We set out from Knoxville yesterday morning with one goal in mind: make it to Waverly by sundown in order to join our pal Jo Notkin of Zoe Ford Catering, Chef Matt, and his wife Emily, all from Montreal, for a New Year’s Eve fête with Matt’s Alabama crew. We elected to stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for brunch at Aretha Frankenstein’s – but were side-tracked by the world-famous Chattanooga Choo-Choo!
Our brunch plans were thwarted by scores of Chattanoogans who’d had the same idea as us – the wait for a table was an hour and a half long. As we discussed plan B, a long-bearded Tennessean drinking a Guinness with two espressos at the bar implored us to wait. “It’s worth it,” he said seriously. So, we ordered some shrimp and grits and a breakfast burrito to go, and explored the town while we waited.
After Chattanooga, we passed by the Great Smoky Mountains and made our way into Georgia and figured we should make a brief stop somewhere in the state. Intimidated by the idea of Atlanta traffic, we chose the lovely suburb of Marietta instead and were charmed by the friendly people and multiple antique shops. I managed to pick up a cute purse (sorry, I mean a pocketbook), a confederate flag Christmas ornament, and a sweet pair of I Love Jesus socks. For me, the best thing about being in Marietta was being able to walk outside without breaking out in hives from cold. Anyone who knows me will appreciate how glorious this is.
We approached Waverly just as the sun was setting. During a quick stop at TJ Maxx to buy nylons, I was touched by the kindness of LeBrenda, the cashier who asked how my day was and bade me farewell with a warm “y’all come back and see us”. Waverly is a tiny town with a population of about 300, and it seems a large proportion of its residents do creative things like making pickles and designing clothing. Matt’s friends bought a beautiful old restaurant, and while they’re figuring out what to do with it, they decided to have a New Year’s Eve party there.
As soon as we drove up and ventured inside, we knew it was going to be a good night. The restaurant was a hive of activity – decorations being hung, booze being carted in, and Matt working tirelessly on his incredible Alabama-Quebec fusion feast for 60. The lovely Ann Dial greeted us with hugs and sent us to her home around the corner, where Jo had just finished making 70 ice cream cookie sandwiches for the event. We got caught up, marveled at how fun it was to all be in Alabama together, and got ready in a hurry for the night’s festivities.
And what festivities they were! The restaurant looked splendid. Party guests sipped wine, Bud Light, special cocktails, or moonshine straight from an unlabeled mason jar. Jo put the finishing touches on an impressive charcuterie table featuring an array of local meats and several wheels of Quebec cheese smuggled in by Matt. A super-awesome couple from Atlanta gave us a fantastic New Year mixtape which we’re listening to right now in the car. Each and every person we had the pleasure to meet was interesting, engaging, impeccably-mannered, and spoke with a charming drawl. Riccardo had a wonderful time chatting with Ann Dial’s parents, an incredibly lovely and gracious couple from Birmingham. The drinks flowed, three talented guys with guitars provided a lively soundtrack, and Matt and his team sent out platter after platter of incredible food: seared tuna, venison tataki, wild boar salad, lobster bisque, shrimp ceviche, moonshine-soaked pineapple, short rib tacos and lamb sliders with chanterelles, bacon and foie gras mayonnaise. My dad called me at 11pm (midnight in Montreal) and hearing the raucousness in the background, asked where I was – he was a little surprised when I shouted back, “Ala-bay-ma!”
At a few minutes to twelve, Matt started pouring cava and Chambord. Someone grabbed the mic and did the countdown. At the stroke of midnight, amidst the cheering and kissing and shouting of good wishes, the headlining act, from nearby Opelika, blazed right into their set. Jo had shown us a Rolling Stone magazine comparing one of their songs to the “second coming of Creedence” – that seemed apt. They could probably play anywhere, but luckily for us, chose to ring in 2013 at the very same wacky little party we happened to find ourselves at. So, that was awesome.
Sometime in the wee hours, armed with a dozen open bottles and what remained of the cheese, a small delegation made its way around the corner to the gorgeous home of Martha (aka Marty) and Andy, where I promptly pulled a Pinto – alternating power naps and dancing.
We awoke on New Year’s Day and realized immediately that our initial plan to get on the road to New Orleans around 10am was a little ambitious. We were easily persuaded to stay for brunch at Marty and Andy’s and take off in the afternoon. It was a good call – in addition to the delightful company (many of the previous night’s revelers returned to the scene of the crime), we were treated to a never-ending New Year’s Day banquet. First came bacon and sausages, then a quiche. Matt made biscuits and gravy and grilled all the shrimp that hadn’t been used the night before. Marty stewed collard greens and black-eyed peas, essential on New Year’s Day (black-eyed peas for luck and collards for money), and whipped up a delectable mac and cheese. She also poured mimosas and generously sacrificed her last bottle of Gingeroo, an exceedingly tasty (and also alcoholic) beverage made New Orleans, to make rum cocktails. You can imagine how tempted we were to stay all day, especially as there was no end in sight to the feasting and hair-of-the-dogging. But New Orleans called. Following the helpful advice of our new friends, we decided to drive to Mobile tonight and take the long road through the bayou to New Orleans in the morning. We said our goodbyes and set off southbound.
On a hilarious side note, and speaking of Mobile, I forgot mine – mobile, that is – in Waverly. Jo will have to bring it back to me, and I’ll be phoneless for the next week – not necessarily a terrible thing! I also seem to have forgotten my winter coat, which means a bit of a pain for Jo who will have to somehow bring it back with her on the plane. Don’t need it where we’ve just arrived… New Orleans! More from the Big Easy soon!