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Southern Foodways Symposium 2013 Draws Record Attendance

Laurie Triplette’s recap of last week’s tasty proceedings.

By Laurie Triplette


Oxford was flooded with foodies last weekend, as 405 gourmets and gastronomes descended on our little town to partake of the 16th annual symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

The SFA symposium has become one of the most popular events in the American culinary world. Comingling academic scholarship with great food and drink, folklore and pure whimsical fun, registration spots sell out fast. In fact, the 2012 symposium registration filled in 12 minutes. SFA organizers expanded this year’s symposium enrollment. The 2013 symposium took a bit longer to fill (3 hours), but also had a waiting list that made no concessions for wait-listees’ fame or political clout. Symposium attendees range from acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs and food writers, to in-the-know food lovers from all walks of life.

Each year the SFA symposium focuses on a theme that explores cultural and societal conventions that meet and mingle in our Southern foodways. The 2013 focus was on “Women at Work,” an examination of how female farmers, artisans, and cooks have forged cultural identities, challenged gender conventions, built businesses, and driven economies.”

Two examples of the quirky but academically rooted topics explored during the symposium were Emily Wallace’s presentation on Eugenia Duke, the founder of Duke’s Mayonnaise and two different sandwich companies who succeeded in business before she was allowed to vote, and Dr. Diane Roberts’ presentation on Sister Schubert’s rolls, the Alabama company now owned by Marzetti, that still uses Sister’s butter-eggs-and cream recipes to produce 9 million rolls a day.

The symposium began in earnest on Friday, with Bloody Mary cocktails for first-time attendees, followed by a membership meeting at the Lyric Theater, and a kickoff talk on “Epochal Moments in Women’s Food History” by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Marcie Cohen Ferris (author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo).

The four days included seven meals prepared by some of the best cooks in the country. Thursday night offered a limited selection of fine meals cooked by local and guest chefs — at City Grocery (Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint in New Orleans), Ravine (owners Joel and Cori Benefiel Miller), and Snackbar (Ladies of La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit for immigrant food entrepreneurs). Also on the Thursday night menu were a Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey cocktail party and a special edition of Thacker Mountain Radio featuring celebrities Natalie Chanin and Charlotte Druckman.

The Friday luncheon at the Powerhouse featured an Indian culinary take on Country Captain and other Southern dishes by chef Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill in Atlanta. Friday night’s annual Taylor Grocery soiree included Deb and Lynn Hewlitt’s traditional catfish dinner, supplemented by exquisite catfish appetizers by Rebecca Wilcomb and friends. Saturday morning’s breakfast was prepared by top chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis.

The Tabasco-sponsored luncheon was prepared by Vivian Howard (Chef and the Farmer, Kinston, NC), and the Saturday night “Lodge Cast Iron Chicken Bucket” dinner included Southern-style veggies (mac’n cheese being one, of course) from Drew Robinson of Jim n’ Nick’s (Birmingham), and a trio of fried chickens from Andre Prince Jeffries (Prince’s Chicken, Nashville, TN), Kerry Seaton-Stewart (Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans), and Sara O’Kelly (Glass Onion, Charleston, SC) who fried her homage to the Palmetto State’s famed Martha Lou Gadsden.

Sunday breakfastizers by Vish Bhatt of Oxford’s Snackbar were biscuits drenched in shrimp gravy. The Emancipation Day Sunday Dinner commemorating Miss Edna Lewis was prepared by male chefs Todd Richards (The Shed at Glenwood, Atlanta), Steven Satterfield (Miller Union, Atlanta), and Dwayne Ingraham (pastry chef at City Grocery, Oxford).

The annual Lincoln-Douglas-style food debate this year was over two favorite Southern sweets, cake and pie. The audience sampled “scratch-made” coconut cake and fried dried-apple pie from Lisa Donovan (pastry chef at Husk in Charleston, SC, and Nashville, TN). Debaters Kat Kinsman, CNN’s “Eatocracy” commentator (pie), and Kim Severson, Atlanta bureau chief for the New York Times (cake) came out swinging. For Cake vs. Pie Debate outtakes, click on this week’s Bon Appetit at http://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/article/pie-vs-cake-debate?mbid=social12929164 . PS. The debate ended in a tie.

Interspersed with the food and drink throughout the symposium were serious moments that reminded participants of the underlying scholarship in the SFA mission. Cajun cook Mrs. Alzina Toups, of Galliano, LA, was awarded the SFA Keeper of the Flame prize for her lifetime of dedication to traditional Cajun home cooking, feeding customers everything from etouffee and gumbo to pecan pie in a family warehouse-turned-dining hall. Just about the only way to find Miss Alzina to make a reservation is to track down her granddaughter, who is in training to assume the Toup family cooking mantle. It doesn’t seem to be a problem, though, as the dining hall is booked months in advance. Check out Alzina, the Joe York documentary from his Down the Bayou oral history series at http://www.southernfoodways.org/alzina-toups-keeper-of-the-flame/

Cynthia Hayes received the John Egerton Prize of $5,000. According to SFA, “The Egerton Prize recognizes artists, writers, scholars, and others, whose work in the broad field of Southern foodways addresses issues of race, class, and gender, as well as social and environmental justice.” Hayes won for her work as co-founder and director of the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON). The organization encourages African American farmers, whose numbers have dwindled from 20% of all farmers in the 1920s down to 1% of all farmers today to transition from conventional to organic growing methods, and to complete the organic producer application process with the USDA.

Vertemae Grosvenor won the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award for her voice as a writer, radio commentator, and cook, observing, and speaking about hidden history of race and relationships in America through the lens of food. Her first book was an autobiographical cookbook published in 1970, Vibration Cooking, or Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. Other cookbooks and social commentaries followed, such as Thursdays and Every Sunday Off, a Domestic Rap.

The SFA is a member-supported nonprofit organization based at the University of Mississippi. SFA partners with corporations and foundations who are committed to the SFA mission of documenting, studying, and celebrating the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. SFA stages symposia across the country on food culture, produces documentary films, collects oral histories, sponsors scholarship, and publishes provocative writing. For a list of sponsors and donors to the 2013 SFA Symposium Women at Work, go to http://www.southernfoodways.org/about-us/ .

Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).

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