Gifts and pledges now total $322,000
By Rick Hynum
Okra has long been the quintessential Southern food, a vegetable so versatile that it can be deep-fried in batter, boiled with tomatoes, pickled in brine or tossed into a big pot of simmering gumbo, bringing a unique and unmistakable flavor to every dish. Now it has a new role in Southern culinary culture—a symbol of donors’ generosity in support of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC) at the University of Mississippi.
The SFA, a member-supported, non-profit organization that documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South, recently established the Order of the Okra, a society of donors who each pledge a total of $10,000 over 10 years, with the funds supporting the SFA’s mission. Gifts and pledges stand at approximately $322,000.
A small percentage of the operating budget is provided by the university, and the majority comes from corporate donors who contribute at least $25,000 a year for three years, said SFA events manager Melissa Hall. Annual SFA membership dues also net more than $40,000 per year.
“SFA members are very passionate about the organization, and we feel really fortunate to have that passion,” Hall said. “We wanted to see the SFA’s documentary and academic work flourish, so we decided it was time to see if that passion would translate into dollars by turning to the membership ….”
Founded in 1999, the SFA has accomplished much with a small staff. It has collected more than 600 oral histories and made more than 30 films, earning praise in national publications such as The New York Times, The National Review, The Atlantic Monthly and Travel & Leisure.
“Like literature, like music, like art, food is a product of people and place,” SFA Director John T. Edge said. “Understand what we raise, cook, serve and eat, and you understand the region. The CSSC pioneered the multifaceted study of the South, with particular emphasis on literature, history and music. The SFA has led the national charge to study our foodways. And the University of Mississippi is in a great position to leverage that 14-year track record of work.”
Its Southern Foodways Symposium, now in its 15th year, attracts authors, journalists, chefs, scholars and engaged consumers for lectures, readings, tastings and performances. SFA also stages such regional events as Potlikker Film Festivals in cities like Charleston and New Orleans and Stir the Pot suppers in Raleigh and Nashville.
SFA’s academic component has expanded as well, with the inaugural year of a post-doctorate College of Liberal Arts, have the funding to hire a fulltime foodways professor.
The Southern Foodways Alliance is open to receive gifts from individuals and organizations by sending a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, P.O. Box 249, University, MS 38677; contacting Nikki Neely at or firstname.lastname@example.org; or by visiting www.umfoundation.com/makeagift.