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Birmingham: The He(art) of Alabama

Have you experienced those moments in life where you’re exactly where you want to be, in the company of uniquely wonderful people, in a serene setting surrounded by both natural and man-made beauty, nothing to do, nowhere to go and not a care in the world? I sincerely hope you have. Since becoming an adult, those moments have elongated into sequences, fragmented chunks of time full of my definition of happiness: people I love, great food, and laughter. I was fortunate enough to experience those chunks of time as a child, in a loving family full of home-made meals, and I appreciate those memories and occurrences even more now than I did as an under-developed child; but there’s something about this time in my and my chosen family’s lives that have all culminated into this similar stream of consciousness. I believe we attract those we resonate with at this moment, those that foster our personal evolution, and they teach us because they hold up a mirror and show us who we are, which then leads to change or it leads to dissolution in a variety of forms. Whether you continue to grow with that person and maintain similar priorities determines the length and necessity of that relationship in either of your lives. For me, the age of 27 has begun an era of consistent creativity, revelation, and metamorphosis. It’s really started since turning 25, when my existing relationships catapulted to newer, deeper connections, and the new friendships gave so much to me, brought so much out of me, and led to where I am today. I give little credit to myself and the majority to good fortune in meeting these people and experiencing what I have. This is all described in thousands of words I hope to formulate into book form someday but for now, suffice it to say I’m constantly overwhelmed by gratitude and by the personal truth that Love is really all I need. We’re living the cliché starving artist lifestyle at the moment, but I could not be happier inside, both with who I’m becoming and those informing and bettering me, personally and professionally. Turning 27 coincided with my brother moving in our cozy Chicago apartment with us. In conjunction with that we became very tight with people who are a family of their own, spending many wondrous summer nights elevating each other through cerebral conversations, laughter and of course, damn good food. An even deeper, intensified awakening bonded us for life when the threat of losing a family member broke us open. You experience someone’s true nature and humanity when vulnerability, sadness and loss are at the forefront, and the miracle of hope, survival and love are restored. I’m continuing to emerge a more caring and creative human being from the experiences leading to this moment and I’m overpowered with gratitude for what these people have shown and continue to give to me. Through their beauty and love, I know my own.

The long intro love letter was to provide context in which members of my given and chosen families merged for four days of mystifying delight, days where I felt still inside, full in belly and heart, and lit from within. I had a permanent smile, no concept or care for time, no pressure, no work or roles to play, just the task of broadening my stomach, heart and mind. The time was playful, like an adult’s recess, and I’d relive that few days forever if I could. That’s how special it was. We spent 3 days at a lake house, eating fantastic Thanksgiving turkey and sides, almost as amazing sandwiches with leftovers the next day, and other tasty meals and treats worth describing. We spent the latter part of the weekend in the city of Birmingham, a surprisingly beautiful, charming, artful and delicious town. A place giving the south and Alabama itself a great name. A place I can’t wait to return and a place giving the world some truly remarkable, one of a kind human beings. I plan to write about these people and my experiences with them in length in a different forum, but for now, for food’s sake, I share in a couple of mind and tongue-altering hot spots, 2 of the many great choices this special city has to offer: Al’s and Dreamland BBQ.

After a few days in a timeless bubble full of perfection outside and in, we had more great food while watching Alabama destroy Auburn (I’ll leave my pure disdain for the SEC out of this considering I too am from the south and surrounded by conference stupor.). We got happily buzzed on Bamaritas and southern soul in the middle of the afternoon and patiently waited for sobriety to revisit. When it did, we went out into the dark of night, driving through charming villages, hills and trees, finding better and better points of Birmingham’s spectacular view. We were driven and led by our friend, who thoughtfully provided an excellent soundtrack and the most interesting stories and caveats only a native could provide. I was wowed, in awe, joyfully appreciative of the company I was in and grateful for this new education. And not surprisingly, I was hungry. For this, late in the evening, we stopped at Al’s, a thoughtful, re-imagining of southern fast food with a mediterranean flare. It was packed with people housing a hunger and thirst proportionate to ours, and similar hysterical enthusiasm in their eyes. When I’m hungry and I can smell the food I’m about to eat, I’m manic, there’s no communicating with me unless it’s involving food. Something my mastic8onthis guidebooks will provide is short tips on eating and traveling in unknown areas. This is obvious, but when in doubt, eat where and what the locals eat. Luckily, we were with a local and he advised we order the Barbecue Chicken Baker. Sounds amazing doesn’t it? You don’t even know what it is and just the words on the page probably conjure up images, aromas, textures and flavors, leading to sweat and salivation. My mouth is watering just recounting the details, man I want that pain of fullness from deliriously awesome food again.

The BBQ Chicken Baker is $8.95. It appears to be one exorbitantly large baked potato opened to cover a fairly large basket plate, similar to the ones served under hot wings. On top of the piping hot, well executed baked potato was a generous glob of sour cream, butter, finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese, green onion, a butter sauce, bacon bits, and tender shreds of grilled chicken. The kicker, moist-maker, game-changer ingredient that made this dish a fucking awe-inspiring memorable experience was the mediterranean barbecue sauce slathered on top of it all. I took it all in, absorbed the visual masterpiece, breathed in the waft of diabetic air, and then gave myself the ultimate pleasure by mixing all the ingredients into human slop and shoving it into my mouth, slowly chewing, throwing the taste around every corner of my tongue, feeling the heat on my gums, the textures on my teeth until finally deciding to send it off into my esophagus, wishing it good luck on the digestive journey. I’d be seeing it again soon, no doubt, and it was worth it. We helped it down with perhaps the greatest iced beverage I’ve ever had. Sweet mint tea. Sweet tea, a figment of pure joy in the south, made just slightly better with the hint of mint. Ahh, I’m so mad I can’t get that readily and easily at this very moment but of course am supremely, utterly grateful to have had it in the first place. It rounded out an amazing few days, afternoon and evening. Good company, conversation and food. What a lucky bitch.

My taste buds are a bunch of tiny whores. They’ve been around the block, the proverbial village bicycle, everything’s had a ride down my digestive highway and I’m not ashamed. I will not apologize, not even to my colon. Somehow a mere 12 hours later my stomach was ready for another beating, such a masochist, deriving pleasure from the challenge of grandiose amounts of flavorful grub. We were given many choices, signature B-Ham fare, and we opted for more BBQ, obviously. When in Alabama, do as the southerners do. So we ate, drank more sweet tea and watched more football. This time, at Dreamland BBQ! I feel on this day we were operating on a very slow clock time, seemingly trying to fend off the inevitable, the end of a very significant weekend. We had a long drive ahead of us, a lot of time to process the experience and so all we wanted to do was linger in the moment, savor the flavor, so to speak.

Up to this point we had only Pleasantville weather, 70 degrees, clear skies, still winds and bright sunshine. Seemingly coinciding with our emotions, this was a rainy, cloudy, cold day. The sky was crying tears we didn’t want to acknowledge. We placated ourselves for one more beautiful hour by sharing a multitude of divine southern barbecue. We shared two racks of fall off the bone ribs accompanied by their famous tangy BBQ sauce. Just as important were the assortment of artery clogging sides, a staple in any genuine southern meal. The mac n cheese was the best for me, but I slurped up the baked beans, toast dipped in the distinctly tasty sauce, thick cut freedom fries, and really stellar potato salad (which usually makes me vomit, cold potatoes, get that shit out of my face.). It was a family style round table, shiny happy people with barbecue sauce all over their hands and faces, working that food down with laughter and sweet tea, of course. The topper for lunch and the weekend was the best batch of banana pudding I’d ever had. I felt so nostalgic, suddenly four years old again asking my mom for nilla wafers as I watched ET for the 50th time. I’m grateful to have new comforting memories attached to food, music and now the city of Birmingham. Y’all should go.

The south has a stigma, we all know what it is, whether we perpetuate it ourselves, believe it in our hearts or not, it’s there. It’s important to recognize each place's value and potential, and that no person or home should be defined by our politicians, our loudest mouths, or our past behavior. Just as Louisville is a light shining in Kentucky, redefining that state for the country, Birmingham is that beacon in Alabama. I loved it before I arrived because of the people it brought to my life and now I can express objectively how much it has to offer, beyond my very special sentiment toward it. If you cannot afford to travel to a larger city or beyond the United States, that does not mean you can’t broaden your mind and feel joy by simply exploring a neighboring region, state, or city you’ve never been before. Any place worth going should have damn good food, and Birmingham does; along with diversity, culture, beautiful nature and loving people. If you can make it to the Ham, do it. Keep it depeche. It’s an extraordinary place and deserves the pride, love and respect from it’s natives and visitors.

Road trips are an excellent opportunity to get to know your region and your fellow passengers. Pack it to the brim, listen to the current soundtrack to your life, eat some local fare along the way and allow yourself to be opened by the new experience. It will only enrich you as a human being and deepen your connection with others. If you’re refusing to go somewhere because of a preconceived notion or judgment, give yourself the gift of being wrong and ultimately be pleasantly surprised by making up your own mind. We’re all better off by recognizing the charm in people’s differences and then finding similarities that thread us all together. Get off the couch and into your car.

Dream. Drive. Fly. Laugh. Eat. Together. Enjoy.