The insider's scoop on food, travel & southern culture
It’s already late October, which means the holidays are now only a stone’s throw away. The season of family gatherings is drawing near, and I received a nice little preview last weekend at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Chefs, food-lovers and friends alike all descended on Oxford, Mississippi, for a joining of minds, palates and libations.
If you’re not familiar with the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), the organization is dedicated to celebrating the diverse food culture of the changing American South. Each year, the SFA hosts a Symposium, which acts as a meeting of the culinary minds. Year after year, it’s always a soulful crew of members. Every night was like gathering around the family table, with the food bringing us together, sparking conversation and reflection.
I made my SFA debut 7 years ago, when a good friend, Chef Linton Hopkins, was asked to prepare the Symposium lunch. Little did I know I’d become a seasoned Symposium veteran.
This year’s theme was barbecue (#SFABBQ), which I must say, made me a little nervous to attend. I was afraid of a barbecue overload, since I don’t eat a lot of red meat, yet I couldn’t have been more delighted by diversity of the weekend’s feast. Deviled Egg Salad on Fried Sourdough and Coal-Roasted Beets in Bitter Orange Marmalade were among the dishes served at the main luncheon. Baby Covington Sweet Potatoes, Creamed Cider-Braised Greens, White Acre Peas… even a vegetarian would have been in heaven.
Among the 300 attendees, we had a collection of some of the Southern food’s most notable. John T. Edge, talented food-writer and the man behind the Southern Foodways Alliance, is a long-time friend and was tasked with guiding us all through the weekend’s events. Oxford chef and restauranteur John Currence(Remember my brunch recommendation for Big Bad Breakfast?), was of course present. I also brought along with me New Orleans’ own Ralph Brennan to make his SFA Symposium debut. As always, I enjoyed reconnecting with old pals and making some new ones.
Joe York opened up the Symposium with a short documentary that reminded us why we all came: Good chefs start out with a purpose and great chefs never lose sight of that purpose.
Helen Turner of Helen’s Bar-B-Q was the perfect example, all the way from the bright lights of Brownsville, Tennessee. At a gathering with some of the biggest names in the South, this woman was a master of barbecue and she could care less that nobody knew it. Her passion for her craft was apparent, and her purpose was—and always had been—to share that with fine people of Brownsville. Lucky folks.
California columnist of “Ask a Mexican,” Gustavo Arellano, was one of the Symposium highlights and some side-splitting comic relief. He was about as informative as he was hilarious, speaking about the culture of authentic Mexican food in the South — and taking a few jabs at himself in the process. John Egerton and Lolis Ellie, contributor for the HBO series Treme, delivered a flawless “State of the Barbecue Union” address. In good humor, the two finally agreed to disagree about what constitutes real barbecue… didn’t know it was so cut throat, huh?
Alabama poet Jake York wrapped up things up with a touching poem that struck a cord with me. His message was one that was woven throughout the entire weekend. As the holidays near, I’m reminded that there’s more to it than the glazed hams, roast turkeys and candied yams. Food is a means of bringing us together and a spark for good company, conversation and laughs.
The weekend’s enthusiasm has convinced me to substitute my Thanksgiving turkey for a big ole barbecue-smoked pig. Okay, maybe I won’t go that far, but perhaps the best Symposium yet!