That Looks Good!
The Art of Alabama Food exhibit excites the senses in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores
By Jeff Atwell
I had heard of the legendary Royal Reds, a delicacy along Alabama’s stretch of the Gulf Coast. Got it on good authority from a foodie friend who lives in Orange Beach that these toothsome shrimp are found only in the deepest, coldest waters of the Gulf of Mexico and “taste like lobster.”
“Dip them in butter,” she instructed. “Not cocktail sauce!”
I did not imagine the first time I’d catch a glimpse of this mythical creature would be as a wall-sized photograph at an art show at The Wharf in Orange Beach. Yet there we were, surrounded by amazing photos of Royal Reds and other Southern staples at The Art of Alabama Food exhibit at The Compleat Studio.
My friend Darrin and I live just outside of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and pop over often for the big concerts and great restaurants in the area. As we entered the gallery that night, we were greeted with a bowl of gumbo—chunky with seafood and Andouille sausage. What other gallery lets patrons sop up every last bit of the spicy sauce while looking at fine art? That great gumbo brought the room of art fans and foodies together for a pleasure trip through Alabama’s food scene.
The 36 iconic dishes on display represented roadside eateries and fine dining rooms from across the state. Oysters Fried, Stewed or Nude led to debate on how best to savor the Gulf Coast pearls. The Hot Bama Brown sandwich suggested that everything tastes better with a generous drizzle of mushroom-beef gravy. The Fried Fish & Cole Slaw and Ribs & White Bread compositions, so simple and so perfect, were clearly crowd favorites. The exhibit topped off the feast for the eyes in true Southern style with Peach Pies, Banana Pudding, and S’mores prettier than any others we’d seen.
The chef from Classic on Nobel, a fine eatery located up north near Birmingham, stopped by the gallery to see Shrimp & Grits, the artful rendition of his signature dish. He quickly drew a crowd as he explained the local and seasonal components of the dish. “Sometimes we’ll fry up some kale chips to top this dish,” he said. “Over at Classic on Buckhorn, we do this dish with crispy fried catfish over cheddar garlic grits.”
His new entourage swooned.
Toward the end of our stroll through the elegant gallery, the hosts of the exhibit joined us as we lingered in front of the Royal Red Shrimp photo. Bright, plump, steamed shrimp busting out of their shells served atop boiled red potatoes and corn on the cob made a perfect balance of color and contrast. The gallery owner told us that 10 minutes down the road, we could try this dish in person at King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant, a Gulf Shores landmark.
As we stepped out of the gallery, hungry for more, we decided to return in the coming weeks for some of the chef demonstrations and tastings planned during the exhibition. But first, we set out in search of Royal Reds. If we can find a side of fried green tomatoes and black-bottom pie for dessert, all the better.
The Art of Alabama Food exhibit has shown in New York City, New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. See the Orange Beach show through Aug. 9 at The Compleat Studio at The Wharf, Wed. through Sat. from 4 to 10 p.m. Admission is free.
Whet your appetite with the 100 Dishes to Eat In Alabama Before Your Die app, available in the App Store.