Food Feature: Muscle Souls

Feeling it in Alabama

Soul is an elusive quality. Many artists, whether in the studio or kitchen, profess to turn out a soulful product, but if it has really got it, it should send a chill up your spine. The chill comes when you feel the love, pain and joy that someone has put into the food or music or words they create. It is a direct personal connection; a corporation cannot deliver soul.

Muscle Shoals, a "metropolis" comprised of four different municipalities on either side of the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama, was once a center for studios specializing in soul music. Although several studios continue to produce music, it's mostly of the modern country variety, and artists record there mostly because of the mystique of the Muscle Shoals name. The industrial development brought in by the construction of Wilson Dam during World War I has long since stagnated. The positive side of this sad story is that the green-and-red-signed, cookie-cutter corporate restaurants have not completely taken over the area. Indeed, a bit of soul remains.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia can provide some background to the story, but I would just head straight to the W.C. Handy Birthplace in Florence to learn about the "Father of the Blues." Handy was a black bandleader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, despite his sobriquet, didn't necessarily invent the blues, but did pave the way for African-American music to become American music by publishing the first blues composition and popularizing black folk music.

See where Handy's work led by crossing the river to Muscle Shoals to visit the FAME Recording Studios. Here Clarence Carter recorded "Slip Away," and Aretha Franklin belted out "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." The studio has occupied the non-descript building since 1963, and the cheap paneling on the gold record-lined walls and the 30-year-old furniture look like they have been there since Wilson Pickett prowled the halls. There's no formal tour, but the staff will show you around if there are no recording sessions going on. Call first to find out.

If soul music makes you think of soul food, there are several options in the area. Alabama is known for favoring a mustard-based barbecue sauce, but I didn't find this much in the northern part of the state. I'd read about a unique but rather disturbing-sounding sauce made from mayonnaise and vinegar popular in the region, but apparently it's confined to the Decatur-Huntsville area. Instead, in Muscle Shoals, among the several joints I sampled, I found a sort of micro-regional style of barbecue.

The similarities between Brooks Barbecue in Muscle Shoals and Dick Howell's Barbeque Pit in Florence can be traced to the fact that the African-American owners are cousins. Both shops are housed in small buildings with no real dining rooms, so you'll have to take your Styrofoam container elsewhere. The plate of pulled pork ($5.80 at Brooks) comes with a superb vinegar-based hot sauce. The meat at both locations has an excellent texture, lean but tender, with no gross bits. There's not much smoked flavor or spices, just honest-to-shit meat from a pig, cooked slow. A steady stream of customers testifies to the fact that the family has put its soul into the food.

Rick Lanning's Barbecue, by contrast, is more white bread than the slices you typically get with your barbecue. The Florence location features barn-red walls and country kitsch decorations, like the smiling porcine face of the animal being served up. This is the place to go to eat with a real fork and suck down sweet tea, but the pulled pork doesn't measure up to Brooks and Dick Howell's. The meat is of good quality and without a lot of smoked flavor or spices, but the pieces are smaller and drier. Satisfying, but no chill.

For straight-up meat-and-three soul food, there's the Hollywood Inn in Florence. I'm not sure what inspired the name: Unmatched tables and chairs crowd the main room of the utilitarian building. I wouldn't have ventured in, except that cars filled the small parking lot and were lining the side street. Well-dressed professionals and scruffy backwoods families alike abide the surroundings for honest home cooking.

There must be a dozen sides to choose from — collard and turnip greens, mac 'n' cheese, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, and boiled or fried okra. A wonderful piece of cornbread, more greasy than sweet, comes with the meal. The place is authentic and you won't leave hungry. Not the best I've ever had, but soul-satisfying.

Still on a quest for more heartfelt experiences? To find out what inspired Southern-rockers and local boys the Drive-by Truckers, drive down to the river from Sheffield to a boarded-up power plant building that was once used as a studio. There's no tour of course, but sitting on the hood of my car in the sandy parking lot with a can of Bud and a belly full of soul food, I definitely felt a chill.


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