Don Noble
1:53 pm
Mon November 22, 2004

Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar

This commentary on Frank Stitt's Southern Table is the first in this spot about a cookbook. But this book is in fact more than just recipes; there's a good deal of text here, about Frank Stitt's life, his father and mother, education, and philosophy and about Southern food and farming.

Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar

This commentary on Frank Stitt's Southern Table is the first in this spot about a cookbook. But this book is in fact more than just recipes; there's a good deal of text here, about Frank Stitt's life, his father and mother, education, and philosophy and about Southern food and farming.

To begin at the very beginning, there is a foreword by the novelist Pat Conroy. Readers of Conroy, or in fact anyone who has ever met him, know that he, like fellow novelist Jim Harrison, is a lover of good food. There are many fine meals in his fiction, and he is himself an accomplished cook. He is also the world's most generous blurber and introducer of others. Of Frank Stitt he writes, "Let me state simply that I think Frank Stitt is the best chef in America and that America itself is starting to come around to my position."

Conroy praises the food at Highlands Bar and Grill in superlatives, anxious lest he leave something out. "I have eaten at the Highlands Bar and Grill more than twenty times and have never had a single dish that was not superb," he says.

Conroy praises the pork, the crab, the rabbit, the duck, the shrimp, the oysters, the lamb, the salads, the desserts, and even the martinis, which are better than the martinis at the Plaza, and the Chilton County peach bellinis, which are better than the bellinis at Harry's Bar in Venice, where they were invented, because Chilton County peaches are better than Italian peaches.

And that is, in a nutshell, how Frank Stitt does it. Along with his extensive training and his taking of infinite care with every dish, the real "secret," so to speak, is the ingredients. In his introductory essay and in many other essays scattered throughout the book, Stitt writes of these Alabama ingredients. The fish and shellfish must be absolutely fresh and, preferably, local--Bayou Le Batre, Appalachicola, the Gulf. He delights in Cullman potatoes and, of course, the peaches of Chilton County.

He patronizes the Birmingham Farmers' Market. He buys all the organic vegetables and free-range chickens he can get, and he encourages farmers to grow more arugula, baby beets, and fetal carrots. If you grow them, Stitt will come and buy them.

Frank Stitt's restaurants, the Highlands Bar and Grill, Caf? Bottega, and Chez Fonfon have changed their Southside Birmingham neighborhood for the better. Stitt is now working on nothing less than changing local agricultural practices--the planting and growing habits of the state's vegetable, chicken, and pork producers.

"Local, seasonal, and very, very fresh" would be on his culinary coat of arms. And he learned these precepts from the best: Stitt studied philosophy, which trained his mind, at Tufts and at Berkeley, and then learned his cooking under Fritz Luenberger at San Francisco's Le Trianon and then fell under the spell of fresh-food guru Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Then came more apprenticeships, this time in France, including a spell in the vineyards. The Highlands opened in 1982 and has been thriving since.

Now we have the cookbook, with clear prose and absolutely beautiful photos. This cookbook, like Stitt's kitchen, is a place where crowder peas meet cordon bleu, where the ingredients of traditional Alabama cooking and the techniques of French culinary art come together. Never have pork chops been treated with more respect, or yielded better results.

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