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.
“Darling, why in tarnation are we galivanting all the way from Alabama to Vermont to look at some dadgum leaves when we could see prettier ones over in Cherokee County and eat fried chicken in Centre?” This was from my not-all-that-sophisticated Alabama hillbilly dad trying to understand mama’s appreciation for something exotic, meaning not in our own backyard.
Why go all the way to Vermont, indeed? As I’m writing this, the sky is Alabama October Blue and the gold, yellow, scarlet leaves all shimmer on the Cherokee County trees.
Cherokee County may be the wildest part of our rather wild state. And, the fall foliage is when the wooded hillsides are the most vibrant. This is the perfect time and the perfect place for dendrophiles. A day trip here is a great escape for overly citified folks from Birmingham and Atlanta and offers world-class, panoramic views of Instagram-ready mountain vistas.
The narrow, slow-moving, country roads that wind through this part of Alabama have a de-stressing, calming effect. You are way off the interstate highways and into God’s country which the deity painted with a gorgeous, shimmering, gilded palette. Even though it’s autumn, you might still need your sunglasses because of the golden splendor. The forests are aglow and putting on a show.
Even 200-plus years later, there are not many Native Americans in this part of the state after the Indian removal known as the Trail of Tears. That was in 1838, only two years after Cherokee County was established by the Alabama Legislature. It is easy to empathize with the heartbroken Cherokee families who were forced to leave the natural beauty of this beautiful land.
The place names in Cherokee County celebrate how PLANTS + PEOPLE come together. Cedar Bluff is your destination for viewing evergreens amongst the craggy rock cliffs. Pleasant Gap is just that, a lovely natural opening into a new world. Round Mountain is rounded and mountainous. Billy Goat Hill is mostly livable for those animals and somewhat challenging for us less nimble humans.
The county seat is Centre, Alabama. It’s in the center of things in this remote wilderness area, but it’s still decidedly distanced from anything overly blanded by so-called civilization. Centre is where I remember having “The Best Fried Chicken” of my six decades of fried chicken appreciation. Because even Alabamians are eating healthier in the 21st century, the “Fall Foliage Picnic Menu” we’re sharing includes oven-baked chicken, and it is delicious, but Lordy, those folks in Cherokee County can sho-nuff fry some fine chicken with the fix-ins.
“Get Centre-ed in the Middle of Nowhere” is an invitation I extend to anyone who has become unbalanced by 21st century busyness and whizbang, technological overload. Come sit under a centuries-old tree in the unspoiled, natural beauty of Cherokee County and become naturally grounded, again.
Arborists say this part of Alabama has more than 100 species of native trees, including an array of hickories and sweetgums and all the red-leafed and yellow-leafed beauties you’d hope to see on a picture postcard. Up here in northeast Alabama is a cooling Eden in our hot-as-Hades summers, but the peak time for jaw-dropping plant-lovers is autumn.
Somewhere between the tranquil blue of the waterfalls and lakes and the celestial blue of an October sky you are halfway to heaven in Cherokee County, Alabama.
When I shared my notes with Laurie Johnson, who is creating the recipes for each stop along the 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour, she said every autumn, her mother used to read her this 1893 poem by Helen Hunt Jackson:
OCTOBER’S BRIGHT BLUE WEATHER
SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;
When loud the bumble-bee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And Golden-Rod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;
When Gentians roll their fringes tight
To save them for the morning,
And Chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields, still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;
When comrades seek sweet country
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.
O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.
That poem would be good to tuck into your Cherokee basket for your autumn outing. Here are other positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in this part of Alabama, including a recipe for delicious and healthy chicken for your own “Fall Foliage Picnic”:
*CHEROKEE COUNTY FARMERS MARKET- Park Street (Centre City Park) Centre, AL 35960; Thursdays 7-10 a.m., May 30-Sept. 26; Mondays 3:30-5:30 p.m., June 3-July 29
* CHEROKEE ROCK VILLAGE- (Leesburg) This elevated, naturally vertical maze of boulders is peppered with wild vegetation to explore; plant-enthusiasts, hikers and rock-climbers come from all over the nation to explore this treasured land near Little River Canyon.
*ALLIUM SPECULAE- It is a native flower which grows most abundantly in this area near Little River Canyon- a prized plant for photographers.
*PLANTING AN IDEA- Baskets made by the Cherokee natives in this part of the state were woven so intricately and tightly they could be used to carry water. This Bicentennial year would be a prime time to revive this craft. Basketweaver Billy Ray Sims, who learned to weave with “sweetgrass” in South Carolina, has relocated to Alabama and has switched to using white oak, which is native to Cherokee County. White ash is another natural, basket-weaving material. It’s the same wood used in baseball bats and hammer handles. You can find Mr. Sims’ artistry at www.billyraysimsbaskets.com. Mr. Sims or another skilled artisan could teach how to make an Appalachian Egg Basket or an Alabama Sweet Potato Trug. Someone could create a cottage industry and salute our heritage by launching The 1819 Alabama Basket Company.
Y’ALL COME and rewild your adventurous spirit with a picnic on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour in Cherokee County.
Many thanks to Laurie Johnson for our Cherokee County picnic menu and recipe.
Cherokee County Chicken Legs for a Blue Skies, Foliage Picnic (“Oven Fried” Chicken Drumsticks)
What’s better than a picnic? A fresh meal outdoors on a blanket, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and of course, fried chicken. Chicken legs, with their moist, flavorful meat and built-in handles, are perfect for a picnic.
We long for picnics in the first warm days of spring, but… there is all that pollen. We love picnics in the green summer, but… it is so hot and, oh – those pesky bugs! I think that the perfect picnic is in the fall when our foliage showcases a pallet of beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red and the sky paints the clearest, bluest color. Every October, my mother recited a poem that her mother read to her. In her 1893 “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” poet Helen Hunt Jackson confirms that for over a century, the foliage is most stunning, and the sky is bluest in October. It’s the perfect time for a Blue Skies, Foliage picnic.
This recipe is for a non-deep-fried version of our favorite picnic chicken. A garlic-herb marinade and a hot baking method yield crunchy, flavorful Blue Skies, Foliage Picnic Chicken Legs!
- ~ 10 fresh chicken drumsticks (skin on)
- 1 cup herb, garlic marinade – whisk up from ingredients below or purchase “ready-made”
- 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 2 tbsp. lemon juice, 2 tbsp. olive oil, 2 tbsp. minced garlic, 1 tbsp. salt, 1 tsp. each ground black pepper, fresh basil, thyme, dried red bell pepper, paprika, 1/2 tsp. each cayenne pepper (to taste only), sugar (optional) and 1 tsp. corn starch (to thicken and help stick to chicken)
- 1 1/2 stick salted butter
- ~ 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp. ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. paprika
- Whisk up marinade or use “store bought” and marinate chicken legs in a shallow pan or plastic bag for at least 3 hours or overnight – shaking or stirring around a few times.
- Preheat oven to 450F and line a rimmed cooking sheet with aluminum foil.
- Once the oven is preheated, place the butter, cut into pieces, in the pan and melt in the oven. (Remove before it darkens or burns!)
- Mix flour and additional black pepper and paprika in a gallon plastic bag. Drain marinade from the legs and shake them in the bag to coat, a few at a time. Place them in the pan onto the melted butter. Discard extra flour mixture. Baste or spoon some butter on the top of the legs.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, turn the legs over and return to oven for another 20 minutes, or until done and brown (at least 165F at the thickest part of the leg).
- Enjoy warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate if not eaten within a few hours and enjoy them in the next days. As with many dishes, the flavors get better with time! This is the perfect, take-along, but not deep-fried, picnic food!
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