollection of the late Rudy Lombard, who drove the desegregation of New Orleans restaurants and co-edited a book that profiled that city’s old-guard black chefs, is the lone exception to that genesis. But read that piece and you recognize that Elie and Lombard are fellow travelers who have long focused their attentions on those same welcome table issues. The paths we Southerners take to revisiting our past are sometimes circuitous. Writing about Lance Hill, also of New Orleans—who documented the radical 1960s work of the Deacons for Defense and rallied Louisiana voters in the early 1990s to defeat onetime Klansman David Duke—Sara Roahen spells out the possibilities of Hill’s newest project, a celebration of the mirliton, a squash that Hill believes is one means to seeding and feeding community.

Red Dog received a standing ovation at the 2014 SFA symposium. The film has also been well received in Birmingham. Over the course of an afternoon and evening spent in Avery’s orbit, I watch and listen as men and women stop him on the street and genuflect. Some read an article about the award in the local newspaper. Others watched the film on our website. All beam with pride. So does Avery. “If this keeps up I’m going to have to start wearing dashikis and sunglasses to keep from getting noticed,” he tells me after a particularly effusive Mountain Brook doyenne hugs his neck and busses his cheek.

Avery is a service professional who regards his work as a lifelong vocation, not a way station. That’s admirable. He’s a loyalist, who walked through the door in November of 1982 and has remained in service at Highlands, despite insistent offers from other employers. In an industry rife with turnover, that’s laudable. What I see, however, and what I think that Mountain Brook doyenne may have glimpsed, is a kind of redemption, a moment of earned equity that Avery broadcasts to those he serves. That’s the true gift of his career. To his patrons and his peers. To himself, his progeny, and his city.

Black male waiters have long played dramatic roles in this pageant we call the South. Until recently, those roles have demanded varying degrees of subservience. Commerce and convention have served black men who style themselves garrulous jesters or faithful retainers. Today, restaurants remain sites of commerce where democracy is promised but not fulfilled. That’s one of the points that Todd Kliman makes in his meditation on race in contemporary Washington, D.C., dining rooms.

In D.C., and throughout the South, jester waiters once were omnipresent. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson of Richmond famously spilled oyster soup on a patron at the luxe Jefferson Hotel in the early twentieth century and more famously won a pardon and a theater career by dancing a soft-shoe apology that doubled as an audition. Flossie Mae Raeford, who hopped running boards in the 1950s to earn tips at Atlanta’s Varsity Drive-In, wore wildly festooned hats, including one he made from pill bottles, salt shakers, plastic forks, medicated breathers, and heart-shaped lollipops, fixed to a vegetable colander and secured to his head with a necktie.

In the deeper South, the faithful retainer was, until too recently, a model. Lindsay Gaines, headwaiter at the Mountain Brook Club, set the 1960s Birmingham standard. Diane McWhorter wrote about him in Carry Me Home, a reportorial meditation on her hometown and its role in the civil rights revolution: “Gaines, whom the gentry had taught the ‘value of discretion’ had never let on what became of some of the bills pressed into his palm after he flambéed the baked Alaska tableside, lowering the lights so that his white gloves and shirt stood out against the fire: The tips would be donated to the cause of Martin Luther King.” Even then, some waiters defined their own terms of engagement.

This past fall, during the symposium where Red Dog was first screened, the SFA also premiered an original oratorio, Repast, written by Kevin Young. His poem from that work, “Pining, a definition,” appears in this issue. Repast tells the tragic and true story of Booker Wright, owner of Booker’s Place nightclub and waiter at the famed restaurant Lusco’s, who spoke truths about the pains of segregation in 1960s Mississippi and lived big and died too soon in the cotton town of Greenwood.

In what seemed to the Delta gentry a reciprocal relationship, Wright sing-songed the menu and slung platters of pompano for tips until he revealed, during a 1966 NBC documentary, that he was not happy bucking and scraping for buckra dollars. “The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” he said, his voice crackling with emotion, his words revealing the duplicity required to live separate but supposedly equal lives. Blacks in the Delta were emboldened. Whites were forced to acknowledge that their interracial relationships were on tenterhooks. That two-and-a-half-minute monologue—which, if you’re curious, you may stream on the Web—laid bare the inequities of the day and the affects of subservience.

Southern inequities have historically been starker. Race is a measure, along with gender and ethnicity. Exclusion based on food choice has long leveraged class distinctions, especially among those in the mountain South. Also in this issue, Chris Offutt, a proud son of Kentucky, reminds us that, when humans discriminate, wealth and the perception of worth are always factors.


Red Dog plays like a New South sequel to Wright’s monologue. Progress has been made. Change has come. Yet recent racially inflamed events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere make clear why Avery’s life and work shine brightest when projected opposite the lives of black waiters of previous generations like Wright and Gaines and Robinson and Raeford.

I’m not suggesting that Avery requires that historical backdrop. Not by any measure. Nor am I suggesting that Avery plays to a black-white binary. His strength of character and force of personality subvert prevailing expectations about race and how it’s lived in the South. What I am suggesting is that, if you’re white and middle class like me, or you’re black and of any class and aware of the South’s peculiar history, you can’t help but glance over Goren Avery’s shoulder into our shared past.

 

Lunch with Goren Avery is comparable to dinner served by Goren Avery. At every turn, he exerts control like a munificent dictator. Soon after we take a seat at Bottega Café, a casual Stitt-owned Italian restaurant up the hill from Highlands, his eyes lock on mine. Not long after we finish a pleasantly charred lozenge of pork belly, he firmly squeezes my bicep. Physically and emotionally, Avery commands the social moment.

I’ve known Avery for nearly twenty years. We’ve eaten lunches of Chinese dim sum and French choucroute in New York City. We’ve shared a bar perch often enough for me to know that his drink of choice may look like a negroni, but, owing to a fight with pancreatitis that steered him away from booze, is actually cranberry juice on the rocks. No matter. This is just the second time we’ve actually had a substantive discussion.

The first came when Joe York and I scouted Red Dog. At dinner that evening, I learned that back when Alabama football games were staged at Legion Field, Avery’s father cooked barbecue on a barrel pit in their Smithfield yard and sold two-bone stacks of butter-and-beer-sauce-drenched ribs and white bread to fans. By the time he was thirteen, Avery worked alongside his father, dodging cars in game-day traffic to hustle sandwiches and rent side-yard parking spots. After he returned home from Berkeley, California, and his 1970s stint at Chez Panisse, before he opened Highlands in 1982, Stitt was one of their customers. Thirty-plus years later, Stitt and Avery are the last of the opening team to regularly walk the Highlands floor.

On this trip, Avery and I go deeper, beyond résumés, to the bottoms of Smithfield, where the men labored as pipe fitters, the women worked as domestics, the neighborhood ditches brimmed with sewage, and Avery (whose light and ruddy complexion and randy ways would later earn him the nickname Red Dog) learned to fight off Smithfield kids who called him “white boy” and tried to steal his lunch bucket.

Goren Avery found his métier as a teen, working in the fine dining rooms of Birmingham, first at the Relay House, a downtown businessman’s club, later at Hugo’s, the white-tablecloth restaurant in the Hyatt Regency. (Stitt worked in that same hotel.) “People didn’t know shit back then,” Avery tells me, his face screwed into a playful scowl. “They didn’t know how to act, they didn’t know how to tip.” They didn’t know what to make of Highlands, he says. “Fine dining was all about flounder with beurre blanc. And filets wrapped in bacon, held together with toothpicks. When Highlands opened in 1982, we had a line out the door on the first day for shrimp and grits with meunière and cherry tomatoes. For smoked trout with cappellini.”

Thirty-three years into Avery’s tenure, most diners comport themselves in a manner he appreciates. Though he still sorts his tips in shoeboxes, those tips are generously remunerative. He’s too modest to reveal his effective salary. But Avery is proud enough of his work to tell me that, on the night before we sat down to lunch, he took in an average 34 percent on each tab. In an industry where 19.5 percent is the norm, the numbers he puts on the board are keen measures of excellence and endurance.

Avery reminds me that his success is rooted in a past that’s not too long gone. “They knew what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to tell”: That’s how he recalls men like George Pearson and Irving Goldsmith, who schooled him at the Relay House, who taught him how to carve roasts and flambé desserts table side, who showed him how to serve without kowtowing. “They polished me,” Avery tells me, his eyes glistening. “They got me ready for all of this.”

 

Much has changed in Birmingham during Goren Avery’s career. The city elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington, in 1979. (Current mayor William Bell, also African-American, regularly commands a corner table at Highlands and cuts up with Avery.) In 1992, the city opened the nation’s first major civil rights museum.

When Highlands opened in 1982, the debut of a restaurant didn’t seem comparatively noteworthy. But for a city pursuing an identity other than Bombingham, the slander it earned during the civil rights movement, the rise of Birmingham as a New South dining citadel has been a fiscal and image boon.

Highlands, under the stewardship of Stitt and Avery, drove that rise. Over the last decade Frank Stitt has gotten his due. So have veterans of his kitchens like Chris Hastings, chef-owner of nearby Hot and Hot Fish Club, and Drew Robinson, the chef behind rapidly expanding Birmingham-based Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que. Like the other men and women who get their due in this issue, Goren Avery has helped curate a more welcoming and inclusive South. Now it’s his time to step into the bright and flattering light of the kliegs. Now is our time to take a seat at the welcome table he sets.


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John T. Edge has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. His book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, which Jack Hitt calls “the smartest history of race in America in a generation,” was published in May.