67-County Alabama Garden Party: Jefferson County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Jefferson County – The Magic City Brownies, “Happy Together” Fudgy, Cheesecake, Raspberry and Turtle (right)

Jefferson County

Happy Together,” a pop hit of the late 1960s, which is when I first got to know Jefferson County, Alabama, is how I always think of this place. Birmingham was the first real city I ever lived in.

It surprises bumpkins like me, but Birmingham, the state’s most populated city, a place where I came to enjoy the freedom of my youth and stayed the next 40 years, is a designated “City of Trees” regularly under beautiful, blue skies. “Baby, the skies’ll be blue…so, happy together.”

I moved to Jefferson County the same decade Dr. King wrote the famous, “Letter From The Birmingham Jail.” It had been a few years, tensions had eased, real social progress had been made and the downtown parks were now a place where the answer, my friend, was blowin’ in the wind. Peace y’all.

Everyone I knew on the Southside of Birmingham, red and yellow, black and white, had welcomed the “Peace Train” and come together to love one another and the earth. A best-selling book of that era was THE GREENING OF AMERICA by Charles Reich which predicted a counter-cultural revolution of city dwellers returning to peaceful, pastoral values. And, every home in my neighborhood had a thick, dog-eared copy of the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG, air plants and a macramé fern hanger.

The current vogue for sustainability, reducing the carbon footprint, environmentalism and organic food feels like “The Summer of Love” redux.

At my greenest, like greener than Kermit the Frog, one Easter in my early Jefferson County days, I dyed eggs with beet juice and hid them in my rewilded yard.

As the words of another song from that era and from the Christian bible remind us, “To everything there is a season; turn, turn, turn. A time to reap and a time to sow.” That time of shared optimism and “smiling on your brother, everybody get together” didn’t last as we hoped it would. But, some of the good seeds planted then, took root and still in Jefferson County, we regularly enjoy the blossoming of renewed hope for a thriving, peaceful community.

Could botanicals be the key to lasting, positive change in Birmingham? Feel free to insert your own pot jokes, here.

Biophilia is legal in Alabama and a good place to explore this is where our state has the most urban residents, Jefferson County. The core belief of “biophilia” is that PEOPLE need to be connected to PLANTS and the natural world.

According to “green urbanist,” Dr. Tim Beatley, a University of Virginia professor of Sustainable Communities, “The evidence continues to mount that we are happier, more productive, more creative—even more generous—in the presence of nature.” Birmingham may suffer from a disconnect between goodwill and the good earth.

Jefferson County, founded in 1819, has experimented with an array of PLANTS + PEOPLE initiatives over the last 200 years. The vegetable gardens and sweeping landscape at the antebellum Arlington house, built in Old Elyton, the first county seat (now part of metro-Birmingham) is a prime, 19th Century example; the urban parks of Bessemer were created in early 20th Century; Downtown Birmingham Green was planted in mid-20th Century; and Jones Valley Urban Farm, and Pepper Place Farmers Market are 21st Century biophilic developments.

In Jefferson County, these ideas are being explored and expanded by biophiliacs:

• GREEN ROOFS—think skyscrapers and viaducts with mature trees and meadowland carpet instead of concrete for these sky gardens; green roofs, also called “eco-roofs” or “vegetable roofs” are lightweight, engineered systems built on waterproof roof surfaces

• VERTICAL FORESTS—google “Bosco Verticale” and imagine this award-winning architecture in Milan, Italy planted in government housing in Bessemer, Birmingham and other parts of Jefferson County

• LANDSCAPE REPLACEMENT POLICY—Jefferson County planners are drafting new municipal laws that would require plant-consciousness in planning and compensate for nature lost on the ground

• REPLACING ABANDONED BUILDINGS WITH MEADOWLAND—also, where feasible, replace with community food gardens

• CITIZENS LIVING IN GARDENS NOT JUST VISITING THEM IN A “TREE MUSEUM”—this means an interweaving of natural and built habitats to foster interaction between PLANTS + PEOPLE

• MEDICAL MARIJUANA RESEARCH—this county has the most medical researchers in the state and the most marijuana users; we are in the midst of a “green rush” on cannabis investment; already more than half the states in the US have legalized medical marijuana and 10 states and Canada have legalized recreational use; there are projections of $50 billion for this plant-based industry; Jefferson County CBD oil or cannabis-infused foods and beverages have major, jobs-producing potential for Alabama

• LAWNS INTO MICRO-FARMS—imagine “yardening” where multiple blocks of urban and suburban lawns become food-producing “farmlettes”; Orlando, FL has a model for this, Jefferson County plant visionaries are studying

Biophilia might be the key to the world John Lennon wrote about: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” When I look out at the cascading, green hills of Jones Valley, I can imagine the skies’ll be blue as Jefferson County shows the world how to live in perfect harmony…Happy Together.

Here are other positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Jefferson County, including a recipe for a sweet salute to “The Magic City,” we call HAPPY TOGETHER, FUDGY, CHEESECAKE, RASPBERRY, TURTLE BROWNIES:

• JEFFERSON COUNTIES FARMERS MARKETS—Bessemer Farmers Market (Alex Bradford Park), Bessemer Farmers Market at Medical West, Center Point Parkway Farmers Market (Civitan Park), East Lake Farmers Market, Gardendale Farmers Market (Gardendale Civic Center), Hueytown Farmers Market (Gilmore Vines Stadium Park), Jefferson County Truck Growers Association (Finley Avenue West), Leeds Farmers Market, Linn Place Farmers Market (20th Street North at Park Place), Market at Pepper Place (2nd Avenue South), McCalla Farmers Market (Bell Hill Road, Bessemer), Pinson Farmers Market (Center Point Road), Rocky Ridge Church Farmers Market (Altadena Road, Hoover), Ross Bridge Farmers Market (Hoover), The Farmers Market at Shades Valley (Montevallo Road), Trussville Fresh Farmers Market (The Episcopal Church), UAB Farmers Market (North Pavilion), Vestavia Hills Farmers Market (Montgomery Highway), West Homewood Farmers Market (Oxmoor Road)

• VULCAN ORIENTEERING CLUB—dubbed “the thinking sport,” orienteering combines racing and map navigation for all ages to enjoy a “walk in the woods”; participants learn topography, terrain, native plant-life and hiking safety; www.vulcanorienteering.org

• JONES VALLEY TEACHING FARM—using on-site Farm Labs at their Downtown Birmingham, cultivated acreage, this non-profit has been teaching urban kids the connections between PLANTS + PEOPLE, especially food plants for more than a decade; helping children and their families make smart, food choices is the goal of their K through 12 program Good School Food

• BOTANICAL PATTERNS FABRIC DESIGNER—check out the sophisticated, plant-centric designs of Birmingham-based Heather Chadduck Hillegas

•PLUCK-TO-PLATE AWARD-WINNING RESTAURANTS—too many to salute all in Jefferson County but among the most-trumpeted are those created by Chef Frank Stitt, a native Alabamian and 2018 winner of a national James Beard Award; a “must taste” side dish in this part of the state are the Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café in Irondale, so popular they are movie stars

• ALDRIDGE GARDENS—30 acres of woodlands and verdant lawns with the grandest salute to Snowflake Hydrangeas on the planet;

• EARTH DAY 365—there are numerous opportunities for urbanites and visitors in this central, Alabama county to connect with nature daily; Vulcan Park has added miles of walking trails, www.visitvulcan.com and Red Mountain Park trails at www.redmountainpark.org ; Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, www.turkeycreeknp.com;  also, the “go to” natural hiking area is Ruffner Mountain www.ruffnermountain.org; check out the Facebook page for the Homewood Salamander Festival held each January by the Friends of Shades Creek

• ALABAMA GOODS—distinctive gifts and food gift baskets of Alabama-made products; Downtown Homewood, regularly voted #1 Gift Shop

• FLOWER MAGAZINE—founded by Birmingham’s Margot Shaw, this all-things-floral, nationally circulated publication is still created by Margot and her talented team in Jefferson County

• ALABAMA’S FLORICULTURE CAPITOL—Birmingham is known for floral-design, there is even a signature look that melds traditional English arrangements with Alabama natives so that “bees and butterflies have space to flit amongst the blossoms and branches”; top, local stars in this applied art are: Sybil Sylvester, Ray Jordan, Leah Hazzard, Dorothy McDaniel

• BIRMINGHAM BOTANICAL GARDEN—the popular art of Alabama is gardening and there are hundreds of gardens to visit and enjoy, but the 67 acres of this FREE and open to the public every day of the year from sunup to sundown collection of gardens is very much worth exploring again and again; go to www.bbgardens.org and select a special place in the 67 acres of the BBG to celebrate this Bicentennial with “THE 67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY”

• MOSS ROCK FESTIVAL—Alabama’s premier, eco-creative festival has 10,000 visitors to explore nature/sustainability/art under a blanket of colorful, Fall foliage; November 2-3, 2019

• OAK HILL CEMETERY—this 19th Century, romantically landscaped “garden for the dead” is now wedged between buildings and parking lots of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Center; among those celebrated is Lou Wooster, a well-known madam of brothels in Birmingham and Montgomery who became a respected, Alabama heroine as a nurse feeding the hungry and preparing the deceased for burial during Birmingham’s 19th Century cholera epidemic

• RAILROAD PARK—19 acres of public, “green space” in Downtown Birmingham immediately south of the Norfolk Southern and CSX rail lines; open to the public 7 a.m. -11 p.m. each day and host to open-air music, outdoor movie nights and cultural events

• VESTAVIA HILLS DOGWOOD FESTIVAL—celebrated the 55th annual festival in 2019 to herald the seasonal arrival of blooms of the cherished dogwood trees

• PLANTING AN IDEA—The 56’ statue of Vulcan, Greek god of fire and blacksmithing which rises above the city of Birmingham to salute the city’s minerals could be balanced by another 56’ statue of botanical importance. Think PLANTS + PEOPLE and biophilia.

The Magic City Brownies, “Happy Together” Fudgy, Cheesecake, Raspberry and Turtle

Hard to choose your favorite brownie?  No need – with these marbled fudgy, cheesecake brownies married with raspberry and turtle toppings – inspired by the famous Turtles’ song, “Happy Together”.

INGREDIENTS

For Brownie Batter:

• 1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter (if using salted – omit salt)

• 4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate

• 4 eggs

• 1 1/2 C all-purpose flour

• 1/3 C cocoa powder

• 2 C sugar

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 tsp vanilla extract

For Cheesecake Batter:

• 16 ounces of cream cheese – softened/room

temperature

• 1/3 C Sugar

• 1 Egg

• 1/4 C Flour

• 1 tsp Vanilla Extract

For Raspberry Topping

• ~ 12 ounces of fresh raspberries (2 small containers)

• 1 T sugar

• Juice from one lemon

For Turtle Topping

• Caramel sauce (such as Ghirardelli Sea Salt Caramel)

• 1/2 C chopped pecans

• 1/4 C toffee bits (such as Heath)

INSTRUCTIONS

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray a 13 x 9 baking pan with cooking spray, line it with aluminum foil (with overlap on all edges) and then spray the foil with cooking spray.

• Brownie Batter – Melt the semi-sweet chocolate and butter in the microwave on 60 % power for about a minute, stirring as they melt (consult the instructions for your chocolate).  Cool in the refrigerator for 5 – 10 minutes.  Lightly whisk the eggs and mix in the flour, cocoa powder, salt and sugar. Pour in the melted chocolate and butter and add the vanilla.  Mix well by hand.

• Cheesecake Batter – Beat the softened cream cheese, sugar and vanilla using a hand mixer until well blended and fluffy.

• Raspberry Topping – Put most of the raspberries in a small sauce pan with the lemon juice and sugar, saving some whole berries for garnish.  Stir and simmer for about 8 minutes until berries have mostly disintegrated.  Then strain through a fine sieve to remove the seeds – smashing the mixture with a spoon until you get all the juice and pulp – discard the seeds.

• Using a spoon or scoop, alternate dollops of the brownie and cheesecake batters into the pan.  Tamp the pan on the counter or shake it to allow the batters to settle and fill in the pan.

• Drizzle the raspberry topping on about 1/3 of the pan – you won’t need it all so save some for serving. 

Drizzle the caramel sauce on another 1/3 and top with chopped pecans and toffee bits.

• Using a skewer or pick, drag through the batters to make a marbled pattern.

• Bake for about 45 – 50 minutes until set – rotating the pan half way through.  Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes and then cool in the refrigerator before removing from the pan and cutting.

• Serve with fresh berries and additional raspberry sauce, caramel sauce and pecan bits.

Makes 36, 1 1/2 inch square brownies

Y’ALL COME to Jefferson County on “THE 67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY,” enjoy the hopefulness of a blossoming peace where all are “Happy Together.”

Many thanks to Lisa Jones, Coordinator of the Jefferson County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Services for suggesting many of the PLANTS + PEOPLE resources mentioned. Also, thank you to Laurie Johnson, a frequent visitor to the gardens, parks, festivals and floriculture in Jefferson County for her beauteous and “yummilicious” Happy Together brownies.

The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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Ben South