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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Al Clayton, photographer of both hunger and plenty, passes

Al Clayton with daughter Jennie Nedza and a pot of his famous greens in 2001

Al Clayton with daughter Jennie Nedza and a pot of his famous greens in 2001

Al Clayton, a renowned Southern photographer whose work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, passed away over the weekend. He was best known for a series of photographs he took in the 1960s that chronicled hunger and poverty in the rural South. Clayton also famously collaborated with Southern civil rights and food historian John Egerton, providing images for his seminal book “Southern Food.”

I mostly knew him as the husband and sometimes collaborator of Mary Ann Clayton, the great food stylist with whom I sometimes worked in the late 1990s. He was the kind of person who could turn a minute-long phone conversation into a memorable moment.

Here’s a great NPR interview with Al.

And here’s a wonderful 2001 story from our archives that Mary Ann wrote about Al’s New Year’s Day greens and beans:

The other night, at a friend’s 60th birthday party, my husband, Al, and I met up with a couple we hadn’t seen in ages.

“Guess what, ” the wife announced as soon as we’d exchanged greetings. “We’re going to be able to make it to Beans ‘n’ Greens this year!”

We hadn’t yet started spreading the word about our family’s annual New Year’s Day celebration, but it didn’t matter; they’d been enough times to know the drill: Once invited, always invited. No R.S.V.P. necessary.

For us, Beans ‘n’ Greens is a down-home, inexpensive way to welcome in the new year that often involves the whole family, plus friends who want to participate. More importantly, it helps us maintain connections with far-flung friends we may never get to see otherwise.

When we threw our first Beans ‘n’ Greens party 25 years ago at our home in Ansley Park, about 30 people came — mostly business clients of Al’s, as well as a few neighbors and school friends of our five children. Everyone had a great time. It seemed a perfect transition from the hectic holidays to the routine of daily life.

Since we downsized to a smaller house in Jasper several years ago, we’ve moved the center of activity to our daughter Jennie’s home in Duluth. There it’s not uncommon for 100 guests or more to drop by throughout New Year’s Day.

As the crowd has grown, so has the cooking equipment. Al has graduated from a 10-quart stockpot and wooden spoon for cooking his greens to a 12-gallon vessel and a paddle he carved out of oak especially for the task.

We never know for sure exactly who will show up, or how many; for us that’s part of the fun. So we always go overboard on quantity. But that’s never a problem; we know from experience that the beans and collards keep very well. Whenever there’s an excess, we supply freezer bags to any guest who might like a comforting bowl of beans or collards with a batch of corn bread some future cold winter evening.

The ritual starts on New Year’s Eve day, when we take down our Christmas tree and all the decorations.

Washing the greens is the biggest task, which Al does outside with big pots and the garden hose, sometimes with a little help from the guys. If the weather is really cold, it is easy to cook the greens a day ahead of time and let them cool on the screened porch.

Al’s collards are legendary, having won over many a nonbeliever, including myself and even our Michigan-born son-in-law, Chris, who has become convinced that they bring him good luck. The old Southern superstition dictates that to ensure a prosperous new year, you must eat greens and black-eyed peas on Jan. 1.

Not being a fan of the latter, however, Al took some creative license the first year, serving pintos instead of black-eyed peas. My persistence — and slight variation on the standard preparation to appeal to our vegetarian friends — finally got them on the menu. Then, in retaliation, I suppose, Al began preparing white beans cooked in a lamb stock, and black beans, which are the kids’ hands-down favorite.

One year, our friend Tony contributed Chinese fermented black beans, a dish so rich and salty it’s best served as a condiment. It immediately became part of the custom, and when he and his wife, Poppy, moved to Philadelphia, he left us the recipe so we could continue it.

Through the years, the menu has remained basically the same. Along with the greens and beans, we have corn bread and fruit cobblers and other desserts ranging from cheesecake to baklava to trifle, depending on our inclination or the efforts of guests who insist on contributing. We mix up Bloody Marys and make sure there’s plenty of wine, beer and iced tea.

It’s still as casual as ever, with guests serving themselves directly from the pots at the stove. I once had 40 matching bowls, but as the guest list grew, these became woefully inadequate and I scrounged cereal bowls, dessert bowls, bowls from pottery classes and extras from friends.

Somehow those mismatched bowls seem perfectly suited to the come-as-you-are atmosphere. We deliberately keep the decorations bare-bones; about as fancy as we’ve ever gotten is the year we folded napkins in every conceivable way you can imagine and stuck them in glasses all over the kitchen and dining room.

Extra entertainment is equally minimal. Other than keeping the television set tuned to the football game for those who want to check the score now and then, we keep the focus on eating, drinking and catching up with one another’s lives.

This year we got an early start on the preparations, making much of the menu ahead of time and freezing it. Right after Christmas we’re heading to Michigan for our son Galen’s wedding, and we’re not coming back until New Year’s Eve. It will be a little challenging, but no one even suggested that we cancel the event.

We tried that once, one particularly hectic year. But all of us — especially our children, who were by then grown and settled into their adult lives — sorely missed it.

Now that our sons, Galen, Kevin and David, and our other daughter, Hope, lead busy lives in different parts of the country, we cannot always guarantee that we’ll all be together for the new year — physically, at least.

But we can be in spirit. One recent Christmas morning, each of the kids found in their stockings a hand-carved paddle just like Al’s, to stir a big mess of greens in their own kitchens and hopefully help them preserve what we love most about this celebration.

As all of them have expressed at one time or another: “The food is always good, the people who come are exactly the people we want to be with, and it never changes.”

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

5 comments Add your comment

Mary Ann Clayton

April 30th, 2014
6:38 pm

John, thank you so much for this. Now is the time to remember how good it was, all of it.

John Kessler

May 1st, 2014
10:40 am

Aw, Mary Ann…how wonderful to see your name come up. How terrific it was to learn more about your amazing husband and his career.

Patrick McGough

May 1st, 2014
7:17 pm

So sorry to hear this news – he was a great guy. Right after I graduated from the Art Institute in the summer of ‘76, he gave me my first “professional” job as his assistant – in a cool studio space on Ponce De Leon Place, near what was then Sears. At that point he was doing a lot of PR and album cover work for various Nashville based artists, including Johnny Cash. I was doing all of Al’s black and while lab work that summer, and tho I never got to meet Mr. Cash, I well remember printing a terrific portrait of Cash in a studio, perched at a microphone, guitar in hand. Al was a generous soul and a wonderful teacher – it was an honor to have known and worked for him.

Jim Auchmutey

May 2nd, 2014
9:04 am

So glad you wrote this, John. Al was an original.

Jennie Clayton

May 5th, 2014
6:50 am

This made me smile on a not very smiley day. Thank you so much for the memories. He was a great photographer, husband and dad. And I’m gonna miss him loads.