Chitlin’ Time

(All meals at the SFA Symposium are memorable. This one from 2019 holds a special place in the bucket list arena. As this posts – Lord willin’ and the WiFi works – we’ll be heading towards Day 2 of the 2021 event and I really couldn’t be more ready.)

In my recent review of notable food memories from the past year, I left one extremely significant dish off the list.  In fact, it may have been the most memorable of all, and thus, deserved a longer treatment.  The Year of Our Lord, 2019, is the year Jay ate his first chitterlings.  

It took me 52 years to get to that moment.  And now my life will be divided into two eras: pre-chitterlings, and post-chitterlings. Prior to that moment, I knew about them, I knew people who ate them, I occasionally would see buckets of them in the grocery store.  I didn’t seek them out, nor did I avoid them. In fact, I don’t know where I would have looked to find them, aside from the aforementioned meat department.  I never saw them on a restaurant menu.  No food event or festival I’ve ever attended has included them, until just a few months ago, when a platter full was set before me, and I knew it was time to face the music. 

Before I go into a lot of detail, however, let’s establish the basics.  Most readers probably know what chitterlings are, unless the spelling is throwing you.  Perhaps you’ve heard the word pronounced as “chitlins” and because you, too, have never seen them on a restaurant menu, you never thought to explore the etymology of the word.  For that reason, for the rest of this column, we’ll just go with chitlins.  (Oddly enough, my word processor doesn’t flag that as a misspelled word, so maybe we’re good either way.)   

When it comes to the definition, it’s pretty simple.  Chitlins are pig entrails.  Small intestines of the swine.  Hog guts.  You get the picture.  When it comes to grammar, I confess I’m not entirely sure about singular and plural here.  I mostly hear about chitlins – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone talk about one chitlin.  I’ll just wait until I run into one of my former English teachers around town and they can weigh in on the matter.  

Let me set the scene.  We were at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last October.  When something special is coming, word usually gets out.  So we already had an idea that chitlins were on the horizon.  And when we arrived at the Powerhouse in Oxford on the last night, ready to share this last meal together, the chef and crew were wearing sweatshirts with “CHITLINS” spelled out in sewn-on letters.  There was no hiding it now.  

The chef was Eduardo Jordan, originally from Florida, now a chef-owner of several establishments in Seattle, including Junebaby, Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar.  Whether or not you are headed to Seattle anytime soon, I encourage you to check out the websites and menus of each of these places; there’s even an encyclopedia of culinary terminology on the Junebaby website that’s a fun read.

Junebaby is an outpost of Southern food in the great Northwest.  In fact, some of the dishes we enjoyed that night are on the Junebaby menu.  Some are not.  (See the aforementioned and soon-to-be-mentioned again chitlins.)  The menu that night, for the Maggie Jordan Memorial Supper (named after the chef’s grandmother), a Tabasco Celebration, was extensive.  

To begin, there were boiled peanuts, buttermilk biscuits with cane syrup, fried smelt, and pickled pigs feet.  Not a lot of surprises here.  Loved the biscuits, of course.  I have learned to appreciate boiled peanuts.  A friend seasoned his baked beans with pigs feet once.  Many fried fish have met their end because of me, though these may have been the smallest I’ve eaten.  

In the Vegetables and Grains portion of the menu, we had steamed okra with sorghum Tabasco chili vinaigrette, and thinking back, this may have been my first encounter with steamed okra – I’ve had it just about every other possible way.  We also had peas, beans and grains salad with preserved lemon – I really liked this take.  My favorite was the smoked carrots, collards and Anson Mills benne seeds.  The smoked carrots really made it work.  

To represent seafood, we had shrimp gumbo, which he described as more akin to okra and tomato stew, “studded with some of my favorite Florida seafood.”  Very tasty.  Poultry came to the table as chicken purloo, a rice-based dish.  Rib-stickin’ good.  The beef offering, however, was my favorite: neckbones with Tabasco cabbage, potatoes and carrots.  The meat in the crevices of the curvy vertebrae was incredibly flavorful – I’ve been missing out.  

For dessert, a slice of sweet potato pie with a bit less sweet than I’m accustomed to, a bit more spice, and a ball of meringue on top.  For the road, a “parting gift”: a slice of lemon pound cake from his grandmother’s recipe, subbing his creme fraiche for her sour cream.  

And now the pork.  We’re back to the chitlins.  At the table, to my left, was a chef who’d spent some time in Amory as a boy, and had been signing his cookbook that afternoon at Square Books.  (I grabbed one the next day.)  Directly across from me was a Hollywood writer/producer who grew up in Virginia.  Next to him was the admissions director from my days at the Ole Alma Mater – I hadn’t seen him since.  The Wife was to my right.  Opinions varied, but it was Hollywood who was the most familiar and relaxed about them.  Apparently he had eaten them relatively often in Virginia.  The Wife said they weren’t as bad as she thought they’d be.  I thought the texture was interesting, but the taste?  Naw. (No reflection on chef. If I go to Seattle, I’ll be looking for another Chef Jordan meal.)  I will add, should someone offer me a seriously crispy fried version somewhere down the line, I might try them again.  Otherwise, with my one bite I have vigorously checked chitlins off the bucket list and am now firmly established in the post-chitlins era.  

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Working Lunches

(Most of us take a break from work to eat lunch. To do that, someone else has to work to make our lunch, bring it to us, or grow the ingredients that compose it. We need to remember that. In this post, I remember the lunches from the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, as we work towards getting back to Oxford for the long-awaited 2021 event.)

I say this every year, but some things are just so true that they bear repeating: lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium are a big deal.  In years past we’ve eaten fantastic multi-course meals at the noon hour prepared by the likes of Sean Brock, Mashama Bailey, and Vivian Howard.  (If you don’t know these chefs, feel free to pause and Google – you’ll be impressed.)  This year was no different when it came to the culinary skills of the chefs, but there was a slightly different vibe.  The theme of the symposium was Food is Work, and we were encouraged to consider and appreciate all the steps that it took to get that food on the plate, and all the people that had a hand in it.    

On our first full day the plan was to enjoy lunch outside in The Grove.  Rain made that virtually impossible, so the fine folks at the SFA improvised, made easier because lunch that day was served on a cardboard tray and the focus was on po-boy sandwiches, which by nature and design are portable.  

Most food has a story, though not all lunches are given a title – unless you’re eating with SFA. “Food to Sustain a Strike,” was based on the 1929 New Orleans streetcar strike.  Two brothers, Bennie and Clovis Martin, were former streetcar conductors who opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922.  To support the men in the union, they offered free food to any of the strikers in Division 194.  When they saw one coming, they’d say, “Here comes another poor boy.”  Whether or not that was the first time these half-loaves of French bread stuffed with fillings were called Poor-Boys is debated, but the Martin brothers’ offer to feed those workers is definitely a part of the story.  

I make no claims to be a po-boy expert.  But I know what I like, and these sandwiches and what came alongside kinda’ blew my mind.  One was simply called a Ham and Cheese Po-boy, which at first glance doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but glances are not what count in such cases.  There was indeed ham, cheese, mustard and pickles.  No fancy stuff.  Just basic fixins’ that somehow became a sandwich I would very much like to be eating again. Right now. The other “half” of the loaf, while still not fancy, wasn’t something I see on menus that often, and it’s unfortunate: French Fry Po-Boy with Tomato Gravy.  Also on the tray was a little container of gumbo z’herbs over potato salad, plus a sweet potato fried pie to finish it off. The chefs behind this lunch were Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette in New Orleans.  I didn’t see any po-boys on their restaurant menu, but if they can make me crave ham and cheese, they are definitely on the list for my next NOLA visit. 

The next day featured a Working Woman’s Lunch, headlined by Maneet Chauhan of Chaatable (Indian Street Food) and several other restaurants in Nashville.  You may also have seen her judging Chopped on Food Network.  But before we get to the Indian food, let’s talk about the other folks who helped fill our Tiffin tin lunch box.  

Elizabeth Scott’s family of Scott’s Hot Tamales of Greenville (MS) provided – guess what?  A tamale.  Their recipe includes beef brisket and cornmeal, and of course, secret spices.  Delta tamales have a history that is closely connected to both Mexican and African-American field workers, thus their logical inclusion in a lunch connecting food and work.  

Chef William Dissen (Haymaker, Charlotte, NC), who has roots in Appalachia, brought us pepperoni rolls, the state food of West Virginia.  The lunch link here comes from Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro, who is credited with inventing this roll baked with pepperoni inside back in 1927 to sell to coal miners. 

The roll was in the top layer of our Tiffin box.  If you haven’t seen one of these (and I hadn’t since our days on the other side of the world), it is essentially a stack of interlocking tins that can hold different foods.  They’re great for people on the go who don’t like their food to touch, or just don’t want dessert merging with the salad.  I was thankful because it kept the coconut contained.

Chef Chauhan’s top layer of the Tiffin was a collard green and black-eyed pea curry, with tomato, caramelized onion, curry leaves and … coconut.  I make no bones about my aversion to those white flakes, but in this case I was able to parcel out one safe coconut-free bite to confirm The Wife’s opinion of the deliciousness of the overall dish.  Meanwhile, I focused on the next layer, a roasted sweet potato chaat made with pear, tamarind chutney, mint-mango chutney, spiced garbanzo and corn trail mix.  Somewhere between side dish and snack mix, this was probably my favorite layer.  The bottom tin held the sweetest bites: pumpkin cheesecake gulab jamun with chickpea pearl laddoo crumble over saffron cardamom rabri.  That’s a lot of words I don’t know, but I did look up gulab jamun, which is traditionally a ball of fried milk-based dough soaked in a sugar syrup, often infused with rosewater.  In this dessert the balls seemed to be incorporated into the cheesecake, almost like the ladyfingers in tiramisu.  India meets Tennessee in Mississippi.  I like it.  

I am as much an expert on Indian food as I am po-boys, which is to say…not at all. But Chaatable or another of Chauhan’s places in Nashville also goes on the “must-find-on-next-visit” list.  I depart inspired to make tamales again, to try my hand at a pepperoni roll, and to eat more things with French fries inside.  And maybe drive a streetcar.  

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Oyster Night at Bill’s Place

(As the 2021 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium approaches, I find myself looking ahead to the list of chefs, mixologists, speakers, and attendees, and wishing I was already there. A little like Christmas. But I also like to look back and remember those same aspects – every year it’s a part of getting ready. Even after skipping a year of live events, looking back at 2019’s gathering makes me hungry. For all of it.)

People who know oysters know oysters.  I realize that sounds redundant, but here’s what I mean.   I would expect that someone who eats a lot of oysters could tell differences between different batches.  They have their own terroir, except it’s water instead of soil.  Oysters from Apalachicola, Florida, have a flavor that’s distinct compared to oysters from the coast of Virginia.  I have to assume that’s the case, because good oyster bars always have a list of where their oysters hail from, and if there wasn’t a difference, why buy the chalkboard?  

As you can probably tell, I don’t know oysters.  I might know something about them, but I don’t know them.  Many years ago, however, I had a brief relationship with oysters.  Shoney’s had great fried oysters back in the day, at least in the mind and on the palate of an uncultured pre-teen.  Until one day they didn’t.  I had one that didn’t taste quite right, or perhaps it was that dark green substance that appeared in the middle of a bite, and that was the end of that.  

At some point along the journey into grown-up-hood, I was talked into trying some raw oysters – rather, a raw oyster, singular –  and I did it just to say I’d done it.  Bucket list checked.  Then a few years ago at a Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, I had another chance to try them.  This time I was introduced to mignonette sauce – a mix of vinegar, shallots and pepper – which went a long way towards improving my oyster experience.  

Then we were back in Oxford at the 2019 SFA Symposium.  For the second year in a row we began the weekend in the company of William Faulkner, or at least it felt like it since we were on the grounds of his home, Rowan Oak.  The evening began with multiple tables filled with raw oysters from various locales, brought to us by Bryan Rackley (Kimball House and Watchman’s of Atlanta) and Oyster South.  I did try one, doused with mignonette, of course.  And that was that.  I’m sure they were amazing to people who know oysters, and I wish I was one of those people.  But the night was not over – I would soon give them another chance.  

Meanwhile, as we wandered around visiting old friends and meeting new ones, trays of smoked Simmons farm-raised catfish dip on house-made crackers were being passed around.  This was a seafood dish I could get into.  Rarely did a tray pass without my partaking of a bite.  

When it comes to seafood salads/dips I am most familiar with tuna.  These days I average eating tuna salad about once a week.  A few years back I had dip made from smoked mullet at Ted Peter’s Smoked Fish restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida, thanks to their appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  And I’ve had catfish dip at least once before.  This night’s version, from Chef Bill Briand (Fisher’s, Orange Beach) was excellent, and to take the time to make the crackers was an extra nice touch.  I only quit stopping servers to take another when I realized I might be full before the main event.  

Dinner (also from Chef Briand) was once again focused on the oyster.  Yes, there was a very nice spinach salad with red onion and a creole mustard vinaigrette.  Yes, there was a big bowl of root beer-roasted sweet potatoes.  (Sweet potatoes enhanced by more sweetness; a little more subtle than a brown sugar topping, but a sweet infusion nonetheless.)  But the centerpiece of the family-style dinner tables that night was the Back of the House Oyster Stew.  

Chef Briand used to work with Donald Link in New Orleans, and it was there that they came up with the idea of this stew, with herbsaint and fennel as the defining flavors.  As someone who doesn’t know oysters, I therefore don’t know much about oyster stew.  But even if I’d had ten varieties of stew in the month before this night, I still think I would have ranked this one near the top. 

It was a cool night, and a big bowl of this creamy, steaming stew was the perfect dish to warm us up.  There were big chunks of potato to help offset the rich cream stock, and the herbs were evident.  And of course, there were fresh oysters that had been added just before we sat down to eat.  It was the kind of dish that was so satisfying, bowl-scraping or sopping up the dregs with bread would have been completely appropriate.  Instead, I went back for another bowl.  Part of a bowl, at least – I tried to be gracious.  

I don’t know if I’ll ever become an oyster aficionado.  It would be nice to have the kind of trained palate that could taste one on the half-shell and be able to pinpoint the body of water in which it was born.  It’s unlikely…but stranger things have happened.  In the meantime, I feel like my relationship with oysters is back on the right track. 

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Fish and Biscuits, Two Beginnings

(My tradition has been to post memories of the previous year’s Southern Foodways Symposium as the next one approaches. Like most everything, the virus-that-shall-not-be-named put a dent in that practice last year. There was a symposium in 2020, but it was online, I had to cook my own meals, and I didn’t post the 2019 ponderings. Thankfully, we will meet again in Oxford just over a week from now, so it’s time to get back to business. Let’s remember the good old days of fall, 2019, before…you know.)

October is one of my favorite months of the year.  Usually we’ve had a few cold days by then – nights, at least.  I don’t have to mow any more.  (I probably need to give it another cut … but I probably won’t.)  Football is in full swing.  Leaves are beginning to turn red, cotton fields are turning white.  And The Wife and I head to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  

This year the theme was Food is Work.  As described on the SFA event page, we heard “stories of the domestic and public labor that powers growing, cooking, and serving food.”  We can all say we have a modicum of knowledge about this when it comes to the personal connections we have with our food.  We interact with servers in restaurants and might know the chefs.  We happen to know a few folks who sell food to restaurants.  If we go to the farmer’s market or participate in a CSA, we’re getting close to where the food begins it’s journey.  Once or twice a week, we exchange money with someone in the checkout line at the grocery store.  

But undoubtedly, as we look at our overflowing grocery cart or even one meal on a plate, a lot of work has been done between the source of the food and the final product.  We don’t know much about the day-to-day work life of the tomato picker in Florida that helps make our Caprese salad, or the risky work of the undocumented immigrant in the poultry plant that allows those chicken nuggets to be so inexpensive.  

Some of the talks were hard to hear; at minimum, eye-opening.  We were on a college campus, and we got educated. In particular, we left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the folks that made our amazing meals possible.  

Over the years I’ve picked up on the fact that the chefs tasked with creating meals for the 350 plus guests at the symposium put in a lot of work.  And that, I’m sure, is a serious understatement.  They test recipes long before they arrive, and often do prep work before they get to Oxford.  Once they arrive, hours upon hours are spent in the kitchen getting ready.  

I happened to be on the bus on the way to dinner at Rowan Oak the first night and recognized Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, who would be doing dinner the next night.  I introduced myself, and asked if he’d be prepping all the next day.  He looked at the nice lady who was sitting behind me and they just laughed.  Apparently the nice lady had just learned that she would be making the cornbread to go with his whole hog barbecue.  What I didn’t realize at the moment was that the nice lady was Erika Council, the force behind the Southern Souffle blog and Bomb Biscuits pop-ups in the Atlanta area.  Nor did I realize that she’d be making those biscuits for breakfast the very next morning.  The next 24 hours would be a little busy.  And as always, the attendees got a blessing.

Two Anson Mills bomb biscuits awaited us in our brown bags at the breakfast hour: one black pepper/ricotta, one sausage.  The black pepper ricotta was something entirely new, but when I Googled it to look at recipes, it seems lots of folks are making these.  So, entirely new…to me.  A little apple butter made it even better.  The sausage biscuit, however, was my fave.  It featured Jake’s Fresh Country Sausage, made in vast quantities (because it sells in vast quantities) at the 150 Quick Stop in Bardstown, Kentucky.  In the SEC Network food and culture program, True South, C.P. Smith tells host John T. Edge, “Not too many biscuits make it out of the parking lot.”  Thankfully, some of the sausage did.  

The next morning, we were treated to a tour of the Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus, home of the Center of the Study of Southern Culture, and the offices of the SFA.  We also had a chance to see Angie Mosier’s photography exhibit, Dish Pit Panorama – another view of the work done to make meals happen.  While wandering about the observatory, we dined on fish and grits. 

 

If that seems odd to you for breakfast, I would guess you didn’t grow up near the ocean.  I didn’t either, so I don’t have it for breakfast very often, but if I could have it this way, I’d have it once a week.  Chef Bill Briand from Fisher’s and Playa restaurants in Orange Beach, took Simmons delacata catfish, blackened it, placed it atop Anson Mills grits, then added Creole-style pork gravy on top of everything.   

These grits were some of the creamiest I’ve ever had.  Pillow soft, yet just enough texture to let you know grits were involved.  The catfish was perfectly cooked and seasoned.  And the gravy – I think that’s what took me over the edge.  Caramelized onions, bits of ham, big slices of garlic, herbs, and maybe some magic.  Or love.  Probably both.  It was rich and decadent, and the composed dish was one of my favorite breakfasts in recent memory.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Royal Cup Coffee for anchoring both mornings.  I was particularly fond of the lightly flavored cold brew they served on biscuit day – caramel bourbon, as I recall.  They are always there to take care of us, and never fail to properly caffeinate the masses for the day ahead.  There was much to ponder on these days, and we needed to be attentive. 

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A Gumbo Fugue

(This is the final reflection from the 2018 Southern Foodways Symposium.  As it goes up, the 2019 event is just hours away from the last meal and lots of goodbyes till next year.  Till then, here’s my take on the last meal from 2018.)

I’m treading on dangerous ground here.  This piece is about gumbo, and people are serious about gumbo.  There are right ways and wrong ways to make gumbo, to eat gumbo, and maybe even to write about gumbo.  There may be gumbo po-po lurking about, waiting to read this and tell me what I said wrong.  The loophole, thankfully, is that while individual opinions are strong on this subject, those strong opinions also vary.  Please be kind to the messenger.

I’m also about to take on a bit of a history of a man that I don’t know well enough.  It’s a man I’ve heard about many times at Southern Foodways Alliance Symposia, though I was never really sure why.  This past year, in fact, much ado was made about him – in fact, an entire album of music was written and performed for us by musician Paul Burch and friends, just before we were treated to the Lodge Cast Iron Supper: A Gumbo Fugue in Three Movements.

The chef for that dinner was Paul Fehribach from Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, which bills itself as being “Inspired by the People, Places, and History of The American South.”  Chef Paul grew up in Indiana, and as far as I have been able to determine, has never actually lived below the Mason Dixon line, but takes great pains to shape the menu around historic Southern recipes.  From where I sit, that sounds like someone who recognizes the importance of the Southern larder in the American culinary experience, and I can get behind that.

As for the man the evening was based around, we’re talking about Eugene Walter.  I knew the name, but learned quite a bit more about him through the music and the menu.  He was an actor, translator, cryptographer, poet, chef, food writer, raconteur, and more – all affirmed by le Pedia de Wiki.  The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d had the chance to be in his circle; I get the feeling life was never dull around Eugene Walter.

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It was his food writing – cookbooks in particular – that inspired Chef Paul.  According to our guide to the evening (a menu of sorts, with more stories than ingredient lists), he read Walter’s “Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall”, which referenced an unpublished book called, “A Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo.”  The mention of the book led the chef to an essay titled, “The Gumbo Cult”, and his delight in reading it resulted in a multi-gumbo menu representative of Walter’s life work.

The first platter to catch my attention was piled high with corn sticks, for dunking purposes.  The cover of Walter’s “American Cooking: Southern Style” featured the same.

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Green Gumbo with Vanishing Bread filled one enormous cast iron pot.  This goes by another name you may have heard, gumbo z’herbes.  Numerous references tell me that this one is usually full of greens, and was often served meatless during Lent – but Andouille sausage and such can always be added.  As for the vanishing bread, at Big Jones it’s described as pecorino-crusted baguette.  Ours were crouton-sized, which logically follows Walter’s reminiscing about North Alabamians putting croutons (or sippets, as he called them) over greens.

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Gumbo the second was Crevettes et Crabe Bouillies with Okra and File’ over Creole Boiled Rice.  This is where I got into trouble the last time I talked about gumbo, trying to differentiate between when okra and file’ were used.  Well, this one had both, so figure that one out.  (Gumbo is personal, y’all.)  What was interesting, per Chef Paul’s description, was that his brother harvested the file’ himself from a sassafras tree in the woods of Southern Indiana.  Crevettes, by the way, are large prawns cooked in the shell, and our “crabes” were crab claws placed along with prawns atop the gumbo.

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I think the third was my favorite, and featured a tradition I was unaware of until that night.  It was what you might call a traditional gumbo: a very dark roux with chicken and andouille.  What threw me was the underpinning – it was served over Abruzzi potato salad.  I’d never had gumbo served over anything but rice (except for that time I served a version of my own over grits.)  But apparently it’s pretty common for potato salad to be served either with or in gumbo.  Who knew?  The Abruzzi recipe comes from Walter’s book, “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter” and has a splash of white wine in the ingredient list.  Mr. Walter was quite fond of spirits, as I understand it.

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That fondness also showed up in the dessert: Tipsy Parson with muscadines, a sort of parfait with sherry-soaked pound cake as the base.  He called it “the grown-up cousin to banana pudding.”

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As much as I enjoy gumbo, I don’t choose or make it near enough.  But now that I know there are options, be it cheese-encrusted croutons on top or potato salad underneath, I may give this dish another whirl.  I just hope I do it right.

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Faulkner and the Oxford Curry

(As this posts, I’ll be getting ready for breakfast at the 2019 Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Meanwhile, my appetite is already jump-started by looking back at another of the meals from the 2018 event.)

It was an auspicious beginning.  The Wife and I had just stepped down from the top level of Oxford’s double decker bus, after a tour of literary landmarks around town.  We walked a short distance down a sidewalk, then onto a well worn path that eventually led to perhaps the most auspicious of those literary landmarks: Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner.  

This was the opening reception for the 2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held on the lawn at Faulkner’s home.  There were lights in the trees, twinkling as the sun set, and for those so inclined, Joe Stinchcomb, director of the bar program at Saint Leo restaurant, had cocktails waiting which included whiskey, one of the author’s favorite beverages – in this case, Maker’s Mark.  Though I was fascinated by the commemorative glasses (dipped in red wax, like the seal on the MM bottle), I was even more fascinated by what was being passed around on the plates.  

I hope the reader (as well as those involved with the hors d’oeuvres) will forgive if I get a bit of this wrong – I’m more of a storyteller than a journalist, and more of an eater than a storyteller.  In other words, I need to learn to take more notes, ask better questions, or both.  In any case, the program credited this welcome snack to Chef Dan Latham, another of the collaborators at Saint Leo.  But on the serving tables were cards describing the meats available at Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates, Georgia.  So I’m going to assume that Chef Latham put this together using meat from Pine Street Market.  Sound good?  Well, it was.  

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What I did write down was that the pork belly on these sliders was made from one of Faulkner’s own recipes, marinated in molasses for 30 days.  I wanted to know more about this, and sure enough – it didn’t take a very challenging web search to find “‘Pappy’ Faulkner’s Recipe for Curing Pork.”  And sure enough, molasses was one of the primary ingredients.  Slices of the dark, richly flavored pork belly were topped with a red cabbage slaw and served on a sweet potato roll.  Between the whiskey and the pork belly, Faulkner’s spirit was very much among us at Rowan Oak that evening.  

From there we moved en masse (this time by single decker bus) to the Powerhouse, home of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, where most of the SFA dining takes place.  Waiting there for us was the Oxford Curry, our first dinner of the weekend.  According to SFA Director, John T. Edge, there was a hidden joke in the name – something about the Oxford comma – but I never really got it.  Again, not an official journalist.  But definitely an eater, and a hungry one by now.  

There is a particular group of chefs, all of Indian descent, who have settled in the South.  Of late they have come together to create dinners that showcase their culinary styles and heritage, while at the same time featuring local ingredients and Southern themes – they call it the “Brown in the South Supper Series.”  Volume One focused on “masala meets meat and three”; the second dinner celebrated “Indian Summer.”  Our dinner, led by two of those chefs, Meherwan Irani and Cheetie Kumar (and friends), was all about redefining what the word “curry” represents.  

When we arrived at the table, we found dishes of Achar pickle, Raita yogurt, Kachumber salad, Papadum crackers, and Naan bread.  I won’t say that I could have made a meal out of this, but I will say that the Papadum and Naan were among my favorite bites that night.  Simple pleasures.  Similar sentiments for the Jeera Chawal (cumin-scented basmati rice): it was the anchor for all the other dishes.  Having lived on that side of the world for a season, in a place where cumin was a pantry staple, I developed a taste for the spice I first knew as “kemoon.”

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Of all the foods in the world, I am perhaps least acquainted with Indian foods, so I am relying on the menu that was provided to us that night.  Perhaps this is something I should work on in the new year.  But in the meantime, here’s a rundown:

Konkani Fish Kadi.  This was the representative seafood dish, from the southwestern coast of India, but made with Simmons Catfish from Mississippi, which happens to be near the southwestern “coast” of the state if you’ll allow the Mississippi River to be a coast of sorts. The fish was bathed in coconut milk, spiced with red chilies, garlic, black pepper, curry leaves and fresh lime.  My horizons are expanding.

Goan Pork Vindaloo.  The spicy one, from the Portuguese colony of Goa, and did you know the Portuguese brought the chili pepper from the Americas?  What goes around comes around, it seems.

Punjabi Butter Chicken.  This one I knew a little something about.  I’ve actually made a version of this from scratch, and have tried several bottled sauces as well.  It’s my fave, my Indian comfort food if you will.  The chefs used charred bell peppers to add a smokiness and jaggery sugar took the place of the refined stuff.  The color red was played by Kashmiri chilies.  

Maharashtan Aloo Gobi.  Such a fun name for a vegetarian dish.  Potatoes, cauliflower, onion, garlic and chilies.  And finally…

Kheer.  The dessert, more or less: Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice, cooked slowly in milk and sugar, flavored with cardamom and saffron, studded with cashews and golden raisins.  

I don’t have real insider knowledge, but I’m guessing another Brown in the South dinner will pop up soon.  If it’s nearby, or you feel like a road trip, I highly recommend it, even for novices like me.  And if you’re at all literary-minded and haven’t seen Rowan Oak – it’s time, with or without a whiskey.

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Lunch with Mashama, Again!

(It’s time for the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Here’s another look at a tale told through lunch from the 2018 event.)

There are always new people at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I was one of those new people once, and a few years later The Wife was a new people.  This year the event was opened up to the public (usually it’s limited to members), so there were lots of new people.  

Whenever we sit down for a meal at this eating-meeting we have a choice to make: we can try to sit with folks we already know, which is fun because we often only see them once a year, or we can go potluck (food pun intended) and sit with complete strangers.  The great thing about potlucking with strangers is that they are not strangers very long.  Then you have new friends to sit with next year.  

A few years ago, at a lunch early in the weekend, we sat down and began making conversation with a couple of nice ladies from Savannah, Georgia.  And as we conversed The Wife and I discovered that one of them was Mashama Bailey, Chef at The Grey.  Not only was she a chef, she was also the chef that would be making lunch for us the next day.  I’ve seen a little behind-the-scenes video of what it takes to pull off one of these lunches, so in hindsight I’m wondering how she wasn’t already in a kitchen prepping to feed 300-plus people, but hey – chefs gotta’ eat, too, right?  And they don’t want to miss any of these meals, either.  

Fast forward to this year.  Since the day we sat with Mashama she has become a finalist for a James Beard Award (Best Chef Southeast), and The Grey was Eater.com’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year.  (Now all the chefs want to sit with us…)  Not a bad resume, considering she had already worked for years with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in NYC, and was hand-picked through that relationship to open up The Grey in 2014.  And we are grateful that she was also hand-picked to cook lunch for us again.  

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The theme for the SFA’s 2018 programming was the link between food and literature, in a vast number of forms.  This lunch was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, a writer known for the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937, along with more novels, an autobiography, short stories, essays, plays and more.  Hurston was not a cookbook author, but as her biographer, Valerie Boyd (who spoke to us at the Symposium), noted, food was an integral part of her personality.  To research, Chef Mashama worked with Boyd, and read a lot of Hurston’s works for inspiration.  Here’s what she came up with.  

On the table as we arrived were what she called “Jook Snacks,” foods that people from her small-town Georgia roots (and Hurston’s in rural Florida) would have eaten simply because they were around.  There were hot buns with preserves, bread and butter pickles, and a platter of pulled rabbit with Tabasco sauce.  How old were you when you first sat down to a platter of pulled rabbit?  On the day we had it, I was that day old.  

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The second course was Savannah Red Rice with Shrimp, and Stewed Okra.  According to Mashama, chicken and rice was Hurston’s dish, so the translation to Savannah was simple.  Over the last few years I’ve eaten less rice than I used to (you know, carbs and all), but I didn’t hesitate to dive into this.  I’ve even made a version of it before, a baked rice dish flavored (and colored red) by tomatoes, accentuated with onion and bell pepper, and studded with bacon or sausage – or, in this case, shrimp, which was absolutely appropriate for a port city dish.  Stewed okra, of course, is not just okra – it’s got tomatoes and onions going on, too.  

The third course took us to the juke joints Hurston wrote about.  Mashama said, “Fish is the ultimate juke-joint food.”  So instead of shrimp and grits, she made fish and grits.  Not like your mama’s fish and grits, though.  (I’m just kidding – if your mama made fish and grits, please let me know.)  These were mostly-whole whiting atop grit cakes so carefully put together they almost looked like thick slices of potato.  So now I have another way to love grits.  Alongside were Tabasco Sauce-braised collards with smoked pig tails.  (By the way, did I mention that this was the 2018 Tabasco Luncheon?)  Again, did your mama put pig tails in the collards?  If mine did, she didn’t tell me – I wasn’t always as adventurous as I am now, so her silence would have been a good idea.  And it was a good idea, indeed – the pig tails, I mean.  Ash-roasting sweet potatoes was also a good idea, served on a bed of thick, red sauce that I meant to ask about…but didn’t.  

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Let’s talk about dessert.  This is the part where I’ve already confessed in previous writings that I like to hang around and partake of leftovers.  This time was no different.  Tea cakes made with cornmeal and buttermilk were the centerpiece, because Tea Cake is a main character in Hurston’s first novel, and according to Boyd’s biography, cornbread and buttermilk was Zora’s favorite childhood breakfast.  I had a few of these, but not a few too many.  To accompany the tea cakes were candied pears – I love pear preserves and these were an interesting twist – and peanut brittle that was kinda’ fancy.  

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Not only did this lunch make me want to go to Savannah, it also made me want to read some Zora Neale Hurston.  Eating and reading – two of my favorite things to do. 

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Brother Rabbit Brings Lunch

(Lunch is a big deal at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  As we get closer to the 2019 event, here’s a look back at a noonday meal from 2018 that truly embodied the spirit of the theme, celebrating the connection between food and literature.  And yes, menus are literature.)

It’s no secret among those I’m close to that I’m a collector.  Most likely I’ve mentioned it in these pages before.  Some might even say that I’m a hoarder, but there’s a vast difference.  Number one, you can easily walk around in my house.  And number two, I choose to believe the things I collect are valuable and will one day be treasured by my children, or sold immediately upon my departure from this earth.  Either way, in my mind it’s a win-win for them.  

Among those collections is a file of menus.  Note that I said “a” file – as in “one.”  Not a file box full, not a closetful.  See? Not a hoarder.  I do have a small box or two full of food-related memorabilia which may also contain some menus, but generally speaking, it’s a small, manageable collection.  Not like the 45,000 plus that the New York Public Library boasts.  The Wife would have to give up some purse storage space if mine was that big.  Thus, it will never be that big.  

One of the most fascinating speakers at this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium was John Kessler, a former food columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The theme of this year’s symposium was “Reading Food: From Menus to Soap Operas to Novels.”  His topic was “Menus as Texts.”  He showed us how menus have changed over the years and how each told a particular kind of story.  It didn’t take long for me to realize my file is not just a collection of dish descriptions, it’s a folder full of memories.  

Ordinarily, at each symposium meal we are given a colorful menu card with some amount of detail regarding what’s in each dish.  I’m not gonna’ lie – those menus are excellent cheat sheets.  With them in hand, I don’t have to ask a lot of questions about what’s in the dish or how it is cooked; everything is there already, documented for posterity.  I don’t have to keep a list of ingredients in my pocket-sized notebook, only my reactions to what those ingredients trigger on my tongue.  

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This year most of the menus were different.  At breakfast, for instance, we got the name of the dish, but instead of a description of how the chef’s mother used to make this back in the day, we got a poem or a paragraph from a novel.  In most cases, we got more story than a list of groceries, but that makes some sense, considering the theme.  At Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q Luncheon on Friday, we got folktales.  

The storyteller that day was Nina Compton, the chef at Compere Lapin in New Orleans.  Compere Lapin means “Brother Rabbit” in French, and refers to folktales Chef Compton heard as a child in St. Lucia about a mischievous rabbit.  Her menus, both at the restaurant and at lunch that day, are inspired by the playfulness of those stories, and reflect a brotherhood of Caribbean and Creole cuisines.  

We began with Conch Croquettes.  If you’re unfamiliar with conch, it’s only because you didn’t know the name of that enormous seashell sitting on the shelf, the one you can put up to your ear and hear the ocean.  As a young man, my folks took us to the Bahamas and I had my first conch fritter, so this was not my first conch rodeo.  This, however, was different from the dense tuna croquettes that I know how to make; instead it was tender inside the slightly crunchy batter.  

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Our next course was Cowheel Soup, a street food in the Caribbean that is supposedly enjoyed by mythical ladies of the evening who actually have cowheel feet.  I must confess that I didn’t read the word that carefully at first.  I was focused on the soup itself, which reminded me a little of the broth from a good lentil soup, but with chunks of bone floating around.  Bones help flavor and can even add thickening to a soup, so that wasn’t so surprising.  It was only later that I realized, those were small chunks of cowheel.  The heel of a cow.  Words have meaning, it seems.  

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The main dish made me a little nervous at first, given that the word “coconut” was in the description: Pelau with Spicy Coconut, Black-Eyed Peas, and Chicken.  My hope was that the coconut would be in the form of milk or cream, without those pesky flakes.  Hope fulfilled.  A large round skillet was brought to the table, filled with a dense mix of rice and black-eyed peas, the chicken legs fanned out in a circle.  Google tells me that traditional pelau has a bit of sugar and a mix of warm spices such as cardamom and cloves, and I did detect a note of sweet which I’m sure was a factor in sending me back to the dish for more.  The menu, however, told the story of a soucouyant, a shapeshifting witch in Caribbean folklore that could be caught by heaping rice around the house.  It just goes to show that collecting can be useful, as long as you collect the right things.  

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We finished up with a Pone with Rum Caramel, a dark cake topped with pecans trapped in a thick, rich caramel.  Appropriately, the accompanying story was of the Jab Molassie, a devil character whose end came when he fell (or was thrown) into a vat of boiling molasses on a sugar plantation.  Would that constitute a sweet ending?  Perhaps not for the Jab.  But for those of us at lunch that day, it certainly was.  

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Ice Cream and Collards (Breakfast is Served)

(In just a few short weeks, the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium will begin.  As has become my habit, as the day approacheth, I’ll look back at the 2018 Symposium.  Let the drooling begin.  And what better way to begin than breakfast?)

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I look forward to breakfast.  Full stop.  There are days when it’s just a banana, a single (albeit large) cup of butter coffee, or – heaven forbid – plain eggs.  But not if I can help it.  I seek adventure in the breakfast nook.  

The offerings for early morning repast at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium never fail the thrill seekers.  Normally, there are glimpses of recognition.  Last year we had Mote Pillo, which is scrambled eggs (check) and hominy (huh?).  Now if I’d said eggs and hominy grits, nobody would have blinked an eye, but these were grits in their native form – unground, whole kernels of hominy.  

Last year’s other breakfast featured a riff on Eggs Benedict, at least for those with a big imagination.  Biscuit instead of English muffin, chorizo instead of Canadian bacon, chipotle gravy rather than hollandaise sauce – the only bridge between the two was the poached egg.  It was even served in a cup.  But I licked the cup.  (Not really – that’s figurative.  If you’ve ever tried to lick the bottom of a cup, you’d realize, like me, that it’s practically impossible.  And I never remember to pack my tiny silicone spatula like my friend carries in her purse, to scrape up every last bit of deliciousness.)

This year was no different.  Of course, we have to have our morning coffee, and Royal Cup takes good care of us.  In addition to the hot coffee that was much appreciated on those finally cool mornings, we also got to taste their new cold brew products.  But wait!  There’s more!  They also had bottled iced tea for the first time, including a peach variety.  The tea was more of a “Here is something new to try, and we are here now, so please take one and enjoy it later,” than a “Don’t you drink iced tea for breakfast?” type of situation.  I’m particularly fond of peach tea, and this one ranked high.  I described it to The Wife as a peach juice drink with some tea added, perhaps even reminiscent of what a peach Jolly Rancher would taste like if it were made from natural flavors.  Please understand – these are good things in my view.  And the sweet tea version (sans any fruit flavor) was just the level of sweetness I would want with a big barbecue sandwich.  But we were talking about breakfast, weren’t we?

Day One was completely unexpected, as expected.  I’d seen a social media post from an early riser before we got there and knew that there would be a rice waffle, smeared with clotted cream and topped with peach slices.  That alone would have been sufficient.  I’m all about waffle variations, and seriously – how many of us get up in the morning and smear clotted cream on anything?  That’s special.  But here’s the good part.  Chicken and waffles are a big thing now – it’s the new shrimp and grits for restaurants that claim Southern roots.  As Chef Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats (Charleston) handed me what appeared to be a chicken drumette in a clear plastic envelope, she described the dish: “Not Fried Chicken and Waffle.”  The Not Fried Chicken drumette was ice cream.  I know!  Isn’t it great to be an adult??  

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We’ve probably all had oven fried chicken at some point in our lives, coated in crushed corn flakes or the like.  Ditto here (plus caramelized white chocolate), which made everything look normal.  But after taking a bite of the drumette you could see it was white instead of the usual dark, because … it wasn’t meat at all.  It was waffle ice cream.  There was even a chocolate cookie “bone”.   Call me flabbergasted.  And allow me to be accountable: as breakfast was winding down, I noticed some Not Fried Chicken still sitting around and it’s a crime to let ice cream melt unnecessarily. (It was cool weather, but not that cool.) I’m sure you can guess what happened next.  

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The next morning was more of the same when it came to creativity, though there was no ice cream involved.  I’m told that Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean Bakery and Cafe is known for her biscuits.  The restaurant is in New Orleans, and I haven’t been to NOLA since Katrina, so I’ve been out of the loop.  I’m very thankful that the loop snuck up to Oxford for breakfast and brought me in.  

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Have you ever been handed a breakfast biscuit or the like, wrapped in a foil wrapper, and your first thought was, “This is heavy.”?  I saw the description on a stand at the end of the table: I knew it was a biscuit with boudin and greens.  But my usual modus operandi is to go back for a second breakfast (after a polite wait, of course), be it a fresh serving or half The Wife’s.  Due to the sheer weight of what I held in my hand, I wasn’t sure that would happen this time.  The biscuit was squarish, flaky, and golden buttery brown.  The collaborative layer of collard and mustard greens was chock full of ham chunks.  The boudin was in patty form, crisp on the outside, perhaps pan-fried.  I’ve had boudin in many iterations – perhaps even in a biscuit once – but never in a biscuit with greens.  And each biscuit came with a tiny bottle of green Tabasco sauce, for those who dig it spicy.  It served as our breakfast, but I could have one at any point of the day.  Willa Jean?  I say, Willa Genius.  

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Two great starts to two great days.  Then again, it’s hard not to have a great day when they start off with happiness and joy, or in this case, ice cream and collards.  

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Tex-Mex and Tortas

(This post tells of the beginning and the ending of last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Appropriate, as the 2018 Symposium begins the day this posts to end this series of throwback thoughts.)

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my half a century.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned it once or thrice.  And it should be a surprise to no-one that as we travel, we find food traditions that are different than our own.  You don’t even have to go out of the country to see it.  Take barbecue for instance.  Eastern vs Western North Carolina styles.  Mustard sauce in South Carolina, white sauce in northern Alabama.  Beef brisket in Texas, mutton in Kentucky.  I could go on and on.  But if you take a minute to see past these differences, you might just see the common thread: people everywhere like barbecue of some sort.  Each style, flavor, meat and source of fire has its own team of loyal advocates, but ultimately they are champions of cooking proteins low and slow.

On the first night of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, we were treated to a dinner that crossed some of those style boundaries.  There is Mexican food, and there is Tex-Mex.  Though there is certainly some overlap between the two, Tex-Mex is a cuisine all it’s own.  Miguel and Modesty Vidal were our guest chefs, from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas.  Already another boundary crossed: not just Tex Mex, but Tex Mex BBQ.  These are some of my favorite food groups; I was feeling pretty good about this meal already.  

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We began with a ceviche that featured shrimp, fish and avocado.  If I’m not mistaken, it was at another SFA Symposium that I had my first experience with ceviche, and it was a good introduction.  This one was also a good introduction to the evening.    

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The sides came out family style, in large bowls that encouraged seconds.  First was a cole slaw made from purple cabbage.  Following closely behind was a bowl of smoked corn, reminiscent of Mexican street corn but freed from the cob.  Finally, we were brought a bowl of charro beans, creamy and peppery.  My favorite way to eat these was to get a little bit of each in one bite – crunchy slaw, smoky corn, and savory beans, all in one delicious mouthful.  I kept going back to that, even with the dishes that came next.  

The carnitas tacos were classic, no-frills street tacos – the best kind.  Tortillas, shredded pork, cilantro, and onions caramelized to the ultimate sweetness.  No other accoutrements needed.  Then came the smoked brisket.  It had a dark bark and was served with a bit of tangy sauce on the side.  Our table had one empty place as I recall, which meant there was more brisket and tacos for the rest of us, and that was a very good thing.   

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I was happy enough, but dessert was still to come: smoked bread pudding.  Fascinating.  It was typical in many ways in its construction, not too far off the traditional bread pudding path.  But the hint of smoke was unmistakable, just enough to let you know it was there.  

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The final evening meal of the weekend also represented a universal food.  In Starkville alone we have oodles of places to get a sandwich.  You can hardly throw a rock here and not hit a sandwich.  I have wondered sometimes if it was just us, but if I take a moment to stop and think, it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon.  Even in our house we regularly cross sandwich borders.  One of our favorite meals is a sandwich made simply with boiled eggs and feta cheese, best served on a crusty baguette.  We learned this one in our corner of the Middle East, the same region where I had a bean sandwich for the first time.  Last week we made paninis with our seriously under-used George Foreman grill and some Hawaiian chicken.  (That may be a stretch for a cross-cultural sandwich example, but it’s a start.)

In Mexico, the sandwich is called a torta.  Sounds like a tortilla, yes, but there’s no illa.  According to one source, the bread for a torta is usually round, and may have originated from French influence when France occupied Mexico back in the 1860’s.  That’s a border-crossing influence I never would have guessed.  

Our SFA meal was a Tale of Three Tortas, or as the menu said, Lodge Cast Iron Tortas del Munda (sandwiches of the world).  All had Latin influence, but each had its own flag planted firmly in the bread.  (Seriously.  There were little flags staked in the bread.) 

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Alex Raij is a New York City chef with Argentinian roots, serving foods from the Basque region of Spain in her restaurants.  Her sandwich featured bondiola (thin sliced pork shoulder, Argentinian style), charred eggplant mayo, and tximitxurri (also known as chimichurri), with shaved red cabbage slaw.  Another way to eat shoulder – score!

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Rodolfo Montero of El Molino in Charlotte made a Torta de Chorizo Espanol, with a side of black pealla (very black) with shrimp and cuttlefish. Sources say a similar Montero-made sandwich in it’s natural habitat (inside Sav/Way Foods) is magic.  Thank goodness Younger Brother lives in Charlotte.  I think it’s about time for a visit.  

Jonathan Magallanes, from Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Memphis, did his part with a Gulf Shrimp Torta, and more of that corn I love: Elotes (street corn) with Cotija (the Mexican version of Parmesan cheese) and Chile Pequin (a hot pepper).  Also from Memphis, La Michoacana (a Mexican ice cream parlor that seems to have much more than desserts) sent down some paletas (aka ice pops.)  I think it’s safe to say that ice pops span the world in one form or another as well, so these final bites certainly fit the theme.  Though we were sad that the Symposium was ending, it was a terrific taste on which to end.

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