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Neleshia Dale’s Familiar Sandwiches ‘With a Gourmet Twist’

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Nelesha "Dirty Red" Dale, owner of Dirty Red Food Truck. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

“I was a very red-complexioned kid with red, sandy hair, and a family friend called me ‘Dirty Red’ because of my complexion. I was a little shy about that,” said Neleshia Dale, who grew up in North Birmingham.

“It was at that time also that neighbors and my uncle said, ‘You’re going to do something with food,’” she recalled.

Folks were on point about Dale’s career choice, as well as the moniker they gave her as a little girl. Dale has come to embrace both cooking and the name she was once shy about with her food truck—The Dirty Red.

Started by Dale in 2017, The Dirty Red serves what she refers to as “familiar sandwiches with a gourmet twist.” That gourmet twist comes from Dale’s secret spice blend and sauce, as well as extra toppings like sauteed green peppers and onions. Her original idea was to serve soul food, but that idea changed as the landscape of food trucks changed.

“The original concept was food trucks with menu planning [that featured] grab-and-go [items people could] eat while walking around amusement parks, fairs, those types of places,” said Dale. “Of course, there’s a whole different ballgame now. … People are serving things crab legs from food trucks now. Things have totally changed since that time.”

Dale grew up in a tight-knit community with two sisters, Vendnetta and Terri, and one brother, Marcellus. And she always had a “love for food,” something that was obvious in her “greedy” childhood, as she calls it.

“We lived in an apartment complex in North Birmingham with connected houses and blocks of houses,” Dale recalled. “There were three familiar houses of family friends that I would go to every day and have multiple meals with those families, in addition to eating at home.”

Despite her hearty childhood appetite, Dale said those around her thought she would be a grocery store owner, not a cook herself.

“I wasn’t cooking, but I was intrigued with cooking. My mom, of course, my mom’s mom, my dad’s mom, my aunts [all cooked],” she said. “I had an intense interest in food, but I didn’t do much cooking as a kid.”

It wasn’t until years later, when Dale was 35, that she began to pursue food as a career path. While she was working as a medical secretary at Carraway Methodist Medical Center, one of her children—she has two: Brandon and Brittney—had to write an “I Have a Dream” speech for a class.

“Kids in the Black community always have the dream of making the NFL or NBA. … The say, ‘I’m going to buy this. I’m going to buy my mom a Jag. I’m going to buy my mom a house.’ [When Brandon] completed his paper, I asked, ‘So what was your paper about? Buying your mom a house?’ He said, ‘No, I want my mama to finish college, [to] go to school,’” recalled Dale, who proceeded to help bring her son’s dream to fruition.

She had two options for fields to pursue: childcare or food. “I did a little research and said to myself, ‘Well, let me enter this culinary program.’ That’s what I did, and that’s why I’m here fulfilling my dream,” said Dale. “It’s been the ride of my life.”

In 1997, Dale enrolled in the culinary program at Jefferson State Community College, something she said was an exercise in “courage,” given she already had a job, a husband, and two kids. In addition to having the support of her family, Dale’s coworkers at Carraway gave her the strength to go through with her plan.

“I had mentors when I worked at Carraway, … [and], I’m telling you, it was so amazing,” she said. “They purchased book bags ahead of time. One girl purchased a pack of [facial tissue] and said, “You’re gonna need these because you’re going to cry so much that you’re going to want to give up.’”

While in the middle of the culinary program, Dale had an experience that gave her even more strength to carry on.

“I pulled onto campus and parked directly in front of a tree that was so huge. … I had not recognized it all those years I was there, and it was so profound,” she said. “I sat in that car and bawled. … I cried because it was like God was giving me a sign and saying, ‘OK, I’m here. I’ve been with you all this time.’”

After finishing culinary school, Dale started a catering business in 2000. It wasn’t until sometime between 2010 and 2012 that the idea of owning a food truck manifested. At the time, Dale was the food and beverage director at the Highland Park Golf Course.

“A truck came up to service one of the golf course tournaments, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a neat idea. I like that little idea.’ … Then they became more and more popular, and that drew my interest,” Dale said.

The Dirty Red can be found on Facebook at The DIRTY RED – Posts | Facebook

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