With the cluttered landscape of food and wine events, it is refreshing to find one with substance and purpose. The annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium has a theme each year which is announced far enough in advance for everyone involved to study and thoroughly plan discussions and menus. The execution is flawless and attendees are some of the most interesting, eclectic you will be around in any setting.
This year’s theme was pop culture, which meant speakers had more creative freedom than with the past’s more directive topics. Robert Sietsema covered New York fried chicken, where once again Fuku wins, while Jack Pendarvis shared insight on Justin Wilson, a man who was known for the catchphrase "I gar-on-tee!"
The weekend proved yet again it was worth every penny and some of the highlights of the weekend for us included:
- In our quest to learn more about peaches, we discovered from Tom Okie that August National Golf Club was a well-known fruit nursery growing things such as peaches before becoming the lush golf course it is today. Proper Julius Alphonse, a well-known horticulturist, imported plants from around the world to the south and became one of the most well know growers in the South.
- A great fall recipe might have to be chef Justin Devillier’s turtle chili. Devillier, owner of La Petite Grocery in New Orleans, served the chili topped over a hot dog at the annual Taylor Grocery field trip and dinner.
- Phila Hach, recipient of the Ruth U. Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, was host of the South’s first TV cooking show, Kitchen Kollege. She went on to open a successful inn in Clarkesville, Tennessee, which welcomed guests from all over, including those attending a luncheon for the United Nations.
- Mahalia Jackson may have been the “Queen of Gospel”, but she was also an entrepreneur and took her money from her singing career to start the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System. The program trained African Americans on how to open a restaurant and most went on to open one of her chain fried chicken restaurants. Hundreds were open at one point selling Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-fried chicken along with fried pies, “soul bowl” of chicken giblets in gravy on rice, and more.
- Chef Sean Brock took the back seat to his mother, affectionately called Mama Brock, as the two prepared a lunch inspired by Appalachian cuisine. Served on top long wooden boards, and brought out in a series of courses, items on the menu included pone bread, kraut balls, bluegill with green tabasco tomato gravy, greasy beans, chicken and dumplings, paw paw and banana pudding.
- Kate Medley and Jesse Paddock produced and shared a beautiful film to celebrate the life and work on chef Bill Neal. The film They Came for Shrimp & Grits shared insight into his life and how he brought the spotlight and attention on southern cuisine. That same night several southern chefs took liberty to recreate a shrimp and grits dish for guest to enjoy. A personal favorite was chef David Carrier’s deviled shrimp and grits eggs.
- JoAnn Clevenger might not be a household name or a celebrity chef, but her work ethic and dedication to the industry is laudable. Her restaurant Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans opened in 1983. It is where you find her most days wearing her token red dress uniform pinned with her Girl Scout badge as she greets guests at the door. We encourage you to watch the film documenting her career.
- There are always those quirky moments during the weekend and this year was no exception. Highlights included the shrimp and grits dunk tank where John Currence took court most of the night being plummeted by friends and family. There was a SFA Family Feud with contestants in costumes. And then the much-talked about final presentation —The New York Times food critic Pete Wells reading word for word his Guy Fieri review.
- There is not much time to eat or drink outside of the planned events but we did get into The Second Line Oxford, chef Kelly English’s new location right near the square in Oxford. It is a great place to grab a cold beer and fried oyster po boy. And nearby, City Grocery has undergrown a great refresh with a new expansive bar upstairs.
- While flying in and out of Memphis, head to Porcellino’s Craft Butcher chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s newest spot, right next to their two others. It is a great place to grab breakfast and coffee, lunch, an early dinner with cocktail or purchasing something from the butcher counter or the southern pantry.
Tickets sell out within minutes of going on sale each year for the SFA Symposium and we recommend becoming a member and being one of the first to get them. The theme for 2016 is “The Corn-Fed South” and dates are October 13 through 16 — hope to see you there!