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On the Road

A Sampling of Alabama’s Finest Soul Food

From fried chicken at Red's Little Schoolhouse to smothered chicken at Mrs. B's Home Cooking, we ate our way through the heart of the American South.

By Steve Klise | March 18, 2018

Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I visited Alabama in the name of recipe research to learn firsthand about several of the state’s soul food staples. Here are some photographs and tales from our travels.



You can recreate some of the dishes we tasted on the road in Alabama with our recipes for Chicken and Pastry, Southern-Style Smothered Chicken, and Southern-Style Smothered Pork Chops.


 

“Let me guess,” I heard from over my shoulder. “You all aren’t from this part of the country.”

I looked up from my lunch to meet the gaze of an older, bearded man who, moments before, had been seated a few tables over, but clearly had a point to make.

“Good guess,” I responded.

“Know how I know?” he asked, leaning in closer, one hand on the back of my chair for support.

I could only shrug. “How?”

“Because you’re over here eating fried chicken with a knife and fork!” he laughed as he clapped me on the back, straightening up and grinning widely. “You can’t eat fried chicken with a knife and fork! You’ve gotta get your hands in there!”

red's little schoolhouse alabama
Red's Little Schoolhouse, our introduction to Alabama soul food
Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the soul food tradition of Montgomery. . . and after getting up before dawn for a 6:30 am flight out of Boston, we were hungry in just about every sense of the word.

First Stop: Red's Little Schoolhouse

He was correct on all counts. Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I were a long way from home—1,093 miles from the test kitchen, to be exact—and sitting down for lunch in the dining room at Red’s Little Schoolhouse, an educational institution-turned-country restaurant in Grady, Alabama, just down the road from Montgomery. (Also, he was totally right about the chicken: ordinarily, I’d get in there elbows-deep, but getting hot grease all over a camera is a photographer’s worst nightmare.)

We’d arrived in the South just an hour prior, after landing in Atlanta and bombing down Interstate 85 with the radio set somewhere between Bocephus and Black Sabbath, and in typical Cook’s Country on-the-road fashion, we were looking to hit the ground running. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the soul food tradition of Montgomery by eating as many lunches as possible, and after getting up before dawn for a 6:30 am flight out of Boston, we were hungry in just about every sense of the word.

Our contact on the ground was Joey Brackner, director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture and host of Journey Proud, an Alabama Public Television documentary series about the people and culture of the state. Brackner and his wife Eileen Knott agreed to meet up with us, and from there we’d follow their car around the greater Montgomery area sampling the best of the city’s soul food offerings.

Joey Brackner, proud Alabamian, talks soul food with executive food editor Bryan Roof.

Although it’s about fifteen minutes from Montgomery proper—or as Brackner put it, “out in the country”—we made a point to start at Red’s Little Schoolhouse. While the name may ring a bit cutesy to the more cynical diner, the building currently occupied by the restaurant was at one time a real one-room country schoolhouse perched atop a hill by the side of State Route 94—complete with chalkboards and framed portraits of presidents lining the tops of the walls. Sometime between Eisenhower and Kennedy, the schoolhouse shut down, and the structure sat empty for years before re-opening as a buffet-style restaurant in 1985.

Red's sparse decor is an homage to its historic beginnings.

While much of the building’s original decor remains true to its history, the floor plan has been altered to fit its current usage. What was once the schoolyard has been taken up by two new dining rooms adjacent to the original foundation, and the space once occupied by rows of desks is now taken up by a long buffet line packed with Southern favorites broken down into distinct sections: fried, gravy-based, vegetable-based, and sauce.

The no-frills buffet line at Red's, packed with Southern favorites.

I never thought I’d be this excited to go back to school. I dropped my camera gear off at our table, and proceeded to load up my schedule with a full course load of comfort food goodness, with a tall glass of iced tea as an extra-curricular.

A loaded plate of Red's daily offerings

As far as first meals of the day go, a breakfast consisting of (clockwise from top) fried chicken, fried chicken livers, pulled pork, pork and beans, fried okra, fried cornbread, and so-called “chicken and pastry” isn’t a half-bad way to start things off. While most of the dishes represented on their buffet were old favorites, the chicken and pastry and the fried cornbread were particular standouts. While comparable to chicken and dumplings, the pastry component of chicken and pastry fell outside the standard dichotomy of drop biscuits versus slicks: slippery yet soft and yielding, these flats of pastry stacked nicely atop each other, separated by a sheen of intensely schmaltzy gravy.

Southern Stew

Chicken and Pastry

This comforting Southern dish is no looker. But wait until you taste it.

Red's fried cornbread
Red's version of fried cornbread, which serves as a killer base for a scoop of pull pork or fried chicken.
Red's chicken and pastry
"Chicken and pastry" may not look like much, but we liked it so much we made a version of it when we got back to the test kitchen.

As for the fried cornbread, Red’s offers up something closer to a griddled hoecake than the familiar tall, golden versions made in baking pans. Sturdy, savory, crunchy, crisp, and dark around the edges, these rounds of fried corn batter go with just about anything else on the plate—but they’re especially good topped with a scoop of pulled pork or a steaming shred of fried chicken pulled off the bone. One thing’s for sure, though: they’re definitely not sweet, falling toward the traditional Southern stance on sugar in cornbread. This is a position locals take very seriously. “Some people will just be offended by sugar in cornbread,” said Brackner.

The not-to-be-missed "pie safe"

You’re not out of luck if you’re looking for a sugar fix, though: one of the fixtures of the main dining room at Red’s is a so-called “pie safe,” a gingham curtain-lined cabinet containing four shelves of different varieties of pie, including chocolate, lemon, coconut custard, and the local favorite, pecan. There are a few pecan retailers around Alabama—Tucker Pecan Company and Priester’s Pecans chief among them—and Brackner recalled how people living on property with pecan trees regularly rake up the nuts that fall into their yards, gather them into trash bags, and sell them to these businesses, who then package them and distribute them to restaurants, grocery stores, and roadside stands. So, in theory, if you’re a rake-owning local eating pie at Red’s Little Schoolhouse, there’s a possibility that you could be eating a dessert made with pecans from your own yard after a long journey through many middlemen. Mind blown.

Second Stop: Mrs. B's Home Cooking

With one lunch under our (slightly loosened) belts, we hit the road and headed to our next destination. After parking at the end of a residential street, we walked with Brackner and Knott into the neighborhood, where we found Mrs. B’s Home Cooking, a soul food joint on the edge of Montgomery with a reputation for excellent smothered proteins.

If not for the telltale sign, Mrs. B's looks like just another house lining the streets of Montgomery.

From the outside, you would be forgiven for mistaking Mrs. B’s for just another house on the street, if it weren’t for the enormous sign to the right of the building. Other than that, the only thing setting it apart is a small chalkboard on the porch listing the day’s specials.

Dozens of framed photos—and the unmistakable aroma of gravy and collards—line the hallways leading to the kitchen.

Walking in the front door feels just like walking into someone’s house: there’s a long hallway with what looks like a kitchen and a living room through doorways off to the right and left, respectively, but I’ve never been inside a home where there wasn’t a free inch of wall space not taken up by photos of local dignitaries and various visitors.

The steam table that holds Mrs. B's food offerings isn't fancy; it doesn't have to be. The food speaks for itself.

Once you head into the kitchen, though, it becomes clear this is no ordinary house. The unmistakable aroma of gravy and collards permeated the air from steam tables situated beneath a no-frills menu board, which listed no prices next to any of the dozens of comfort food line items, ranging from okra to oxtails.

An order of smothered chicken came with enough white gravy to cover an accompanying mountain of white rice, which is always an excellent consideration—who doesn’t love an extra vehicle for gravy?

The real star of the kitchen, though, was Bertha Seawright, the line cook who was running the show behind the scenes as we made our way through the room. After insisting that I take her portrait, one hand perched atop the counter as if to say, “Yes, this is effortlessly mine,” she met us in the dining room and responded to our rave reviews with a simple, “Tell me,” taking a demure two-word victory lap as she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes in satisfied agreement.

Bertha Seawright, the star behind the show
An Alabama Favorite

Southern-Style Smothered Chicken

To do right by this simple dish, we smothered the pieces but not the flavor of the chicken.

And there was a lot to tell. An order of smothered chicken came with enough white gravy to cover an accompanying mountain of white rice, which is always an excellent consideration—who doesn’t love an extra vehicle for gravy? We’d doubled up on corn sides as well, opting for a helping of so-called “fried corn,” featuring whole kernels bound up in a creamed corn purée that managed to be deeply savory yet bright and vibrant at the same time, in addition to a sweet cornbread muffin (an outlier in a land where savory cornbread is king). Sugar also made a surprising appearance in a bowl of collard greens, where the added sweetness made for a welcome contrast with the long-cooked leaves’ characteristic bitterness. Oh, and I suppose the trifle-esque banana pudding with crushed vanilla wafers was sweet as well, but then, you know, it’s dessert. Equipped with a fistful of extra flatware for the table, we tore into our second lunch of the day, our local dining companions enthralled with the idea of consecutive lunches.

Third Stop: Davis Café & Lounge

Of course, why stop at two mid-day meals in a row when there’s a third one just down the road? No sooner had we cleaned our plate at Mrs. B’s than we hopped back in our cars and headed down the road into Montgomery, stopping in front of a non-descript building across from the back of a large warehouse. Our only reference point: a sun-weathered Coca-Cola sign at one end of the property, the top of which proclaimed, “Davis Café & Lounge, Open 5 A.M.”

The weathered sign outside of Davis Café

I suppose with such early operating hours, it makes sense that we had missed the lunch rush: we arrived at the Davis Café at the end of the day’s service to a completely empty, dimly-lit dining room, and for a moment, we were afraid we’d missed the boat. With about twenty minutes left until closing time, our waitress handed out a stack of menus and walked us through what dishes they hadn’t run out of yet, which luckily included a number of the items Brackner and Knott recommended.

A Davis Café waitress walked us through the list of menu items they hadn't sold out of 20 minutes before closing.

We placed our order while standing just inside the front door, then made our way to the nearest table to take a load off—we already had two seriously hearty lunches in the tank, and getting into a third was going to be hard work.

A loaded plate of some of Davis Café & Lounge's daily offerings

Southern-Style Smothered Pork Chops

Pork chops in gravy should be extra-comforting. It just took a while to get them right.

Even as the cooks were making their way out the door, the kitchen at Davis Café still put out one heck of a plate. The smothered pork chop (our second smothered main of the day, for those of you keeping score at home) came blanketed in a peppery, onion-laced brown gravy that clung to the pounded-out protein, which had itself been dredged in flour at some point in the cooking process. The result: a starchy, savory cutlet that would make a fine meal unto itself. But, of course, we weren’t going to stop there: hearty portions of pork-spiked black-eyed peas and beans and sweet-and-sour mustard and turnip greens made up the vegetable contingent of our plate, and a crisp-edged, nearly-fried-looking savory cornbread muffin rounded out the spread.

***

As we (slowly) devoured our last plate of the day, considering forkfuls of each item before going back in for second (and third) analyses, Bryan and I came to realize something about the soul food scene around Montgomery: On paper, our third lunch may have seemed nearly identical to our second (and really, not far from the first), but in reality, there were no repeats across the entire day of eating. Even something as simple as a basic gravy differed immensely from location to location. It was the minute details—like the sweetness of the collards at Mrs. B’s or the feathery-crisp edges on the cornbread at Red’s—that made each spot a unique experience.

After three memorable meals and several more to come, we wrapped up our first day in Alabama.

We lingered at our table with Brackner and Knott for a while longer, going over our itinerary for the next several days—a jaunt upstate for orange rolls, a quick stop in Mobile for oysters and crab claws, the annual shrimp festival in Gulf Shores, a crash course in gumbo in Fairhope—and discussing the best bites to snag along the way. Before long, though, the doors at Davis Café were set to close, so we made our way back out to the street to hand our hosts a few issues of Cook’s Country magazine, along with a copy of Cook’s Country Eats Local and a couple of custom trucker hats. With a promise to hit up Priester’s Pecans on our way out of town, we parted ways with Brackner and Knott and headed down the road in search of somewhere to crash and to let our collective food coma subside. Tomorrow, we’d do it all again.


Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research:

What's your favorite regional specialty? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our list of research destinations.

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