67-County Alabama Garden Party: Dale County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Dale County Big Mouth Bass Tacos with Chipotle Dressing and Mango Slaw (right)

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.

Dale County

In our 200-year history, Alabama has had some well-known “big mouths,” but Dale County proudly claims to be a wonderful place to fish for largemouth bass and is also the birthplace of “Big Mama Thornton,” one of America’s greatest blues belters.

Speaking of big mouths, here’s a Dale County fish tale for you: A fisherman who hadn’t bothered to get a license was out at Lake Tholocco casting for bass as a stranger walked up and asked, “Any luck?”

This big mouth fisherman boasted, “Any luck? Hellfire, I reckon. I’d heard Lake Tholocco was a prime spot for catching catfish and crappie, but it’s pert near paradise for catching bass. I caught 10 bigguns yesterday.”

“Son, is that so? By the way, do you know who I am?” asked the stranger.

“Nope,” said the fisherman.

“Well, meet the new game warden.”

The fisherman gulped, “Dang…so, do you know who I am?”

The game warden said he didn’t.

Then, the fisherman replied, “Well, sir, meet the biggest liar in Alabama.”

Dale County was established in 1824, but almost 200 years later, thanks to concerted efforts of local and Ft. Rucker conservation vigilance, much of the natural beauty of the terrain is preserved. In many parts of the county, you can feel the same hope and optimism settlers felt in Alabama’s early days.

This is a part of Alabama treasured for the peace and quiet and an unhurried pace. Paradoxically, let’s give a shout-out to the farming community of Ariton which gave blues great Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton her Southern Gospel roots. Even though her father was a Dale County Baptist minister, “Big Mama” played on the famous “Chitlin’ Circuit” and pumped up the volume for rockers in juke joints across the country. Thornton, who once weighed 450 pounds, had a deep, powerful voice that projected self-assuredness when she growled hits like “Hound Dog” which was no. 1 on the Billboard Magazine rhythm-and-blues chart for seven weeks. This was three years before Elvis Presley made it a huge hit for himself.

When you see the magnificence of blue skies meeting the proud, tall trees in Dale County, it’s easy to understand the palpable patriotism people in this part of Alabama feel. Fort Rucker, the state’s largest military base, is here, as is the United States Army Aviation Museum.

Here are places in Dale County where PLANTS + PEOPLE + patriotism come together in positive and pleasurable ways, including our original recipe for BIG MOUTH BASS FISH TACOS:

*DALE COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKETS- (Daleville) corner of Daleville Avenue and Highway 134; (Ozark) across the street from Ozark City Hall

*OZARK FARMSTANDS- Chris Carroll, Delony Farms, Peters Farms, Travis Johnson

*DALE COUNTY U-PICK FRUITS AND VEGETABLES- Snell Farms, 6928 County Road 33, Skipperville, AL 36374, 334-774-0787; call ahead for what’s in season: strawberries, sweet corn, peas, butterbeans, collards, summer squash, watermelons, tomatoes

*HOLMAN MANSION AND GARDENS- (Ozark) One of the most-elaborate Neoclassical homes in southeast Alabama, it was built by a local merchant and cotton gin owner; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

*ED EISENBY LAKE- Another great fishing spot with a glistening, 92-acre lake inside a beautiful, green, 390-acre park; a 3-mile, paved path around the lake welcomes those in wheelchairs; walking trails, duck feeding, picnic tables; 861 Myrtle Drive, Ozark, AL 36360, 334-774-0588; fishing is allowed from sunrise to sunset every day except Wednesday, and the park is open every day; a canister of crickets for bait is only $1.25.

*PLANTING AN IDEA: For centuries before white settlers came to Alabama, Native Americans had been placing a small fish in a hole in the ground with corn seed to make their crops thrive. All plants need biologically active soil, and all-natural fish fertilizer gives plants the immediate benefit of food with the long-lasting impact of enhancing the soil’s microbial activity. Dale County could be a great place for fish fertilizer production and experimentation as we look for ways to make Alabama soil and people richer in future centuries.

Y’ALL COME to Dale County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour. If you were fishing for an invitation, the friendly folks, warm climate and gorgeous countryside in this southeast part of the state welcome you all year long.

My thanks to Laurie Johnson for creating and sharing her recipe for Dale County Big Mouth Bass Fish Tacos. These are flavorful, festive and fun for a lakeside picnic.

Dale County BIG MOUTH BASS Tacos with Chipotle Dressing and Mango Slaw

Make this fresh version of the popular fish taco for a casual taco party.  The beauty of it?  All advance prepped and refrigerated until time to bake the fish and serve.  Keeps you free to enjoy the party!

Ingredients for fish and marinade:

  • 2 limes – juiced and zested (Save one lime (juice) for the dressing and all the zest for the slaw.)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp. each chili powder and cumin and 1/4 tsp. each cinnamon and ground cloves
  • 2 tbsp. minced cilantro
  • 1 lb. fresh lake caught bass fillets, cut into bite-sized nuggets (Other firm white fish will work.)

Ingredients for assembly – tortillas, dressing and mango slaw:

  • 1-33 canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (One is enough for most.)
  • 1/2 cup each sour cream and mayonnaise
  • Coarse sea salt and ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded cabbage
  • 2 green onions and 1/2 small red onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 1/2 mango, julienned (slivered) into fine bite-sized strips
  • A splash each of honey, white wine vinegar and vegetable oil
  • About 8 corn or flour tortillas (Allow 3-4 fish nuggets per taco; you may need more or less than 8, and some people like to double the corn ones to hold up better.)
  • Other garnishes as desired; such as extra limes, cilantro, avocado or shredded cheese

Instructions:

  • Marinate fish: Mix the marinade ingredients in a medium-sized bowl with a tight-fitting lid (like plasticware) and submerge the fish nuggets.  Marinate about 30 minutes at room temperature or several hours in the refrigerator.  Shake and invert the bowl a few times (after checking for no leaks!) so that the marinade gets on all fish surfaces.
  • Prep chipotle dressing: While the fish is marinating, stir together the sour cream, mayonnaise, lime juice and salt and pepper.  The chipotle peppers can be very hot, so start with one.  Finely chop it and then smash with the knife blade or a fork and stir into the mixture.  Taste and, depending on your heat tolerance, add more (1/2 at a time).  Some of the adobo sauce clings to the peppers and it is hot, so taste as you go. Keep refrigerated until needed.
  • Prep mango slaw: Toss together the cabbage, onions, mango, reserved lime zest, honey, vinegar, oil and salt and pepper and set aside.  Stir occasionally while you finish the fish.
  • Prep to cook fish and tortillas: Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Wrap tortillas in foil.
  • Bake: Spread out the fish nuggets on prepared pan and discard excess marinade.  Place the pan and the wrapped tortillas in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes until fish is opaque and flakey.
  • Present the cooked fish nuggets, the dressing and slaw with the hot tortillas for your guests to assemble their tacos (with other garnishes as desired).
  • Enjoy!

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

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Ben South