Rev. Shuttlesworth "90th birthday" dinner
Baked chicken / Oxtail Stew
The Reverend's Favorite Rice and Gravy
Sephira's Special Squash and Onions
Collard Greens with Hamhocks
Blackberry and Peach Cobblers
Arnold Palmers - Aquafina Water - Rosado de Lagrima
Friday April 13, 6 p.m.
Like most men born and raised in the Deep South, Fred Shuttlesworth knew and loved good food. And although he credited his successful weight management on the fact that most of his life he ate only two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, he wasted no time or food at mealtime.
One of the most surprising things I learned about my future husband early on in our relationship was the fact the he cooked most of his own meals. I assumed that the housekeeper, church members or family took most of the burden of meal preparation off this wiry, bachelor of 36 years, who was always on the go. I also assumed that he ate out often. What I learned was that he ate out when traveling, and while he had the opportunity to sample culinary treats from every corner of our nation, at heart he was a country boy who loved his staples; beans, greens, and rice. And when he returned home from his travels, it was commonplace to find him in the kitchen opening cans and shuffling pans in an effort to recreate what he had come to know and love.
Fred Shuttlesworth greeted every new day over a hearty breakfast. Either bacon or sausage flanked two soft-scrambled eggs; and breakfast wasn't breakfast at all without buttered grits dusted with black pepper. A slice of dry bread and a glass of juice rounded out this stick-to -your-ribs meal designed to power him through his day. Most days, working right through lunch, he made his way home around 5pm to prepare the final meal of the day which oftentimes mimicked the fare that reflected his upbringing.
It didn't take a wide variety of selections to please his palate. His favorite food was rice. He learned the art of cooking it to perfection and quickly realized its versatility, landing himself in meal-planning heaven. There was usually a container of the cooked manna waiting in the refrigerator. His favorite way to enjoy it was with butter or gravy; but he could also eat it plain.
Our courtship ultimately spanned eleven years spread over two decades. We met in the fall of 1986 and began dating casually after a few weeks. Casual dating later turned into a hybrid dating where both of us were much more serious about the relationship than we wanted the other to know. Communication was our enemy; though outside the relationship we both excelled at it. By 1992, I exited the relationship and secretly blamed him for not coming after me. Nine years later, a second chance at love presented itself and two much wiser friends, having realized by then the value of what we once had and lost, grabbed a hold of the possibility of "happily ever after."
For the next four years, we stayed busy with our careers while agreeing to conquer our old communication demon. To that end, we began a deeper disclosure designed to help us create a strong foundation. To our surprise, we had a lot in common. We began co-writing speeches as I took on the management of his speaking calendar.
And all the while, I was introducing new foods to his diet, fully believing that old adage, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach." His new favorite quickly became king crab legs.
The summer of 2005 brought about change. Rev. Shuttlesworth was diagnosed with a brain tumor that would require surgery. On August 16, amid the calculated prayers of family and friends, he emerged from the operating room free of the mass that had threatened his livelihood. The recovery period took six weeks, during which time he required around-the-clock care and in-home rehabilitation. The funny thing is, after the surgical procedure, Fred Shuttlesworth never prepared another meal for himself. It was as if that part of his brain had been removed. I'm sure he still had the skill, but the desire seemed to have vanished. He surprised me one winter evening when I arrived home to the smell of boiling ham hocks and no trace of him. A note on my pillow read, "Sephira, I bought canned and dry northern beans. I had a taste for them, if it's not too late. I also bought, among other things, smoked neck bones and a packet of rice. Your choice, darling! I put the hocks on to begin boiling." I welcomed him home that night to an old timey meal of bean soup and cornbread, just the way he liked it. He was in hog heaven!
The other thing that always astonished Fred Shuttlesworth was my ability to prepare a well-balanced, eye-catching meal in 30 minutes or less. Rachel Ray isn't the only one who can conquer that feat. One of his favorites was broiled steak smothered with sautéed mushrooms and onions, twice-baked potatoes (first in the microwave, then finished in the oven for a softer texture) served with butter and sour cream, steamed broccoli tossed with melted butter and herbs, and fresh baked crescent rolls; all washed down with his favorite drink, an Arnold Palmer. For dessert, which he rarely ate but usually consumed just before bedtime, he was most happy with either black walnut or butter pecan ice cream. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, each other and our food. On one occasion, while visiting my parent's home in Tennessee, he took the time to thank my mother for teaching me to cook so well.
Finally in the fall of 2006, we married amid 300 of our closest friends and family. Determined that our reception would reflect our upbringing, the table was spread with fried and baked chicken, neck bones, turnip greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, cornbread, dinner rolls, iced tea and lemonade. We had the best of times entertaining our guests while pounds of food disappeared.
My husband maintained a healthy appetite even after he suffered the stroke in 2007. Throughout his illness, I continued to supplement his diet with his favorites, including buttered grits, ice cream and pureed soups. When I think back on the good times, and there were many, they were usually accompanied by food. In closing, I will share with you the food he loved to hate. It was pizza. He didn't like it and would not eat it. He said it just seemed like a food that started out one thing and ended up another. For him something was definitely missing.
The Birmingham Weekly is co-hosting with Shepira Shuttlesworth a dinner in honor of the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth on what would have been his 90th birthday this March. Shepira Shuttlesworth, assisted by Birmingham Weekly Food Memory columnist Franklin Biggs, will prepare the late Reverend's favorite meal of baked chicken or oxtail stew, rice and gravy, Shepira's special sautée of squash and onions, collard greens with hamhocks, and peach or blackberry cobbler. Tickets $75, proceeds support the Shuttlesworth Foundation (http://www.shuttleworthfoundation.org/). Avondale Bricks Gallery, 130 41st Street South in Avondale, 6:30 Friday, April 13. Go to www.bhamweekly.com for more information.