{True North}

This is an Alabama story, with an assist from neighbors in Georgia and Louisiana. We’ll begin in the dense, emerald woodlands of Bankhead National Forest in North Alabama where novelist Caleb Johnson grew up. A childhood spent in Arley, a tiny Winston County town surrounded by thick woods and a sprawling lake supplied him with a deep well of experience that informs his writing.

Children once freely roamed the woods of North Alabama in great numbers. Forts were built, wild animals were hunted, and swimming holes were discovered. Since the advent of smartphones and on-demand everything, the forest-dwelling, wild child has become an endangered species. We’ve seen this child expressed in literature often, from J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys to the man child mariner in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In the recently released novel, Treeborne, writer Caleb Johnson lets loose on the world his Alabama take on the wild child.

Janie Treeborne is the central character in Treeborne, a novel set in the somewhat fictional town of Elberta, Alabama. (There exists a town in Alabama named Elberta, but it bears no resemblance to the Treeborne version.) The reader follows Janie Treeborne through the woods and streams of fictional Elberta as the story of her complicated family history unfolds. The world this character inhabits will look familiar to natives of North Alabama: a hydroelectric dam, high school football and peaches figure heavily in Janie’s young life.

We meet Janie as an elderly woman who is the subject of an interview, but her story is revealed through chapters that alternate past and present, beginning with the Depression Era construction of a hydroelectric dam in the town. Like most good Southern stories, food figures prominently into some crucial plot points.

Treeborne author Caleb Johnson was kind enough to speak with us about the novel, food and friendship.

EY: How long was the writing process for Treeborne? Describe that a little bit.

CJ: I started writing what would become Treeborne in the summer of 2011. At the time, I’d just moved to Wyoming for a graduate program in creative writing. I knew I wanted to come away with as much of a completed novel manuscript as I could write. I discovered the characters and their stories through writing, throwing away pages. This made for a long process, but it was the only way I knew how to write this book. I’ve heard novelists say that every book is different in terms of how it must be written. So far, having started writing another one, this rings true for me. Anyhow, when I met Janie and Maybelle Treeborne and followed them into a peach orchard, I knew I was on to something. The more I wrote, the more I followed them around the fictional Elberta, Alabama, the more characters I met. Then it was just a matter of listening to and observing them.

EY: How fictional are these characters? Do you create characters completely from your imagination or do you base them on people in your life? Describe how these characters evolved in Treeborne.

CJ: There isn’t a character in this novel lifted whole-cloth from my life. But of course I plucked details from my life and the people in it. All fiction writers do, I think. Imagination is important for me, but whatever it produces still needs to get bent into the shape of a narrative. But I’ve always been someone who pays close attention to people, places, things said and not. I don’t always write down these details, but the better ones stick around in my subconscious and emerge from time to time.

EY: If Treeborne had a soundtrack, what are three songs that would be included? Why would you choose these songs?

CJ: I actually recently wrote an annotated playlist inspired by the novel that was published on the literature and music site Largehearted Boy. The songs I associate with Treeborne range from hymns to Blues to classic Country. Roy Acuff, T-Model Ford, The Florida Boys. I chose these particular songs because Treeborne features many different voices that come together like a choir. The songs aren’t constrained by the novel’s chronology. Instead I hoped they neared an emotional truth I often feel when folks gather and sing.

EY: List some of your favorite Alabama music/musicians/songs from your childhood and the present.

CJ: In no particular order: Hank Williams, Dan Penn, Lee Bains III, Hoyt Johnson, Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Alabama, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Emmylou Harris, Gucci Mane, Jamey Johnson.

EY: What Alabama food do you miss the most that you can’t get anywhere else?

CJ: Southern food, like a lot of our culture, has been globalized to where it seems like you can get it everywhere. There are good and bad elements to this. Having lived outside the South for several years, I’ve eaten my share of less than satisfying barbecue, fried catfish, the list could go on. If I’m wanting an Alabama food that I haven’t found done in a satisfying way anywhere else though, I’d say it’s the Birmingham meat-and-three. Especially in the summer when you can get a plate overfilled with vegetables and cornbread. I love the liver and onions, and the stewed okra and tomatoes at the legendary Niki’s West. Recently, when I’m in town, I’ve been eating at a restaurant called Eagle’s, which has a killer baked chicken and cornbread dressing and the richest, most tender oxtails I’ve ever tasted. If you want a slightly gussied up version of the meat-and-three, then Johnny’s in Homewood is a great choice. Don’t miss out on their chicken pot pie.

EY: Tell us a little about your relationship with Chef Nathan Barfield, and in your opinion, what is the best thing he has ever cooked? Have you eaten at Turkey and the Wolf?

CJ: I met Nathan years ago in Tuscaloosa. We were both college students and quickly bonded over our shared musical tastes, specifically The Band. Since then, Nathan has become like a brother to me. I’ve watched him move throughout his career, becoming a more knowledgeable and skilled chef at each stop. I wish I could get collards to taste like the ones he’s cooked me on several occasions. This summer, during a trip to the Gulf, he whipped up a kind of snapper stew and served it over cheesy grits. I ate it for dinner and the next day’s breakfast. Recently I did a book tour event in New Orleans and Nathan cooked pulled pork and fried peach hand pies inspired by elements of Treeborne.

I’m blown away each time I eat at Turkey and the Wolf. Those folks know how to push the flavors in a dish right to the edge of being too in-your-face without crossing the line and losing nuance. I know everybody loves the baloney sandwich – and it is excellent – but my favorite regular menu item is the spicy lamb roti. While I was in town this summer, I got to try their version of a Southern seasonal classic, the tomato sandwich, which I’d happily eat every day for the rest of my life if I could. I can’t wait to visit New Orleans again and try the breakfast place the T&W folks are opening this fall.

{Southbound}

Much of the plot of Treeborne unfolds in a peach orchard owned by one of the main characters in the story. For anyone who has traveled through Alabama headed south on Interstate 65 through Chilton County, many scenes in the novel will feel very familiar.

Peaches are the fuel in Chilton County, Alabama’s economic engine. There is Peach Park, an iconic roadside peach stand and ice cream parlor of epic proportions. There is peach butter, peach fried pies and peach bread available for purchase next to just about every cash register in the county. Travelers headed to the Alabama Coast must cast a ritual glance toward a giant peach-shaped water tower on their beachbound journey down I-65 South. And what is a peach kingdom with no queen? Each year, Chilton County toddlers, girls and teens compete for this coveted crown and to earn a spot in the official royal portrait displayed on a roadside billboard.

The tourist-centric trappings of the Chilton County, Alabama stretch on I-65 are pure, delicious fun, but if your path departs from the interstate and on to the side roads around Clanton, you will discover the source of the river of peaches flowing from the interstate peach stands. You will also witness its beauty. Clanton is a typical, small Southern town with a downtown area consisting of a mix of historic buildings and strip malls. Beyond the town limits and quite a piece from the interstate lies a patchwork of peach-bearing orchards that produce the sweet, fuzzy agricultural lifeblood of this county.

A productive orchard is the culmination of grueling physical work and answered prayers for favorable conditions. It is also a sight to behold. Rolling hills stretch infinitely toward the horizon, the ground almost bare beneath a broad canopy of limbs. Cresting and falling along the hills, peach trees planted almost equidistant from one another rise from short, delicate trunks. The barren branches of winter form desolate, lacy clouds a few feet above the ground that burst into a sea of green with velvet buds and blooming pink flowers come spring. Standing in a peach orchard in the springtime, it is easy to imagine the glowing orange fruit flesh that will ripen by summer.

Sicily has its lemon groves and California has its vineyards, and each have their own charms to be sure. But an Alabama peach orchard, like the people of the state, is a survivor. The peach tree in Alabama is an audacious thing that sees cold and sometimes ice and yet most every spring gives life to blossoms that may still wither at the hands of a blackberry winter. Outliving a period of harshness makes the end result that much sweeter, and there are few things quite as delicious as a ripe, Alabama peach plucked from the limb and eaten while still warm from the sun.

Along Interstate 65 in Chilton County, these summer ripe peaches are available for purchase from several stands including Peach Park and Durbin Farms Market. If you’d prefer to experience the orchards for yourself, there are several farms listed in the area that are open to the public on a “u-pick” basis in Chilton County. Rocky Top Peach Farm and McCraw Farms are located in Maplesville, while Clanton has Sunshine Farms and Raymond Cooedy Farms.

{To Kill a Turkey}

After visiting a peach orchard in Chilton County, if a traveler continues traversing Alabama in a southerly direction and veers a bit off the interstate into Monroe County, they will find the town that inspired Harper Lee’s classic Southern novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This perhaps most famous Alabama author lived in or near Monroeville, Alabama the majority of her life.

Monroeville is also where we meet the next character in our story. Chef Nathan Barfield was raised in this small Southern town and grew up cooking for his large family and alongside his mother during the holidays. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he began cooking professionally and quickly realized it was his passion.

In 2012, he moved to New Orleans to follow his passion and is currently the Sous Chef of Turkey and the Wolf, Bon Appétit Magazine’s 2017 Best New Restaurant in America.

It was while Barfield and Caleb Johnson were students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa that they first became friends. The pair remain avid fans of Crimson Tide football and attend a game each year in Tuscaloosa if their schedules permit. We spoke with Nathan about topics ranging from his friendship with the Treeborne author to music and the New Orleans food scene. He also shared his recipe for a mean peach hand pie using an unorthodox ingredient.

EY: How did you and Caleb become friends?

NB: Caleb and I met at a house party of a mutual friend when we were students living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

EY: What’s your favorite Caleb story?

NB: Favorite story is when he and I made a cross country road trip to Denver, Colorado and while we were camping in Texas, we were chased out of our campsite by a bunch of skunks. We didn’t even have time to put the tent away. We just picked it up and drove with it on top of the car until we got away from the skunks.

EY: So your name comes up in Treeborne. When did you find out there was a place in the story named Barfield? Which is your favorite character in the book?

NB: I found out pretty early on that I was a character in the book. I read an early draft and have been telling people that I have a fictional national forest named after me ever since. Of all the characters in the book, I would say Janie is my favorite. I really identify with her stubbornness.

EY: What’s your favorite thing about living and working in New Orleans?

NB: I enjoy the uniqueness of New Orleans as a place. You can be your weird self and almost certainly it is not the weirdest thing that someone in New Orleans has seen.

EY: Aside from Turkey & the Wolf, what are your top three favorite places to eat in NOLA?

NB: High Hat Cafe, Ancora Pizzeria, and Parkway Bakery for Poboys.

EY: Turkey and the Wolf has an excellent bar; when you’re not there, what is your favorite bar to visit in NOLA? In Alabama?

NB: In New Orleans, my favorite spot for drinks is Barrelproof. When it comes to Alabama, Egan’s in Tuscaloosa is my all-time favorite bar.

EY: If Treeborne had a soundtrack, what three songs would be included?

NB: “Bitter Scene” by the Dexateens; “Red, Red Dirt of Home” by the Glory Fires; and “Born Country” by Alabama.

EY: How long have you worked with Turkey & the Wolf?

NB: I have worked at Turkey & The Wolf since August of 2016. I lived in Dayton, Ohio for three months before I quickly realized that it was too cold and not the South.

{I like my sandwiches a little on the trashy side}

Turkey and the Wolf restaurant opened in late summer of 2016 in the Irish Channel neighborhood after much anticipation. Owner Mason Hereford, formerly the chef de cuisine at Coquette in New Orleans, created his vision of the perfect New Orleans sandwich shop in a small corner building located on Jackson Street. Along with Chef de Cuisine Coleen Quals, also formerly of Coquette, Hereford serves of an eclectic mix of sandwiches and non-sandwiches that are stuffed with fresh ingredients and authentic local New Orleans flavor.

The dining area of Turkey and the Wolf is mostly self-serve, with a compact kitchen on full display behind a small but perfectly stocked bar. Decorated with striking photographs of New Orleans scenes, fantastical plastic figures and hand scrawled signs, the atmosphere is unapologetically fun. Ceramic turkeys and stacks of vintage Tupperware tumblers are perfect partners to the thumping Wu Tang anthems oozing from the speakers.

The menu is a more serious matter, despite the irreverent format and cheeky names given to the dishes and cocktails. This is food dreamed up by someone who knows how to eat well. It is the perfect combination of Southern childhood flavor favorites and grown up skill. From bologna sandwiches to an excellent lamb roti, the varied flavors and ingredients just make perfect sense. Turkey and the Wolf is dedicated to using locally sourced ingredients in their sandwiches and “not sandwiches” when possible. On the day of my visit, a merchant walked in among diners and delivered a sack full of freshly-dug, local onions to the kitchen. These fresh ingredients are prepared with exacting attention, and the perfect result is served up on a melamine Disney plate with soft serve ice cream for dessert. Like the rest of New Orleans, I can’t get enough.

If you’re in New Orleans, Turkey and The Wolf should be at the top of your short list for lunch. This is an exceptional sandwich shop in one of the best food cities, and it shouldn’t be missed. You can find Turkey and The Wolf at 739 Jackson Avenue, New Orleans, LA. Call 504-218-7428 for more information or visit their website at turkeyandthewolf.com

{Peaches for Me}

Want more? You’re in luck! Chef Nathan Barfield shared his recipe for Peach Hand Pies, making unique use of the Asian market staple Roti dough. Bon appetit!