11 months ago

Alabama chef keeps rolling through pandemic with new food truck

On a Sunday in March 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered nearly 100 friends and family at Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party – to see Ervin, her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad.

Team Raquel did not win.

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room was that if those brothers hadn’t started crying – well, then, things would have turned out differently.

Ervin certainly didn’t cry.

Alabama chef driving new Eat at Panoptic food truck to a future past pandemic from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge and, even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses because of the coronavirus. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Birmingham.

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she said. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’”

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders. One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a housemade blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg.

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crabcake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3 ribbon-cutting.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distanced line. They watched the news crews. They did the Dougie and the Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day – there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. At her very first event, an anniversary party at a church, she set up all the food, proud of her shiny, new chafing dishes, and suddenly realized she had forgotten to hire servers. So, she quickly and quietly asked friends to help. They all happened to be wearing black, so it was almost like it was meant to be, she said. Those friends – all guests – who stepped up to work that party still work with her today. She currently employs 11 people.

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she said. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles.

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. Ervin was 12 when she started and did everything there, “including quit several times.”

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. One of her favorite items was meatloaf and, you know, that’s work. So, she would let us stand on a stool. I was back there standing on a stool figuring it out.

“Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.”

Time spent in corporate kitchens taught Ervin more about management and profit and loss. “I pulled little bits by little bits from each experience,” she said, “and took it and made it my own.”

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided on specialty sliders. She based the variety on what proved popular with her regular catering clients the past six years. The 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch – homemade,” she said. “I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Ervin has made Birmingham her own, even as she’s expanding her brand nationally. (In addition to “Family Food Showdown,” she competed on the debut episode of Cooking Channel’s “Snack Attack,” where she had to improvise with Moon Pies.)

Her five-cheese baked mac and cheese took first place at the Magic City Mac + Cheese Festival in 2018. She won “Best Bite” at the 2019 Taste of Pelham. She was one of the “sheroes” celebrated during the city of Birmingham’s StrongHER campaign launched by Mayor Randall Woodfin in 2019 for Women’s History Month. She participated in the inaugural Le Diner en Blanc International-Birmingham and judged Birmingham’s first nationally recognized Culinary Fight Club-Street Food Showdown. She’s a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and is president of the Birmingham chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she said. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she said. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.”

Eat at Panoptic

www.eatatpanoptic.com

205-319-1611

info@eatatpanoptic.com

Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations vary for dinners from 4-8 p.m. and Saturday lunches. Follow the truck on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for specific location information.

Access the food truck menu here:  https://eatatpanoptic.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/TRUCKPAN_Menu.pdf

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

11 hours ago

VIDEO: Prisons could be built with COVID-19 funds, Shelby endorses Katie Britt for Senate, Brooks battles with Swalwell as a new poll shows big lead and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and political consultant Mecca Musick take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Will Alabama really use COVID-19 relief funds to build prisons?

— Does Katie Britt’s entering of the U.S. Senate race shake things up, or has U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) already won this race?

— Can U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) keep the more radical members of the Democratic Party at bay?

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Jackson and Musick are joined by former U.S. Attorney Jay Town to discuss the issues facing the state of Alabama this week.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” directed at those who want to use the illegally acquired tax returns of the uber-wealthy to push for higher taxes. He argues the released returns show that we should implement a flat tax and do away with all deductions.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN and on Talk 99.5 from 10AM to noon.

15 hours ago

Auburn’s David Housel tackles more than sports in ‘From the Backbooth at Chappy’s’

When David Housel retired from Auburn University in 2006, after a legendary career as athletics director for the Tigers, it wasn’t long before his wife urged him to get busy again – and a deli on Glenn Avenue in Auburn was the beneficiary.

“Susan wanted me to do something to get out of the house,” Housel recalls. “I started going to Chappy’s to drink coffee, read the paper. Pretty soon, Kenny Howard would meet me there, and it just kind of grew from there.”

In short order, friends of Housel began to gather, first a few one day a week and then, just prior to the pandemic, 12-16 people nearly every day of the week.

They meet at Chappy’s, where a plaque commemorates Housel’s booth, and they talk – about sports, of course, but about pretty much anything that’s on their minds.

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Housel began to write essays about those mornings, posting them to Facebook. He’s now compiled more than 100 of those pieces into a new book, “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s: Stories of the South: Football, Politics, Religion, and More.” It’s officially released next week at a series of book signings at Chappy’s in the Auburn area from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. each day: Tuesday in Auburn, Wednesday in Montgomery and Thursday in Prattville.

“Consider this Housel unleashed,” the author says. “Most of the stuff I’ve written in my life has been about Auburn on an Auburn platform. Even after I retired, I was a representative of Auburn, even though I wasn’t working there. This is not an Auburn book. It’s about football, politics, religion and more.”

“From the Backbooth at Chappy’s,” with a foreword by Auburn graduate and acclaimed journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson, evolved as Housel’s morning gatherings at Chappy’s evolved, though he began writing the essays fairly early in the process.

“When something is in your mind, in your heart, in your head, if you’re a writer, it just has to come out, and it just comes through your fingers,” Housel says. “Turns out people like to read it, so I got the Facebook page. I shared thoughts and essays and that kind of thing. It was not a planned thing.”

When COVID-19 came along, Housel decided to listen to a few folks who told him his musings would make a good book.

“I had been thinking a lot about it, and it was time to do it,” Housel says.

Housel has written six other books. Most have to do with Auburn sports history, but one, “From the Desk of David Housel,” is similar to “From the Backbooth at Chappy’s.”

“That one was primarily sports, but it had some other things in it,” Housel says. “This one is about the other stuff, but it has some sports in it.”

Though the three topics in his book’s title – football, politics and religion  – are often the subjects people are warned not to bring up if they want to keep the peace, Housel and his friends don’t shy away from any of them. Housel especially gravitates toward religious topics.

“I like the ones that I hope make people think,” he says of his essays. “The good Lord gave us a mind, and we’re supposed to use it. Too few people who call themselves Christians do what the Lord said and use their minds. … Faith has got to be built not on challenging God but questioning God. I think God likes that, because it shows we’re engaged and that we care.”

Now that the pandemic is ending, the Backbooth at Chappy’s events are slowly but surely returning to normal. On Mondays, Housel eats two eggs scrambled, lean bacon and a helium biscuit; on Tuesdays maybe a parfait with granola; on Wednesdays, it’s blueberry pancakes, and Fridays a waffle.

What remains constant is the conversation. And the writing.

“I’m still writing the Backbooth, and since the first of the year, I’ve written a couple I think are book-worthy,” Housel says. “I started out doing maybe one a week, but I’m old enough that I don’t have to meet a self-imposed deadline. When the spirit moves me, I write.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

16 hours ago

State Rep. Pringle pushes to ban critical race theory in public schools — ‘Woke culture indoctrination,’ ‘Needs to be stopped in its tracks’

Last week, Florida’s Board of Education banned so-called “critical race theory” from its public schools, and it is a move State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) hopes to follow in Alabama.

Critical race theory, a belief that racism is ingrained in some of America’s sacred institutions, is widely panned by critics because it distorts and weaponizes history for political gain.

Friday, Pringle discussed his prefiled bill for the Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session to prohibit critical race theory from being taught in Alabama’s public schools.

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“It’s simply a bill that says in public education, you can’t teach or indoctrinate our children with critical race theory,” he said. “People are waking up all around the nation to how bad this stuff is. I mean, this is woke cancel culture gone completely amuck. They want to completely disregard our 14th and 15th Amendment rights, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. If you don’t agree with them — here’s what’s crazy: They want to send you to a reeducation camp. Think about that, a reeducation camp. Don’t they do that in China, Russia and North Korea?  That’s how bad this stuff is. Either you agree with them or you have to be sent off to a reeducation camp.”

“This is just indoctrination — the woke culture indoctrination of our children,” Pringle continued. “That’s all it is and it needs to be stopped in its tracks. I mean, our children need to learn history and we ought to open a frank discussion about history — the good, the bad. But this is not about good or bad. This is teaching our children that our nation is a bad nation, is an evil nation and is not the great country that we live in. We are the safest, freest people in the world and that’s what our children need to learn.”

“Do we have problems? Yeah,” he added. “Have we done bad things? Yeah. But we’re still the greatest nation in the history of the world.”

According to the Mobile County Republican lawmaker, the response to the effort thus far has been positive and supportive.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

19 hours ago

Why Sylacauga marble is known around the world

If you’ve ever visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and stared up at the translucent marble ceiling, you’ve witnessed a piece of Alabama history. The ceiling is made of white marble mined in Talladega County’s Sylacauga (appropriately known as the Marble City).

In addition to lending its natural treasure to some of the nation’s most notable buildings, Sylacauga also holds the title for having the longest deposit of marble in the world. The bed of stone runs 32 miles long, a mile and a half wide, and more than 600 feet deep. The marble found in this quarry is especially desirable for two key characteristics: its purity and its durability. When paired together, these distinct qualities make Alabama marble some of the most desired in the world for large-scale buildings and monuments, as well as homes and sculptures.

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The History of Alabama Marble

sylacauga marble

The Sylacauga Quarry (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

Marble is formed when limestone is subjected to extreme pressure and heat. In Sylacauga, the conditions are perfect for the formation of metamorphic marble. Sylacauga’s massive deposit was first discovered by Native Americans, but it wasn’t quarried until 1834, 20 years after army surgeon Dr. Edward Gantt stumbled upon the vein while passing through with General Andrew Jackson’s army.

In the years that followed Gantt’s discovery, Sylacauga’s marble business thrived. More quarries popped up, mining the marble for everything from funerary monuments to building projects to sculptures. By the 1960s, the use of the quarried marble shifted toward the utilitarian. Rather than being mined in huge chunks for building material, the marble was being ground down for use in products like cosmetics, diapers, magazine paper, fertilizer, fiberglass, toothpaste, and chewing gum. In 1969, marble was named Alabama’s state rock.

A Timeless Treasure

Sylacauga Quarry (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

Today the charge for Alabama marble is being led by the Swindal family, who own Alabama Marble Mineral & Mining Co. (AM3). AM3’s 50-acre quarry in Sylacauga is the world’s only supplier and leading distributor of Alabama marble. Owner Roy Swindal’s goal is to reintroduce the world to Alabama marble, once again marketing it as a prized material for both commercial and consumer construction. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, around 30 million tons of marble have been pulled from the ground in Sylacauga since 1900. The Swindals hope to add to that number by continuing and improving upon the state’s tradition for many years to come.

Marble Mania

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Sculptor Enzo Torcoletti at the Sylacauga Marble Festival (Sylacauga Marble Festival/Facebook)

It’s only fitting that a town built on marble pay tribute to the stone that brought its success. For the past 13 years, the city has celebrated its marble mining heritage with the 12-day Magic of Marble Festival. The festival, typically held in April, features several activities and events that are all free and fun for the whole family. Festival participants can take a tour of operational quarries and visit the Gantts/IMERYS Observation Point that overlooks the town’s historic first quarry. The creative side of marble is put on display at Blue Bell Park, where 25 sculptors create original pieces made entirely of marble. On the final day of the festival, the finished pieces are displayed and sold at nearby B.B. Comer Library. Other activities include a 5K run and a scavenger hunt.

If you can’t wait for next year’s festival and you want to see Alabama’s famous white marble in action now, there are several locations around the state to see it put to good use. In Birmingham, try the John Hand Building, Wells Fargo headquarters, City Federal building, or the Chamber of Commerce. If you’re in Montgomery, don’t miss the “Head of Christ” sculpture at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. It was created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who also happens to be the artist behind Birmingham’s Vulcan.

(Courtesy of SoulGrown)

20 hours ago

The economics of paying ransom

The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline by the hacker group DarkSide disrupted gasoline supplies across the Southeast. The company caused a stir by paying a 75 Bitcoin ransom to DarkSide. America historically has been opposed to paying evildoers, as reflected in the slogan, “Millions for defense, but not one cent in tribute,” and President Jefferson sending the Navy and Marines to fight the Barbary Pirates.

Ransomware raises many economic issues. A first question is, do hackers ever give the data back if paid? DarkSide provided Colonial Pipeline a key to decrypt their data. According to Proofpoint, this is the norm: 70% of ransom payers got their data back, 20% never got their data back and 10% received a second ransom demand.

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From an economic perspective, this is not surprising. About two dozen groups, identifying themselves by name and known to insurance companies, carry out most of the sophisticated attacks. Insurers would never recommend payment in the future to a group which has reneged. The hackers must deliver as promised to make money.

Some have suggested making payment of ransom for cyberattacks illegal. If no one ever paid ransom, the hackers could not make money. Refusing to pay ransom though faces two significant economic challenges.

The first is time consistency. Kidnapping illustrates this concept. Before an event, the incentive exists to say, “We will never pay ransom.” If the bad guys believe this, they will never invest the time, effort and expense to stage a kidnapping. Once they hold hostages, however, our incentive changes; negotiating just this one time now makes sense. Our policy to never pay ransom is not credible.

Collective action poses the second challenge. Businesses collectively have an interest in not rewarding cybercrime, yet individual businesses suffer these attacks. A business which does not pay ransom benefits other businesses, creating the challenge. Why should Continental Pipeline suffer losses to make other businesses less likely to be attacked?

Why do businesses pay ransom? Reports mention several factors. A business may face a closure of unknown length and cost. Customers’ personal information will be sold if ransom is not paid, leading to fines and bad publicity. And the hackers might sell proprietary information to competitors.

Good economists know better than to second guess business managers’ decisions. Decisions to pay ransom often involve the business’ executives, its insurance carrier and tech security experts. They know the options and likely costs and should make a good decision, despite the pressure of a crisis.

Insurance companies and government regulations reduce organizations’ vulnerability to hackers, which is good. But what about channeling President Jefferson and going after the hackers? Most of the hacker groups operate in Russia, which provides Safe Haven as long as the hackers do not target Russian companies. Some law enforcement options may exist. Federal prosecutors apparently recovered most of the Bitcoins paid to DarkSide.

Crime is a very costly way to transfer wealth. Stolen merchandise typically sells for one-third (or less) of market value. A criminal might have to steal thousands in property to net $1,000. Ransomware appears much more wasteful than traditional theft. Consider just the value of the time Americans spent searching for gas during the disruption. Remember then that the ransom was about $4.4 million.

Cybercrime makes us poorer. The hackers and defenders at tech security companies are highly skilled computer programmers. But instead of making new apps or games, they are hacking or defending existing computer systems. Add to this the service disruption during cyberattacks, the reduced use of technology for fear of being hacked and the time spent on security training. The costs may be $1 trillion annually, or one percent of global GDP.

We must guard here against comparing the real world to an imagined utopia. We cannot costlessly protect our property from thieves or our computers from malware, or make people no longer willing to steal from others. Economics teaches that there are no perfect solutions in life, only tradeoffs. Vigilance, antivirus programs and backup are the tradeoffs we face with cybercrime.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.