Shainna M. Callaway
Alabama the Beautiful
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Alabama is a place full of natural beauty and bountiful long growing seasons.
I grew up in Alabama, went to college in Alabama, buried two of my dogs in Alabama, met my husband (technically on the state line) in Alabama, and lost my Momma in Alabama. I have always felt like an outsider and thought that was just because of the way I looked, but having traveled the world and after living on three other continents, I’ve come to realize that’s just me. I’m probably an oddity anywhere. So now I can finally say with pride to anyone that asks, I’m from Alabama. That’s my hometown.
It’s where I grew my first plant from a seed. A hypoestes of a wonderfully pink spotted on green variety. Being from an overbearing and strict asian household, as stereotypical as you can imagine and then kicked up a few more degrees, I was grounded for every infraction which sometimes even included an A- on any test in any subject. “There’s no excuse for you to make less than an A. You have the book.” Now that I’m a parent, I feel like that had more to do with my mom knowing I was safe in my room instead of out in the neighborhood than it had anything to do with me not ever being good enough. As a kid, though, thankfully I had that plant to talk to about it at least.
It’s where I saw my first enormously old tree. There’s a place called Landmark Park in Dothan, Alabama, that has all kinds of kid activities to teach about the natural world such as survival classes (where I learned how to make rope fibers from an agave, build a tent with sticks and leaves adjacent to a tree, and learned which red indian weed to chew on when in need of water). It also had a planetarium and a boardwalk through the forest that had small shelters with taxidermied displays inside of them all along the way. I can recall the cross section of an enormous trunk with what appeared to be hundreds of life year rings. The guide taught us how trees age and how to count the rings. It was also my first memory of petrified wood.
It’s where I witnessed my first collaborated flowering exhibit. Dothan has this event called the Azalea Dogwood trail where they paint purple arrows in the streets, and you can follow them to see gorgeous displays of blooms in the yards along the path. To add to the decadence, as if the multitude of flowers were not enough, the local girls also participate by dressing up in huge antebellum dresses with matching parasols. ...I kind of remember they made their way into a parade one time... maybe the Macy’s day parade or something in Washington, DC? Anyway, we would pile into the car and find ourselves in the slow procession weaving in and out of the neighborhood, and we’d just marvel at the size and colors of these huge azaleas flocked by their pretty dogwood tree companions.
It’s where I learned about crop rotation and all the things you could do with a peanut from writing a report on George Washington Carver for my elementary school’s Alabama Movers and Shakers Expo. I still find myself watching the fields of farmers to see if they know to change out what they plant to replenish the earth and improve their yields. I also still look at a plant and wonder how many different applications could be made with that one thing if someone cared enough to fully experiment it.
It’s where I ate the most perfect tomato in Slocomb, Alabama, where I also had my first fried green tomato. Slocomb has an annual tomato festival and they really ought to because a Slocomb tomato is in a category all by itself. It can stand alone as a side dish just sliced. It can be all you need on a sandwich with just a little mayonnaise and cracked pepper. I have grown my own tomatoes plenty of times so I know what pride can do for a flavor, but I would trade a whole plant for a handful of Slocomb tomatoes any day of the week.
It’s where I ate boiled peanuts regularly. I feel that every place has a signature dish that people just eat as a staple snack just to get you by kind of thing. In Amsterdam, I would say it was the pickled herrings I tried with chopped onions from one of the many similar food trucks. In Japan, it would be the onigiri (rice balls which come with a variety of fillings) which is easy to grab from the mini marts. In Australia, I think of the meat pies we would stop for knowing dinner was a long way off. In New York, I associate the hot dog vendors as that go to snackish meal. And for my hometown, it’s got to be the boiled peanuts in their salty brine that resides on that humble list.
It’s where I learned how to properly pot a plant from Tom in Hartford, who owns Horticolor Landscapes and studied at Auburn University which is known locally as the school for farmers. War Eagle. He showed me that you take the pot and fill some dirt in the bottom, add the root ball of the plant, and then gently add the dirt around the outside so the roots have a chance to grow. Only very carefully should any patting of the soil be done unlike the intense compacting I had been doing up until that point in time. I thought I had to use as much of the bag of potting soil as I could since it seemed like such a waste if I didn’t. You live: you learn.
It’s where I learned how to shell and flash freeze snap peas to put them away for a year’s supply. Picking peas is like picking cotton when the farmer leaves them on the ground instead of growing them up in a trellis. But, the U-Pick spot was extremely reasonably priced and with a little bit of back bending and squatting, buckets and buckets could be filled feeding a family for the whole year in one day of hard work. To flash freeze that many peas takes a grandma’s supply of cookie sheets and deep freezer space. I may have broken up with that country boy decades ago, but I’ve kept his grandparents in my heart the whole time. I also have yet to forget the importance of flash freezing vegetables in order to keep them without having to cook them first.
And it’s where so many other wonders beheld me in my youth. I look back fondly at the Heart of Dixie and am grateful for all the fun, the explorations, and the lessons learned.
As much as it gets a bum rap, Alabama is where the humor of the people can be found in the claim to fame of “at least we aren’t Mississippi!” It’s true that the people may not always be perfect, the weather may be palpable at times, and the fresh vegetables might end up battered and fried more often than not, BUT those vegetables are likely home grown, that weather makes for some picturesque landscapes, and the folks are likely to stop and help you out with the first person that passes your way.
It’s the state motto for a reason. Alabama really is just that beautiful.
Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼