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Southern Foodways Symposium Emphasized Diversity at the Table

Big Gay Ice Cream from New York City wheeled into Oxford and had customers standing in line for hours.
Big Gay Ice Cream from New York City wheeled into Oxford and had customers standing in line for hours.

By Laurie Triplette


Like a bolt of lightning, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) has struck again.

From October 23 through October 26, the Southern Foodways Alliance, an Institute of The Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, focused laser-like attention on issues of race, gender and religious equality. The unifying theme was “Who is Welcome at the Welcome Table? 

This year’s fall symposium – SFA’s 17th – broke the organization’s previous records. Tickets sold out in 3 minutes when registration opened up online in August. Almost 400 registrants attended, which in itself is mind-blowing because of the weighty issues underscoring the symposium theme. 

As usual, SFA’s serious points were dispensed in a unique blend of funky whimsy combined with solid scholarship and flavored with a gracious plenty of good food.

The symposium occurred three-fourths of the way through SFA’s year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

According to the official SFA statement in the Fall Symposium playbook, “We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor – all who gather – may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation…. we mark the 50th anniversary of restaurant desegregation and challenge all to take stock of how responses to race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and food sovereignty continue to divide us.”

SFA has spent the year collecting oral histories from black-owned businesses, publishing a graduate-student project on “unintended consequences of integration,” and producing a film on the violent resistance to the integration of the Jackson Woolworth lunch counter.

In addition, prior to last week’s Fall Symposium, SFA representatives interviewed and documented new immigrants in Houston, Texas, and the Lumbee Indians of eastern North Carolina, who have never to date achieved full U.S. Federal recognition.

SFA also held a summer symposium in Jackson, MS, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, when students from across the country came to Mississippi to “break the back of white supremacy.” 

These various activities were featured throughout the Fall Symposium, interspersed by panel discussions, presentations, and feasts reflective of the theme. The symposium kicked off with a ”Nuevo North Carolina” supper of frozen mint juleps, shrimp cocteles, country ham and chile tamales, pork shanks with posole and fresh corn, mango, cayenne and mint salad, and orange juice-red hots sorbet. 

Other meals included steam table cafeteria-style vegetable plates, working-man/woman boxed suppers of greens and beans and cornbread, and a 13-course lunch of street-trolley-serviced Southern-Latino-influenced Korean dim sum. Extras included Big Gay Ice Cream Truck soft-serve cones and ice cream social-style sundaes; Kentucky country ham on TN beaten biscuits; and a vegetarian arepa (pie) containing roasted butternut squash, eggplant and black beans.  

Registrants concluded the symposium at a Sunday inaugural performance of REPAST, an oratorio about Booker Wright of Greenwood, MS. Mr. Wright was a barkeep, activist and Lusco’s waiter documented in a 1965 NBC feature titled “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” about racism in the South. The tragic outcome of his original documentary were featured in a 2012 update titled “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.” The SFA and Premier Commission underwrote development and production off REPAST. The oratorio libretto was by Kevin Young, Nolan Gasser composer, Justin Hopkins, bass-baritone, and Bruce Levingston, pianist. 

The oratorio performance was capped at Bouré with a traditional Greenwood, MS style Delta Creole brunch of gulf shrimp, spinach and oysters Madeleine, pepper-crusted rib-eye steak, fried onion rings, steak house drenched salad and lemon pie.

SFA documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. As part of this mission, SFA fetes individuals and groups that uphold high standards and preserve cultural foodways. Winners of SFA’s 2014 awards included the following:

Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award: Sandor Katz, food activist and fermentation revivalist

Ruth Fertel KEEPER OF THE FLAME AWARD: Red Dog Avery, for setting national standards for hospitality during his long career at The Highlands in Birmingham, AL

John Edgerton Prize: Chuck Reese of “The Bitter Southerner”, and Tony Tipton-Martin, author of the forthcoming book “The Jemima Code”

For more information about the SFA and the 17th Annual Fall Symposium, go to www.southernfoodways.org. 

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 and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).

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