Rubber pig noses, trees of bacon (you read that right), and the legendary Alice Waters combined for one unforgettable event in Oxford, Miss., a few weeks ago. At the end of October every year, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) hosts its annual symposium, attracting foodies from around the nation (and occasionally even from around the world) to Oxford, where the SFA works as part of the University of Mississippi to document and preserve the culinary traditions of the South. At this year’s event, the Chinese Year of the Pig inspired a porcine theme that in turn informed the talks given on the “State of Southern Food.” Pork figured heavily on all the menus prepared by standout chefs, the aforementioned pig noses were passed out with registration materials, and a forest of crackling delicious trees appeared at the final night’s festivities (more on this later).
At this year’s landmark 10th anniversary event, Executive Director John T. Edge and the board organized talks to cover the past, present, and future of this region’s culinary paths. While this serious and somewhat reverential tone certainly presided over much of the programming, this is a gathering of food lovers, writers, chefs, and bon vivants who like to have a good time, and the symposium always ends up being one hell of a party.
Basically, the SFA managed through an ingenious mixture of food, fun, and conversation to create a weekend that left members with enough mental fodder to chew on for a long time to come.
The weekend opened with the granting of the Glory Foods Chef Scholar Award to an emerging black chef, Todd Richards of the Oak Room in Louisville, Ky. The SFA does not shy away from the issues that inform the food of the South, including race. Edge noted that the symposium has become a meeting ground for chefs where a certain fraternity is formed, and that fraternity must be inclusive. This seemed to be the unwritten theme for the weekend and for the future of this organization.
In keeping with this theme, African-American culinary historian Jessica Harris, who happens to be one of the 50 founding members of the SFA, gave a talk — “Strangers at the Feast” — that looked at the profound influence of African Americans on New World cuisine despite their absence from the table. She noted that until recently African Americans had their noses pressed against the proverbial window and did not taste the food until it was cold. Then Harris proceeded to introduce us to the early African-American celebrity chefs — George Washington’s slave-cook Hercules and Thomas Jefferson’s slave-cook James Hemings. Both traveled extensively with these founding fathers and trained in fine kitchens, but neither has received due recognition.
Paying homage to those who might otherwise be overlooked is what the SFA does best. They do this through insightful lectures, awards, documentary films, and oral histories. To date, they’ve conducted 300 interviews — 85 percent of them are available on their website (www.southernfoodways.com) and the rest are archived. The SFA’s resident oral historian Amy Evans and board member Sara Roahen introduced the subject of their latest work — boudin (sausage), which was also served for lunch.
Roahen told of spending hours with two boudin makers and even watching the butchering of the pigs before they would allow her to interview them. Another boudin maker had to cut the interview short so that he could go assist in the slaughter of a pig. These real-life encounters offer a connection to the people behind the food that truly enhances the meaning of a meal.
This year’s symposium offered up the opportunity to meet two such amazing people that were given long-due awards. Elizabeth Scott of Greenville, Miss., received the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award for her 50-plus years running a booming hot tamale business. Scott and her husband brought the hot tamale recipe home with them after a stint in Texas and turned it into their own tradition. SFA filmmaker Joe York produced a short documentary on Scott that captures the essence of this now multi-generational enterprise, and he unveiled the film one night before dinner.
Southern chef John Fleer stood up to present the Jack Daniels Lifetime Achievement Award and seemed to choke up a bit as he described the hard work of the unsuspecting recipient who happened to be in the audience. When Fleer finally invited Allan Benton to the stage, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Benton has earned national acclaim for his ham and bacon, but he still spends nearly every day in his Tennessee store doing the work he loves. Benton thought the invitation to the symposium would be a nice vacation for him and his wife — never imagining that he would be honored.
The sweet sentiment quickly took a lighthearted turn as there was catfish to be eaten and whiskey to be drunk. Most of the weekend played out like this, with the juxtaposition of touching moments and hearty fun. When Charleston’s own Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s took the stage with SFA founding member Shirley Corriher, a lighthearted feeling prevailed. Chemistry-minded Corriher, author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, attempted to explain the science behind Brock’s peanut cotton candy. While Corriher rattled off big words, Brock spun cotton candy and in the process showered some on his commentator. Corriher laughed it off saying, “That’s okay. It’s not every day you get coated in peanut cotton candy.”
Such improv comedy could only be upstaged by the bacon forest. At the entrance for the grand finale dinner stood trees from which hung delectable, crispy bacon. One food writer admitted to eating a piece, claiming that Edge had warned he might miss out if he waited until too late in the night. North Carolina barbecue and fried pig ears kept the crowd satiated until morning, when the weekend closed out with none other than Alice Waters.
Waters gained fame at her Berkeley, Calif. restaurant Chez Panisse, where she became one of the first champions for buying local foodstuffs. Today, she is leading a movement that she calls the Edible Schoolyard. She believes that if public schools would buy from local farmers or even grow their own produce, children would grow up with a greater appreciation for the land and better health. And small farmers could be saved from extinction. Waters talked at length about this dream in her quiet, determined way, and at this point all seemed possible. This is part of the magic of the symposium. Here, people from all walks of life gather united by one common love — food — and cavort among things like bacon trees. To outsiders this might seem a bit strange or borderline fanatical, but in the midst of the camaraderie nothing could seem more natural.