The preparation and sharing of food in Alabamaâ€™s Black Belt crosses and intermingles cultures. Foodway traditions are part of family memory, community memory and ultimately, in this region at least, a collective memory that part of its Southern identity. Few occasions arise in which the subject of food and the rituals associated with the food does not come up.
Spring and summer are ushered in with rituals of planning, canning and preparing for winter. What for many families once was a necessity to survive winters and poverty is now a tradition where generations gather, stories are shared and connections are made. In addition, the actual products of the cooks have become viable commercial products that sustain communities and aid in economic development. Approximately five years ago, through grants, the small town of Thomaston, Alabama, with the aid of the Auburn Rural Studio, created the Rural Heritage Center. The green and purple building that once held the technology and home economic departments of an abandoned school, again brings the community together for a common purpose. People come for the pepper jelly, watermelon rind pickles, and home grown food that was sold by local farmers at their weekend Farmerâ€™s Market. Their slogan is â€œeat more pepper jellyâ€ stenciled on 8-foot letters in bright green that a traveler cannot miss as you travel down Highway 69 on the way to Alabamaâ€™s Gulf Coast. The business has grown to include a restaurant, Mama Nâ€™ems, which features locally grown products prepared by culinary chefs in training. Favorite dishes include BBQ eggs benedict, bourbon pecan pie and venison. All products reflect local flavor, cultural traditions, and even settlement patterns of the Black Belt.
One cannot travel the Black Belt without entering a discussion on the best type of barbecue. While this line of argument is not solely unique to the Black Belt, it is one that brings up once more the story of manâ€™s connection to the land in the Black Belt. As the frontiers of the Alabama/Mississippi Territory opened and settlers moved along the Federal Road to find new homes and new opportunities, they brought their food traditions with them. Settlers from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina moved through the areas, and something as common as barbecue became an indicator of where oneâ€™s family came from. Did the family do a full-pit barbecue, use a vinegar-based sauce or mustard sauce? Did they pull or chop their meat? Answers to these questions helped settlers discover common connections over distant lands, in new environments.
In Sumter County, the tradition of barbecue clubs goes back 175 years. The clubs emerged as a way to bring small communities together. The clubs met in the spring and throughout the summer, offering chances for young couples to court, share news of new arrivals and pass on political opinions. The Clubs connected the new territory and created families. Six clubs still exist (Timilichee Barbeque Club (Gieger), Sumterville Barbeque Club, Gainesville Barbeque Club, Cuba Barbeque Club, Epes Barbeque Club, and the Emelle Barbeque Club). The recipes for sauce, the secrets of meat preparation, and even the types of sides that will be served, provide subtle distinctions in the Clubs. Members are tradition bearers. One of these tradition bearers is George Aust. Born and raised in Geiger, Alabama and a member of the Timilichee Barbeque Club, Aust has created http://www.georgesbarbecue.com/history.html
and his products are now sold online and in Brewton, Alabama, but he continues to teach and share his love of food with the local community.
The rituals of community gatherings around food are prevalent across all 19 counties in the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area region. Church gatherings are not complete without the presence of food. The site of a church on a hillside in the Black Belt evokes memories of drinking sweet cherry Kool-Aid and eating cookies during Vacation Bible School. Smells of fried chicken, barbecue, and Miss Marthaâ€™s lemon meringue pie still make peopleâ€™s mouths water as they continue to gather for funerals, weddings, homecomings, revivals and Wednesday night supper. In the collective memories around food, families have remained connected to land that continues to yield in the creation of small gardens in the backyard, yearly events, and lots and lots of stories. In the Black Belt, food is more than something one consumes three times a day, and it is more than a holiday ritual. It is part of the story that stretches across time and soil. In a land where the French, Spanish, Native Americans, African Americans, and English converged, there can be no doubt that the food created is unique.