1 month ago

Uncle Mick’s adds Cajun flavors to Alabama’s Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. It really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite.

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit.

Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.”

Uncle Mick’s packs the satisfaction into Cajun cuisine from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining.

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite.

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steam table line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do.

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit — the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham – people come from all over to eat – they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.”

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo.

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s: You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices.

Everything – from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread – is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down.

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food.

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room.

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world. We have guys come every year … buddies get together and come down to play for two days, three days.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters everything from birthday parties to weddings; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic dealt the restaurant a blow, but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started, we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent,” Gregg says.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.”

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The secretary of state was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions.

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act.

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”


Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main St.

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

334-361-1020

 

Hours

Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday

 

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 hour ago

Schoolyard Roots growing stronger, smarter kids in Alabama

When kids participate in the life of a garden, they see the complete cycle of growing food, cooking and preparing it to eat. School gardens are exciting places for kids to learn basic academic subjects, too.

The Tuscaloosa community came together more than 10 years ago to develop a garden-based learning program called the Druid City Garden project, now called Schoolyard Roots.

Schoolyard Roots employs a full-time teaching staff that provides garden lessons for students, as well as professional development training for teachers. The school gardens provide an outdoor experience rare to many students. They are more likely to make healthy choices and try new foods. Students gain a sense of responsibility, to collaborate and work together as a team.

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“When we see a child’s health and education improve, we know that we’re not only investing in that child’s life today – we’re helping them build a better future,” said Nicole Gelb Dugat, interim executive director. “Schoolyard Roots builds community through food. By increasing access to fresh, locally grown produce, we empower our community to make healthy and sustainable food choices.”

In March 2020, the impact of COVID-19 significantly affected the teaching community. Almost immediately, the Schoolyard Roots team began distributing produce from its gardens directly to local families. By the end of last year, the program had distributed more than 750 pounds of fresh garden vegetables to the community.

“We stewarded our gardens as fresh-air sanctuaries, where children and adults could relax, refocus and reconnect,” said Dugat. “Through it all, we shared vegetables and flowers. We cultivated moments of peace and learned together. We could not have done any of it without our incredible community of supporters.”

They found hope and inspiration in the small miracle of seeds planted by the students. Gardens bring joy, peace and courage in times of struggle. And gardens remind us to have hope for new growth and what is to come.

Schoolyard Roots partners with Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools to bring learning to life through teaching gardens. The nonprofit works in 11 elementary schools across Tuscaloosa County.

Its mission is to build healthy communities through food with the Gardens 2 Schools program.

Gardens support and encourage healthful eating as a key component of children’s physical wellbeing, which can aid their academic and social success, too. The garden is woven through many aspects of a school’s curriculum and adapted for different grade levels.

“The Gardens 2 Schools program cultivates curiosity,” Dugat said. “The program teaches the students how to work together (and) learn self-reliability and compassion.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Has Washington’s stimulus measures saved our economy?

Congress is expected to soon pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, the fourth major response to the pandemic. Did these measures save our economy from a protracted recession?

Our initial response might be yes because of last spring’s economic free-fall. The stock market declined 20%. Unemployment jumped from 3.5% in February to 14.8% in April, the highest level since the Great Depression. GDP fell 10% in the second quarter.

The economy stopped collapsing and began regaining ground. The stock market hit new record highs. Unemployment fell to 6.3% in January and inflation-adjusted GDP in the fourth quarter of 2020 was within 2% of the 2019 level. Post hoc ergo prompter hoc, however, is a logical fallacy.

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Macroeconomists disagree over whether government spending can lift an economy out of recession. Keynesians, following John Maynard Keynes’ analysis of the Great Depression, see a role for government stabilization. Austrians in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argue that government often causes recessions. New classical analysis has blown many holes in Keynesian theories.

Regardless of the efficacy of a fiscal stimulus, our economy may not have faced a recession in 2020. The COVID-19 slump arguably resembled an off-season shutdown in a resort community more than a recession. Except that the pandemic shutdown was unexpected while seasonal closures are planned.

The economy could have been expected to bounce back on its own if the business closure and stay-at-home orders did not last too long. And this seemingly happened during the summer and fall.

How can we assess the stimulus spending? The Payroll Protection Plan and augmented unemployment likely kept some persons employed and softened the financial blow for idled workers. These programs could also be viewed as compensation owed by the government for business closure orders, not a stimulus. Personal saving has risen sharply, so many households’ stimulus checks produced little spending.

Unemployment programs have been beset by fraud. The Foundation for Government Accountability estimates that fraudulent schemes siphoned off $36 billion, more than the $26 billion in unemployment compensation paid out in all of 2019. Do Keynesians think fraud is a fiscal stimulus?

One trillion stimulus dollars were unspent as of January 2021. While some Republicans argued that we should spend this money before approving President Biden’s proposal, the unspent money was in the process of being spent. Still, money not yet spent did not stimulate the economy in 2020.

Proponents of fiscal stimulus warned that the economy would sputter without a fall stimulus. One forecast warned of a five percentage point increase in unemployment and 5% decline in GDP. The House and Senate did not agree on an encore to the CARES Act until December. And yet unemployment fell and GDP grew in the fourth quarter.

Even if some spending helped in 2020, the current stimulus package is almost certainly unnecessary. The Congressional Budget Office was already expecting growth to recover “rapidly,” with GDP surpassing the pre-pandemic level by mid-year and unemployment returning to its prior level by early 2022. For comparison, after the Great Recession unemployment did not reach its 2007 level until 2016.

President Biden’s package includes $500 billion to stabilize state budgets. States operate under balanced budget rules, so revenue declines due to the pandemic would trigger spending cuts potentially slowing the recovery. The $500 billion was based on an 8% decline in state revenues; the Wall Street Journal reports that revenues will be down only 1.6%.

Whatever the verdict on the stimulus spending, it worsened the national debt by about $3 trillion. The long-term debt impact may easily offset any short-term boost to the recovery.

The economic case that government spending can prevent or end a recession is weak. Fortunately, the COVID-19 shutdowns did not trigger a prolonged recession. While we might say, “Better safe than sorry,” the cost of the stimulus will be with us for years to come.

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.

2 hours ago

Packaging Corp. of America plans $440 million project at Alabama mill

JACKSON, Alabama – Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) plans to launch a three-year, $440 million project to permanently convert a paper machine at its mill in Clarke County to produce linerboard used for corrugated packaging.

Lake Forest, Illinois-based PCA announced that it discontinued the production of uncoated freesheet, used for copy paper and other applications, on its No. 3 paper machine at the Jackson mill in late 2020.

After a temporary switch to produce linerboard, PCA is now making preparations to convert the mill’s paper machine into a 700,000-ton-per-year high-performance, virgin kraft linerboard machine in a phased approach over the next 36 months.

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PCA said key elements in the conversion project include the installation of an OCC plant for recycling old corrugated containers and various pulp mill modifications. In addition, modifications and upgrades will be made to critical sections of the paper machine.

PCA Chairman and CEO Mark Kowlzan said the project will enable the company to meet strong packaging demand and to optimize the Alabama mill’s profitability and viability. The capital cost of the conversion is expected to be approximately $440 million.

“We are appreciative of the continued support from the State of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Commerce, the City of Jackson and Clarke County to help us continue providing quality jobs and a positive economic impact in the Jackson community,” Kowlzan said.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Governor Kay Ivey said the project represents a positive development for the Jackson mill, a major industrial employer with more than 500 workers.

“Packaging Corp. of America’s reinvestment in its Jackson manufacturing facility will solidify the plant’s future by enhancing its competitiveness,” Governor Ivey said.

“This decision underlines the company’s confidence in its Alabama operation while also preserving jobs and safeguarding local education tax dollars. It’s a win for the company, the community and the state.”

Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said PCA’s project will increase the efficiency of the Clarke County plant while providing a long-term economic boost to Jackson, a city with a population of around 5,300.

“We’re committed to helping existing businesses grow and thrive in Alabama, and the impact of a major investment is always magnified when in happens in rural communities,” Secretary Canfield said.

“With this project, PCA is positioning its Jackson mill for the future, which will significantly benefit the city and the region for years to come.”

‘LONG-STANDING RELATIONSHIP’

Jackson Mayor Paul R. South said the project will allow PCA to continue providing quality jobs while securing a positive economic future for Clarke County.

“The City of Jackson looks forward to working with the corporation as the project moves forward,” South said. “In my opinion, they couldn’t have selected a better community.  Jackson is a safe and peaceful city full of great people, with good schools and recreation and a strong work force, along with extensive natural resources.”

“This is wonderful news for Clarke County and the City of Jackson,” said Stan Hutto, chairman of the Clarke County Commission. “We have a long-standing relationship with this outstanding company, and we are committed to helping them achieve their goals to ensure a bright, successful future.”

PCA is the third largest producer of containerboard products and the third largest producer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America. PCA operates eight mills and 90 corrugated products plants and related facilities.

The Jackson mill’s No. 1 paper machine will continue to produce uncoated freesheet products.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

3 hours ago

Alabama’s Helen Keller was more than a hero for the disabled

She could neither see nor hear. But her vision influenced countless millions.

Helen Keller’s influence reached far beyond her native Alabama. She became a celebrity at an early age and remained so throughout her life.

Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Keller was 19 months old when an illness left her deaf and blind.

With the help of Anne Sullivan, her teacher for 49 years, she was able to learn how to communicate.

In her prime, she was traveling across the world making appearances and giving inspirational speeches.

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She became known for her tireless activism on behalf of workers’ and women’s rights, her literary work, and her tenure as an unofficial U.S. ambassador to the world.

“Helen Keller lived her life as an example of what people with disabilities could accomplish,” said Keller J. Thompson, her great grand-niece. “She so desired within her innermost being that people with disabilities be given a chance to prove the many things that they could do in this life. By her own experiences, she knew that people with disabilities could have great impacts on the world around them and every day of her life she was eager to be someone that impacted the world in a positive way, leaving it a better place than she found it.”

Keller attended several educational institutions and was accepted at Radcliffe College, where she graduated with honors, becoming the first deaf person to obtain a university degree.

According to an Encyclopedia of Alabama account, in the decades after college, Keller become increasingly involved in politics. She became an advocate of suffrage, unemployment benefits and legalized birth control for women.

She blamed industrialization and poverty for causing disability among a disproportionately large number of working-class people and became increasingly concerned about racial inequalities. She expressed her views through public speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, interviews and appearances at rallies.

Keller entered the 1920s seeking a meaningful public life and financial stability. The newly created American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) supplied both. Working on behalf of blind people with the AFB, Keller became a successful fundraiser and political lobbyist.

From the 1920s through the early 1940s, she worked to raise funds and lobby state and national legislatures. She emphasized educational and employment possibilities for people with disabilities, particularly those who were blind.

A trip to Japan in 1948 was the catalyst for Keller’s transformation from tourist to semi-official ambassador for the United States. Thrilled by her reception in Japan, the State Department worked with the AFB to fund and facilitate her travels and promote her as a representative of Americanism.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Congressional Medal of Freedom. When she died in 1968 at the age of 88, she was one of the most famous people in the world.

Keller’s journey from a deaf, blind girl to graduating from Radcliffe and becoming a prominent writer and political activist provided inspiration to millions of people with disabilities.

Although she left Alabama at the age of 8, she always claimed Ivy Green, her family’s house in Tuscumbia, as home, and she continued to identify herself as a Southerner throughout her life and travels.

Keller said: “Your success and happiness lie in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”

Throughout March, Alabama NewsCenter is recognizing Alabama women of distinction, past and present, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

Rep. Aderholt warns congressional Democrats moving to allow for taxpayer-funded abortions

FLORENCE — Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in the extreme case of saving the life of a pregnant woman or terminating a pregnancy that resulted from incest or rape.

The Hyde Amendment has stood the test time, most recently during the 2010 Affordable Care Act debate. However, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) warns now that Democrats have the House, Senate and White House, the Hyde Amendment is in their crosshairs.

At an appearance before the Shoals Republican Club on Saturday, Aderholt discussed the possibility of Democrats ending the Hyde Amendment, adding it could come down to one or two Senate Democrats preventing a vote to end the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate.

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“[O]ne of the things that is most egregious about what’s happening now is abortion — you know, one of those issues that has always been Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on. But one thing Democrats and Republicans could always somewhat agree on was federal funding of abortion off-limits. It’s one thing that if abortion would be allowed, and of course, I’m pro-life. I don’t agree with that. But at least the Democrats would embrace the idea we would not take federal government taxpayer dollars to fund abortion. That is out now. Democrats want to make it so federal funds, your tax dollars, can go for abortion. And that’s a really scary thing.”

“The Hyde Amendment is what we’re talking about. They want to destroy the Hyde Amendment. So, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we keep the Hyde Amendment. It’s hard on Republicans — it’s hard on the House side, the Republicans being in the minority. Then on the Democrat side in the Senate with only 50 votes — then hopefully, we can get Manchin or some of those others to come along with us to try to make the rule out of order. We’re five seats basically from taking the majority in the House of Representatives.”

Aderholt was optimistic about Republicans’ chances in 2022 to regain control of the House but added his party had to be vigilant in the meantime.

@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.