I like to think of Connie Blalock’s work as being that of a culinary historian of sorts. Her formal title is manager of event planning and marketing promotions for Alagasco, a job that includes encouraging Alabamans to cook with gas. And so, as she’s promoted home cooking, she’s built a collection of Alabama’s favorite recipes in the process.
Connie was once responsible for finding the recipes tucked in with gas bills, gathering them from Alabama’s home cooks and professional chefs. Customers love the recipes, she says: “Once, we tried to take those recipes out; we thought people didn’t use them. The phones rang off the hook!” She’s overseen ten Alagasco cookbooks that are statewide community cookbooks of sorts—the proceeds have even gone to benefit various Alabama charities, in the tradition of community cookbooks. She’s also put together cooking segments on Alabama TV stations featuring local chefs, and even Iron Chef-style cooking competitions.
There are many people in and around Birmingham who know Valerie Kramer Davis as an athlete, a boot camp fitness instructor, and a freelance writer who specializes in health. I know Valerie as a former staff member at Health magazine (where I am currently an editor). And I also know that Valerie, the health nut who uses her cheerleader-like smile to motivate people to torch more calories, loves to bake.
“I’ve always had a sweet tooth,” Valerie told me in her kitchen in Pelham. “My mom always had homemade cookies and banana bread around. I wanted the same thing in my home, but healthier.”
The egg recall that’s sweeping the nation hadn’t happened yet when I sat down with Helen McEwen. We met because a mutual friend told me Helen is known for throwing great dinner parties. Our conversation took a direction that seems so much more relevant now: We started to talk about local food—something her family is very much invested in. Her two teen-aged sons, Frank Jr. and Luke, along with help from her husband, Frank, (all pictured above) raise and care for the 1,000 chickens that lay eggs that are sold in Birmingham stores such as V. Richards in Forest Park, Continental Bakery in English Village, and The General Store at Pepper Place. (I love getting that box of assorted white, brown, and blue eggs.) Local restaurants buy McEwen & Sons eggs, too—Helen says Frank Stitt buys many of them. Soon McEwen & Sons will sell locally raised beef in Birmingham.
Helen and I started talking about local food as she told me about her own life in the kitchen.
I’m starting this blog with the story of a home cook who’s already made me feel better about this city.
Over the past two years I’ve been a supporter of The Table, a grassroots effort to feed the homeless in downtown Birmingham on weekends, when other kitchens are closed. A group of about ten to twelve people would cook food at home, bring it to the Firehouse Shelter in the afternoon, and serve as many as 120 hungry men and women with dignity at the table, as though they were guests in your home dining room. For some diners, The Table meal would be their only meal of the day. Sadly, The Table fell victim to the recession, and served its last meal August 8.
I’d been hooked on The Table since my first time volunteering, when a man came to the kitchen near the end of the meal and yelled, “Hey! Cornbread Lady! Thank you so much, I love cornbread!” I got my congregation involved. I wondered about the people I’d cooked for and what happened to them. I started to care about other services Birmingham could provide for the homeless. News of The Table’s end was disheartening. But the announcement came days after I’d met Paula Hunt Hughes, and thinking about what she’s starting gave me hope.