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11 Things to Love about Birmingham, Alabama

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Birmingham was founded in 1871 as a steel-making center. Today, it is a medical and financial center, as well as a lively hub of cultural activities and engaging historical sites. It also has beautiful golf courses, year-round events, extraordinary shopping and world-class dining. On a recent three-day trip there, I spent some time finding out what makes this city a destination. It has a little bit of everything to share with tourists. It’s definitely worth your time.

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Make sure you make these 11 things (including a Southern Recipe) a part of your holiday. It’s an eclectic but winning collection of the best of Birmingham.

  1. Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham-Downtown-Tutwiler Hotel Experience Birmingham’s past updated with modern amenities at this historic hotel. Free hot breakfast. Rest and relax in a room or suite featuring an LCD flat screen TV with all HD cable channels, a work desk with adjustable lamp, a lap desk, a coffee maker, an ergonomic desk and free high-speed internet access. Centrally located. Walkable to restaurants, museums, libraries and restaurants.
  2. Golden Flake Potato Chips – Known as the crispiest chip in the South, Golden Flake potato chips have a rich Southern history spanning back to humble beginnings in 1923. Not to be missed is the Dill Pickle Flavored Potato Chips. Others have tried to make these and failed. These are perfection.
  3. The Peanut Depot peanuts – A Birmingham fixture since 1907, the old roasting ovens in this historic building crank out thousands of pounds of roasted peanuts every week. This is an attraction and taste combination you need to get to. Walked in to the sounds and smells of roasting peanuts. Very cool! Ask for a sampling before you buy from the friendly staff. Must try: The Cajun flavored peanuts!
  4. Brunch, Dixie Fish Company – This is a locals favorite and for good reason. Enjoy live music on the patio while you feast on Bananas Foster, Crab Cake and Eggs, Eggs Benedict and other delicacies while you people watch. Enjoy Red Snapper or Royal Red Shrimp knowing it’s fresh from the waters just down the road… “that day” kind of fresh.
  5. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute - The Institute captures the spirit and drama of the countless individuals---both well-known and unsung---who dared to confront racial discrimination and bigotry. Take the one hour tour for a life-changing view of BCRI as a “living institution” that views the lessons of the past as crucial to understanding heritage past, present and future. Since opening its doors in 1992, BCRI has been visited by more than 2 million. Bring a Kleenex. Yup, it’s that touching.
  6. Kelly Ingram Park- Be part of the staging area for Civil Rights demonstrations lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other movement leaders via sculpture viewing. Self cell phone tour of about 30 minutes. This is memorable. The sculptures tell a vivid vibrant story that will make you catch your breath.
  7. Jones Valley Teaching Farm- Jones Valley Teaching Farm supports school communities as they work to improve student achievement and create healthier families through real-world learning and community problem-solving. Chickens scratch and strut in their coop, locals purchase farm fresh produce, and some of the South's best chefs help guide a meaningful mission statement on the once-vacant lot, now frequented by local elementary school students digging in the dirt. Those who learn to plant greens will eat greens. Nice way to spend an hour.
  8. Barber Motorsports Museum - Home to the world’s best motorcycle collection, the museum has over 1,200 vintage and modern motorcycles, race cars and boasts the largest collection of Lotus cars. The collection is the largest of its kind in the world and is housed in an impressive facility. There are approximately 600 of the 1200 motorcycles on display at any given time. These bikes range from 1902 to current-year production. The museum displays common street bikes as well as rare one-off Gran Prix race machinery. If you can’t find something to drool over at this place, you’re just not trying. Located on a 830 acre site that includes a world class 2.38 mile racetrack.
  9. Vulcan Park and Museum - What kind of city builds a huge statue of a burly, bearded, bare-bottomed man to tower over its entire population? One that never forgets its roots. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, watches over all of Birmingham as a symbol of the city’s iron origins–and the ever-present spark of its unconquerable spirit. Birmingham’s colossal statue is the world's largest cast iron statue and considered one of the most memorable works of civic art in the United States. Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, it has overlooked the urban landscape of Alabama's largest city since the 1930s. Take an elevator ride to the top of the statue for incredible views of the city.
  10. Avondale Brewing Company – There’s a craft beer movement brewing in Birmingham. Among the local’s favorite is Avondale when they combine the charm of a historic town, the passions of several good friends, and a rooted respect for the craft of brewing. There motto is “Trunks Up.” You’ll have to visit it to find out why. I guarantee it’s worth your time and taste buds.
  11. Flounder with Lady Pea Succotash. Until you can get to Birmingham yourself, here’s a great Southern recipe for you to try from one of Birmingham's premiere chefs.

Flounder with Lady Pea Succotash
Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham
Excerpted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table by Frank Stitt (Published by Artisan Books). Copyright © 2004.

If lady peas are not available, substitute favas or sweet peas.

Succotash

1/2 small red onion, cut into 1-inch-thick slices

1 cup cooked lady peas (or substitute pink-eyes, crowders or cranberry beans; see recipe on page 15 of Frank Stitt's Southern Table for cooking instructions)

1/4 cup pot liquor from the peas, reserved

2 tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 ears corn, husked, boiled for 4 minutes, and kernels cut off the cob

1/2 small shallot, finely minced

4 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

4 sprigs dill leaves, coarsely chopped

A few chives, finely chopped

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling if desired

Flounder

Four 6- to 8-ounce flounder fillets, skin on or skinless

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, such as canola

1 lemon, cut into wedges

To make the succotash, prepare a hot grill or preheat the broiler. Grill or broil the onion slices, turning once, until lightly charred on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Let cool, then cut into 1/4-inch-dice.

In a large bowl, combine the charred onion, peas, tomatoes, corn, shallot, basil, dill and chives. Stir in the sherry vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil; taste, and adjust the seasoning. Set aside.

To prepare the fish, heat a heavy skillet just large enough to hold the fillets over medium-high heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Add the oil to the hot skillet and heat until shimmering. Reduce heat to medium, place fillets skin side up in the skillet, and cook until nicely golden on the first side, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn the fish and cook until just done, another 3 to 4 minutes. (Peek inside one fillet to check for doneness — the thickest part should have turned to pearly white.) While the fish finishes cooking, add the succotash and pea pot liquor to a sauté pan and cook over medium heat until heated through. Transfer the fish to serving plates and serve with the succotash and lemon wedges. Drizzle each fillet with a splash of olive oil, if desired.

Extra Tip

The Alabama Department of Tourism has a mobile app you might want to download called, "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die." The mobile app tempts users to sample some of Alabama's best local restaurants. Download on the App Store | Get it on Google Play

Among the favored dishes: Baked grits from Highlands Bar and Grill, broiled seafood platter from The Bright Star, Baby Bleu Salad from the Homewood Gourmet, Athenian grouper from the Fish Market, a Pork-Stuffed Tater from Saw's BBQ, and Bouillabaisse from Hot and Hot Fish Club.

Thirty-six high-definition images of different signature dishes from some of Alabama's local restaurants and state-wide chains are laid-out gallery-style. For more information, visit www.artofalabamafood.com.

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