Saturdays in the South: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

First published in Current Magazine in 2007.

The history of college football would be decidedly different had there never been a land grant college erected in the tiny Alabama hamlet of Tuscaloosa way back in 1831. Few programs in the entire country can boast a history as rich as that of the University of Alabama. From Don Hutson to Bart Starr to Kenny Stabler the list of men who earned their stripes at the Capstone reads like a roll call of football’s superstars. And none stands taller than Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, regarded by many as the greatest football coach of all time.

Bryant’s formidable shadow still falls across the campus located an hour southwest of Birmingham. The stadium bares his name as does the street where the stadium resides, a museum, and the athletic department’s academic center. Some 25 years after his passing, Bryant’s iconic hound’s-tooth hat remains a perpetual image of Crimson Tide football.

The real irony of all of this tradition is that campus festivities are actually quite new to Tuscaloosa. For nearly a century Alabama played most of their games, especially the important ones, at Legion Field in Birmingham. But, as we will soon see not all of the game day merriment is recent.

Like a beacon calling the Crimson Nation to its safety, Denny Chimes stands watch over the campus. From the families playing games on the Quad to the cry of “Fumble!” whenever a dish crashes to the floor at Pepito’s (on the Strip) to the solemn Plaza of Champions, Tuscaloosa is a world class destination for any serious tailgater. The likenesses of Wade Wallace, Frank Thomas, and Gene Stallings join Bryant’s as a reminder of what once was. An empty space clearly intended for a future statue is the promise of what is to come.

From all four corners of the state, Tide fans set out with drinks, snacks, and CD’s of historic games to lay siege on this small town on the Black Warrior River. For most a visit to the Bryant Museum is part of the ritual. Some spy the sidewalks for the handprints of their favorite player. And for others a visit to Butler Field to watch the Million Dollar Band rehears is a must. Coach Bryant was a regular at The Waysider (Greensboro Ave.) and it is a popular breakfast spot with old favorites like steak and eggs or country ham and red-eye gravy.

Strategically located in the literal and metaphorical center of campus is the imposing edifice of Bryant-Denny Stadium which looms over the entire scene like a sentinel. One of the largest and most impressive looking stadiums in the country, Bryant-Denny is like Mecca to many Crimson faithful, 92,138 of them each week.

There is some trepidation over the pre-game ceremony this year as new coach Nick Saben has announced that much of the traditional pageantry, most of which had been centered around recordings of Coach Bryant, will be toned down. Some believe that it is a chance for the Alabama fan base to move forward, but most view it as an assault on their tradition. Surely the administration will strike a fair balance which will appease everyone.

After the game it is time to celebrate another Bama victory. Thousands head back to their RV’s while many others flood the Strip – a segment of University Blvd. near the stadium that is saturated with bars, clubs, and bistros. The Strip has no shortage of places to enjoy a post game celebratory libation like Rama Jama’s and Legacy. Gallette’s is home to the prettiest girls in town and the official Tuscaloosa game day cocktail, the Yellowhamer. But if you are bar hopping you would be remiss without going to The Houndstooth.

There seems to be some debate as to what is the best restaurant in Tuscaloosa with two contenders standing above the rest. Kozy’s (3510 Loop Road) has continental cuisine like Duck al ’Orange, Stuffed Lamb Chops, and Grilled Summer Lobster all prepared under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Steve Brenner. Evangeline’s (1653 McFarland Blvd. N) offers coastal cuisine and seasonal dishes using only the freshest ingredients. Both placed either first or second in almost every category in TuscaloosaRestaurant.com’s reader’s poll so it stands to reason you will enjoy yourself whichever you chose.

For those looking for the best burger in town walk over to Mug Shots (Greensboro Avenue). For barbecue fans there is legendary Dreamland (15th Avenue E) and Bottomfeeder’s (5th Street) which has both ribs and chicken plus great fried catfish. For many tailgaters Sunday brunch is a big part of the weekend and Cafe Venice provides T-town’s best. The menu features specialties like red pepper soup, spaghetti with feta cheese topping, and a brunch standard, waffles. A gentle string ensemble soothes those dealing with a hangover.

Barbecue and fried catfish not withstanding, the most prevalent victual on game days are wings. Many specialize like EJ’s Wings & Things (4th St.), Zaxby’s (Courtney Dr.), Wing Zone (McFarland Blvd. E), Wingfinger’s (University Blvd.) Buffalo Phil’s (On Campus in Mary Burke Hall) and Wing’s Sports Grill (Harper Lee Dr.) owned by former Tide All-American Bob Baumhower. Even Bottomfeeder’s gets into the act with smoked wings.

If football is the South’s chief spiritual experience then Alabama is its holy land. As Clay Travis of CBS Sportsline once said, “. . . people in the state of Alabama are college football fans, period. They care about their own teams, but they also know a ton about your team. Probably more than you do.”

Grilled Wings with Alabama White BBQ Sauce
Recipe Type: Appetiser
Author: Stuart Reb Donald
Prep time: 8 hours
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 9 hours
Serves: 3-4
Ingredients
    GRILLED WINGS WITH ALABAMA WHITE BBQ SAUCE:

  • 2 dozen chicken wings
  • Salt and pepper to taste
    ALABAMA WHITE BBQ SAUCE:

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Instructions
  1. For the sauce, mix ingredients together and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before using.
  2. Season wings with salt and pepper.
  3. On a gas or charcoal grill, cook wings until done (an internal temperature of 160°).
  4. Brush sauce lightly over chicken the last few minutes of cooking and/or use as a dipping sauce.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less
Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
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2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
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2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
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