Archive for September, 2012

Southern Style

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Some people, mostly from outside the South, honestly believe that while Nashville is now acknowledged as one of the nation’s fashion-forward cities, all that is due to coastal imports. We natives, meanwhile, probably haven’t much progressed beyond Ellie May Clampett or the cast of Altman’s Nashville with an unfortunate side of Gone With the Wind thrown in.


The reality is that the Mid-South region is producing abundant talents, native to the South, inspired by its aesthetics and influenced by the grander nature of American fashion history. Natalie Chanin, of Florence, Alabama, just across the Tennessee/Alabama border, exemplifies the best of all of it – Southern or otherwise.


About seven years ago, maybe closer to eight, at the time I’d kind of shifted my life priorities and started trying to make a living with this writing thing, I had the chance to make the short drive from Nashville down to Florence at the invitation of the incomparable Mr. Billy Reid.


I’d already been to Reid’s gorgeous atelier in Florence (worth the drive generally – go downtown, have a drink and take in some music at Nick Franks’ terrific On the Rocks or dinner at Ricatoni’s Italian Grill), and he’d invited me down for one of the early Alabama Adventure Weekends he sponsors with Chanin.


I didn’t know Natalie Chanin – “Alabama” as she’s known to friends – but round about sunset, this amazing woman, with a pair of the best vintage boots, a fantastic cotton coat, and a broad smile beneath a shiny mass of silver hair walked into the yard and the crowd was mesmerized. I got to speak with her briefly about sewing technique, and was simply blown away. I’m fairly sure we also talked about her husband and small daughter, her time as a stylist in Europe, but all I could think about was the sewing.


At the time Chanin was half of Project Alabama (a name since sold and no longer the same) and she’d turned a family member’s modest 1940s brick home nearby into her studio, employing a group of women who’d lost their jobs in the textile industry as it moved out of the Alabama (and the U.S.), retraining them to master the art of cutting and couture sewing to produce her exquisite garments. Hand couched, appliqued and embroidered, they were like nothing produced in the country anywhere.


I have a background in theatre costuming, and still sew prolifically; Chanin became a local heroine for me. I followed her career, watching as she split with her partner, reformed as Alabama Chanin, moved her workshop to a vast warehouse that became the most comfortable and homey of settings.


She set an example with her eco-conscious approach to fashion, repurposing and redyeing fabrics made in the U.S. of organic cottons, sometimes pairing with my incredible friends Ali and Sarah Bellos to experiment with natural dye techniques.


She reimagined how the creation of couture clothing could happen, working with independent stitchers from the area around Florence, and sending them off with packets of materials and patterns to create couture garments, and paying them for their work.


In the process of building her original business model, she started publishing books on her style and how to get it. Those of us who already had the know-how took her ideas and ran with them, turning a previous year’s spring linen coat from Banana Republic into an appliqued wonderland (or at least, that’s what I’m trying to do right now).


Chanin also started doing workshops, bringing her designs and patterns directly to anyone, beginner or experienced, who wanted to learn how to do it themselves.


This weekend, right here at The Hermitage Hotel downtown (231 Sixth Avenue N.) from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, you have the opportunity to discover exactly what I’m talking about. A fee of $475 (less than you’d pay for a couture garment by a long shot) gets you into the workshop, pays for materials, a catered lunch from the amazing Capitol Grill, and the chance to create a project of your choice based on Chanin’s original designs and patterns. That’s anything from a flowing skirt or flirty corset to kid’s clothes.


If you have the remotest interest in fashion, if you can hold a needle, do this. Chanin is a joy to speak with on any occasion. The chance to learn her techniques, from her, is outstanding.


Reservations may be made by contacting Alabama Chanin or the Hermitage Hotel, and at that time, you can choose patterns and materials. Email Alabama Chanin, or contact the studio by phone (256) 760-1090. To get more info, call The Hermitage Hotel at (615) 244-3121. And you may download a pdf with more information.



Photographer: Robert Rausch


Glorious Cheese

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The Southern Artisan Cheese Festival comes to Nashville Farmers’ Market October 6, and you’re a fool if you don’t attend. Think of it as your contribution to National Cheese Month. The second installment in what we hope becomes an annual event presents us with Kathleen Cotter of The Bloomy Rind Artisan Cheeses as cheesemonger, mastermind and hostess behind the festival.


I’m sure by just mentioning the whole notion of a cheese festival, I’ve managed to get you thinking hungrily already. Imagine luscious, rich, creamy brie, drizzled with honey on crusty bread; fresh mozzarella oozing beautifully across pizza fresh from a brick oven, or a little bleu sprinkled artfully on your steak salad. – Oh, I know … fresh, warm ricotta cheesecake with dark chocolate.


Admit it, you’re drooling. Heck, I’m drooling, and I get food triggered migraines, so my dairy intake is limited – but sometimes, I must throw caution to the wind, along with some of my carefully hoarded Excedrin Migraine tablets.


To resume our narrative: A couple of years ago, Cotter started her business in part by bringing us handmade cheeses from regional sources and selling at a stand on weekends at NFM. For those in the creamy, rich know, The Bloomy Rind is now located inside local meatery Porter Road Butcher at 501 Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville, but that space couldn’t properly manage an event of this magnitude.


Cotter’s first efforts last year brought in about 14 artisan cheese makers, and this year she’s got 21 or 22, a significant leap. “I hope to put a spotlight on the South’s cheesemakers. The movement is really growing, gaining energy and momentum across Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia … a whole lot of them are new, only a few have been around for 10 or more years,” she tells me.


The South is famous for plenty of artisan food traditions, but cheese doesn’t share that renown – although most of us who are natives to the region have a family recipe for pimento cheese somewhere that comes from our grandmothers in the 1950s. Cotter says there is definitely an industrial cheese presence in the South historically, but not a lot of handmade cheeses seem to have grown up here, until the movement mushroomed a few short years ago.


After I first talked with Cotter, I picked my Aunt Jackie’s brain; she lives in the Tidewater, Virginia area. She’s the repository for the culinary history of my dad’s huge, South Carolina-based family. Asked if she had ever heard of my great-grandmothers making cheese her response was negative. “They made butter and things like sauerkraut, but not cheese. I think it had something to do with the heat.”


Yeah, maybe the subtropical Southern climate doesn’t lend itself to cheese making, but they did it in the ancient Mediterranean countries – albeit with the aid of cooling caves that kept temps as low as 55 degrees in the heat of the day.


So perhaps there’s a host of reasons why artisan cheese was slow to arrive in the South – they’ve been making cheese industrially up in Wisconsin since at least the 1850s – timed well with the rise of the railroads that made it easy to export to other states.


Whether it was the ready rise of industrialization or climate, or a combination of the two, or even the cultural impetus of the immigrants who came to the South, what we got more of was cheese from shops via factories, not made at home. Even so, we made the best of that cheese, and have offered up tertiary cheese items – biscuits, cheese straws, cheese spreads like the ever-present pimento and so on, for at least a century.


Now, we’ve moved to the next step. Looking around, there’s some appealing larger scale but still hyper-local cheese production we Tennesseans can appreciate, like Sweetwater Valley Cheddar. Yeah, they make it in quantity, but it’s amazingly good, and they’re offering up a whole lot of interesting varieties.


On a smaller, still more –dare I use that word again – artisanal – level, every time you visit NFM or the Franklin Farmers’ Market, there are new locations – places like Sequatchie Cove Creamery down near Chattanooga or Noble Springs, which makes outstanding goat cheese here in Middle Tennessee.


What Cotter aims to do with the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival is bring the South’s up and coming cheesemakers and -mongers to one place, where we have the opportunity to interact with them. Most of them are small and independent, often under our radars. Some of them use the classic European-style recipes we recognize, while others explore new, delicious possibilities. Virginia’s Bonnyclabber Country Cheeses will be bringing a moonshine soaked cheese, for example, that Cotter simply raves about. Well why not? (And maybe the folks at Corsair, Speakeasy and Collier and McKeel will get some ideas).


Cotter admits she’s just excited about the camaraderie of the experience, interacting with expert guests from six states. “It’s just really special,” she says modestly.


If you’re planning on attending, $44 gets you In the door, and sets you up to sample and buy cheese and chat with those experts, but also provides access to other locally-sourced products that pair well with cheese. Wine, yeah, that goes without saying – looks like Arrington Vineyards will be among the guests. But there will also be 11 different craft beers from around the South on hand (and yes, there’s a souvenir sampler glass with your ticket, assuming you’re of legal drinking age, along with a $5 voucher toward your cheese purchase).


Expect a plethora of other cheese pairing items – honey, pickles, locally cured meats, bread and crackers for sale and sampling. If it goes with cheese, you’ll probably find it. Nashville vendors appearing include: Yazoo Brewing Company, Jackalope Brewery, Porter Road Butcher, Bathtub Gin Fruit Spreads, Roast Inc. Craft Coffee Roasters, TruBee Honey, Twin Forks Bread, Olive & Sinclair Southern Artisan Chocolates and Provence Breads (I love me some Roast coffee!), plus you’ll find out-of-area artisans well represented.


There are six very distinct classes being taught during the day for an extra fee, all by professional makers and mongers who know enough to write text books, and often with tastings as part of the class. Of course, the special guest of the day is Gordon Edgar, a cheesemonger and celebrity cheese judge – oh, and author of the cleverly monikered Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge.


A few VIP tickets remain available to the special cheesemakers reception at Barista Parlor Friday night (complete with appropriate bag of cheese-related swag).


Visit for tickets and find out more at:


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