summer-in-the-south cajun pasta salad
with sweet corn and sweeter memories
On December 7, 2018, I found out I was moving to Alabama. I remember the date because it was the day after I worked my first shift making pasta at Misi. My husband had a prestigious job interview in Birmingham, so we flew down together to get a sense of the place in the event he got the gig.
I didn’t have any particular expectations of Birmingham. Although I had traveled extensively across the U.S. as a teenager, I really didn’t know the first thing about the south. And while my husband spent hours in the interview hotseat, I spent most of that trip watching Food Network reruns at a Westin tucked under a highway overpass (honestly, it was great). Most of the trip—but not all of it. My husband received the job offer on the spot, so to celebrate, we spent the evening at what was, at the time, Birmingham’s best restaurant: Highlands Bar & Grill.
Highlands was Alabama superstar chef Frank Stitt’s crown jewel. Its refined southern sensibility and commitment to sustainable foodways helped win him a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2001. The restaurant was beautiful—a white-tablecloth place that gestured toward fine dining without the pomp. The people who worked there had been doing so for decades. The charm was palpable. Still, I remember being particularly nervous when explaining our dietary restrictions (no meat, no shellfish—isn’t that all they eat in the south?) and just as surprised to hear it was no problem at all, and that the restaurant’s signature dish was a…vegetable plate. I suddenly realized that I did, in fact, have preconceptions about Birmingham—or rather, its food—but in that moment, they vanished. The meal was exceptional.
There was a three-year gap between that first visit to Alabama and when we actually moved there, and sandwiched in between were two years in Texas and a food-focused road trip through Louisiana and Mississippi. (Last year, when we made our way back to the East Coast, we ate our way through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.) The pandemic was not kind to Highlands (it’s still temporarily closed), but we were thrilled—and no longer surprised—to find a burgeoning restaurant scene in Birmingham when we finally arrived in 2021. (My husband likes to remind people that Birmingham has the most James Beard Award nominations per capita of any U.S. city.) Our time in Alabama was short, but it was enough to experience the highlights: Traditional southern fare melded with modern tastes; fresh fish, prime meats, and local produce graced every menu; woodfire ovens were a staple. Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were during my time in the south, from humble meat and threes, to old lighthouses-turned-dining-rooms, to candlelit French bistros.
I’m giving you this long-winded introduction to today’s recipe—the third installment of our summer pasta salad series—not only to express my love of the south, and of southern cooking, but also, perhaps, to pique your curiosity if you’re unfamiliar with this gem of the country like I was. This pasta salad is more classic than contemporary, but its ease to make and easy-to-love flavors remind me of the good food and good people I met during my time in Alabama (and Texas, for that matter). It’s a dish I’d bring to a picnic or a barbeque—the Cajun buttermilk dressing goes great with barbeque—and eat standing up in the muggy August air with fireflies flashing and crickets chirping under the setting sun. (Let’s be real: It’s also delicious indoors by yourself with the AC blasting.) It’s a comforting dish well-suited to comforting memories, or to making new ones.
Summer-in-the-South Pasta Salad