Children go to bed hungry in America. Hard to believe, right? But it’s true. And one way to help is to support your local Empty Bowls meal. The Empty Bowls movement is a loosely connected network of fundraisers that funnel the local money raised back into the local community to help the local hungry. Churches, schools and other groups typically sponsor the meals. You buy your ticket and go eat — usually it’s something simple such as soup, crackers and water — and then as a thank-you and a reminder of the empty bowls so many people face every day, you take home a handmade pottery bowl that volunteers have donated. In my town, the Salvation Army Auxiliary sponsors an Empty Bowls lunch every year, and it’s a must-go big deal. Restaurants and caterers bring their best soups for sampling and judging, there’s a Salvation Army fashion show where the models mingle with the crowd and try to get the most votes — in money — for their thrift-store outfits and there’s one of the best bake sales and silent auctions around. My family has gone to this for years and so far we’ve amassed quite an intriguing collection of bowls. But I think the ones we got this year are the best ever — and we lucked out because they all three coordinated. How cool is that? Learn more about Empty Bowls at http://www.emptybowls.net
Need something to do today? Go to the Jerry Brown Arts Festival in Hamilton, Alabama, to see some great folk art and handcrafted work. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the former Wal-Mart building that’s on Hwy. 43 on the south side of town — ironic, really, since Wal-mart is sort of the antithesis of slowly made and homegrown quality art pieces. But there you go. Named for ninth-generation potter Jerry Brown, who’s known for his traditional techniques and his signature facejugs, the festival is an eclectic mix. You’ll find pottery, photographs, paintings, jewelry from simple to statement-making, handbags made out of recycled textiles, fabulous knitted garments and whimsicals such as wind chimes and “sculptures” made from cast-off household items. One of the most stunning booths was that of metalsmith Robert Taylor, of Birmingham, Alabama. Working in the Roycroft style, Taylor creates true works of art that look to me as if they should be in museums instead of somebody’s living room. Another artist who resonated with us was Clay Paradiso, of Columbus, Mississippi. Her architectural photographs of Mississippi churches and byways are so lovely, and we were especially taken with the miniature gift boxes she makes out of art paper, maps, sandpaper, corrugated cardboard or whatever other supplies she can find and then packages with themed embellishments that make the whole box a present in itself. But don’t take it from me. Go see for yourself. Admission is free and the drive is peaceful. Visit http://www.jbaf.org/ for details about the festival and http://www.jerrybrownpottery.com/ to learn more about Jerry Brown himself.
One of my family’s favorite stores in Birmingham, Alabama, actually is in Homewood. Red Rain is a sort of environmentally-aware general store with an emphasis on local and Alabama products. You can buy handmade soaps and candles in recycled containers, local honey, fresh produce, gently used books and glass ware, lotions and creams, handmade jewelry, stationery, Alabama Dirt shirts, yoga items and Alabama Chanin appliqued dish towels made from recycled T-shirts. Red Rain is a vibrant gathering place, too. Shopkeeper Sarah Gurganus believes in being an active member of the community and in environmental education and supporting local craftspeople and artisans as well as environmental causes. Red Rain is a go-to place for gifts in my family. Just walking in makes me smile — and it smells so good! Plus, it’s so inspiring to see what creative folks can do. Red Rain also has Burt’s Bees and Dr. Bronners products and some wonderfully whimsical pottery pieces. Check out the Web site at www.redrainstore.com.
I’ve passed by this eye-catching yellow concrete-block building that advertises “pottery and ironworks” on Highway 72 in Burnsville, Miss., about a million times and wondered what it was. Today was the day I stopped to find out. The business is called Image Wholesale Inc., and it’s made up of four or so barns full — and I mean stuffed full — of pottery and iron pieces from Mexico and Texas. This is a place to spend hours poking around on a treasure hunt, whether you’ve got a house to furnish or an outdoors spot to decorate. There were urns, vases, tables, chairs, candelabras, wall pieces, fountains, figurines, statues and all sorts of things that I didn’t know what to do with since my own personal style of decorating is Cat Hair Contemporary interspersed with Vintage Newspaper Stackage (Southern Living, are you interested?). Anyway, this place is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays — just make sure you’ve got plenty of room in your vehicle to transport your finds!
And then, in Tupelo, Miss., I found the first ever Western Sizzlin Express I’ve ever seen. It’s at the Horizons gas station at the Eason Boulevard exit off Highway 45 South, which only has been opened a few weeks. This is like a grab-and-go mini-Western Sizzlin. You order at the counter — the menu has the usual steak and chicken entrees and sandwiches — and then you sit down at a booth or table or a bar-like counter and the waitress brings your food on actual plates with real silverware. Or you can order takeout. I was there at about 1 p.m. and the place was hopping. Folks who work around that area don’t have much to choose from when it comes to lunch, so they’re glad to add this option in to the meal mix. Plus, it’s great for travelers. You don’t often think of steak as fast food, but apparently it’s working here. Wonder if we’ll see more of these pop up?