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SFA Symposium: The Future of Southern Culture and Cuisine

By Xander Norris
Journalism student

The Southern Foodways Alliance has decided to host this year’s annual Fall Symposium virtually

The Southern Foodways Alliance last Saturday kicked off its 23rd Annual Fall Symposium with the first of four virtual symposium events, featuring broadcast filmed presentations and Q&A’s in which presenters speak to this year’s theme: How Southern food and culture is changing, and what that evolution will look like in the years to come. 

This Saturday’s lineup, titled “Sustenance,” will feature cookbook author and editor of Plate Magazine Chandra Ram, chef Oscar Diaz, and bestselling novelist Silas House.

Photo courtesy of https://www.chandraram.net/

After studying journalism (Loyola University Chicago), culinary arts (The Culinary Institute of America), and wine, Chandra Ram eventually started writing regularly for Plate and eventually became the editor of the award-winning food magazine for chefs. Over the years, Ram has authored cookbooks, such as The Complete Indian Pot Cookbook, and has won multiple awards for her writing, including a James Beard nomination and an IACP nomination. One of her latest articles for Food & Wine Magazine entitled, “Brown in the South” Dinners Explore Ties Between India and the American South” is the focal point of her Symposium film presentation. Ram said the “Brown in the South” dinners resonated with her because she is half Indian and first-generation American who grew up in Lexington, Ky.

“I still struggled with what that meant to me in terms of my identity and in terms of who I was as a Southerner and who I was as someone who presents themself as looking at least somewhat Indian,” Ram said. “I grew up spending a lot of time in India, and I recognized that this was something that reflected my own questions about identity.”

Brown in the South” is a collaborative dinner series that explores the ties between India and the American South. The dinner series is put together by seven chiefs of Indian and Sri Lankan descent: Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, MS; Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, NC; Meherwan Irani of Cahi Pani in Asheville, NC; Asha Gomez of The Third Space in Atlanta, GA; and Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville, TN. These seven chiefs have made the South their home and as a result each of the “Brown in the South” dinners will celebrate and incorporate ingredients such as okra that are used in both cultures.

“If you look at something like Carolina barbecue, for example, it has tangy elements and spiciness to it – it’s this long slow-cooked meat, and then you can look at vindaloo pork from Goa in Southeastern India and see a lot of the same kind of flavors coming through, and it leaves you with the same kind of feeling after you eat it,” Ram said.

After attended several of the Brown in the South dinners, Ram said she is excited to share more about her “really cool experience” in her Symposium film. She also hopes that her film can add to the huge conversation about race and equality in this country.

“It’s a good time for us to address the fact that those of us who are brown in the South – Indians and other South-Asians – should talk about what our experience is in a predominately white culture,” Ram said. “There is racism within the culture, there is racism between brown people from different parts of the world, brown people and black people – so, it’s to say, if we are doing this event that celebrates commonality and celebrates all these things that show us how alike we are, then how can we use this event to not just give us a feel-good moment but actually prompt heart-to-heart discussions that we need to have and really affect change.”

Ram won’t be the only Symposium presenter on Saturday who will speak to how Southern food is becoming more multicultural due to immigration. 2019 James Beard award semifinalist chef Oscar Diaz of The Cortez and Jose and Sons in Raleigh, N.C., will show how he melds his family’s Mexican cooking with Southern cuisine in his BrunsMex stew. During his Symposium film, Diaz will reflect on his dish, a take on Brunswick stew – a tomato-based stew that features beans, vegetables, and meat. 

The third and final presenter of Saturday’s lineup will be Silas House, a novelist, music journalist, and columnist. House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels, including 2018’s “Southernmost,” in which House grapples with the limits of belief, faith succumbing to fear, and the infinite ways to love in a small Tennessee town. House said the inspiration behind his latest novel comes from his desire to write about LGBTQ people and religion in the modern South.

For this year’s Symposium, House will share a pre-recorded video entitled, A Crowded Table, during which he will reflect on his childhood memories, a time when he “loved to dance and refused to squirrel hunt.” House said he hopes the message behind his event will inspire others to sit down and share a meal with anyone regardless of their differences of opinion, unless that difference of opinion is harmful to others.

“I just want to encourage people to be more empathetic,” House said. “I think if anything can lead us to be that way, maybe it’s thinking about eating together because, in a way, it’s the most human experience… we all have to do it.”

With so many events going virtual in 2020, Mary Beth Lasseter, associate director of the SFA, said she hopes this year’s Fall Symposium will bring something unique to the table.

“We hope that we are going to deliver something that is a little different because we have these professionally produced films instead of just talking heads all day, but people will let us know if we deliver after we survey them after the event,” Lasseter said.

The SFA’s next Symposium event, “Exemplars,” is on October 17 from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information on future Symposium events or the SFA, visit southernfoodways.org or contact Lasseter at marybeth@southernfoodways.org.

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