Five Days with the Southern Foodways Alliance part 2: The Symposium

After the incredibly moving Delta Divertissement it was time to hit the road to the main event, the Southern Foodways Symposium. Held for the 14th year in Oxford, Mississippi, land of Faulkner, Ole Miss, and the home of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, incubator of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The three days I got to spend in Oxford were so full of wondrous food, drink, and company I’ll apologize now for being a little short photographs. It’s hard to snap shots while you’re shooting oysters.

Oxford Square is one of the coolest downtown squares, with great bookstores, truly remarkable restaurants, and beautiful architecture


I was a little late Friday morning due to my lazy drive up from Greenwood, arriving just in time to hear the remarkable musings and poetry of Kevin Young, author of some five books of poetry, mostly on subjects relating to life, love, food, family, angst, and the like in the South. Not normally one predisposed to spending time reading poetry, I was so impressed by Kevin’s wisdom and gift of lyricism, I purchased a couple of his books right there on the Square.

A couple of Kevin’s most poignant passages (at least to my mind) were a time he called “The Margarine Years,” 1970-1993, and the possibility, actually imperative, that we may love our animals even as we raise them to kill them for food, that you can love it and still eat it, but to love it by eating the whole.

“The Margarine Years” was humorous in the most grim of ways, but Kevin was able to capture the absurdity of those times when margarine reigned supreme, and how margarine is the perfect metaphor for so much of what is wrong with our eating today – the victory of the artificial over the real, the fake over the sincere, of industry over the earth. It was the perfect reflection for me to begin a couple of days of Southern food and drink.

Next we had lunch by Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia (Louisville, KY) which was a “Kentucky Bento Box” of fantastically imaginative mash-ups of Southern and Asian cuisines, including an edamame and boiled peanut salad, pulled bison brisket, Cheddar and lardo cornbread, collards braised with kimchee, and Bell Chevre Ash cheesecake with togarashi caramel. It was delicious all around and a great tone setter.

We heard from Eleanor Finnegan on Muslim farmers in the South and their unique approach to cultivation, and Ragan Sutterfield held a wonderful session called “A Tale of Two Chickens” which was a bit of a meditation on farming, and to me the most elegant expression of the Symposium’s theme “The Cultivated South.” The hypothesis was a comparison of the morality of two producers of chickens for market – Joel Salatin of Prospera Farm and Tyson Corporation. The distillation of the tale is the question of morality, the choice of producing food by cultivation vs. extraction. He brought up a trademark quote from Wendell Berry: “There are not sacred places and unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places.” This of course would be the view of one whose moral perspective is that of stewardship and cultivation, versus a more Dominionist viewpoint, which would argue that the world is ours for the taking. The choice could not be more stark.

Emily Wallace presented on Pimientos and their historic role in Southern eating and the revival of interest in heirloom varieties, a pet subject of mine as pimientos are one of my favorite vegetable and one of our favorite growers, Genesis, produces two heirloom varieties every year we use for our pimiento cheese and every other use we can think of. I happily join Emily’s crusade to bring the pimiento back to the American table as a vegetable.

Sean Brock talked about the history of olive cultivation in the South with his singular wit and charm, and gave us one of the symposium’s most precious treats – a taste of Georgia grown & pressed olive oil. It’s not produced in enough quantity yet for commercial sale, so we SFAers are a lucky bunch. It was clearly from young trees, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact the oil had a bracingly fresh grassiness to it, with lots of herbs and green fruit going on. Look for it for sale in about three years.

Awesome olive oil grown and pressed in Georgia, USA!


There was a book signing and cocktail party where I met more of my favorite authors than I’ve ever had the pleasure of in a day. Dinner was a fantastic catfish fry at Taylor Grocery outside of town, where we ate catfish, hushpuppies, and washed it down with a beautiful hard cider from Virginia.

Saturday morning April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter fame presided over a White Lily biscuit breakfast with perfect coffee by Royal Cup, followed by poetry from Michael McFee, bard of Asheville, and a powerful presentation by Shirley Sherrod, a proud hardworking Southern woman whose work on behalf of poor farmers of all races was slighted by Washington politics. Fortunately for all of us, Shirley keeps on going.

Shirley Sherrod on the difficulties of trying to get the USDA to play fair with minorities and poor white farmers alike. Fortunately, she's not one to give up


Elizabeth Englehardt talked about the folks who made the difference in the lives of so many folks throughout the history of the South – the forgotten locavores, the working class women on farms across the South and what we can learn from them today.

There was a stunning lunch by Mike Lata of Charleston’s Fig Restaurant, including pickled Edisto white shrimp, oyster stew, butterbean “pasta e sieve,” and sticky sorghum pudding.

Pickled Edisto white shrimp from Mike Lata of Fig


Rasheed Nuri of Truly Living Well urban farms in Atlanta, a program similar to City Farm and Growing Power, talked about growing vegetables in the inner city. I was a little bit stunned when he said many African American folks don’t want their kids gardening because the work is “too much like slavery.” How time changes the minds of humankind. In the wake of emancipation, all the freedmen wanted was land to work for themselves. Thankfully Rasheed and may others like him across the country are getting their point across that you can control your own food supply.

The last afternoon sessions Saturday were on mirlitons, of which there is an heirloom revival underway in Louisiana, and Long Beach (Mississippi) radishes. These were favorite sessions of my inner food geek and vegetable lover (and radish fanatic.)

There's a mirliton (as they're known in the South, aka chayote) and yes, the long red thing is a Long Beach radish

There was gut-busting humor by Jack Pendarvis and Chatham Artillery Punch by David Wondrich followed by a “Meat and Nine” or three-fold expansion of the meat & three – barbequed chicken, pork, and beef each with three vegetables. Three meats, nine sides. Only at SFA.

This wonderful woman, Dori Sanders, with whom I had the pleasure of enjoying Mike Lata’s lunch, was awarded the Craig Claiborne lifetime achievement award for her work as a farmer, author, and keeper of the Southern Foodways flame.

Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dori Sanders, farmer, author, all around awesome person


Sunday morning, after cake for breakfast, we had the treat of hearing Ed Davis of Emory and Henry College in Virginia, tell the tale of his quest to find and document all of the heirloom collards he could. So far he’s found about 100 varieties of heirloom collards, and he deserves our thanks for his work saving our heritage. Through his work, we expect to have some rare heirloom collards at Big Jones next year. These endangered crops have a unique need – we have to eat them to save them. We need to provide the market so farmers can grow them.

Ed David of Emory and Henry College on heirloom collards, and what's special about them.


Before departing for brunch, we had the privilege of seeing the world premier performance of Leaves of Green, an oratorio commissioned by SFA and comprised of peoms from `Ayden, North Carolina’s collard festival. Price Walden did a great job with this one, as did UM’s opera department.

Our final repast was at the local restaurant Boure, with food by Alon Shaya of Domenica (New Orleans.) It was awesome, but this country ham stole the show.

This was my first SFA symposium and it will stand as the first of many. I can’t imagine ever missing one. I’ve said very little about the company we kept in Greenwood and Oxford. In the Atlantic Monthly, Corby Kummer dubbed the SFA “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.” And how. I met farmers, authors, chefs, professors, poets, raconteurs, Southern food enthusiasts. Great people, people I want to hang out with every day. These folks love food, love drinking, and take life seriously, which means sometimes you have to just have fun.