You didn’t have to ask me twice. I had already delved into the gastronomic pleasures of “the Heart of Dixie” in previous visits and knew of its celebrated flavors, chefs and delectable creations.
Each region of Alabama has its own specialties and unique flair, but together the state is a must-experience escapade for everyone, from the mildly adventuresome to die-hard foodies–those, like myself, who don’t simply eat to live, but rather live to eat!
The brochure “100 Places to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” is a wonderful appetizer to all the state has to offer–from soft-shell crab po’boys at Mary’s Place in Coden to blackened catfish at Cecil’s Public House in Alexandria City, spring rolls with peanut sauce at Lek’s Taste of Thailand in Montgomery, chicken breast sandwiches at Restaurant on Grumbles Alley in Selma and everything in between.
This current adventure is just one of several culinary media tours designed to highlight and celebrate 2012 as “the Year of Alabama Food.”
My first stop for this odyssey of epicurean indulgences was Huntsville. Located in the heart of the Tennessee Valley. Huntsville–the fourth largest city in the state–is a city of historic contrasts.
First settled in 1805 by frontiersman John Hunt, the city was originally named Twickenham after Alexander Pope’s English home but was renamed “Huntsville” in 1811. The name Twickenham did not disappear however, and today the Twickenham Historic District is known as the largest antebellum district–featuring classical, Federal and Italianate architecture styles–in Alabama.
Huntsville served as the state’s temporary capital in 1819 when Alabama was awarded statehood as the 22nd state of the Union. The location for this historic decision was made at what is now Alabama Constitution Village, an outdoor history museum that details life in the city at that time.
In general, Huntsville has always been a driving economic force. Known at one point as “King Cotton’s Realm,” the city was the center of cotton production of the day, evidenced today by the abundance of plantation-style architecture that still exists.
In the mid-1800s, Union forces in the Civil War decided to capitalize on the city’s location, basically setting up shop here with a communications center that played a pivotal role in several key battles. Great places to learn more about the Civil War in and around the city include the Weeden House Museum, an 1819 home that was requisitioned for use by federal officers, and the Historic Huntsville Railroad Depot, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Highlighted by the picturesque, southernmost ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, spectacular views of Monte Sana (Spanish for “Mountain of Health”), which rises 1,600 feet above sea level and is the home of Monte Sana State Park, and the mighty Tennessee River, the city is immensely proud of its cotton-dominated economic roots–albeit roots that thrived on the backs of slave labor–dating back to the early 1800s, and its current reputation as the forefront of international space and science technology.
BLACK HISTORY IN HUNTSVILLE
African-American historical sites and attractions in Huntsville include the Cavalry Hills neighborhood, where the 10th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers made an encampment in the late 1800s, and Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church, organized in 1820 as one of the many so-called Black Primitive Baptist or Missionary Baptist churches founded specifically as a place for slaves to worship. Today, the church, although not in its original location, remains an active, thriving spiritual community that, at 186 years old, is recognized as the oldest Black church in the state.
The Old Georgia Graveyard, where the original Saint Bartley’s was founded, is the final resting place for many slaves. It is thought by many to have gotten its name because a great number of the slaves in the Huntsville area supposedly came from Georgia with the slave masters.
Glenwood Cemetery is another historic Black cemetery in town where many distinguished personalities, including former slaves, civic leaders, clergymen, war veterans, educators, politicians and many other influential African-Americans, are buried.
THE GROWTH OF A NEW CITY
Commerce via shipping along the Tennessee River as well as the many railroad lines here was vital to the city’s flourishing cultural, commercial and social landscape. As a result, Huntsville experienced very rapid growth, making it highly attractive to not only entrepreneurs, workers and investors, but also to the international scientific community.
Huntsville was literally put on the world map in 1950 when a team of more than 100 German scientists came here to participate in a special Army missile program, resulting in the now-legendary Redstone rocket. This project eventually led to other high-profile satellite and space projects, including the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Today, Huntsville is also known as “Rocket City,” and it’s the proud home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the largest tourist attraction in Alabama, which we’ll cover in an upcoming adventure.
Much more about Huntsville is coming up, but for now the captain has instructed us to return to our seats, buckle up and prepare for arrival in Huntsville, Ala.
- Alabama Constitution Village: (265) 564-8100, www.earlyworks.com/the-museums/constitution-village
- Hunstville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau: (800) 843-0468, (265) 551-2230, www.huntsville.org
- Historic Huntsville Railroad Depot: (265) 564-8100, www.earlyworks.com/the-museums/train-depot
- Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church: (265) 536-6266, www.saintbartleypbchurch.org
- The Year of Alabama Food: www.yearofalabamafood.com
- U.S. Space and Rocket Center: (800) 63-SPACE, www.ussrc.com
- Weeden House Museum: (265) 536-7718, www.weedenhousemuseum.com