Alabama - "I'm Going Down To Florence, Gonna Wear My Pretty Dress"- Rosanne Cash
Nicie and I visited Alabama the week before Thanksgiving, but Christmas wreaths already hung in each of the windows of a large brick house on Court St. in Florence, Alabama, where we spent one night. A half-trimmed Christmas tree, surrounded by boxes of ornaments stood in the living room of the home where we interviewed Natalie Chanin, founder and creative director of the clothing and textile design company Alabama Chanin. Kicking fallen leaves off the sidewalk in front of our Court St. AirBnB, I thought of the Truman Capote short story, A Christmas Memory, a story that takes place somewhere in the south, a snowless place with pecans and an appreciation for fruitcake.
Florence is a small town, home to the University of North Alabama. It’s Helen Keller’s birthplace. Muscle Shoals lies just across the Tennessee River from Florence. Muscle Shoals is where some of America’s most well known music has been recorded - in two studios, FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves A Woman,” The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock” and “Kodachrome,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Main Streets,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” and Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” The list goes on. America’s greatest musicians have traveled to Muscle Shoals to record; it is to American country and rock kind of what Vienna was to 19th century Romantic composers.
Our Florence AirBnB, a modest 1840’s metal-roofed house also on Court St., was home to Father-Son Alabama Governors. Our hostess, Nancy O’Neal, was the great, great, great granddaughter of the younger. The home had a beautiful austerity - oiled, well-worn, hardwood floors and tall windows that let the low winter sunlight angle deeply into the rooms.
We visited the straight-stitched, beaded, cotton style of Alabama Chanin that day. Alabama Chanin is a factory, cafe, and women’s clothing retail store, all within the corrugated metal walls of an ordinary Industrial Park.
Before our tour of the factory, the backside of the retail store where the clothes are designed and handsewn, Nicie and I had lunch in the cafe. We sat at a white-washed plank table. We had grilled house-made pimento cheese sandwiches and a chili made with Sea Island Red Peas and local beef. A green salad was dressed with Burnt Honey Yam dressing. In the South, there is always tea - sweet and not. Chef Ray Nichols came out to speak to us. Nichols also grew up in Florence. After college he traveled to Nashville to train as a chef, working at the renowned restaurant Husk, homeplate for the new Southern cuisine that honors the past with fresh, youthful eyes. Nichols, his wife and young daughter live in Florence now. Just when life at Alabama Chanin seemed it couldn’t be kinder, I noticed what looked like a coconut layer cake beneath a glass dome on the counter of the cafe. “Plain cake” they called it; “that’s Natalie’s favorite.”
We met Natalie Chanin later. Chanin grew up in Florence, went off to Parsons’ School of Design, spent two decades in New York City working in fashion and design. In 2009 she was nominated for the Council of Fashion Designers of America /Vogue Fashion Fund after creating a clothing collection inspired by the distinct feminine look of Southern women musicians like Emmylou Harris. Then Chanin came home.
Filling in the space that a T-shirt company had vacated, Chanin was determined to rewrite the rules of the textile industry, paying her workforce a living wage and sourcing responsibly. Up to seventy local women work at Alabama Chanin; Chanin spends highly to source the only 100% organic cotton in the U.S., grown in Texas. At one point, Chanin even tried growing her own cotton.
That night in Florence, Nicie and I had black eyed pea fritters and deviled eggs, Alabama catfish on squash risotto with caramelized cauliflower at Odette, just down Court St. from our Air BnB. Odette is owned by Celeste Pillow, who named the restaurant for her great grandmother. Chef Josh Quick creates this farm-focused Alabama food. I brought home a jar of his roasted red pepper and thyme ketchup.
Nicie and I both read Diane McWhorter’s “Carry Me Home,” a searing telling of the Southern story, a telling that makes anyone who has read it flinch at the sentimentalized South, a version over which the words “graciousness” and “hospitality” often hover. Natalie Chanin is retelling history, too, rebuilding an industry, albeit on a very small scale, without the ugliness. Without the Dixie, with her own version of graciousness.
This new South, and its new form of graciousness, might just be a slice of Plain Cake shared with employees at a plank table.
Our last night in Alabama, at Saw’s Soul kitchen in Birmingham, Nicie and I had classic soul food - fried shrimp & thick, creamy grits, which begged for a few dots of hot sauce. We had fried green tomatoes with french dressing, and braised turnip greens with smoky ham and vinegar. We had the Saw’s Soul Kitchen famous sweet tea & pickle juice brined fried chicken sandwich. It was all amazing. No Plain Cake though.
Natalie Chanin’s Plain Cake,
made with her recipe for Angie’s Classic Cupcakes
Makes one 9” two-layer cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Easy Buttercream Icing
2 cups sweetened, shredded coconut, for topping cupcakes
12 cupcakes liners
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Grease and flour two 9” cake pans. Lay a parchment disk on the bottom of each pan.
In a large mixing bowl, using a whisk or fork, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Next add one-third of the flour mixture and one-third of milk, beating just enough to incorporate. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the next third of the dry and then the wet ingredients. Repeat to incorporate the rest of the flour mixture and milk, making sure not to over-mix. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, add the vanilla, and beat just until everything is combined and smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cake’s center springs back when pressed lightly.
Turn the cakes out on cooling racks to cool completely before icing and sprinkling with coconut.
Easy Buttercream Icing
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound 10X powdered sugar
1-3 tablespoons milk, half-and-half, or cream
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and vanilla until smooth. Gradually add the sugar, allowing the butter and sugar to cream together before adding more, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go. The mixture should look a little dry at this point. Add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed until the icing is smooth and spreadable.
Frost the cake as you would, and then press the coconut into the frosting, covering the sides and top completely.
Recipe from Alabama Studio Style and courtesy of Alabama Chanin