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HOMEPLACE & COMMUNITY

Loretta's County Kitchen

By Carolyn Drinkard

Turn off Highway 25 onto County Road 30 in Marengo County, go about 2 miles, and you’ll find a small country store, sitting right beside the road. This is Curry’s Country Store. Located in the heart of Magnolia, Curry’s is a community gathering place, where residents can “pick up” basic items such as milk and bread or buy gas for their vehicles or tractors, without having to drive many miles into larger areas such as Linden, Demopolis or Thomasville. Most outsiders are not even aware of the store but, if you enjoy good, downhome, Southern cooking, this is the place you want to visit.

Loretta Curry opened Curry’s Country Store in 1984. The original store had a kitchen area inside, but Curry did not use it at first, because she had a full-time job with the Extension service in Linden.

“I spent 26 years with the Extension service, and I won every award they gave,” Curry said proudly. “I have 45 plaques recognizing my work.” In fact, Curry rose from program assistant to agent assistant in her years of service.

“I stayed longer than most of the supervisors,” she laughed. “Often, I had to teach them, because I had been there longer, but I thoroughly enjoyed my job.”

During her tenure with the Extension service, she worked with many different programs. For 10 years, Curry went into homes, teaching underserved women how to use commodities to put together healthy meals for their families. After this, she taught prenatal care to pregnant teens. Her favorite assignments, however, were those involving children. She enjoyed working in the schools with disadvantaged students.
Another favorite activity for her was summer camp.

“I loved to go to camp with the 4-H kids,” she explained. “My heart was there, because I loved people.”

It didn’t take long for stories of Loretta Curry’s cooking talents to spread throughout Marengo County. Like many other good cooks, she learned from her grandmother. As one of 13 siblings, she started cooking for her family before she was 10. So many community members begged her to open the kitchen at her store that she finally agreed, but only on Fridays and Saturdays, after 5 p.m. At first, she served burgers, fish sandwiches and fries. Even though all food items were carryout, the small restaurant was quite popular with locals. As time passed, more people heard about Loretta’s Country Kitchen, and her reputation for good, country cooking brought in customers from other counties
.
In 2013, a fire destroyed the original Curry’s Country Store. Customers were so distraught they pleaded with Curry to rebuild. She moved across the road and used a drawing to reconstruct her new store.

“One of my customers gave me a pencil drawing of the old store,” Curry said, “so I told the carpenter to build it just like it was. He used that picture to know what to do.”
The drawing now hangs prominently in the new building.

Curry planned her new kitchen in detail. She put it in the back of the store, with an area for customers to wait after ordering their food. A love seat and a recliner give customers a place to sit while watching Curry work her magic.

Curry estimated that 80 percent of her business is call-ins, because this eliminates waiting time. Recently, however, one of her customers built her a large, barn-board farm table to sit parallel to the waiting area. Jacques Prescott said he felt sorry for people who had been eating their food on the back of pickup trucks.

“I saw men in suits, sitting on the tailgates of their trucks, so I convinced Loretta to let me build her a table that would seat at least 10 people.” The newest addition has recycled wood that is over 100 years old, and it has been a big hit with customers.

Loretta’s Country Kitchen first offered burgers, fish sandwiches and fries. As more customers came, Loretta gradually added to her menu: shrimp, catfish and whiting boxes; BLT and bologna sandwiches; and more chicken favorites such as wings, tenders and nuggets as well as gizzards and livers. She also added sides such as fried okra, sweet potato fries, coleslaw and corn nuggets. Even with more choices, the burgers are still her most requested items.

“Lots of folks call them ‘Curry Burgers,’” she laughed. “Some even say they are ‘Loretta Burgers.’ It don’t matter. To me, they’re just burgers.”
Those who have tried Curry’s burgers rave about them. Prescott, a city councilman from Thomasville, has business interests in this area. He recalled his first taste of these iconic goodies.

“It had to be the best burger that I ever ate,” he said. “I watched them cook it and put fresh veggies on it, like old school.”
Prescott and many others posted their pleasure on Facebook, and the word was out.

Curry’s customers declare that once you try her burgers, you’ll know they are special. Curry, however, said she has no secret recipe. She uses real ground beef, rolls the patties herself and seasons with only Gold Medal Seasoning Salt. “That’s it,” she laughed. “No secrets, and no black pepper!”

Curry slathers mayo and ketchup on both sides of the bun, and then adds onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato, bacon or cheese, to the specifications of each customer.

“I just put enough on there to get the flavor of the beef,” she admitted. “You don’t get a dry burger here. You get a flavorful, juicy burger!”

Her prices are another treat! A Curry Burger starts at just $3.25, with a cheeseburger going for $3.50.

“Folks tell me my prices are too low,” she laughed, “but I can still make a little and give my customers some good food. My greatest pleasure is when people enjoy what I cook.”

Curry’s burgers are so popular that people drive for miles just to get them. In fact, it is very rare to find a small country store that sells over 400 burgers in one weekend, but that is just the start for her.

“It’s the best burger I’ve ever eaten,” said Kathryn Friday, who lives in Linden and serves as the vice chairman of the Heart of Marengo Chamber of Commerce. “When my children and grandchildren come to visit, they want a ‘Loretta Burger,’ so we drive down. “

Curry has two employees in the kitchen with her on Thursdays, and three on Fridays and Saturdays. Another employee works the store register, tending to customers, taking orders and answering the phone. Curry herself handles the cooking.

She loves to cook good, Southern home dishes, which people no longer have time to fix. She told about visiting her daughter and grandchildren in Maryland.

“I always take a whole suitcase full of food,” she laughed.

To Curry, this means collard greens, chicken wings, sweet potato pie filling, chicken and dressing, peas and Conecuh sausages, which her daughter couldn’t get.

Loretta’s Country Kitchen may be off the beaten track, but that does not stop customers from finding it. During hunting season, visiting hunters eat here regularly. Loggers, county and state crews and railroad workers often stop by. Home health and hospice nurses say they enjoy coming to this area, because they can get Curry’s cooking and complete paperwork, while eating in their cars.
Loretta’s Country Kitchen is also an iconic throwback to a time when neighbors really “visited” with one another.
“When you go into Loretta’s, it is the neatest place in the world,” Friday explained. “While waiting for your food, people really ‘visit’ with one another, like they used to do in the Old South. You may not know a soul in the crowd but you will before you leave.”
Since 2018, the hours for Curry’s Country Store are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Curry offers only carryout service, and she recommends that customers call ahead, so they will not have to wait. Weekends are especially busy.
For Southern cooking the way your grandmother did it, head on down to Loretta’s Country Kitchen in Magnolia, where the grill is always hot, the staff is always friendly and Curry’s food is always good.

Lights, Camera, LANTERNS

Huntsville Botanical Gardens hosts Chinese Lantern Festival.
By Morgan Graham

With more than a 1-mile path, the Chinese Lantern Festival is the largest exhibit Huntsville Botanical Gardens has presented to date. The exhibit included over a thousand illuminated lanterns embracing this year’s theme, “The Wild.” With lanterns ranging from wildlife around the world to flowers and even some life-size dinosaurs, it leaves nothing to the imagination.
“We are excited to present the Chinese Lantern Festival to the Tennessee Valley,” said Huntsville Botanical Garden’s Carol Casey. “The lanterns are enchanting in the sunlight, but even more magical in the moonlight. The festival has something for the entire family.”
These may be called lanterns, but, make no mistake, these are not handheld, candle-lit lamps, like most think of. These uniquely handcrafted lanterns are constructed in China to resemble nature throughout the world. Each lantern is made by masters of the craft in Zigong, China’s center of lantern heritage.
From humble beginnings of silk, medicine bottles and porcelain, the Chinese lantern has evolved into wondrous shapes and sizes all tied together with technology. Each design is illuminated with colored bulbs, enlivened by music and sound effects. Some even have visual moving parts.
Originally Chinese lanterns were simply used for lighting. Over time Chinese lanterns evolved into an art form. The Lantern Festival is one of China’s most traditional celebrations. On the 15th day of the first lunar month varieties of lanterns are hung in the streets during parades. The art of Chinese lantern making began during the Han Dynasty.
The meticulous details in some of the structures would fascinate even the youngest observer. There is a peacock constructed with medicine bottles filled with colored water. Also see thousands of fine china cups and saucers that create the soaring elephants.
The Chinese Folk Art Marketplace made a great conclusion to the mile-long stroll through the lantern-lit gardens. The marketplace offered authentic Chinese souvenirs ranging from hand fans to paintings.
Other festival activities included Live Kung Fu performances and Chinese shadow puppetry. Children also had a chance to ride a larger-than-life dinosaur replica.
To find out more about the Chinese lantern festival, visit http://hsvbg.org/

Three Back-to-School Treats to Sweeten the School Year.

By Laura Tucker

As we’re rounding out the end of summer vacation, the shelves at local stores are beginning to fill with crayons, pencils, backpacks, and all sorts of bright and colorful school supplies to help children across the country get ready for another school year to start. Sales flyers in newspapers and magazines are pushing their back-to-school sales and discounts, and soon our social media pages will be filled with children posing with their new gear as they get on the bus to head to their first day of school.
There’s been a whole lot of excitement brewing in our household this summer as our oldest daughter is anxiously awaiting her very first day of school. We’ve been talking about all of the fun activities her teacher has planned for her and all of the new things she’ll be learning about. While many kids don’t enjoy the work school requires, it’s my hope that my daughter will grow to love learning and the school environment in general. I fully expect for us to face some learning curves along the way as this is a completely brand-new process to her, so I’ve been putting together some simple little school-themed snacks and craft projects to help make the transition a fun and smooth one.
With lunchbox-friendly snacks going on major sale during this time of year, I stocked up on a few treats such as premade Rice Krispies Treats and Oreos, and transformed them into something fun to share with my daughter and her class as the first day of school approaches. You can certainly make a batch of homemade Rice Krispies treats for this project, but I spring for store-bought when I can to cut down on some of the time. During this busy time of year, it’s always my preference to work smarter and not harder!
While you’re out shopping, pick up a bag of yellow and red chocolate candy melts. They’re typically located in the craft section of the store, and they’re great to have on hand for food crafts just like these. I also
ordered a pack of food-grade edible ink markers to create the lines on the rulers. They’re perfect for writing little notes or drawing pictures on snacks and sandwiches, too!
I started by melting two handfuls of yellow candy melts in a microwave-safe bowl. For the rulers, I left the Rice Krispies treats as they were and simply dipped the top layer only into the chocolate. Using a butter knife, I smoothed over the chocolate and allowed it to fully dry on a piece of wax paper. For the pencils, I took a pizza cutter and cut one end of the treats into a triangular shape before dipping into the chocolate and smoothing over.
Once the chocolate was dry, I used my food-grade markers and drew a ruler design for the ruler treats and I also colored in the tips of the pencils. I added a small dab of chocolate to the other end of the pencils and added pink sprinkles to create an eraser. These took just a few minutes to dry, and they will keep for a few days in an airtight container so you can make a large batch and include them in a lunchbox each day of the week!
To make the candy apples, I melted a handful of red candy melts in a bowl and dipped the Oreo into it on each side. I used a knife to smooth over the chocolate on the front and to also fill in the gaps on the sides of the cookie. This process will require you to get your hands in the melted candy just a bit, but they come out so cute that it’s definitely worth it! Besides, who’s really going to complain about having a little candy on their hands?
While the red chocolate was still wet, I added in half of a pretzel stick for the stem, and I purchased a few leaf food picks online to use as a garnish. If you’re unable to find them, you can slice a small piece of green taffy to use as the leaf. For added fun, you can even insert a lollipop stick and turn these into apple lollipops! While these sweet treats are a fun addition to a lunchbox, they’re also perfect for after-school snacks, first day of school snacks or a fun handmade treat to share with a child’s teacher or other school staff members! If your child is old enough, they can even help prepare the treats as they await the first day of school.
If you have children who are heading back to school this month, add a little bit of excitement to their lunchbox or snack time by making these school-themed treats. It’s an easy way to add a little sweetness to the start of the school year!
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