Bonjwing Lee, author of the blog the ulterior epicure and a contributing writer on Eater, was swinging through the South on an eating tour of Tennessee. Eater asked him if he would swing a little lower and attend the Southern Foodways Alliance's annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, held this year on October 19-21. The following is his roundup of the event.
To the surprise of many, including John T. Edge, the organization's director, tickets to the fifteenth annual Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Symposium — which was held this past weekend on the campus of Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) in Oxford — sold out online in a record twelve minutes.
Was the unexpected popularity of this year's symposium due to the theme? Barbecue does cast a wide and deep net. Was it the speaker list, which included scholars and authors, poets and journalists, filmmakers and chefs? Perhaps, it was simply a sign of the growing awareness and popularity of Southern culture, which seems to have bloomed quickly over the past few years.
Or was it the promise of Bourbon and biscuits, smoked meats and pimento cheese, banana pudding and brisket tacos, all of which were served? I suspect it was a little bit of all of that.
Having now attended the SFA Symposium, I understand why attendance is capped. I loved its smallness. There were only three-hundred seventy of us, which was actually a higher headcount than previous years, increased to accommodate the high demand this year.
Coupled with a fairly strict schedule that started early and ended late each day, the symposium's limited attendance encouraged intimacy. There was an egalitarian aspect to the event that was refreshing. Everything we did, we did in commune, speakers and attendees alike. Our nametags stated our name and our hometown. We had to ask to discover more. As a result, strangers easily became friends over shared meals and bus rides.
John T. Edge [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]
But the highlight of the symposium was the program, which was wonderfully academic, offering diverse perspectives on the topic of barbecue.
Author and professor Randall Keenan read excerpts from his novels. Seated in the South, they included scenes of a hog slaughter as well as hog intercourse, both of which were described with a wit and precision that made the events both obscene and beautiful at the same time.
Food writer Monique Truong enveloped us in her lyric love letter to her favorite barbecue restaurant, Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina, that doubled as mini memoir of her fears and hopes as a child of Vietnamese refugees in the South.
We came to our feet several times, once to applaud Miss Helen Turner — the subject of the documentary Helen's Bar-B-Que; 'I Am The Pitmaster' by Joe York — and recipient of this year's Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Turner is the sole proprietor and pitmaster of her restaurant in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Lawyer turned chef, turned provocateur, turned anything he wants to be tomorrow (paraphrasing Francis Lam's introduction; Lam is the features editor at Gilt Taste), Eddie Huang dropped f-bombs and made us laugh. He also drew a line from Chinese barbecued pork (la rou) to the barbecue of the America South, noting similarities in flavors; a tug between salty and sweet. Confused, at first, by its borders and boundaries, Huang's family fell in love with American barbecue, which acted as a cultural and culinary bridge. There was familiarity in its flavor, its tenor. It was home away from home. This was true of my own, Chinese immigrant parents, who settled in Kansas City, both of whom love American barbecue. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence, either, that of the six Asians (by my count) who attended this year's symposium, five (including me) are of Chinese descent (interestingly, three of us are former attorneys, now in the food writing world).
"You must find the immigrant pioneers," urged Gustavo Arellano, editor of the Orange County Weekly and the man behind the popular, syndicated column, "¡Ask a Mexican!" He took us to Mexico, and then to the Appalachia, and pointed out the cultural similarities, making unexpected, but thoroughly believable cultural connections, like Huang and others did. Could the South be the new Mexico, and Mexico be the new South?
The Lincoln-Douglas Barbecue Debate [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were conjured up on stage one night for a comical reprise of their famous senatorial debate. The issue presented to the candidates at this year's SFA Symposium, however, was not very senatorial: barbecue competitions. Lincoln's pushed the slogan "more barbecue, more better," while Douglas advocated for turning to tradition, in between making lewd remarks about Mary Todd Lincoln. I'm not sure that I determined where the two disagreed. But spirited and amusing they were.
Alton Brown [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]
Wes Berry, another author and professor, took us on a county-by-county tour of Kentucky barbecue; some have mutton, some prefer sauce, others don't (he doesn't). Jake Adam York, an Alabaman and a poet, offered us words, phrases, and thoughts about barbecue, and gave grace for lunch. Food Network's Alton Brown compared a whole hog to a large bag of water, making the point that it should be cooked low and long to prevent moisture from "boiling" out. And we rose to our feet once again to congratulate Ben and Karen Barker, owners and chefs of the famous Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, which closed earlier this year. The couple was this year's recipient of the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.
Shoebox lunch [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]
There was a lot of food and drink, too much for me to cover here in entirety. So, I'll offer a few of the highlights: For breakfast one morning, there were terrific pastrami biscuits (sandwiches) by Neal's Deli (Carrboro, North Carolina).
Barbecued ribs and sides, including "BBQ spaghetti" made up a tidy shoebox lunch the first day, prepared by the team at Hog and Hominy (Memphis, Tennessee). For dinner that night, we lined up at Taylor Grocery, an old storehouse restaurant lined with graffiti, for cornmeal-fried catfish, hush puppies, and fries.
Ashley Christensen, chef of Poole's Diner (Raleigh, North Carolina) cooked a multi-course vegetable menu for lunch on the second day, a well-timed and much-needed break from the otherwise meaty agenda. The large, family-style platters included crispy fried okra salad on benne tahini, kuri squash-stuffed poblano peppers with tangy chow chow, a smoked tomato pie topped with a fluffy dollop of whipped corn cream, and generous wedges of pumpkin hummingbird cake with candied pepitas and peanut custard.
On the last night, we were all bussed to Woodson Ridge Farm, a large grassy field with tents alit and pits smoking in the night. Ed Mitchell of Whole Hog Gourmet Que (Durham, North Carolina) dished up comforting bowls of Brunswick stew, tomatoey with pulled meat and beans. Tim Byres of Smoke (Dallas, Texas) had a grill full of Flintstone-sized beef ribs, which he served with some chimichurri, and parsley salad. Patrick Martin of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint (Nolensville, Tennessee), gave us a novelty: hickory smoked chicken in a "white" mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce, most common in northern Alabama. And to the side, Drew Robinson of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Que (based in Birmingham, Alabama), offered cranberry bean gratin, coleslaw, collards, spoonbread, and more.
While the vast majority of attendees were probably Southern, I met people from all sectors, all regions. There was a couple who owned a cidery in Virginia, and another couple with a vegetable farm and fig orchard in South Carolina. On the bus ride to dinner one night, I met a woman who works for the charitable arm of Emeril Lagasse's empire. I met a man who writes about bitters, and another who writes about civil rights. There were chefs from Atlanta and Napa Valley, New York and Los Angeles.
The SFA plans to make all of the presentations from this year's symposium available in podcasts at iTunesU. It was also announced that the SFA will be updating its website in the coming months, and pushing for more regular posts on its blog.
Next year, the SFA Symposium will focus on women, work, and food. In 2014, the symposium will commemorate the 50th anniversary of restaurant desegregation, using inclusion and exclusion as themes.
To find out more about the SFA, and their calendar of events, please visit the SFA online.