- WHAT: Author Monica Tapper will be signing copies of the book on Feb. 3, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
- WHERE: Alabama Tourism Department Gift Shop inside the Alabama Center for Commerce, 401 Adams Ave.
This story is part of the Montgomery Advertiser’s Black History Month series running throughout February. For more Black History Month stories, including digital-only features, visit montgomeryadvertiser.com.
The laughs, the smiles, the sounds of people chatting and plates clattering. Imagine what the 1950s must have been like inside Georgia Gilmore’s Montgomery home as she fed civil rights leaders and foot soldiers, and helped fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Along with the regular offerings from the kitchen of “Big Mama” was a rich, dreamy pound cake that even Martin Luther King Jr. enjoyed.
Now you can too.
“I love the fact that you and I can eat what they ate,” said Monica Tapper, author of the new book “A Culinary Tour Through Alabama History.”
Tapper will be signing copies of the book on Feb. 3, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. in Montgomery at the Alabama Tourism Department Gift Shop inside the Alabama Center for Commerce, 401 Adams Ave.
More about Georgia Gilmore:Plenty with little and most without a lot: Lessons from Georgia Gilmore
Though Gilmore’s pound cake recipe is among several included, this not a cookbook. Tapper said she wouldn’t feel right calling it that, since she doesn’t cook. Tapper had a friend to help her go through the recipes and prepare several dishes from Alabama’s past.
“This is about the history through the food,” said Tapper, who described her work as a travel book. “This is a way for you to get out and see the state”
For instance, fruity jars of sweetmeats — something akin to jelly or jam, but with a taste and texture all its own — were a favorite Alabama’s first lady Sarah Gayle in 1832, and of Tapper today.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that,” Tapper said.
Some other recipes weren’t to Tapper’s taste, especially coffee made from okra seeds. This became a thing during the Civil War, when coffee drinkers suddenly found themselves with no actual coffee. Tapper said they tried a variety of locally sourced ways to try to make it.
“Okra coffee was by far the most foul thing I’ve ever had in my life,” said Tapper. While it smells like regular coffee, the okra version is very bitter. “I do not recommend it.”
Tapper’s also not a fan of hominy (dried corn kernels treated with alkali), and said she and her friend didn’t even try cooking possum.
“Everything else, I thought turned out pretty well,” she said.
Tapper also sought out historical structures where people could still eat today, but that weren’t built as restaurants. She and her friends traveled to sites across the state, though that became limited by pandemic conditions.
One place she highlights is Gaines Ridge Dinner Club in Camden, an 1820s home that she’s frequently asked about. Tapper also highlights Prattville’s Smith-Byrd House from the mid-1800s, where people can still enjoy afternoon tea. St. James Hotel Selma, built in 1837 and known as a hideout for outlaw Jesse James, also made the list.
“You can sit in the same historic place as people who came before us, and you can eat what they ate,” Tapper said.
The book came about after two years from a mixture of research from the Civil War and food research for her work at the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion in Mobile.
“Between those two projects, the book kind of formed,” said Tapper, who said it stretches from her hometown of Mobile to north Alabama’s Tuscumbia.
The Civil Rights chapter in which Gilmore is featured broke away from Tapper’s “no restaurant” rule to include Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit on Mobile Road and Chris’ Hot Dogs on Dexter Avenue. It also goes into the history of Lannie’s Bar-B-Que Spot in Selma.
So even with the recipes, can we match flavors today with what Alabamians ate many decades ago? Not exactly, but Tapper said it’s as close as we’re going to get.
From our archives:Recipe for success: 100 years of Chris’ Hot Dogs
“Our food is different,” Tapper said. “Our food comes from the grocery store. It doesn’t come from the backyard or the back 40. Our food is not as fresh, not as flavorful, and we’re not cooking over wood.”
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Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel at [email protected].