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In the preparation and sharing of food in Alabama's Black Belt, cultures intermingle. Foodway traditions are part of family memory, community memory and ultimately, a collective memory that is part of the region's Southern identity. Few occasions arise in which the subject of food and the rituals associated with the food does not come up.

Each season ushers in its own food rituals-planning, canning, and preparing or winter. What for many families once was a necessity to survive winters and poverty is now a tradition where generations gather, stories are shared and connections are made. In addition, the actual products of the cooks have become viable commercial products that sustain communities and aid in economic development.

A few years ago, the small town of Thomaston, Alabama, with the aid of the Auburn Rural Studio, created the Rural Heritage Center. The green purple building that once held the technology and home economic departments of a school, again brings the community together for a common purpose-a regional farmers market. People come for the pepper jelly, watermelon rind pickles, and home grown food of local residents. Their slogan, "Eat more pepper jelly," is stenciled in 8-foot, bright green letters that travelers cannot miss as they travel down Highway 69 on the way to Alabama's Gulf Coast. The business has grown to include a restaurant, Mama Nems, which features locally grown products prepared by culinary chefs in training. Favorite dishes include BBQ eggs benedict, bourbon pecan pie, and venison. All products reflect local flavor and cultural traditions of the Black Belt.

One cannot travel the Black Belt without entering a discussion on the best type of barbecue, a topic steeped in history. As the frontiers of the Alabama/Mississippi Territory opened and settlers moved along the Federal Road to find new homes and new opportunities, they brought their food traditions with them. Settlers from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina moved through the area, and something as common as barbecue became an indicator of where one's family came from. Did the family do a full-pit barbecue, or use a vinegar-based sauce verses a mustard sauce? Did they pull or chop their meat? Answer to these questions helped settlers discover common connections over distant lands, in new environments.

In Sumter County, the tradition of barbecue clubs goes back 175 years. The clubs met in the spring and throughout the summer, offering chances for young couples to court, share news of new arrivals, and pass on political opinions. Six clubs still exist: Timilichee Barbeque Club (Gieger), Sumterville Barbeque Club, Gainesville Barbeque Club, Cuba Barbeque Club, Epes Barbeque Club, and the Emelle Barbeque Club. The recipes for sauce, the secrets of meat preparation, and even the types of sides that will be served, provide subtle distinctions in the Clubs. Members are tradition bearers.

One of these tradition bearers is George Aust. Born and raised in Geiger, Alabama and a member of the Timilichee Barbeque Club, Aust has created www.georgesbarbecue.com/history.html. His products are now sold online and in Brewton, Alabama, but he continues to teach and share his love of food with the local community. The rituals of community gatherings around food are prevalent across all 19 counties in the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area region.

Church gatherings are not complete without food. The site of a church on a hillside in the Black Belt evokes memories of drinking sweet cherry Kool-Aid and eating cookies during Vacation Bible School. Smells of fried chicken, barbecue, and Miss Martha's lemon meringue pie still make people's mouths water as they gather for funerals, weddings, homecomings, revivals, and Wednesday night supper.

In the Black Belt, food is more than something one consumes three times a day, and it is more than a holiday ritual. It is part of the story that stretches across time and soil. In a land where the French, Spanish, Native Americans, African Americans, and English converged, there can be no doubt that the food created here is unique.