I hope I’ll never forget the moment when, working on the back porch with Tim, our computers in our laps, I heard his phone buzz and, without thinking, reached for it, glanced at the screen and read his text out loud. “‘Matthew’ says you’re confirmed for a night in Florence, Alabama?” Even as I read it, I assumed it was a scam or spammer, so when I looked up and over at Tim in the other chair, expecting him to be as confused as I was, maybe even to take the phone from my hand to investigate, it was quite the surprise to hear instead his calm “yep” in response. He’d gone and booked us a quick little Nashville road trip, inspired both by a location we’d seen years earlier in this movie and by a certain tiny white house with a charming front porch. Soon after that, we were leaving town in a cloud of darkness, a normally cheery Friday afternoon now shaded by heavy rain. Two hours of highways lined by forests and farmland later, we were pulling up to a tiny white cottage AirBNB in Florence, the Alabama city home to the University of North Alabama and the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state. The weekend, it so happened, was the college’s Front Porch Storytelling Festival and the city’s 30th annual Arts Alive Fine Arts and Crafts Festival, a juried event featuring work from qualifying makers through the Southeast. While we only made it to the latter of those two events, our short stay in Florence was enough to have us dreaming about coming back again soon.
Our sweet little cottage was the epitomization of charm, no bigger than a garage, with the one main room opening to robin’s egg blue cabinets in the kitchen on one side and white subway tile in the bath on the other. When we walked in, our hosts had fresh sunflowers in a pitcher, a bottle of wine ready for us to drink and plush, white robes hung in the closet. Johnny Cash played on the room’s record player while we unpacked, freshened up, unloaded our car snacks and drinks into the waist-high fridge and gathered up our things to head to dinner, hoping to charm the littlest member of our party into a slightly later bedtime routine. We’d be going to Odette, a downtown eatery specializing in elevated food with Southern and international influence, where the front of the restaurant feels a little like a mini Anthropologie and the remainder, like the best locally and sustainably sourced café in town.
What I will remember most about Odette, beyond its long layout with an exposed brick wall on one side and a modern bar with purple tile and Edison bulbs on the other, beyond its vintage tile ceiling or the oil painting on the back wall, even beyond the mid-century chairs or the round, striped shades on the ceiling lights is, obviously, the food. Sourdough bread and sweet corn mini muffins with whipped butter kept us busy while we examined the menu, debating between berbere-spiced lamb or small plates of salad and grilled quail (Tim) and green curry chicken breast or the day’s special, bene-crusted mahi (me). When my first course of carrot and leek soup came, decorated with drizzles of cilantro oil and yogurt, it was hard to say who enjoyed it more, Rocco or me. I’d alternate between spooning the deep orange purée to myself in my restaurant flatware and him in his silicone baby spoon.
For the main course, Tim chose the mixed lettuces salad, a colorful pile of strawberries, golden lentils, toasted almonds, buttermilk vinaigrette and the only blue cheese I remember personally enjoying to date. Alongside that was the crisp, golden, grilled quail, set atop stewed red peppers and white beans. I, swung to the side of the mahi special as soon as the server explained to me “bene-crusted” meant toasted-sesame-seed-crusted, enjoyed a meaty fish filet over creamy Carolina gold rice, crisp sugar snap peas that Rocco ate more of than I did, Chioggia beets and a strawberry-lemon-thyme dressing.
Walking from Odette back to our car with a warm strawberry-rhubarb crumble and ice cream in our bag, neither of us could remember the last time we’d enjoyed a meal so much. Minutes later, Rocco tucked away sleeping in his pack n’ play as we quietly, carefully shared that dessert, it was with full and total satisfaction in the experience. These first hours in Florence made such an impression, in fact, we found ourselves dreaming of returning—vacation property? an AirBNB of our own to rent?—but eventually we tucked in for bed, pulled out our books and went sweetly into that blissful state of being away from home, on vacation, even if just for the night.
Saturday morning, we visited a local farmer’s market with approximately zero hipsters, 50 to 60 percent people over the age of 45 and well nigh unto 100 percent locals if you don’t count us. In a single covered pavilion at the town’s fairgrounds, the market held a few dozen vendors, but the conversations through the main aisle reminded me of gossipy church potlucks from my youth. With a population of some 40,000 people in Florence (not to mention five to ten times that in the greater area known as the Shoals, so says Wikipedia), customers greeted each other like old friends. Almost nobody was alone. At one end of the the market, the lone non-Caucasian farmer, sitting at his stall with his mouth full of fruit, struck up conversation with us in a drawl so thick, I had to stop and think each time he spoke. At another booth, a woman displayed a handwritten sign with “no chemicals” above all her fruit. We left without buying anything, driving next to the art festival downtown, but not before looking at each other and wondering about the culture of the South we call our home.
At the Arts Alive event, we browsed plants, paintings, $200 linen tunics and $1000+ oil paintings. So many beautiful things, so many talented people and in such beautiful, temperate weather! While we walked away from the festival inspired but empty-handed, we soon found Woodpecker Café in the Court Street Market, a hip multipurpose space selling fancy olive oil, local coffee, gourmet popsicles and light lunch items. Outside on wooden bistro chairs and tables, we shared a fresh fruit smoothie blend of orange juice, berries and pineapple, as well as a slice of the day’s quiche—zucchini, squash and goat cheese—before taking a sort of self-guided driving tour of the area, nearby Sheffield (pretty waterfront houses!), Muscle Shoals (home of FAME recording studios and not much else!) and back into Florence to try to see lifestyle company/café Alabama Chanin, which regrettably had already closed.
Driving home, hot and tired, we were only too glad to discover Bliss Cafe, a cafe, coffee shop and tea room in the heart of sleepy Lawrenceburg, Tennessee’s town square. You don’t expect to find two pages of explanations for food philosophy in a restaurant sidled by antique shops in a town with a population of around 10,000, but, at Bliss, you do. At our lace-lined table, we enjoyed sourdough focaccia with olive oil and balsamic, a bright mango salad, a mushroom and turkey grilled cheese and one of the most creamy, comforting chicken and dumpling soups I’ve had in my life, yet another item that was highly Rocco-approved.
Saturday night, pulling into our driveway, our heads filled with new scenery and our car holding the new blonde nightstand we scored for $22, I remembered once again the best part of getting away, even more than expanding my world and gaining fresh inspiration and enjoying some fun. Because after you’ve gone away and after you’ve driven new roads and after you’ve tasted a little adventure a few hours from your front door, there is nothing quite like stepping in the basement and unloading all your bags, climbing up the stairs to your flowers on the table and your pictures on the mantel, breathing it all in with fresh eyes and relearning the ever wonderful joy of, after you’ve left it, returning once more to home.
NASHVILLE ROAD TRIP TO FLORENCE, ALABAMA: RECOMMENDATIONS
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.