Grandma Genevieve’s Strawberry Shortcake

During my brief sojourn to the Motherland a few weeks ago, I happened upon a truck advertising authentic Ponchatoula strawberries. While I have no quarrel with strawberries from Alabama in principle, I’ve never tasted any as sweet and with such well-balanced acid as those from the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain. Naturally, I bought half a flat (about 6 pints) first and planned what I would do with them later.

Then it finally occurred to me to do something I’d wanted to for more than 17 years—obtain and manufacture my Grandmother’s very rustic strawberry shortcake recipe. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere, and for me, it is the preeminent version of the Spring classic. Everything else is, in my opinion, just the ruination of perfectly wonderful strawberries.

Determined to share the love while attempting to reconstruct our heritage in produce, I commandeered my nieces for some of the less hazardous preparation tasks. And so we began by rinsing and removing the tops from the excellently sweet and ripe (though unfortunately small) late season berries.

At the same time, I began preparing three refrigerated pie crusts according to the directions. The first time I used preprepared crusts, I went for the ubiquitous Pillsbury but thought it had too distinctive a “Pillsbury” aftertaste.  Recently, I made it again and used this kind, which was much better:

Now admittedly this was a concession. The real recipe provides the following instructions, however, for the purist: Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup Crisco or lard, and one egg with enough water to form a soft dough. Make three balls, roll each out and bake flat until light brown tile. (I would recommend a 400-degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes.) Cool.

Either way, you will note the crust is rolled out to a circle with a diameter of about 14 inches. Cosmetic perfection is optional as all but one of these crusts will be totally covered with mashed strawberries.  Also, do NOT prick the crust before baking.  I have found bubbles are not only okay but are preferred.

While the three crusts are baking, you will want to begin work on the strawberry filling. To accomplish this component, my Grandmother used to laboriously mash the rinsed and topped berries with a fork in a bowl, one small quantity at a time. 

When my very brilliant nine-year-old niece, Ellie, tried that method, however, she sprayed strawberry juice all over the place and the front of her shirt and it took for-ev-er. I wasn’t any better at it. But because she had so much time to think, Ellie actually suggested an improvement to the method that produced a superior mash, eliminated mess, saved time, and was a heck of a lot more fun—we bagged ’em in a gallon sized Ziploc freezer back and whacked ’em with a rolling pin.

The only danger appeared to be bursting the sealed bag like a balloon as the berries were smashed. Therefore, from time-to-time, we “burped” the bag to keep air to a minimum. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Ellie!

To the strawberry mash, we added 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. If the strawberries are already sweet enough, however, it seems this step may be omitted. But we kept with tradition in this instance and it didn’t seem to hurt the taste any.

By now, surely, the pie crusts have been removed from the oven and are cooling, so it must be time for the (sort of) pastry cream. Grandma’s recipe for the pastry cream omits the flour typically used and calls for using evaporated milk and water. I dumped that bit and came up with the following: Beat in a small saucepan 4 egg yolks until lemon colored. To the egg yolks, whisk in 1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream, 3/4 cup half-and-half, 2 tsp vanilla, and 2 cups of sugar and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to form foamy bubbles and coats the back of a spoon. Do NOT boil!

To assemble, get a big heavy bowl, preferably one made of glazed stoneware. Place the first crust on the bottom of the bowl.

If the crust is too large for the bowl, just gently break it into large pieces and evenly distribute them. Top with a little less than half of the strawberry mixture. Follow the strawberries with a second crust. Again, piecing it together is fine, if the crust is too large. Distribute the rest of the strawberry mixture over this crust and top with the third crust.

Because I wanted mine to look nice and because it didn’t fit, I trimmed the edge of the crust with kitchen shears until it sat level in the bowl on top of the fruit.

Then I poured about half of the pastry cream over the top of the layers, letting it run down the inside of the bowl to touch the layers below. The remainder of the cream was reserved for serving. I then allowed the bowl to sit for about an hour before serving to soften the crusts just a little.

To serve, I cut down through the layers of the “cake” and spooned it into individual bowls. The remaining pastry cream was ladled over each.

The result was pure love. It was just as I remembered it tasting and everyone who has tried it since has commented on the fabulous contrasts between the sweet berries and the savory crust, and between the crunchy pie crusts and the silky cream. Nice.

So if you’ve got a mess of fresh strawberries available to you this Memorial Day weekend, why not try this gloriously easy and amazingly delicious pastry?

Bon Appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads!

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while eating mudbugs or Kosher Barbeque this weekend:

Digging deeper into that NYT Room for Debate on farm-animal cruelty,” Tom Laskawy, May 12, 2011, Grist.org.

Jack in the Box surprise: How E. coli became a household word,” Michele Simon, May 9, 2011, Grist.org.

Climate Change Hot stuff: chile peppers, climate change, and the future of food,” Makenna Goodman, May 6, 2011, Grist.org.

Mighty Mississippi poses threat to oyster trade,” Michael Kunzelman, May 7, 2011, MSNBC.com.

Bounty hunting: an inside look at a successful farmers market operation [VIDEO],” Daniel Klein, May 6, 2011, Grist.org.

Proposed shark fin ban makes waves in San Fran,” Robin Hindery, May 6, 2011, MSNBC.com.

With a taste disorder, the sweet ain’t as sweet,” Randy Dotinga, April 30, 2011, MSNBC.com.

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while hanging out in the Nicholas Pavilion of the PGA Regions Tradition golf tournament at Shoal Creek Country this weekend:

Girl Scouts censor Facebook criticism of palm oil in cookies,” Glenn Hurowitz, May 5, 2011, Grist.org.

Forget About Horses: A Bourbon Picking Guide for Derby Day, and Every Day,” Tony Sachs, May 6, 2011, HuffingtonPost.com.

How Food Explains the World,” Joshua Keating, May/June 2011, ForeignPolicy.com.

Bad seeds: A plan to phase out the $5 billion in ‘direct payment’ agricultural subsidies,” Jake Caldwell, May 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons ,” ONEARTH, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

Do You Know How Many Genetically Modified Foods You’re Eating? 8 to Pay Attention To ,” Lisa Gosselin, April 25, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture,” Tom Philpott, April 22, 2011, Grist.org.

Worried about fake food dyes? 4 tips to avoid them,” Brierly Wright, April 1, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Bees feed us: now they need our help,” The Slow Food USA Blog, March 2, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Adventures in Pressure Cooking—Boston Butt

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d stalk it!

So when I recently spotted the most bea-U-tiful, locally-raised 4.43 pound Boston Butt with an Animal Welfare Rating of 4 I have ever seen in any Whole Food’s butcher’s case, naturally, I snagged first and planned later. The snow white fat rind covering the roast’s top and sides enrobed evenly-marbled pink flesh. I expected great things of this roast.

A quick Google search on my craptastic Blackberry turned up a John Folse recipe for “Soul Pork Roast.” It seemed like a good start. The “suggested” cook time was 2 to 2-1/2 hours in a 375 degree oven, but I had a better idea: 40 minutes in the ole new pressure cooker! So I promptly e-mailed to myself a link to the recipe’s site before setting off to find all remaining ingredients.

The roast came enrobed in one of those elastic nets, which I promptly replaced with a length of butcher’s twine. (No nasty rubber aftertaste.) I followed the rest of the recipe using lard as the oil and with only a two modifications—(1) instead of waiting to the green onions, parsley, and the dash of hot sauce, I included them with the stock, and (2) I added an extra cup of water to compensate for the loss of liquid through steam. (The extra water was likely unnecessary, however, given the relatively short cooking time.)

I didn’t wait to bring everything to a boil as suggested by the recipe either, and closed the pressure cooker right away, bringing the whole thing to full pressure at a medium high heat. Like last time, when I prepared beef short ribs, the pressurizing procedure took about ten minutes.

When the little yellow button popped up, I started a ten-minute timer and lower the burner temperature to slightly less than medium. After ten minutes elapsed, I checked the steam level to be sure it was steady and then reset the timer adding another half hour.

When the timer alerted the second time, I removed the cooker from the heat and performed the depressurizing procedure. I then plated the roast before carving.

In hindsight, the roast probably should have been cooked another ten minutes for a total of roughly 50 minutes as the very center of the roast was still a bit rare. Because I was serving only two, however, I simply saved that rare part to reheat the following day by searing it in a dry skillet.

The outside parts of the pork, however, were soooooo delicious! Tender and juicy, the roast’s thick, white rind had melted to a soft buttery consistency infused with the flavor of the stock and aromatics.

As with the beef short ribs prepared on my first foray into the world of pressure cooking, all of the seasoning penetrated the surface of the roast and seemed to infuse every bit of it in a way I never achieved using a mere Dutch oven.

All things considered, this really cheap cut of pork—already my favorite readily-available part of the pig—was just as fabulous a subject for pressure cooking as was cheap beef. And feeding four in about an hour for less than $25, the Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner proved itself once again to be an appliance I should never have waited to try!

Bon appetite!

Episode One of Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess

Okay, so even though I grew up in a farming family, until last year I had never orchestrated the whole symphony on my own, so to speak. So I got in small and decided to stock my 0.00023 acres with as many herbs in containers as I could decoratively manage.

I decided to use no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or soil additives. I scoured the Internet for information on companion planting, and finally, I selected the soils, containers, and plants. And it was a good introduction. I managed to start enough herbs to make Kentucky Fried Chicken (eleven) plus Roma tomatoes.

Then came the challenges. First, was the historically high heat last summer, frequently topping 100 degrees here in Birmingham, which all but killed my tomato production. Second, came 31 tobacco hornworms, voracious little nasties I had to hand pick and squish (eww) lest they strip my tomato plant bare and eat up what little green fruit I had. Finally, came this white, fuzzy stuff with little black ant-like bugs on the herbs in my “shady,” rather air-circulation-free porch corner, as well as the sticky, spider-web like egg sacks on my rosemary.

Tomato plant with basil and zinnia companion plants

Between and before the heat waves and pests arrived, however, I made batch after batch of fresh pesto, drank mint juleps, and supplied my husband with all the fresh thyme, oregano, and sage he could use. And each plant cost about the same as we would have paid for just one of those plastic packages of fresh herbs in the grocery store. You know, the ones that go bad in about three to five days.

If you are like us and absolutely love cooking with fresh herbs, there is no substitute for a constant, use whenever you want, right out on the front porch supply! Assuming we would have kept a stock of about six herbs at all times, each with a shelf life of five days, and a cost of $3.99 per package, that little herb garden saved us about $700 plus tomatoes. Hey, even if I paid $11 per bag of soil and $30 per container, I still came out ahead and then some.

Serrano pepper

Additionally, my herb pots were very pretty. In fact, other than a few box hedges, all of my ornamental plantings last year were totally edible. And my front porch smelled fabulous, making evenings spent there even more special.

Fast forward to last weekend. Having come through what should be the last frost (Easter weekend) and most of the last cold fronts expected for the year, including some pretty fierce straight line winds and tornadic near-misses, I figured it was time to roll so I went about unloading the containers of any old soil and debris they may still contain and rinsing each thoroughly to eliminate any dormant nasties from last year. I also cleaned out a couple of my now-root-bound box hedges to make room for my latest evil scheme.

Then I went shopping. First stop was Hanna’s Garden Shop on Highway 280. They have a huge selection of plants and landscape materials and are conveniently located on my side of town. And they were having a sale!

Although I was able to find organic soil and organic chicken poop fertilizer, none of their herbs were organic.

Dirt--but, hey, there's poop and stuff in there!

I did find a lovely San Marzano tomato plant and decided to get it regardless of its parentage, as this variety is a family favorite. (The variety is only half of the story, however, as the official “San Marzano” designation is an Italian certification that indicates not only the variety of the tomato, but also that it was grown in the San Marzano region. Hey, hopefully, one out of two ain’t bad….)

So I moved on down the line. After returning home to deliver the goodies I had accumulated thus far, I decided to let my fingers do the walking because I could already see this was going to be a long day of driving otherwise.

You see, last year, I planted basil as a companion to my tomato. The basil was intended not only to improve the flavor of the tomato but to repel the tobacco hornworm’s larger and even nastier cousin, the tomato hornworm. And, who knows, maybe it worked as I did not get tomato hornworms. But this year, I was looking for a companion plant besides basil for my tomato in the hopes of avoiding the procreative efforts of any stray tobacco hornworm moths as well.

I consulted The Oracle (okay, the Internet) to check my recollection that marigolds might fill the bill. Some very convincing sources argued, however, that regular marigolds would not only not prevent hornworms but might actually attract things like white flies. That sounded pretty bad. Instead, these sources recommended calendula or “pot marigold” saying the popular marigold advice was just so much mistaken nomenclature. Sadly, calendula doesn’t grow here until Autumn so nobody had it.

One lady I spoke with believed companion planting zinnias might repel hornworms and advised that zinnias were plenty hardy through our hot summers. Although a subsequent consultation with The Oracle indicated zinnias were good at repelling lots of bad stuff and attracting plenty of good stuff that killed other bad stuff, hornworms were not specifically mentioned. So, I’m hoping for the best.

Rosemary plants

This lady’s shop, Libby’s Plant Odyssey, also had a wide variety of organically- and locally-grown herb plants, so I drove up to the Lakeview District to look around. At the end of the day, I purchased the following additional plants—

  • two rosemary plants;
  • one each gray sage, spearmint, English thyme, Italian oregano, Genovese basil, French tarragon, marjoram—all of which I planted last year; and
  • one each of a few newcomers, specifically, French lavender, savory, a serrano pepper, and a four-pack of pink zinnias I thought would look nice with the cobalt blue containers on my porch.
  • Clockwise from the top--French tarragon, marjoram, Italian oregano, and lavender, with a ubiquitous zinnia in the middle.

Admittedly, several of these herbs can grow to a great scale if spaced properly. And also admittedly, I only had one 18″ round faux stone fiberglass pot for the tomato, two basils, and two zinnias; one two gallon round number for the serrano pepper and two of the same for the two rosemary plants; and finally the aforementioned pair of blue 18″ square containers into which I placed four herbs each with a zinnia in the middle. What can I say? I’m a maniac.

Clockwise from the top--spearmint, savory, English thyme, and sage, with a zinnia in the middle.

I won’t bore you (further?) with details about how to remove a plant from a plastic container and place it uninjured into a hole in some dirt. Instead, I will leave that bit to your imagination and/or whatever training the sales person at your local garden center decides to provide at no additional cost to you.

One tip, though. Shopping locally and staying out of the “big box hardware with occasional garden center attached” stores is a real help in this respect—the people who work at local shops do this gardening stuff all year long, most work in their gardens and at these local garden shops out of a passion for the subject, and many of these folks have done so for longer than they can remember. They are an amazing resource and good people to get to know. And they didn’t used to work in the plumbing or hardware department last week!

From time to time, I plan to revisit this chronicle of garden misdeeds so stay tuned for updates from Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess.

Bon appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while waiting for your kid to finish up that letter to the Easter Bunny or the President:

Stocking the Broke-Ass pantry, and the magical three-day chicken,” by Broke-Ass Grouch, April 21, 2011, Grist.org.

Deep Flavor, No Browning Required,” John Willoughby, March 28, 2011, NYTimes.com.

South Sings Catfish Blues,” Julie Jargon, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Who Owns Your Favorite Organic Brand (Infographic),” June 2009, MindBodyGreen.com.

Wendy’s Natural Cut Fries: Better Tasting, Yes. Natural, No,” Melanie Warner, April 15, 2011, Yahoo!Finance.

What doesn’t kill you makes you gourmet ,” Rebecca Solnit, February 17, 2011, Grist.com.

TV show follows evolution of exurbanites’ farm,” MARY ESCH, April 17, 2011, Yahoo!News.

Foods That Interfere with Birth Control Pills,” David L. Katz, M.D., MSN Health.

Gulf Coast Seafood One Year After the Oil Spill,” Justine Sterling, April 20, 2011, Delish.com.

Portuguese Green Olive Dip,” David Leite, July 20, 2009, Leitesculinaria.com.

Jim ‘N Nick’s is Raising the Bar in Bar-B-Q

Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on.  In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all). 

So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find.  Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from.  But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.

And that was weird in a way.  I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff?  Who cares.  He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.

In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known.  Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid).  He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.  That’s right.  Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.

If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite. 

Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria.  It was head and shoulders above the others.  And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.  

But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants.  Now they are all my favorite locations.  Hmm.

In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was.  Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it?  I think so. 

And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares.  People literally stand in line for the good stuff.

So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door.  Yup.  That about sums it up. 

In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque.  What’s not to love?

Buon mangiare!

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Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while standing in line at the opening day of the Pepper Place Farmers’ Market tomorrow:

The Joy of Not Cooking,” Megan McArdle, The Atlantic.com.

Ranchers struggle against giant meatpackers and economic troubles,” Stephanie Ogburn, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement,” Benjamin Cohen, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Be Food Smart,” April 13, 2011, Grist.org.

The Groupon Paradox,” Esther Dyson, March 23, 2011, Slate.com.

LARD – a love story,” April 12, 2011, WhitmoreFarm.blogspot.com.

Minnesota next up to pass law banning undercover farm videos,” Tom Laskawy, April 13, 2011, Grist.org.

Mimicking Big Tobacco, Big Soda blows smoke in Philadelphia,” Michele Simon, April 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Have I Told You Lately How Much I Love Chipotle?

I won’t lie to you. Chipotle is a weird operation. And I was aware of its existence long before I actually tried it. But now having tried real food in Chipotle’s revolutionary fast-food context, I know there is no going back to the crap the passes as lunch at any other national chain restaurant.

My love affair with Chipotle began, innocently enough after listening to a recording of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” on one of my three-hour trips back and forth between Birmingham and Atlanta. The message of author Michael Pollan really resonated with me, especially given my upbringing in a farming family. I remembered what real food used to taste like and, post-Pollan, finally got why the stuff I ate after leaving home was never, ever as good.

After that, my husband and I did everything we could to identify sources of locally-raised and/or organic food. We learned that “organic” isn’t the end of the inquiry, especially when it comes to animal products, like beef, pork, chickens, and food produced from their milk or eggs.

One day, my husband mentioned Chipotle to me. He told me, even though it was a chain, the founder, Steve Ells, was some kind of fanatic who had figured out a way to bring locally-sourced food into a fast food context.

“No way,” my skeptical mind objected. “Mexican fast food? Like Taco Bell?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes” to the first question; and to the second, “perish the thought!”

Then, I watched THE video.

Then, I visited my nearby Chipotle.

What a revelation!

The organic, modern décor certainly was unexpected. Wood and corrugated metal are the predominant design materials, but rather than looking like an old shed, it looks like a really nice place to eat—down to the corrugated relief of a South American native on the wall and the stainless steel topped tables.

Meticulously clean but not aseptic; standardized yet unique, the ambiance underscored similar ideas I found incorporated into the food. Each store obtains its meat and produce from local farms and ranches. Therefore, the precise flavor of the carnitas in different locations may vary slightly, but the way in which it is prepared is the same. (And it is prepared entirely on site in the open kitchen at the back of the store.) And it is fabulous.

According to a message on one of the cups, Chipotle’s apparently simple menu conceals something like 66,000 unique combinations of ingredients. But I usually get the same delicious thing—a carnitas bowl with no rice, small amount of black beans, peppers, hot and mild salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole (yes, I know there is a small up charge), and lettuce.

To place my order, I talk directly to the person building the bowl, and I get to see what is in each bin from which each ingredient is removed through a glass barrier before committing. And none of the food is ever not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever not perfect—from the restrooms to the drink station.

Even the “tap” water served from beneath the Minute Maid Lemonade spigot tastes like good water, and not some horrible chemically-tainted liquid found in far too many restaurants. That’s because they actually clean the fountain nozzles on a regular basis. If every restaurant did that, I wouldn’t live in fear of ordering ice “water”! (Strange phobia, I know. Whatever.)

Bottom line is Chipotle has done what I heretofore thought impossible: fresh fabulous fast real food served in a warm, relaxing environment where you can actually look forward to eating. If you haven’t tried it, you simply haven’t lived. Vive la difference!

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Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Check out the following links to food news around the web:

ADHD: It’s the food, stupid,” Kristin Wartman for Grist.org, 2011/03/28.

U.K. guv takes threat of bee-killing pesticides seriously. Why doesn’t the U.S.?” Tom Philpott for Grist.org, 2011/03/31.

Reversing roles, farmers sue Monsanto over GMO seeds,” Tom Laskawy for Grist.org, 2011/03/31.

Common Ground, “The Food Issue,” March 2011.

[Happens to me all the time:] “Dining Alone—Don’t Be Afraid of Solitude at the Table,” Christiana D. Roussel for Birmingham Weekly, 2011/03/31.