Birmingham Restaurant Week: East 59 Café

IMG_0697East 59 Vintage & Cafe was founded in Eastlake as a place for community members to hang out, grab a cup of coffee, and check out their vintage offerings. I'm not usually able to work in coffee shops because of the music/friends/acoustics, but everything about this café was extremely laid back. When I got there, I was also surprised to see that the shop was quite full. It was on the early side -- about 11:30, but there was already a bit of a wait to get food. IMG_0692Their Restaurant Week lunch special, a grilled cheese with a side of tomato soup, was a grownup spin on a childhood favorite. The nostalgia was compounded by the use of American cheese and white bread, but the addition of cheddar and pepperjack added a touch of spicy heat. The cheese was pretty melty, and the bread was toasted to a light crisp.

The tomato soup was a bit heartier than I was expecting, but while I was eating, it started pouring down rain outside. As I've said before, rain makes me crave tomato soup, and Saturday was no exception. Unlike a lot of other soups, the tomato wasn't puréed into oblivion, so the texture was varied all the way through.

IMG_0699I was apprehensive about the white chocolate blueberry cookie since I'm not huge on white chocolate, but it was vanilla-y and not overly sweet. It fit perfectly with the trend of remaking childhood treats into grownup food, and seemed to be sized so that you could nibble on it for a quick treat at the end of the meal.

Though it's a bit out of the way, I'll probably be going back the next time I need to get out of the house and knock out some work. I'm also looking forward to poking around their vintage store, since there are very few things more satisfying than finding a one-of-a-kind piece to complete a room or wardrobe. With Counter Culture coffee and tasty looking pastries, who wouldn't?

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Vino

FullSizeRender (4)Outside of a few tiny sprinkles, Friday's night weather was pretty much perfect. It wasn't too hot or too humid, which made it ideal for spending time on porches and patios. Serendipitously, I had scheduled to eat dinner at Vino that night. Vino's patio is perched in English Village, which makes the patio prime people watching real estate. FullSizeRender (3)About 90 percent of it is in the shade, which means that you get a nice breeze without direct sun. Though it had been a pretty mild day, what was left of the day's heat was lingering, so we each started off with a glass of rosé. It was light and refreshing while still simple enough to pair well with pretty much everything they made.

Photo taken by Laura Foster

Since this meal made the tenth meal I've eaten out in nine days, I opted for the salad. The fruit was tart and fresh, and the sweet raspberry dressing was complemented by the candied walnuts. Laura got the butternut squash soup, which was creamy and rich in flavor but not very heavy.

IMG_0651Both of us got the Salmon Farfale entrée. Even though it wasn't too hot, the pork and chicken dishes looked a little bit heavier than what we wanted to eat at the time. The fish was light and cooked through, but not overcooked. The fresh spinach and tomatoes added some variety to the pasta's texture, and the capers gave it a bit of saltiness. The portions are generous, and I had enough to bring home for Adam to snack on.

IMG_0671Picking a dessert was a tough call. I went with the key lime cheesecake because I (foolishly) thought it would be the lighter option. The cheesecake was delicious, and the limes' tartness came through without being bitter. Since I love desserts' crusts as much or more than the filling, I was glad to find that the graham cracker crust was crisp and fresh.

Photo taken by Laura Foster

Laura went for the apple fritters, which were fried until the outsides were crispy and the insides were still fluffy. The slices of apple and vanilla ice cream contrasted the fritters' temperature and sweetness, rounding it out well. I've had a lot of overly crispy or just plain bad fritters in my time, and this was definitely a highlight in that category.

The next time there's a mild, breeze night, I'll be sorely tempted to revisit this patio. Few things are better in life than people watching with a friend and a glass of rosé, and sometimes you just need to take the time to enjoy life like that.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: MELT

That farmhouse ale though. Sometimes, life is hard for all the right reasons. I've eaten a lot during Restaurant Week, but as much as James and I joked about doubling up meals to boost the number of places we could cover, I didn't imagine I'd actually do it. Then Adam got invited to Dinner Lab for the same night I'd made plans to go to MELT. So, I did what any rational food lover would do and decided to eat two dinners.

I first heard about MELT when it was a food truck. After a hot yoga class at the Yoga Circle, I treated myself to a Mac n Cheese grilled cheese. Whether it was the yoga high or just the sandwich's deliciousness, I've been hooked ever since. When they opened in Avondale, I was stoked. Though I don't eat out often, I end up at MELT pretty often for lunch meetings. Pro tip: for the lactose intolerant folks out there, they have vegan cheese for the burger. Even with the fake cheese, it's tasty.

I'm partial to sitting at the bar because the bartenders are awesome (hi, Stephanie!). After my happy hour cocktail, Janice recommended a basil farmhouse ale for me to try. It was light, but still had a bit of kick from the basil. At the bar, you also get a show from the open kitchen. I don't mean witty banter, I mean a full-fledged show. While we were there, the kitchen serenaded us with ballads about cheese, fries, and cheesy bread.

IMG_0583Their Restaurant Week menu played to their strengths. I started with the tomato basil soup, a creamy mixture with just a touch of spice from the basil and a bit of richness from the olive oil garnish on top. Although I hated canned tomato soup as a kid, I've come to love it as a rainy day food as an adult. This soup was exactly what I was looking for after the solid five minutes of rain we'd had earlier in the day.

IMG_0594To experience MELT's offerings fully -- and to revisit an old favorite -- I ordered the tomato salad and Haley ordered the mac 'n cheese grilled cheese. I would say I was trying to eat more vegetables, but really I just wanted to try the salad before it wasn't available any more. The basil aioli brought together the spicy basil with the depth and creaminess of the aioli. This balanced the acid from the tomatoes while pulling together the flavors of the corn, black beans, and bacon.

FullSizeRender (2)Even though I was headed directly from this dinner to the pop up, I still ate about one-third of  Haley's grilled cheese. It's creamy, crunchy, salty, and just nice, something we in the South call stick-to-your-arteries good. With fries, it's a meal fit for the coldest of winter days or their hungriest summer counterparts. Though we polished off the tomato salad, there were some fries left after we had both eaten our fill.

It's a lot of food, especially if you get a sandwich. It's well-crafted, indulgent food that lives up to its name. It melts in your mouth and on your plate, and will satisfy even the deepest craving for something cheesy and delicious.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Primeaux Cheese + Vino

IMG_0548After thinking about Primeaux for a while -- and if you taste their cheese plate, you'll be thinking about it too -- I've come to the realization that it wasn't what I was expecting. They're located out at the Summit, but aren't in a ridiculously large space. Both their food and wine are top-notch, but none of it is pretentious. Considering the people involved, I shouldn't be too surprised. Full disclosure: Chef Cory Bolton, his wife (!!!) Ashley AKA Primeaux's pastry chef, Sous Chef Grayson Taft, and Front of House Manager Melissa Pickering, all worked with my husband at Ocean. They're friends, and they know their shit, so it's not too surprising that my friend Taylor and I had a fantastic meal.

That freaking rosé. Can I have some more?

To start the meal, I ordered the budget-friendly rosé. With summer still in full swing, rosé is one of my favorite ways to cool down. It was dry with a nice bit of acid and a mineral-rich finish, which you may have guessed is what I like in wine. After a bit, Melissa replaced that with a glass of the Domaine Gueneau Sancerre Rosé which was exactly what I wanted but didn't know I wanted. Trust your servers, bartenders, and industry friends, y'all.

IMG_0545The apps came next. I started out with the charcuterie and cheese board, while Taylor chose the crabmeat cheesecake.* For the Restaurant Week version, they scaled it down to be closer to a single portion. Cured meat and cheese are two of my very favorite things, and the speck (a type of prosciutto) and salami were on point. Then there was the cheese. Oh my goodness, the cheese.

IMG_0558The cheese board itself included tastes of D'Affinois and a slightly firmer cheese, but Cory also let us taste the sottocenere di tartufo, a soft cheese made from raw cow's milk that had pieces of black truffle. Ridiculously good. I was enjoying the food enough that I forgot to take the photo until after a couple pieces had been eaten. Oops!

Taylor's appetizer was a riff on a crab cake. Instead of adding new ingredients to simple crab cakes, the crabmeat was worked into a rich, savory cheesecake with a pecan crust. It was rich, but the crabmeat was tender without being rubbery. It was also so good that both of us were discussing the likelihood of the existence of an entrée-sized version of the dish.

FullSizeRender (15)We'd both ordered the Cubano as our main course. Like the cheesecake, it's also a riff on a classic dish. It's pretty much cheese, housemade pickles, and spicy mustard with as much meat as can be physically stuffed into a sandwich, but it's done intentionally, and it shows. This sandwich is not a traditional Cuban sandwich, nor is it meant to be, but it hits all the notes of what you want a sandwich to be.

IMG_0559To finish, we had two desserts. The lemon icebox pie isn't on their Restaurant Week menu, but the well-spiced crust set off the tart and sweet filling just right. To be honest, I barely touched the pie because I was too busy contemplating and devouring the bourbon cherry dark chocolate tiramisu. At many other places, desserts flavored with bourbon use it very subtly. This dessert is bourbon-forward, with the tangy whole cherries and dark chocolate flavors filling out the flavor of the light, fluffy cake and rich filling.

With great food, better friends, and an excellent wine selection, I'll be back for more. Who wouldn't?

*These appetizers are available at both lunch and dinner. The Cubano is part of the lunch menu, not the dinner menu, and the desserts are only on the dinner menu.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage.

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Ocean

IMG_0506Two weeks ago, I told Adam that I was taking him on a date to a mystery location during Restaurant Week. Although he had worked at Ocean for four-and-a-half years, he had never gotten to eat there as a guest. It was entirely a surprise until an hour and 45 minutes before our reservations, but that's a story for another day. I've eaten at Ocean a few times when Adam misfired (accidentally ordered) something and once as a guest. After meeting Adam's restaurant family over the years, it was awesome to get to treat him to a meal. And what a meal. As a heads up, this post will be longer than most others since Adam and I ate the entire Restaurant Week menu. All of it.

FullSizeRender (13)Apparently the restaurant has recently switched over to bread from Birmingham Breadworks. We got to try some of the crostini and some of the Breadworks baguettes with a ramekin of olive oil and parmesan. While we were still working on the bread, the appetizers came out. The first one I tried, the papa à la pomodoro, was a rustic tomato soup. The garlic and basil added a bit of depth and spice, and as Adam said, it was like a texture-rich gazpacho.

Photo credit to Adam Evans.

Adam's first app, the beet salad, combined a lot of different ingredients to craft a much more complex dish. Both the golden and red beets were earthy, and golden beets gave it a bit of sweetness. The blood orange and avocado oil drizzled on top was a nice counterpoint to the beets' earthiness, while the dried kalamata olives gave it a tidge of saltiness. The goat cheese and candied pecans added creaminess and crunch, respectively, and rounded out the dish in a lovely way.

FullSizeRender (12)When the main course was served, I started with the salmon while Adam gave the snapper the first treatment. The salmon's risotto set (what was served with the fish) was buttery and creamy, and the bit of peach bar-b-que sauce was both sweet and tangy. But the fish itself was cooked to a perfect mid-rare, which made it the perfect counterpoint to the creamy set.

FullSizeRender (9)Adam's snapper was more of traditional Southern comfort food. The succotash that went along with the fish was a comforting mix of fresh summer vegetables. The snapper was mild, and the tastes blended almost perfectly. I had no trouble finishing the rest of the dish even though I was already full of bread and appetizer. We each got a different white wine -- Adam's was really close to the one I drank at Satterfield's. Mine was slightly less acidic, but paired quite nicely with the fish.

FullSizeRender (11)Then came dessert. The fig and cipollini tart wasn't the dessert I was most excited to try, but it was quite different from others I'd experienced during Birmingham Restaurant Week. The bruléed figs that were served with the tart were amazing -- the sugar on them was crisp, and the fruit itself was tender. Though the figs were the dominant element, the onion flavor came through in the second half of the flavor of the tart. The texture was quite lovely, and the flavor combination was unique.

After dinner, we headed to Octane for Daiquiri/Gimlet?/Daiquiri night to round out our tour of previous employers and to see some friends who had headed that way. If anything could round out a night perfectly, that was it.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Oscar's at the Museum

FullSizeRender (8)Oscar's at the Museum is one of my favorite places to grab lunch. If I'm with a friend or by myself, it gives me a good excuse to wander around the Birmingham Museum of Art after I finish my meal. As with most places (for food or art), I don't make it out there as often as I'd like. When I saw that Oscar's was participating in Restaurant Week for a third year in a row, adding them to my list was an easy choice. I've wanted to see the "Rising Up," the Hale Woodruff mural exhibit that's in town, and this was my chance. It's awesome, incidentally.

So was the food. Since this is the week of visiting all my restaurant friends, I got to see Caitlin and Audrey during my time at Oscar's (hi guys!). It was a rainy afternoon, so I wanted something a bit heavier than what I might normally get. Though the fish taco and salad combination looked delicious, the pepperjack chicken sandwich with fries looked to be more filling.

The choice was definitely worth it. Even if my diet didn't consist of "Hey, that looks tasty, I'm eating it," I probably would have sprung for the chicken sandwich anyways. According to Executive Chef Christopher Cobb, they had only offered fish dishes for the past three years and wanted to mix up their offering with tacos and something completely different. His sous chef brought this sandwich this him, and it was delicious enough that it has stuck around.IMG_0480

Though I bolted down a good portion of the sandwich more quickly than is probably healthy, it was good. The grilled chicken gave a slight spice, white the creamy red pepper aioli and pepperjack cheese gave it a bit of richness and more spice. The bacon gave a further hint of smokiness (and, let's be honest, was a huge part of my choice). With the crispy, zesty fries as a side, it was exactly what I needed to get through the rain.IMG_0487

Then came the pie. Oh my goodness, the pie. The filling was light and airy and creamy. Drizzled underneath was a bittersweet lemon sauce, and the whole thing was topped with a goodly dollop of whipped cream. As a whole, it wasn't as overpoweringly bitter or sweet as some of the icebox pies I've had in the past. I ate until I couldn't, and the took the rest home for my husband.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Continental Bakery DT

IMG_0457 This week, I'll be eating with people rather than by myself. I love being able to taste, have quiet, and take in the atmosphere at a restaurant, but I love the community that surrounds food. Making it, sharing it, eating it -- all are a regular part of my interactions with my friends. It's how Adam and I started dating, is part of how/what we barter for, and for me, a way to cement friendships.

Today, I'll be eating at Oscar's at the Museum for lunch. Dinner will be a date night (with a surprise location) for my husband. Yesterday, a friend and I went to Continental Bakery Downtown for lunch. It's only the second time I've been in there in the year and change that they've been open, but the decor is still warm and welcoming.

The Restaurant Week menu was entirely light and refreshing, perfect for a meal on the patio. The entrée and dessert were largely in the style of Alice Waters, offering Old World-style cuisine in a New World setting.

IMG_0466I started with the salad because I was craving veggies -- after a couple days of Restaurant Week under my belt, I'm trying to eat salads everywhere I can. The balsamic reduction on the greens was slightly tangy, with the toasted almonds adding a bit of fat to cut the vinegar's acid. Figs added a nice sweetness to add to the crunch of the greens.

The accompanying tuna-filled tomato was fresh. The tuna mixture inside was a chilled mixture of salty olives, zucchini, and fish. All of it was crispy and fresh -- two things good for a sweltering summer afternoon.

IMG_0473But when it comes down to it, the highlight of the meal was the dessert. Like the entrée, it was light and perfect for a summer's day. Since I was little, I've loved pie crust, sometimes as much as (or more than) what's the in the pie.

The ricotta, topped with a honey and lavender mixture, provided a richness and depth to the dish. Seared figs, which were caramelized quite nicely, added sweetness, and the blueberries gave the whole a bit of tanginess and a slight crunch to round out the dish.

So far, Restaurant Week has been an adventure into new restaurants and styles of cooking. I've visited Satterfield's and BYOB, and can't wait to see what else lies in store.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Satterfield's

Hi, J! One of the biggest reasons I've been excited to blog about food for Restaurant Week is finally getting to visit places where my friends work. Several of my friends from various points in my life are part of the team at Satterfield's. I was lucky enough to have one of them (hi, Lucky!) as my server for the evening.

When I was looking up info on BYOB's lunch offering, I also checked out the Satterfield's menu. Though I was torn between the two apps and the two entrées, the dessert option had me daydreaming all day. After traveling to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail last month, I was excited to get some beignets in my life again.

FullSizeRender (5)But before dessert, there were two other courses. For the first, I chose the cold corn soup. The rich texture and nutty taste were offset by a slight spice that built a bit with every bite. The corn was sweet, and the Arbequina olive oil garnishing the soup added a lovely richness.

Since I was seated at the chef's counter, I had a wonderful view of the kitchen at work. I got to see both the tile fish and the Fudge Family Farms pork entrées being prepared, and both looked absolutely delicious.

IMG_0442

Although the Restaurant Week cocktail sounded tasty, I was more in the mood for a glass of wine. Lucky set me up with an awesome glass of dry white wine that carried a nice acidity and minerality. It was absolutely perfect to cut the richness of the first two courses.

When it came down to it, I chose the pork. When I started eating, I immediately found it was a great choice. From the first bite, it was creamy with a slight crunch from the vegetables. The tomatoes' texture was still spot on, even after their time in the pan, and provided a lovely acidity that balanced the sauce's creaminess.

FullSizeRender (7)But the pork was the real showstopper. After it's added to the pan, the sauce cooks down with the meat and the flavors merge. By the time it's served, it's so tender it almost melts into the sauce. I ate all of it, and if the beignets weren't coming, I would've tried to get more of the pasta and vegetable mix -- it was that good.

Last but not least was the beignets. They were fried to a slightly crispy perfection and coated with sugar. The peaches were still fresh and sweet, and with the homemade vanilla ice cream were the perfect accompaniment for the fried delights. You'll probably get tired of my saying this, but Adam and I will be back here for some sort of special occasion. And if you want to eat from this menu, make your reservations now: Satterfield's isn't open on Sundays.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Birmingham Restaurant Week: BYOB

The back wall Yesterday I made my first stop as a Birmingham Restaurant Week blogger. In preparation, I've been drinking lots of water and trying (and mostly failing) to exercise every few days. I've also been struggling with how best to cover Restaurant Week while also treating my service industry friends well.

Though it's a fantastic, budget-friendly way to try out some of the best places in town, it's also a very difficult time for the people who work there. So if you eat out this week, make reservations, dress appropriately, and be on time. More importantly, be patient, be kind, and FOR THE LOVE, TIP WELL. It's your server's primary source of income, and prices are lower than normal, so be generous. </rant>

My first stop on Friday was for lunch at BYOB. Their name, which stands for "Build Your Own Burger" and "Birmingham's Years of Bands," is decorated entirely with photos of local musicians and memorabilia. Only local music played during service, and while I was there, I took a trip down memory lane listening to Wild Sweet Orange.

Then the food came out. Between the burger and the tots, the portions are large enough to satisfy even the hungriest guest. First came the cheesy tots. IMG_0425

Topped with garlic, cheese, cilantro, queso, scallions, and ghost pepper cheese, the tater tots were rich with a slight spice while still maintaining their crunch. I couldn't stop eating them. I may have spoiled my appetite for the burger.

FullSizeRender (3)And then there was the Topper Price burger. Highlights include the lemon aioli, 1/2 pound patty, and crisp veggies. It's rich and satisfying, and even though I ate a very early lunch, I didn't get hungry between then and dinner.

Adam and I will be coming back for brunch. Prices are extremely reasonable on their regular menu, and they had chicken posted waffles as their brunch special -- one of our favorites.

Check out the Birmingham Restaurant Week website and James Martin's blog The Sipologist for more Restaurant Week coverage. 

Restaurant Week is here!

The BRW Preview Party sold out! Last night, I was so excited for the start of Birmingham Restaurant Week that I had a bit of trouble sleeping. This year, I'm one of the two bloggers burdened with the glorious purpose of covering as many participating restaurants as possible.

Over the next 10 days, I get to eat a lot of fantastic food. Restaurants all over the city are offering prix fixée menus for $10, $15, $20, or $30 for lunch and/or dinner. A bargain and a great meal? Yes please!

I also get the chance to experience and chronicle my service industry friends' work. As much as I will enjoy doing it, I'm also a bit nervous about making sure that the descriptions of what they're doing are accurate and fully represent their work. No pressure, right?

Today, I visited BYOB for lunch and will be headed to Satterfield's for dinner. Before Restaurant Week, I hadn't eaten at either, so it'll be a great chance to try new things. On the 12th (A.K.A. last Wednesday), the Summit Club hosted the sold out Birmingham Restaurant Week Preview Party. Some of the highlights are included below, but I didn't take pictures of all of the tasty food I ate at the event.

Rusty's Bar-B-Que's ribs: amazingly tender ribs with their tangy, slightly sweet vinegar sauce. Also sampled: their sweet, spicy, and white sauces.

Rusty's Bar-B-Q's ribs: amazingly tender ribs with their tangy, slightly sweet vinegar sauce. Also sampled: their sweet, spicy, and white sauces.

Dixie Fish Co. brought a Piña Colada Cake. Their chef, Rick Trent III (or BB, as I know him), wanted something that "tasted like summer."

Dixie Fish Co. brought a Piña Colada Cake. Their chef, Rick Trent III (or BB, as I know him), wanted something that "tasted like summer."

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Slice's bites: thinly sliced watermelon radishes topped with goat cheese, candied pecans (I think), and greens.

The Pantry by Stone Hollow Farmstead brought their A-game with ginger snaps topped with chocolate chevre and candied lemon rind (right) and flatbread topped with soft cheese, caramelized onions, and local tomatoes (left).

The Pantry by Stone Hollow Farmstead brought their A-game with ginger snaps topped with chocolate chevre and candied lemon rind (right) and flatbread topped with soft cheese, caramelized onions, and local tomatoes (left).

Regretfully not pictured: a delicious Krispy Kreme bread pudding from a source I will have to track down and some spicy authentic Thai food.

This week in freelancing

She's probably worrying about money. When I woke up Monday morning, I thought that everything would be different. It was my first day as a full-time freelance writer, and I was certain that I would wake up with all the energy and inspiration to take the publishing world by storm.

Instead, I slept in. If my sleep schedule -- I do my best work between 3 -11 p.m. -- and money worries were factored out, it would have been one of the least stressful non-vacation weeks on record. But even with those two things factored in, it's still been an incredibly productive week. Here's roughly how it went:

Monday Pitched two articles, outlined one, wrote a guest post about bourbon,  itemized my to-do list, cooked, cleaned a bit, and napped.

Tuesday Drafted two previously outlined articles, checked a couple things off my to-do list, tutored and got a pitch rejected. Tuesday evening, a friend and I went to a cocktail reception at Flip Burger at the Summit. We sat with Laura from Alabama Graffiti (Hey, Laura!), and enjoyed salty turkey sliders, blue cheese-y butcher sliders, and stack sliders. To compliment the food, we sipped on extremely raspberry-y Flip Mules.

Wednesday Found out that Adam passed the bar (!!!), napped, celebrated, finished an article about salt and amari for mental_floss, and tutored.

Thursday Put together a budget to find an income goal, freaked out about money, took a nap to deflect the fear, woke up to find I have media credentials for Tales of the Cocktail, and rewrote the intro to an upcoming article for Birmingham magazine.

Friday Friday afternoon, I sat down with a friend to talk about freelancing. What followed was a discussion about fear, change, and growth that has shifted the focus of my writing. More on that another time. I also finished the Birmingham magazine article, pitched mental_floss for May and celebrated my mom's pending retirement and Véro's wedding.

This week was full, and I'm excited to take today off.

Author talk: Carla Jean Whitley

muscle shoals sound studioCarla Jean Whitley is one of the main reasons I call myself a writer. In the four years I've known her, she's been my mentor, friend, confidant and travel companion. While I was interning at Birmingham magazine, she taught me how to approach AP Style (hint: it's not sneakily or from the side) and ways to make sure my articles didn't suck. She's also the author of "Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music," the managing editor of Birmingham magazine and a prolific freelance writer. During the past year, she finished her yoga teacher training and has kept up a regular practice. And yet she still took the time to answer all of my questions on writing.

Clair McLafferty: Why did you start writing when you were young? Carla Jean Whitley: I can no longer recall a time when I didn't write. I suspect my interest was tied to school; I was always a good student, and writing came easily to me. Couple that with positive reinforcement from my teachers and parents, and it's no wonder I kept at it.

However, I also think that interest is intertwined with my love of reading. I've read myself to sleep nearly every night since I was 4 years old, and I often joke that the perfect job would be getting paid to read whatever I want. (OK, OK. I'm not actually kidding.)

CM: What kept you interested? CJW: That positive reinforcement went a long way, and probably fueled my interest up through high school. I also discovered at an early age that I'm excited by sharing ideas, whether my own or those of others. Now, more than a decade into my career, I believe even more strongly in the power of storytelling. Some journalists come to the field because they want to change the world. I ended up here because I like writing and fiction didn't come naturally to me. However, I've seen people better understand their communities because of articles I wrote, and that's humbling and exhilarating.

CM: I understand you published your first book earlier this year. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during that process? CJW: I've worked in journalism for more than a decade, and so I'm accustomed to reporting and writing (and doing so quickly). I expected writing a book would be similar, albeit stretched over a longer time frame with a much higher word count.
After one or two interviews, though, I realized I needed a different approach. My book, "Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music," focuses primarily on a period from 1969 to the early '80s. The studio's work had already been covered by countless media outlets over the years, and it seemed silly to ask people to not only recount something that happened 45 years earlier, but also to retell stories they've shared over the years.
After that a-ha moment, I regrouped, shifting my focus to historical research and relying on interviews to fill in the gaps. It was a daunting task, but I found myself grateful for my history of journalism professor, who required us to use dozens of primary sources in his class.
CM: What were some of the best parts? CJW: Easily, the most fun was reading old Rolling Stone album reviews and periodically realizing songs I love had been recorded in my home state. I already knew about a number of them, of course, but I had no idea George Michael had tracked a version of "Careless Whisper" here.
CM: How has it been received? CJW: The reception has exceeded my expectations! Just this morning--nearly four months after the book's release--I signed 170 copies for a single order. I'm fortunate that so many people are interested in this story, and I think that's a testament to the incredible music recorded there.
CM: How do you balance authorship, your editorial job and freelancing? CJW: It's a constant struggle. My primary role is managing editor at Birmingham magazine, and I frequently check myself to ensure I'm not neglecting my duties. I'm fortunate to work with supportive people and in a flexible environment, but that could be a recipe for disaster if I weren't vigilant about getting my work done and maintaining the magazine as my No.-1 professional priority.
I primarily write freelance stories and books at night and--when a deadline looms--on weekends. However, I try to be judicious about how I use my time. I often have to decline last-minute invitations to spend time with friends because of assignments, but I try to regularly spend quality time with the people closest to me. Most weekends, I'm hanging out with my boyfriend and putting writing to the side. That makes weeknights spent in front of the computer a bit easier. (Plus, my cats love it. They think writing time is snuggle time!)
When book deadlines draw near, I also cut back on the amount of freelancing I do. I have a couple of regular clients (most notably BookPage), and I don't like to put those relationships on hold. However, there were a couple of months earlier this year when I didn't accept BookPage assignments because I needed to focus on my manuscript, and my editor and friend, the fabulous Trisha Ping, understood. I frequently pitch other publications, but I try not to overschedule myself. (The key word here is try.)
CM: What's next? CJW: I've got a second book, a history of beer in Birmingham, scheduled for release in the spring. That, too, will be published by The History Press. After that, who knows? While history is immensely satisfying to research and write, my true love is narrative nonfiction. I'm always brainstorming ways to move in that direction, and perhaps blend the two.
Bonus: Carla Jean's must-have list for writers:
Writer's Digest (worth every cent. Please subscribe.)
Scratch magazine (I love, love, love this digital-only publication. It works to remove the mystery in the relationship between writers and money, and I've learned so much as a result. Their "Who Pays Writers?" database is also wonderful.)
Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists)
Longform (I am obsessed with their podcast!)
And Pocket for keeping it all organized.

Whiskey Trail: Day Three

Charles with one of their fermenters Day three included visits to Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey. Out of all the distilleries we visited, these were the two that were least familiar to me. My introduction to American whiskey was through Jack and Cokes or whiskey and ginger ale highballs. Woodford wasn't as well known within my college circles, and if we were going to buy whiskey, it would probably be Beam or Jack.

One of the coolest parts of each tour was their master distiller. At Woodford, Chris Morris showed us around and answered my (many) questions about booze, history, classifications, and boozy science. Outside of the nerdery, the campus was gorgeous. Theirs is the oldest working bourbon distillery in the country. It's beautiful, and holds the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark.

Jimmy Russell is awesome.

The coolest part of visiting Wild Turkey was getting to hear from Jimmy Russell. He's been making whiskey there for 60 years (!!!) and knows or knew every important player in the bourbon game. In fact, he's been making bourbon for ten years longer than bourbon was legally required to be made within the U.S.

He's also friendly. When he found out I was from Alabama, he said, "Well, War Eagles!" We were able to get him into storytelling mode, and he told anecdotes about his friends, bourbon and changes in legislation. He's a living part of bourbon history, and I want to collect his stories.

The third day was also where the journalists started hanging out and talking less cautiously. After dinner, we came back and spent time sipping Seelbach Cocktails in the Seelbach Hotel bar. Unfortunately, we weren't able to tour the Rathskeller speakeasy area due to time constraints.

I also realized on this day (Wednesday) that I wanted to come back. The science and history and picky details of whiskey production are amazingly interesting, and I want to learn as much as I can about them. There's only so much you can glean from online sources, and I want more. I'll for sure be back.

How Not To Live Your Dreams

I'm on the American Whiskey Trail* and I'm writing. Some of the pubs of my bucket list have accepted my writing on the topic. It's intoxicating. Literally. But I've spent a lot of time not doing a damn thing to further my writing. Sometimes I spend the day as the middle of a blanket burrito wondering what I did to someone in a past life to suck so much. The experiences leading up to the crappy days have taught me how I can avoid living my dreams, and I thought I'd share:

1. Distrust your intuition. In business, it's good to make well-reasoned decisions, but if you have a squicky feeling about a setup, follow your gut. It's easier to walk away amicably before crap gets real than afterwards. 2. Don't write anything down. I'm probably not going to remember what I have to get done today if it's not logged in a to-do list. Last month, I had an idea for a novel...and didn't bother to write it down. It was something about a woman and a dog or a unicorn, but it was bestseller-quality. 3. Let rejection dictate your day. Just stahp. What can you learn from this and do better next time? Can you reshape it to mesh with another publication's needs? If yes, do it, then eat ice cream and binge watch Arrow. Not the other way around. 4. Procrastinate. Believe me, I'm a BOSS at putting off assignments I dread. But it also makes me a hostage to my whims rather than indulging them off the clock. Just do it, man. 5. Go at it alone. If it wasn't for my friends, I'd be in an asylum. They're my support group and cheering squad and wine -- I mean book -- club wrapped into one, and I'd be a mess without them. They're also quite literally the only reason I started writing journalistically and have the resources to keep doing badass work.

*More on that later.

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#allthewhiskey

I found all the whiskey. Two weeks ago, I was invited to go on a media trip around the American Whiskey Trail. After a few seconds of indecision, Adam convinced me that I would be crazy not to.

So far, he’s been right. Before I left, I successfully pitched six related articles. I feel more legitimate about calling myself a writer than ever before. Bonus points: three of them are in a new-to-me publication.

As a bartender, learning about whiskey making and everything that goes into it gives me personal knowledge of the subject. Touring distilleries gives will give me a sense of the place where it's made. Talking with distillers gives me ideas for new ways to use spirits in cocktails. Traveling opens me up to new experiences and people and ideas.

During the trip, I’ve been using the travel time (other than the drive up, duh) to work. I’ve gotten a blog post and a fact-check assignment nailed down, and I’ll hopefully get to work on other things during our drive to Lexington.

If you want to follow the fun in real time, I’ll be using the tag #allthewhiskey to label my tweets and Instagram posts. Over the next few days, we’ll be visiting distilleries including Bulleit, George Dickel, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve. We’ll also be participating in a small producers dinner and touring Vendome Copper.

I’m a happy camper – I’ll be sippin’ and writin’ all week long. Bring on the whiskey, y’all.

How To Pitch An Idea: Honest edition

Photo credit to Mary Katherine Morris Photography Creating article ideas is easy. Getting them to print is much more challenging. In my four years of freelancing, I've gotten better at framing ideas for specific publications and figuring out what would fit at what publication. What follows is my process for sharing my ideas with others.

1. Record a flash of brilliance. It doesn't have to be perfectly formed, but if it doesn't make it into one of my many notebooks, I'll start playing with Tessie and it'll be gone.

2. Google it. Before you even consider finding a market, search the topic. If my idea has been covered, I'll try to find a more creative angle to us as an approach. If my exact topic has been covered, that item stays in my notebook, but gets put on the back burner until I can figure out how to tackle it.

3. List publications. If this article could fit at one of my bucket list publications, I'll pitch it there first. If/when it gets rejected, I can restructure the idea and present it to one of my mainstays.

4. Draft the pitch e-mail. Obsess over every comma, word choice, and sentence structure. After the content is out of my brain, I reshape it (and reshape it and reshape it) until it blends the publication's voice and style with my own.

5. Hit send. My usual ritual is to close one eye, stare warily at the screen, pray for minor errors, and click. Then I jump back and watch it leave my computer and freak out.

6. Wait. Now that it's sent, what tiny and idiotic errors did I make in the e-mail? OH GOD, I MISPLACED A COMMA.

7. Keep waiting. Don't give in to self-doubt. Editors are busy people, and if I don't hear back within a week, I'll send a follow up message.

Content and Context: Cocktail Syrups

Behind the bar at Octane. Photo credit to Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark. Hi, my name is Clair, and I'm a nerd. For more than a year now, I've been writing a column for mentalfloss.com on cocktail chemistry. This setup combines my love of science with my passion for classic cocktails, and helps me to find new ways to communicate complex topics in food science.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about flavored syrups: grenadine is used in a surprising number of classic shaken whiskey drinks, and other flavored syrups can class up a simple drink in a hurry. There are many, many ways to make syrups, but they all have their pros and cons. Check it out: How To Make Flavored Cocktail Syrups.

Content and context: "Time Crunch"

I'm obsessed with my #tinyTARDIS Hey, it's a new section on my blog! As I mentioned at the beginning of Write Like Crazy, I'll be posting little blurby entries about articles that are published this month. Since I write for publications that span weddings, Birmingham, farming, UAB, cocktails, nerdiness and general interest, the content within this section should add a lot of variety to the general blog.

Even with all that experience, it's still difficult for me to write about things that are going on in my own life. This Love, Inc. article was especially difficult. Not only did it deal with a very personal decision (moving up the wedding date), but it also forced me to decide how much detail-obsessiveness I could own. In all honesty, I've pretty much planned the bulk of the wedding or have set things in motion to finish it out.

So, for all you soonlyweds and curious kids out there, here's Time Crunch: 3 Things To Do When You Move Up The Date.