On Oct. 19, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) drew 350 folks to its hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, where they celebrated what is perhaps the most indelible Southern culinary tradition: barbecue. And celebrate they did. In its 15th year, the SFA’s annual symposium seemed to have found its sweet spot weaving together a mix of intellectual talks, poetry, improv comedy, and serious eating. In short, it was a veritable culinary variety show.
If forced to give a quick description of the SFA as a whole, a culinary variety show might not be a bad summation. The nonprofit SFA, based out of the University of Mississippi, focuses on preserving Southern culinary traditions through documentary films, oral histories, and events like their annual symposium.
Charleston represented itself well at the highly anticipated symposium, which sold out in 10 minutes. Local attendees included chefs Mike Lata and Sean Brock in the audience while Charleston-based wine distributor Harry Root, who also happens to be on the SFA board, did a bit of emceeing. But the Lowcountry high point was a presentation on “The History of the Joint” by the City Paper’s own Robert Moss. Even from his inner-circle position as a speaker, Moss managed to step back and find himself in awe of the event.
“In general, the SFA Symposium is such an unusual animal,” he said. “It’s part academic conference, part food festival, part party. And, the attendees are an equally eclectic mix: food writers and journalists, chefs and restaurateurs, academics, PR people, and people who just love to eat. There were moments when I was just struck by the weirdness of it all and would think to myself, ‘Who are all these people and why are they here?'”
This year also marked the first time the SFA revisited a symposium topic. They explored the subject of barbecue 10 years ago, but key moments showed that a lot has changed in a decade. Perhaps the most tangible example of our collective culinary evolution came during the first talk of the symposium, a panel discussion entitled “The Politics of Protein and Tomatoes.” The panel was made up of Greg Asbed, founder of a Florida non-profit organization that focuses on farmer workers’ rights; Will Harris, who sustainably farms cattle and chickens on the south Georgia land his great-grandfather settled in 1866; and Nick Pihakis, co-founder of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. Topics ranged from Asbed’s recent triumph in securing better work for Florida tomato farmers to Pihakis’ work at humane hog farming. Pihakis wants to prove that even large barbecue businesses like his own can serve all-natural pork without drastically increasing their price point.
The panel delved into some serious territory without any fights breaking out, but the true weight of the moment did not become fully apparent until an audience member rose at the end of the discussion and noted the significance of kicking off the symposium with this discussion. He remembered that during the first SFA barbecue symposium the issue of sustainable, conscientious farming did not arise until the final day. The audience nodded in agreement, and this theme of humanity arose several times more.
But in keeping with the variety show feel, the symposium never became bogged down in the sad or serious. Rather, talks jumped from humanity to hilarity to historical lessons like Moss’ “History of the Joint,” where he blew most folks’ minds with the revelation that the first fast food restaurants focused on barbecue, not hamburgers (including McDonald’s).
And rather than focusing on strictly academic takes on barbecue, the symposium made room for the literary as well, including South Carolina’s own George Singleton who lives in the upstate and writes dark comedic fiction. Singleton waxed both humorously and sentimentally over his own experiences with slowly smoked meat.
“I realized every rite of passage I had, barbecue played a part and sometimes police officers,” Singleton said.
He did not stop there but headed straight into politically incorrect territory, saying that his own favorite home barbecue preparation happens to use a medley of sauces, which he describes as, “the Rodney King ‘Can’t We All Get Along’ Pulled Pork Surprise.”
At times, it seemed the flood gates regarding political correctness had not just been opened but thoroughly annihilated. Speakers like New York City-based chef and writer Eddie Huang regaled the audience with his quasi-standup comic approach to barbecue entitled, “One Chinaman’s Guide to Smoked Meat.” Huang walked on the stage to the hip-hop stylings of Kanye West, which he deemed “not loud enough,” and then shouted out, “What up SFA!” Soon he started scrolling through his PowerPoint, which he decided not to use, but showed off photos of icons instrumental to his development like Dr. Dre and then a close-up of perhaps the only present-day fast food barbecue, which he proclaimed as “the motherfucking McRib!”
As divergent as topics ranging from fair labor to the aforementioned McRib might seem, a common thread really did run throughout the weekend, and this had to be a respect for food and all the forces involved with bringing food to the table. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the meals. From North Carolina Chef Ashley Christensen’s all-vegetable lunch to Saturday night’s dinner from acclaimed pitmasters, the ritual of breaking bread with friends held a place of honor at the symposium.
SFA director John T. Edge felt that all these varied components came together just as they had hoped. “Speakers, pitmasters, and chefs alike hit 600-foot home runs.”
And leave it to the SFA to bring in a poet who could succinctly sum up that feeling. Jake York last read his work at the original barbecue symposium 10 years ago when he described the beauty of cooking with smoke. This year he appeared, like the symposium, to have evolved. He seemed ready to go deeper than before and basically admitted this, saying, “Good poetry shares the spirit with good barbecue. If you want to write it or cook it well, you have to wait.”
All of the symposium proved well worth the wait and taught us a bit more about barbecue and a bit more about ourselves. This thought was put exceedingly more eloquently by York:
“Meals are memorials that teach us how to move.”
Podcasts of all SFA symposium presentations are available on their website at southernfoodways.com.