During the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium, a few hundred eager, interested folks travel into the organization’s headquarters in Oxford, Miss. to explore the designated Southern food-related theme. Highlighted topics in past years have been spirits, barbeque, and women in the food industry, and each year the symposium seems to delve deeper into the chosen subject matter - and this year was no exception. Since 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passing of The Civil Rights Act, it seemed appropriate to focus on the cuisine from the South, a region that was a hotbed for the issue.
We admit, we were curious and a little nervous about how it would come together, but in the end were blown away by how well the event was executed. Every talk was meaningful; speakers dug deep to shed light on some painful but powerful moments, like Booker Wright’s infamous CBS interview that cost him his job and eventually his life. The symposium focused on all kinds of exclusion issues, like homelessness, food insecurity, mistreated farm workers, and the challenges of being gay and lesbian in the food industry. Each story touched the audience deeply and made attendees reflect on what part we could play to “welcome more to the table.”
Mixed into the discussion was some of the finest food in the South, thematically related to the weekend’s agenda of course. There was a Venezuelan breakfast, a 20-course dim sum luncheon, catfish platters, a steam table lunch, Big Gay ice cream, and a re-creation of the same menu Booker Wright served nightly to the white-only guests at Lusco’s.
It was hard to pinpoint the top moments because there were so many, but here are some of our favorites from the weekend:
• Our first bite of the weekend was probably the best. Chef Vish Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Miss. served his version of a pani puri — a popular street snack from his native country of India. He filled it with sprouted sea island red peas topped with an emulsion of collard potlikker, ginger, and Tabasco hot sauce. It was light and delicious, and we appreciated Bhatt’s connection to his childhood memories, which he incorporated into his Southern food-focused restaurant.
• Those who missed the weekend should visit the organization’s website and check out the interviews, videos, and audio tapes. Thanks to the generous support of companies like Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, stories were shared about places like The Old Foundry Restaurant and Lumbee Homemade Ice-Cream, to name a few.
• Speaking of Lumbee, they are famous for serving their signature collard sandwich at their restaurant and at events like the annual Lumbee Homecoming each July. The popular delicacy features two pieces of cornbread that are flattened, fried, and then stuffed with sweet, finely chopped winter collards that have been stir-fried. It is finished off with fried fatback and sometimes topped with chow-chow or hot sauce. People stand in line for hours to get one and we predict many will make the drive to North Carolina to get one after the introduction at the symposium.
• The University of North Carolina hosts an annual State of the Plate conference at the end of March, bringing together students, faculty, scholars, entrepreneurs, and community members to share current research, initiatives, and insights that explore a variety of topics on food. If you have a topic you would be interested in potentially speaking on, they have a call for proposals.
• Toni Tipton-Martin, a former SFA board chairman and award-winning journalist and author, is about to release a new book, The Jemima Code: 150 Timeless African American Cookbooks and Their Extraordinary Legacy, highlighting her collection of titles and the history behind them. Along with the book is a traveling exhibit — The Jemima Code — which includes photographs of African American women at work in and around Southern kitchens. She was rightfully honored with a 2014 John Egerton Award during symposium for her work and is looking for places interested in hosting the exhibit.
•Goren Avery, longtime server at Highland Bar and Grill, was presented with two big honors during the weekend. First, he was awarded the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, a lifetime achievement acknowledgement from the SFA for his 32 years entertaining and taking care of customers at the restaurant. He was also featured in one of filmmaker Joe York’s most recent documentaries, which shows why Goren is so loved by Highlands owner and chef Frank Stitt and the customers that frequent the restaurant.
• At his restaurant Underbelly in Houston, Texas, chef Chris Shepherd pays homage to the restaurants and producers in his area. He often spends time learning cooking techniques from them and his menu is a reflection of a variety of cultures of the area. On the bill, Shepherd thanks guests for coming to dine with him but then asks that they go visit the other restaurants in Houston before coming back and dining at Underbelly. He displays images of these chefs and farmers throughout the restaurant and hosts “Off the Wall” dinners where a guest chef or purveyor collaborates on a special dinner. All of the money raised at the events benefits local culinary school programs.
• The best question of the weekend was: “ask yourself before you eat every meal, who do we need to thank for this meal?” Food for thought: it’s often the true source of the products.
• In 2010, the Fair Food Program was created in Florida to ensure that buyers of tomatoes pay a penny-per-pound premium that growers then pass onto workers as a line-item bonus on paychecks to help increase pay for these poorly paid workers. Participating growers also sign a code of conduct for zero tolerance of assault and provide educational opportunities. These farmers are audited to ensure all of this happens and then are promoted as doing so to buyers. Several large retailers and restaurant chains support the program including Whole Foods, Walmart, and Taco Bell, but others still have not, such as Publix and Wendy’s.
• There were a lot of talented folks at the event, but Andrew Thomas Lee is an incredible food photographer and has captured many talented chefs and food and beverage imagery including the important work of The Giving Kitchen and the life of chef Ryan Hidinger.
• Craft distillers Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall of High Wire Distilling in Charleston have a surprising large and extensive collection of folk art. Working with the SFA, the two curated an exhibit that filled the halls of the Powerhouse which served as a nice backdrop for most meals and evening events.
• Best swag of the weekend: neon-colored tambourines were perfect accompaniments to Angie, Jeff, and Johnny Mosier; Nicholas Pihakis; and others as they sang songs like “This Little Light of Mine” at the finale party.
Tickets for next year’s fall symposium will go on sale in July, and make sure you go online the second they are available in order to secure a spot. Remember, there are other opportunities to get involved with the organization, including becoming a member or a donor, and attending offsite fundraising dinners, parties, the summer symposium, and annual field trip.