According to their mission statement, The Southern Foodways Alliance exists to document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. The organization recently held their 14th Annual Symposium in and around their home base at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Rock stars of the culinary world, academia and the food media gathered to learn and discuss topics related to the symposium’s theme: The Cultivated South.
Presentations included poetry readings, demonstrations of old-school letterpress poster printing, stories of the struggles of community farmers’ markets and Southern sharecroppers and odes to pimentos, cocktails and punches that pack a punch. The SFA Symposium was also the venue where South Carolina chef Sean Brock launched his initiative to popularize the re-cultivation of olive trees across the region. The esoteric presentation topics ensured that a diverse intellectually curious crowd filled the auditoriums, restaurants and bars of one of the coolest towns in the South for a long weekend.
As cool as the presentations were, the main reason most attendees made their way down the down the back roads of Mississippi to converge on Faulkner’s hometown was to enjoy each other’s fellowship and eat like there was no tomorrow. SFA Symposium is like fantasy baseball camp for foodies, except that instead of washed-up tubby veterans barely tolerating the presence of their avid fans, the all-stars of the Symposium are at the peak of their intellectual and creative careers and actually care what their supporters think.
The meals were amazing as the best of the best in Southern chefs sought to show off for their fans and friends and share their takes on the foods of the region. If Symposium is fantasy camp, then the meals are the home run derby with chefs looking over the shoulder of a friend to see what’s in the stew pot like big league sluggers jumping out of the dugout to watch a towering blast leave the stadium.
Thursday night before the official kick-off, chefs Tyler Brown of The Capitol Grille in Nashville and Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter in NYC prepared their interpretations of a Postmodern Ploughboy Supper and a Green Goddess Dinner respectively. Both chefs were greeted with ovations from grateful diners when they finally exited the kitchen after a hard night’s work. Friday began with coffee and oysters as attendees checked in at the registration desk. While the concept of oysters for breakfast might appear foreign, the briny treasures from Shooting Point Oyster Company in Virginia proved to be absolutely appropriate for this crowd.
Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville (who is currently a cheftestant on Top Chef) prepared a Bento Box Lunch highlighted by an edamame and boiled peanut salad and pulled bison brisket with fried onions and red onion-cilantro relish. If the Top Chef judges had eaten that lunch, Lee would sail to the finals. Dinner on Friday night was a Catfish Feed at Taylor Grocery, a delightfully run-down shack of a restaurant located a short bus ride from Oxford that serves a prototypical version of the crispy golden brown fried delicacy. The bus trip to Taylor is an annual event, and somehow as if by magic as soon as the doors close and the wheels begin to go round and round, bottles and flasks of Pappy Van Winkle begin to pass from row to row among the convivial crowd.
Another Symposium tradition is the White Lily’s Farmer’s Daughter Breakfast with baskets of fluffy biscuits and piles of salty country ham offered to soak up the previous evening’s debauchery. Recent James Beard awardee Mike Lata of Fig in Charleston prepared what he called a Lowcountry Idyll for the Viking Range Luncheon. Even though Lata is a native New Englander, his fellow chefs have embraced him and his take on Southern food. Not that they don’t occasionally still poke a little fun at his preppy past. His pickled edisto white shrimp and May River oyster and Capers Inlet pan roast demonstrated his Southern bona fides and then some.
To ready the attendees for the final main meal of the Symposium, organizers went big. Noted cocktail expert Dave Wonderich prepared an entire tubful of Chatham Artillery Punch, which was sneaky strong. As the assembled crowd tipsily serpentined their way out of the Powerhouse Community Arts Center into the courtyard, they were confronted by a wonderful sight. Not content to offer the regular “meat and three” dinner renowned throughout the South, SFA stepped up to plan a “meat and NINE” presented by Lodge Cast Iron.
Three meat lines featured chicken, beef and pork with nine unbelievable vegetable accompaniments to load down diners’ heaving Chinets. The meats were prepared by teams of chefs led by Birmingham’s Drew Robinson of Jim n’ Nick’s BBQ and Chris and Idie Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club, as well as Billy Allin from Cakes & Ale in Decatur, GA. A small bluegrass band was entertaining but largely ignored as the crowd focused on balancing their plates and figuring out how to distract their friends so they could cut in line for thirds.
Sunday was departure day for most Symposium registrants, but not before two more meals. Cake for Breakfast, “because no one can subsist on vegetables alone” and a Tabasco Brunch prepared by Alon Shaya from Domenica in New Orleans and John Currence of Oxford’s own City Grocery bookended the premiere presentation of an original opera commisioned to celebrate that most famous of Southern greens—the collard. Leaves of Greens: The Opera is described as “an homage to all things colewart” was written by Price Walden and performed to great acclaim by Ole Miss music students. If you’re interested in this Southern oratorio, you can watch it yourself here.
As impressive as the cuisine and educational opportunities were at this year’s SFA Symposium, perhaps the biggest news that came out of the event was announcement of the establishment of an initiative which they call “The Order of the Okra.” Even though SFA exists as an adjunct to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the organization maintains its own budget and staff of five very talented individuals. Throughout its history since 1999, the SFA has sought ways to improve the sustainability of the alliance, much in the same way that they lobby for the sustainability of Southern agriculture.
Linton Hopkins of Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta currently serves as the president of the SFA and has led a reorganization of the managing board and committees. The concept of the Order of the Okra grew organically and quickly after years of bandying about ideas for long-term support. Born only three weeks before the Symposium gathered, The Order calls for a ten year commitment to the SFA of $1,000 per year. Over the weekend of the Symposium, 28 SFA supporters stepped up to the plate to earn the right to wear a lapel pin made from a dried okra pod marking them as a member of the Order. That’s over a quarter of a million dollars already pledged to support the staff and programs of the Southern Foodways Alliance, with more members committing weekly.
Corporate supporters like Jim n’ Nick’s, Lodge and Anson Mills actually tithe a portion of their profits to the organization believing that the preservation of Southern food culture is good for all business people in the region. As the SFA moves toward a donor model, they don’t want to abandon their history as a membership-based organization. A $75 yearly membership entitles donors to benefits including 10% discount toward registration for SFA’s annual field trip and symposium, and more importantly advance notice of all SFA events since most of them sell out quickly. Membership also includes a subscription to their highly entertaining quarterly newsletter Gravy and access to SFA research services.
For more information about the SFA and their services, visit their website at www.southernfoodways.org.