Five days with the Southern Foodways Alliance, part 1 – the Delta Divertissement

Some two and a half years ago, I heard of the Southern Foodways Alliance on a Sunday evening through a guest who was enjoying a meal of cornbread, gumbo, crawfish boudin, and other long time staples of our kitchen. This guest had learned of our restaurant through the Southern Foodways Alliance, and although I never did quite ascertain the details, I thought this sounded like a group I should look up. That turned out to be one of the most important moments of the last few years for me personally, and my cooking.

While I checked out the web site for clues as to why this guest associated us with this organization I’d never heard of, I found myself getting pulled deeper and deeper into the stories. You see, the most elemental allure of Southern cooking is how richly textured with stories it is. The SFA has stories. In fact, its primary function is documentary work and in their own words “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.” My kind of people. The SFA became a major wellspring of inspiration for Big Jones and continues as we move into our future.

The type of folks that belong to the SFA, particularly those who go so far as to attend these events, are very serious about Southern food. This is serious business. Of course, when you’re spending your days contemplating such a deep and complex subject as Southern foodways, it’s best to maintain your sanity by punctuating your days with plenty of whiskey and cake.

Please consider supporting the Southern Foodways Alliance. More than any other organization I know, they are a bridge between the communities that need to come together to both preserve our heritage and forge our way into a future in which everyone has a place at the table, is well fed, nourished, and happy. And, it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Quail two ways with muscadine chutney, two different heirloom sweet potatoes, purple hull peas and Delta grown rice

This is how we started the Delta Divertissement in Greenwood, Mississippi at the Viking Range Training Kitchen. Prepared by April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter Preserves and Nick Seabergh of Giardina’s. The quail is grown by a local woman who is retired and wheelchair-bound. It’s also the best quail I’ve ever tasted. It’s served at some of the local restaurants in Greenwood, reason enough to visit the Delta. In the background you can see a tray of crystallized sweet potatoes, an example of how Mexican immigration is influencing local eats. They were really impressive – tender yet crispy & sweet. I’d have salted them a bit more but I do have a briny palate. These will probably be making an appearance at Big Jones in the near future.

We also enjoyed a dessert of fry pies filled with Farmer’s Daughter bourbon fig preserves, blessedly fried in freshly rendered lard. Dynamite. They are similar to empanadas.

At Ashcraft Farm among 7,000 blueberry shrubs

Next stop was Ashcraft Farm where we enjoyed local vodka and tomato bloody mary’s, Louisiana blueberry wine, chow-chow & cream cheese, cheese straws, pickled okra finger sandwiches, good humor and great company. Off to the right of the photo there’s a Native American ceremonial mound right there on John’s Farm.

Dinner was at Tallahatchie Flats where we enjoyed quite a spread

For dinner we enjoyed a spread of wonderful smoked chicken (chicken by the same lady that grew the quail we had for lunch, sorry the name’s escaping me) plus chard gratin, turnips with their greens, eggplant casserole, stewed okra, and blueberry crisp. Everything was raised right there in the Delta. They have it going on, a local food culture as well connected as any big city.

The next morning we enjoyed a tour-de-force breakfast at Delta Bistro by Taylor Bowen Ricketts, including cheese biscuits, local lamb sausage, blueberry lavender pancakes, scrambled eggs with local tomatoes and chiles, great coffee, and an inspiring talk by Bonita Conwell, who shared her stories of making it as a non-conventional farmer in the Delta, and talked about the work of her organization Mississippi Delta Women in Agriculture. I love women with strength and determination, so naturally I loved Bonita.

Bonita Conwell - farmer, butcher, entrepreneur, patriot

The greatest treat at breakfast was that we got to taste these – sweet potato greens from Bonita’s farm. Taylor did the best job preparing them, they maintained a springy crunch while ultimately giving way to a savory vinegar-spiked mineral taste. Very nutritious.

Sweet potato greens may be the next big thing.

Next it was time to say goodbye to Greenwood and head to Oxford, Mississippi for the main event. But first I have to share what I really took with me from Greenwood.

Greenwood’s a small town, the Delta is historically an agricultural region, and naturally it has fallen prey to the industrial agriculture machine and become impoverished. Even so, there are folks there who have maintained the ties to their historic foodways and others who are piecing together what’s been lost. Bonita didn’t take a no from her bank on a loan for a facility to process local hogs, she went on and did it anyway.

The irony of the Delta is the same as the irony of the great Midwestern breadbasket – the policy of government, the banks, and insurance companies has for generations been commodity production at cheap prices, which means monoculture and a narrow range of crops planted in any given region. In a large belt of land boasting some of the most fertile farm land in the world, people are hungry. There is food insecurity amongst the richest soil in the world.

The Happy folks at Shiloh church in Greenwood, who graciously fed us from their garden cabbage, purple hull peas, green tomatoes, okra, and other goodies

This brings me back to our early dinner Thursday (yes we had two dinners :)))) at Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church, where parishioners are taking matters into their own hands with a church garden, something that’s springing up all over the Delta. In the face of poverty, hardship, and this perplexing food desert in what should be an Eden, folks everywhere are answering the call of Bonita Conwell and the Mississippi Delta Woman In Agriculture, which is “Let’s feed Mississippi.”