There is a reason that redemption comes after murder. I suppose you could redeem yourself first and murder after, but that’s just not the natural order of things…
Eric and I pull into a small town called Falkville in Alabama not too far from Birmingham after a seven-hour drive from Charlotte, North Carolina. “My Aunt lives out here… somewhere…” I think out loud as we drive through land that looks uninteresting and rural in every direction.
Grey, everything looks grey. The blue sky is smoky and dusty orange from a controlled burn, the land has yet to spring into green, the trees thin, twiggy, and barren.
We pass countless little churches with spiky white steeples pointing rigid and straight up to the heavens. The signs outside quote and paraphrase various bible scripture that do more to scare people into prayer than welcome with open arm: “When you die, you will meet God” and “Heaven or Hell, you choose.”
Eric and I come up with our own versions, the best being: “Admit mistakes and get good returns.”
And in between these small simple white country parishes are supersized churches. Religious compounds. They look powerful. A twenty-foot banner hangs from the side of one Baptist mega church like an advertisement for a new movie: The hammer, the steeple, the body…
This church looks like a business not a humble place of worship and I can’t help but to wonder if there are actually enough people in this sparse county to fill an auditorium that no doubt seats 2000 people or more. And I wonder if the little parishes are even full on Sunday.
This part of Alabama is a dry county. And there is something about this that irks me. Well anyone trying to tame my bottomless wine addiction puts me on the defense.
The people that I meet at the truck stops and along the way to ask for directions, because my GPS is lost once again searching for signal, are warm and gracious. They are friendly in earnest wanting to help and chat about where we are coming from and where we are going to. They are as curious about us as we are about them.
Why here? Why would my Aunt want to live here? This is some lonely living. No movie theaters, no bustling down town. The closest center of action, besides the supersized Babtist churches, is a Wal Mart Mega store where you can pick up groceries, clothes, jewelry, electronics, and more. No beer though. You cannot pick up beer. No ma’am.
We peel off Highway 31 onto Old Highway 31 and my GPS is telling me my Aunt lives on the left but there is nothing but hay bails on the left for miles.
We look right and see a long gravel driveway leading up to a gracious old brick house. I see my Aunt’s P.T. Cruiser parked outside and know this must be the Tune Farm: Annie Tune’s Certified Organic farm.
We pull the Budget truck slowly up to the back porch where a harem of multi colored cats are lounging lazily and looking distrustful of our presence through bright yellow and green eyes. A fuzzy grey jezabel walks to my feet and curls her bushy tail around my ankles attempting to inlisit a back scratch.
I knock on the door and nobody answers. God, I hope we’re at the right place! We walk in and I know we’ve hit the mark from the mix-matched antiques that have a certain country comfort kind of feel. It’s like an Anthropologie home store, feminine and rustic.
I call through the house for Annie and no one answers. I run up the stairs searching the five bedrooms for signs of life but find nothing but space heaters buzzing room to room.
The only sign of life besides the cats are a pair of peacocks that make the most God awful squawking noises.
The sun is setting and the temperature drops drastically. I thought Alabama was supposed to be warm but it is freezing cold. Much colder than New York. Eric is still in shorts and doesn’t seem to mind the frostbite nipping at his heels.
We search the tool shed, the old animal barn, the back forty my teeth chattering uncontrollably and come up empty handed. Then we find the greenhouse.
“Lordy, lordy! It’s Missy Glaze!” My Aunt calls, dropping her hand shovel and coming up to me with wide stretched arms. “I jus can’t believe you’re here!”
She gives me a big hug, grabs my chattering jaw with her warm hands and says, “We better get you inside! You’re freezin’ to death!”
This is a big farm for one lone farmer and Annie has through a stroke of luck or genious or both found two young farmers recently graduated from UC Berkeley to intern for a year.
They come sauntering up to the greenhouse weapons of mass destruction in hand (pitchfork and shovel) and greet us with big hugs. They are, with no condescension implied, adorable. Their worn-in overalls covered in dirt, layers of flannel soft with use, mud caked work boots, and generous smiles impress me.
Suzie and Oliver are doing what they want to be doing: farming the land and making it grow. Inspired by the prospect of forming their own CSA they have been steadily preparing the farm for Spring. And they are bubbling with ideas, fresh with inspiration, and loving every minute of having a big ol’ farm to call their own and make of it what they want.
Suzie is a kindred spirit and earth mother. She likes to grow things. In the kitchen she has glass jars filled with different fermenting concoctions. Her latest fascination being homemade Kombucha. She grows fermented chains called ‘mothers’ and places them in various sweetened teas to create vinegary refreshing cold drinks.
And she bakes bread. God does she bake some mean bread. We’re talking whole wheat soft loaves stuffed with cheddar cheese & jalapenos and dill & garlic. Bread to break and sustain the heartiest appetites slathered with homemade butter.
To add to the fermented list is sauerkraut pickled with cranberry juice and carroway (a throw back to her Polish ancestry) and hard apple cider, a prisoner’s desperate and delightful deliverance. I eye the Happy Jack wondering if she’ll miss a gallon of it if it magically disappears.
In the vein of true Southern hospitality Annie and I hit the road to find alcohol. A little time alone with my Aunt is just fine by me and we throw the PT Cruiser into drive and speed down the Old Highway to the next county of Decator which promises some cheap whiskey, wine, and beer.
“Don’t get caught!” Oliver calls to us through the kitchen doorway laughing at two old women in need of drink. We buy our bottled sins and make a quick trip to a BBQ house to pick up a gallon of Brunswick stew and a coconut cream pie to take home.
“You can buy a gallon of stew here? I don’t know why, but that just sounds wrong.”
“Oh yeah, you can get a big ol’ gallon jar of it. Suzie loves the glass jars anyways. She makes her Kombucha in them.” Annie and I drive and drive and pull up the gravel driveway to her cozy farmhouse. We enter to the smell of fresh baked bread…
and a wonderful cumin and blackeyed pea stew with wilted arugula from the garden and a little bacon grease for flavor. A tossed salad graces the table with lettuce picked only minutes before.
“I’m not leaving.” I announce.
“Me neither.” Eric chimes in both of us in foodie heaven.
We put the Brunswick stew in the refrigerator for another day since Suzie and Oliver have cooked their hearts out in our absence. I pour red wine for the ladies and crack Budweisers for the men. Actually Annie and I are double fisting with wine and beer. Well, why not. Budweiser tastes more like flavored water anyways.
We eat like Kings. Polish off the magnum of table wine and an 18 pack of Bud and hit the hay. I sleep deep on a featherbed with a little space heater desperately trying unsuccessfully to do her job.
In the morning Suzie and Oliver are at it again cooking up food so fresh and delicious I’d pay twice the amount of a fancy restaurant just for second helpings. She spoons a big dollop of her cranberry sauerkraut next to my farm fresh eggs and places some strong black coffee next to my seat. I scarf down.
“I will buy your sauerkraut for my restaurant. Anything you can or jar I will buy. Just tell me what you want for it and we’ll work it out.”
“Really? That could be cool. I’ve never thought of selling any of it. I guess I’ll have to perfect the recipes.”
“Well you should think about it. And don’t worry about perfecting it – you’re already there. I’d hire you in my kitchen just so I could eat your bread everyday.”
After breakfast we hit the local flea market where my Aunt Annie runs the parking lot collecting 50 cents per car. There is everything to be found here. Animals, chickens, saddles, food, antique cast iron pots and pans, junk, and blue eggs.
Oliver, Suzie, and a new addition to the intern team, Alex, find a shabby looking dog in a cage and debate with Annie over whether or not they should buy it for $20 and take pity on its sorry state. It’s a mixed breed: beagle and hound.
We talk the owner down to $8 and he swears tooth and nail through tobacco stained yellow teeth that the dog does not bark or chase chickens. The dog is not a chicken killer. Annie gives him a once over through her crystal clear turquoise eyes suspecting that he’s fuller in shit than his crusty appearance is letting on.
We take the dog anyway against better judgment.
“We need a dog that will kill the groundhogs.” Suzie and Oliver justify their nurturing hearts. The other dog on the farm is a gentle rotwilder that prefers swamp swimming to hunting.
We get the dog back to the farm after I get shooed away from one woman’s stall for taking photographs of her $1 grab bag collection (why? Did she think I was going to copy her idea?!!). Our motley crew is feeling good after our dog rescue. It is a sweet dog.
At the farm the dog is unleashed. It makes friends with Carla the rotwilder, a good sign, then it takes off after one of the chickens semi killing it by grabbing its feathery neck and thrashing the chicken back and forth. The other chickens squawk and we run over to the crime scene.
Annie is in shock and visibly upset. She pens up the dog who immediately begins barking its head off and yodeling for us in hound-dog fashion to unleash it. Oliver grabs an axe and lops off the chicken’s head to put it out of its misery.
But now our crew is left with a chicken and no idea what to do with it. I’ve gutted and plucked numerous feathered creatures and skinned rabbits and baby boar, but none that are freshly dead. And I’ve heard it’s hard to get the feathers off of fresh kill.
After quickly researching the farmers put a big pot of water on to boil. Dunk the chicken by the feet into the pot and pull off the feathers. They come off easily. They singe the pinfeathers with a torch and debate on how to gut it.
I explain that I like to go through the neck sticking my fingers up to the top of the breast bone and fingering the lungs loose then reaching back further and pulling out intestines and all in one clean swipe.
But a book on Country Living says to cut the chicken across the thighs to gut it. I’m wondering if this is the way to go with a freshly murdered chicken as opposed to one that has had time to firm up with rigamortis.
I’ve also cleaned chickens through the butt hole. I know that sounds bizarre. But in France we clean capons through the backend. You cut the anus a tiny bit larger and then pull all the innards out while everyone in the kitchen cracks jokes at your expense in French. Executive chefs included.
The reason for this innard enima is so the skin over the breasts is not torn. And the opening around the neck is kept smaller. It is very important that a whole cooked bird has beautiful crispy skin that is fully in tact.
Oliver, very much wanting to gut his first chicken, makes an expert incision with a buck knife from thigh to thigh reminding me of a field cesarean section. Warm gelantinous yellow fat spills forth but no intestines. The crew gathers around and debates the next step. They are fearful of puncturing the gall sack and ruining the flesh of the bird.
I’m afraid my gall sack warning has caused hesitation so I shove my hand in the bird and reach far back to the neck into the warm gushy innards and blood feeling around for the lungs to loosen and pull as much as I can out.
The blob does not come out in one neat grab probably because the bird is still warm. There are still odds and ends to rip out and Alex and Oliver take turns reaching in and fishing out the rest.
We wash the bird, crack open some beers to celebrate, and feel mightily redeemed that we have turned a wrongfully murdered chicken into something useful like dinner.
Eric and I leave the farm and hit the road aiming the truck towards Oklahoma City by way of Tennessee and Mississippi. Suzie packs us lunch and hands me a large jar with Kombucha mothers so I can make my own when I get back home. I squeeze Annie promising to come back in the Spring.
Goodbye Sweet home Alabama, hello Oklahoma O.K.