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Why Southern Food Authority John T. Edge Is 'Not Giving Up on the South'

Photo by Tamara Reynolds, used with permission, originally published in Bitter Southerner

This Tuesday, tickets for the Southern Foodways Alliance's 17th annual Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi went on sale. Three minutes later, they were completely sold out. The conference, titled "Who's Welcome at the Welcome Table," honors the 50th anniversary of restaurant desegregation and "explores issues of inclusion and exclusion in the modern South." There will be heavy-hitting lectures, thoughtful films, and even a commissioned "oratorio." Writer and SFA director John T. Edge didn't necessarily think it was going to elicit such a strong response.

The speedy sellout "says a whole lot about, to me, the kind of progressive possibilities and future of the South," Edge tells Eater. In the following Q&A, Edge also addresses why this week's news is such a milestone for the SFA, what this turnout means for the future of the organization, and why now is the right time to present such challenging material. Here's what he has to say:

Congratulations on selling out so fast.
Thank you very much. It was stunning to find out that we sold out in less than three minutes. It's very humbling and also emboldening at the same time that people believe in what we do enough to gobble up tickets that quick.

What happened at the office when those ticket sales just started coming in?
We were bracing ourselves for what we thought would be a day long barrage of phone calls, and what happened instead was the two-minute mark hit, everything's fine. By the three-minute mark, we're getting texts... Everybody in the office got a text message from someone they knew who said, "Oh, my gosh, you sold out." There were three shrieks, and a grunt, and a shout I think.

Our first reaction was, oh, my gosh. There are so many people who want to be a part of this conversation, who got left behind. That's still very much on our minds. An hour later what settled in is that this year when the SFA grapples with a deep and at times troubling subject — that idea of who is welcome at the contemporary welcome table, and what issues divide us, whether they be racism, which has long plagued the South, whether that there be new imperatives that divide us based on sexuality, or ethnicity, or food sovereignty, or any of those issues — that this year when we're taking on those issues, when we're grappling with those tough subjects, this event proves the most popular thing we've ever staged.

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SFA's 2012 Symposium. [Photo: Bonjwing Lee/Eater]

We're really proud. Not proud of our own efforts, but proud of the membership of the SFA. This is what they're clamoring for, this conversation. That says a whole lot about the progressive possibilities and future of the South. That's what jazzes me. That's what really inspires our whole office.

It's a coterie of people who see food as an entry point to think about race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity.

By the second hour, there was kind of a glow about the office. Sweet Baby Jesus, look at what we're staging, and look at the enthusiasm for what we do, and think about who wants to be at the table. It's a coterie of people who see food as an entry point to think about race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity. They see this as a portal to grappling with those issues, and that's really emboldening for us. I'm prattling because I can still feel it.

You, also, recognize that you've got this great group of members of the SFA who want to be at the table, too. We have for the last few years podcast everything, and videotaped everything, and disseminated and shared it as broadly as we can. That will still be a part of how people tap into this.

Right. What does this response means for the SFA going forward? Have you ever considered expanding the scope of the symposium to allow more people to attend?
There's an intimacy to the symposium. There are about 375 people that attend this, and we're at max at that. We've grown it over the years, and just like everything we do with SFA, we've grown it slowly.

The first Symposium 15 years ago was 75 people, and now we're at 375, and we've grown it incrementally year by year. We're at the point now where we've made the decision we're not going to grow the Oxford Fall Symposium anymore. There's an intimacy of exchange that we value and want to retain.

We recognize that the great possibility exists of staging complementary events in other parts of the South and beyond the South, and we actually have an events committee meeting on August 11. I can't say we're smart enough to time it just this way... We'll spend a day next week thinking about how SFA events reach the audience we've fostered, and how we reach broader audiences, too.

That's top of mind. We're going to announce next month a new digital media focus event that we're going to stage in Birmingham next year.

Oh, interesting.
That's the beginning of those sorts of plans, but we'll spend next week trying to think broadly about SFA events, and how we reach people, and who we reach. That's not catalyzed by this quick sell out, but it does give us... There's a stronger impetus for us to puzzle through how SFA messages, and how SFA-staged events can reach a larger audience.

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SFA publications. [Photo: SFA/Facebook]

What are you most looking forward to in terms of this year's Fall programming?
The two things that I think are really important for us are the way the symposium opens, and the way the symposium closes. The symposium opens with a talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who you probably recall wrote this really remarkable, piercing, smart piece about reparations. That was the cover piece of the Atlantic. I think that piece was so smart, so challenging, so methodical in its building of point after point. With Ta-Nehisi Coates as our opening speaker you realize the import of the event, that with someone like Ta-Nehisi as leadoff batter. I think that frames things ... [and] opens the symposium from an historical perspective.

We're marking the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation. In the middle of the symposium, we're using this moment to ask those questions about the contemporary welcome table, about what issues divide us today. It talks about issues of sexuality, issues of homelessness and the like, and then we close with another historically grounded perspective, and that's an oratorio...

We've commissioned an oratorio based on the life of a waiter named Booker Wright, who was a waiter in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s, and dared to speak truth to power, and paid a really tragic price for that. With Kevin Young, one of America's great young poets, and Nolan Gasser, who is a composer from the Bay Area, and one of the architects of the Music Genome Project; then Bruce Levingston, who is one of the great concert pianists of America, a veteran of Carnegie Hall and the like, we've developed this over the last year, a genuinely world class performance that honors the life and sacrifice and words of a waiter from the Mississippi Delta. That Sunday for us is kind of like church, like a secular church, kind of holy moment, and more than anything we've ever staged, it's the thing I'm proudest of, before it even comes out the shoot. SFA is involved in it because of the intellectual fire power we've applied to it, and the kind of transformative possibilities of that moment.

What else are you working on right now?

We tell honest stories about our region through food.

We just hired a new oral historian, so we had an oral historian collecting interviews with barbecue pit masters, and fried chicken cooks, and collard green farmers, and corn farmers who grind their own grains and the like. We've collected those kinds of oral histories for over a decade now, and we've just hired our second oral historian: a second person in the field will double our capacity to collect oral histories. That sounds like a geeky kind of inside baseball thing, but it's really why people buy into what we do: because we tell honest stories about our region through food. We've now doubled the capacity of that.

Also, in about two weeks when classes start here at the University of Mississippi, which is where we're headquartered, a new professor named Catarina Passidomo will be on campus, and Catarina will be teaching foodway classes. SFA underwrote that position. This is a full-time tenured-track professor who will teaching classes in partnership with us, teaching a new generation of graduate students who come here from across the nation to understand American culture through regional culture, and work to understand regional culture and identity through food...

The thing that we've realized over the last two or three years is that we're an organization deeply rooted in the South, based in the Mississippi at the University of Mississippi, but our audience and our reach is now national, and our collaborations are national, and the people who respond to our messages are national...

So many smart people in the world of food are looking for a portal to understand American food culture, and whether they call it terroir and they make wines, or whether they use other language to describe that search, it's something that we've been fortunate to be at for a while now. We're 15 years old.

We're a portal to understand American food culture, and I think that's the role we realize. We're not giving up on the South. We think the South is the portal to understand American food culture.

· All John T. Edge Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Q&As [-E-]

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