The Southern Agenda

The Southern Agenda: August/September 2015

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Illustration: Tim Bower

Reap What Jefferson Sowed
Charlottesville, Virginia
September 11-12

“But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale in 1811. In the gardens at Monticello, the ever-curious statesman planted more than 330 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. He experimented with figs from France, peppers from Mexico, and fifteen types of English peas, documenting every detail from first growth to final harvest. Today he would have plenty to discuss with the organizers of the Heritage Harvest Festival, a celebration of sustainable agriculture and gardening held at Monticello. Gardeners, farmers, chefs, and seed savers from across the country will gather to participate in tours, classes, and demonstrations covering subjects that range from the basics of seed saving and homemade bug remedies to edible landscaping and heirloom Southern tomatoes. But you don’t have to be a dirt-under-the-fingernails type to appreciate the festival. There’s a craft beer garden and live music, plus cooking demos by land-centric chefs such as Tyler Brown of Capitol Grille in Nashville. Either way, you’ll find plenty to dig in to.—


Kitchen on Fire

Chris Childs is going to have a busy summer. The forester supplies wood to Ovenbird, Chris Hastings’s new grill-centered Birmingham restaurant, where everything from cobs of sweet corn to cuts of beef shoulder cook in the orange glow of embers and flame. Though Ovenbird was originally scheduled to open last fall, the fire is finally set to be lit—and not a moment too soon for Hastings. “I’ve dreamed about this restaurant all my life,” says the chef, who is known for his artfully dressed Southern dishes at Birmingham’s twenty-year-old Hot and Hot Fish Club. “As an avid outdoorsman, I have cooked over open fire since I was a kid, and always loved the pace. You have to be intimately involved in the fire at all times, and that will change how we cook.” With a no-reservations policy, a menu of affordable small plates, and a courtyard planted with heirloom roses, the new place offers a laid-back second act for one of the best-known chefs in town.—


Are You Game?

Squirrel ice cream. Yes, it’s a real thing and one of the most unusual entries the judges at the annual World Champion Squirrel Cook Off (September 12) in Bentonville have ever seen. (Points for creativity, certainly, but not a prizewinner.) Back-to-back champs Brandon and Blayne Estes have found that grinding the meat hamburger-style helps win over both judges and dubious diners; the brothers have taken home the trophy twice—once for squirrel sliders, once for sausage. The acorn-fattened quarry is a whole lot tastier than many might expect, especially considering other seasoned contenders serve it up in such Southern standards as gumbo, tamales, and hunt-camp chili. The festival’s founder, Joe Wilson, thinks his cook-off keeps the gentrifying small town in touch with its Ozark roots. Sure enough, dozens of home cooks and chefs show up from all over the region to celebrate the humble ingredient that fed generations of mountain folk and early settlers across the South. If you’re ever going to sample the so-called chicken of the tree, you won’t likely find a better place to start.—


Big Shots

Today we fill Instagram accounts and Facebook albums with snapshots of everything from what we had for breakfast to this summer’s Sunshine State vacation. But in downtown St. Petersburg, the staff at the Museum of Fine Arts cultivates a different kind of photography collection. Half a century after the museum opened its doors in 1965, its archives hold nearly 17,000 images dating back to the nineteenth century and the medium’s first masters. Five Decades of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts is an exhibition of the museum’s most notable shots, captured by the likes of early champion of photography Alfred Stieglitz, photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, and pioneering fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Designed to lead attendees from the beginnings of photography in the mid-1800s, when an exposure took minutes to achieve, to its many instant digital forms today, the exhibit will run from now until October 4. So if rain dampens your beach-day plans, skip the jigsaw puzzle marathon in favor of a lineup that would impress even the Art Basel crowd down in Miami.—


Garden Party

Sure, residents like to complain about the sprawl and traffic snarls. But Atlanta is a surprisingly green place, if you know where to look. Neighborhoods such as Inman Park and Buckhead are full of magnolias, dogwoods, and elms; there are even old-growth oaks in Druid Hills. Bolstering that leafy reputation: the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a thirty-acre refuge adjacent to Piedmont Park and just a short stroll off the city’s new BeltLine pedestrian corridor. You can visit the garden after dark all summer long to take in British artist Bruce Munro’s new exhibit, which brings the gardens to life each night with tens of thousands of fiber-optic flower-like stems of lights that blanket the ground in Storza Woods. On September 26, witness the light show in truly high style at the Garden of Eden Ball, the annual black-tie fundraiser held on the Great Lawn. Dine and dance in the glow of the installations while helping to ensure that the garden will remain a bright spot in the city for generations to come.—


Summer Supper

When James Beard Award–nominated chef Ouita Michel needs to get away from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen at the Holly Hill Inn in Midway or one of her five other horse-country restaurants, she retreats to the lodge at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg. Built by members of the nineteenth-century religious sect, which honored simplicity and hard work, Shaker Village is now an open-air museum situated on three thousand pastoral acres. But on August 29, Michel is coming to work. She’ll cook a relaxed dinner inspired by the recipes in Classic Kentucky Meals, a book by the Bluegrass State food writer Rona Roberts. The event, Classic Kentucky Meal with Ouita Michel, will be an appropriately simple gathering, allowing the farm-fresh produce to shine. You can expect a few surprises, though: For example, Michel plans to serve her twist on a traditional Shaker tomato dumpling, using goat cheese and phyllo dough.—




Home Improvement

Generations of the Flower family, who built Greenwood Plantation in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish, were justifiably proud of the home’s stunning Rococo Revival parlor—a highly ornamental French style popular in the mid-nineteenth century. So proud that they left it more or less untouched for more than a century and a half, during which time the floral carpet began to wear thin and the upholstery on the rosewood chairs faded. When the current generation decided to redecorate the historic plantation house, the New Orleans Museum of Art acquired the contents of the room for the exhibit A Louisiana Parlor: Antebellum Taste and Context. While the museum’s curators didn’t actually transport the walls, windows, or molding of the home, you can see the gilded mirrors, period furniture, heavy curtains, and other objets d’art, carefully preserved, now through October 11. The exhibit addresses not only the decorative arts prevalent during the antebellum period but also the challenges of conservation. Some 160 years after Harriet Flower Mathews decorated the room, its contents are still in good hands.—


Quick on the Claw

Only in Maryland will you find thousands of folks crammed onto wooden bleachers to cheer with Super Bowl levels of enthusiasm for a bunch of, well, crabs—actual live blue crabs. During the National Hard Crab Derby (September 4–6), held each year in tiny salt-licked Crisfield on the Chesapeake Bay, several hundred of the athletic crustaceans scramble down water-slicked planks with numbers painted on their backs like small oceanic Thoroughbreds. They race in heats of fifty, with the winners then racing one another for the title. The owner of the winningest crab takes home a trophy worth a year of bragging rights. And the lucky crab gets plunked back into the bay, securing amnesty from the fate that awaits its slower competitors: a steam bath for the post-race feast.—


Hometown Heroine

When Marie Hull, born in 1890 in Summit, Mississippi, went off to the Pennsylvania Academy to study art, she had to bring her mother as a chaperone, to avoid an air of impropriety that might have followed such a free-spirited young woman at the time. Like most students in the Jackson area around the turn of the twentieth century, she had not studied art in either elementary or high school. So after a year at the academy, she returned to Mississippi to help others experience the field she adored, and she never stopped learning or experimenting. Predominantly in oil and acrylic, her work is known for its rich intense colors in paintings that range from landscapes to portraits of tenant farmers and politicians. She exhibited in Paris, in San Francisco, and at the New York World’s Fair. Get acquainted with this remarkable Southerner during Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull, an exhibit that opens on September 26 at the Mississippi Museum of Art, in Jackson. With more than a hundred paintings and drawings on display, it’s a comprehensive tribute to one of the state’s boldest talents and a woman who inspired countless Mississippians to put brush to canvas.—


North Carolina
Field Days

Hardworking farmers of an earlier generation would probably have been stunned to learn that people in the future would pay good money to watch them work. But the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which began connecting local producers with talented chefs and eager eaters nearly two decades ago, encourages you to do just that during the annual ASAP’s Farm Tour (September 19–20). The two-day excursion is a self-guided introduction to dozens of farms in western North Carolina—even those typically closed to visitors—including those of the pig and cattle ranchers at Hickory Nut Gap Farm and the chile growers at Smoking J’s Fiery Foods and Farm. The price of admission buys agritourists access to all of the farms on the list, as well as samples of food and drink along the way. Three or four farms are about as many as you can pack into one day, so consult the online guide to pick a few and map out your itinerary ahead of time. Don’t forget to bring a cooler to haul home fresh-from-the-field finds.—


South Carolina
Sweet Carolinas

To the south lie hash, mustard sauce, and chicken pilau. To the north, chopped pork shoulder and livermush. But at their mountainous border, North and South Carolina cuisines aren’t all that different. In his kitchen at American Grocery Restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina, chef Joe Clarke is only about sixty miles from John Fleer at Rhubarb and Katie Button at Cúrate, both in Asheville, North Carolina. All three chefs will gather at Clarke’s West End restaurant on September 19 for North Meets South: A Dinner of the Carolinas, as part of Euphoria, Greenville’s annual food, wine, and music festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Dinner won’t be one of those sweat-soaked, food-television-style showdowns, but rather a collaboration between skilled chefs with a shared focus. “You like to see what everybody brings to the table, but you also want a through line,” Clarke says. “We’ll find that common ground.” Order fast; there are only sixty seats. If you miss out, don’t worry; chefs Steven Satterfield, Ken Vedrinski, and David Guas are taking over Greenville kitchens that night, too.—


The Hills are Alive

The Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival (September 26–27) isn’t Bonnaroo. And co-founder Kevin Griffin, a musician himself, along with most folks in the city of Franklin, like it that way. “We aim to be the more genteel, bucolic festival,” he says. “You get here early, and when we close down at 7:30 p.m., you go back to your hotel, clean up, and go out into the city and visit the restaurants.” Griffin conceived the civilized celebration while on a jog through the rolling landscape of the Park at Harlinsdale Farm, a century-old horse farm owned by the city. With gentle hills that create natural amphitheaters, the two hundred acres seemed the perfect fit for a music festival. And thanks to an unwritten (but politely encouraged) rule that all bands perform at least a few acoustic songs, it aims for a mellower experience than most others. But that doesn’t mean it’s sleepy. The current lineup includes Willie Nelson, Wilco, and Neko Case, to name a few. And if you do like to stay up late, there are after-dark shows at venues all over historic downtown Franklin.—




Be Our Guest

The hotel game is getting harder and harder. You can’t just slap down some bamboo floors and populate the lobby with vaguely midcentury furnishings and abstract art and call yourself a boutique hotel anymore. So the new South Congress Hotel in Austin, scheduled to open August 15, is pulling out all the stops—a Japanese restaurant from Paul Qui (the city’s hottest chef), a vintage motorcycle shop, a high-end boutique, and a juice bar (this is Austin, after all). Perhaps the biggest draw? The rooftop pool with killer views of the downtown skyline. Naturally, the in-suite bars are stocked with locally sourced ingredients, and each room is outfitted with bespoke bedding and custom furniture. You might never leave the premises, although that would be a shame, considering you’re smack in the middle of one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods and an easy bike ride to the river, where the city’s ever-active residents go to paddle, picnic, and hike.—


Washington, D.C.
Night at the Museum

We can’t tell you who’ll be cooking, what’ll appear on the menu, or where exactly you’ll eat, but unpredictability is part of the fun at a Dinner Lab party. Since the New Orleans–based supper club came to the capital early last year, the group has organized sit-downs for its members everywhere from a gelato factory to a monastery, catered by up-and-comers ready to prove themselves to the club’s discerning members. Dinner Lab at the Smithsonian (August 13) follows a similar formula but with a couple of twists: Diners need not be members to buy tickets, and a representative from the Smithsonian will be on hand to discuss the space where guests will dine. The club will release the location and other details the day before the event. Until then, we’re hoping for supper in the National Museum of Natural History’s Beaux Arts–style rotunda, with its Great African Bush elephant as a dining companion.—


West Virginia
Art House

Locals have known for a while now, but word is finally reaching the rest of us: Morgantown is a pretty fun place to live. Home to West Virginia University, the city is surrounded by trails for hiking and rivers for rafting. Small shops and breweries have moved into once- abandoned buildings, and the Art Museum of West Virginia University will give the city’s residents something else to preen about when it opens this August. In the works for years, the museum already has a collection of several thousand items with which to fill the 5,400 square feet of gallery space. It isn’t all local art, either, though there is a healthy representation of regional talent, including the innovative West Virginia printmaker Grace Martin Taylor, hanging among the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.—art