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18th Annual SFA Symposium Focused on Southern Pop Culture

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More than 400 foodies explored their inner and outer connections to kitsch, camp and vernacular food culture in Oxford last week. They were here October 15-18 to attend the sold-out 18th 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 theme for this year’s symposium was Pop South: Who’s selling, who’s buying, and at what price?

According to UM professor emeritus Charles Reagan Wilson, “Pop culture is mass produced. It connects tradition and modernity and produces common symbols and icons that represent the region.”

Pop culture is a mind-boggling concept in a region that can simultaneously spawn Opryland and Dollywood, Pedro’s South of the Border, Cracker Barrel, KFC, Bourbon Street, Graceland and Sun Fun Week at Myrtle Beach.

All year long, leading up to the symposium, SFA looked closely at pop themes and symbols as they relate to food culture in the South. The institute asked questions about performance and authenticity, explored the South of tourism and souvenirs, and studied how the South is packaged and sold.

The lineup of panelists included academics, chefs, restaurateurs, writers, poets and musicians. They talked about and explored topics such as Southern stereotypes portrayed in advertising for products such as Mountain Dew, and produced documentary films on regional slug burgers and poverty-engendered creativity.

During the symposium, SFA screened a new film on Bill Neal, the Tar Heel restaurateur and cookbook author who introduced shrimp and grits to restaurant kitchens. SFA symposium attendees celebrated Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Phila Hach of Nashville, who cooked for 1200 visitors from the United Nations and served as chef in residence for the World’s Fair. And SFA toasted Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award winner JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans.

Speakers include Alice Randall, who talked of the fried chicken empires built by Minnie Pearl and Mahalia Jackson, as well as the Devil himself, disguised in cape and mask, who enumerated the wonderfulness of fried chicken emporiums in New York.

Gabe Bullard mused on the mason jar and its evolving role both in fighting poverty and honoring redneck chic.

Monique Truong examined her Southern, American, and Vietnamese identities as cemented through her Boiling Springs, NC, childhood Christmas parade experience.

And Mashama Bailey, Sean Brock, Rob Newton, Kim Floresca, and a raft of other chefs cooked their hearts out. (SEE PHOTO ALBUM BELOW) Sunday concluded with an SFA original commission, focused in part on White Trash Cooking, framed by Edward Lee, composed by Price Walden, performed by the Donkey Sauce Players, and elaborated by the mysterious MASKED AVENGER who recited the entire 2012 NY Times outrageous review of Guy Fieri’s new Big Apple restaurant.

The SFA documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South through symposia, documentary films, oral histories, fellowship-based studies, and publication of great writing. SFA was awarded the James Beard 2015 Award of Excellence for best publication for GRAVY, its quarterly magazine and podcasts.

For more information about the 2015 SFA Pop South Symposium Speakers, click here.

For a complete Eats and Drinks Roster, click here.

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