Its fall, so says the calendar – that season of the year when almost all my senses are awakened in ways I look forward to for the rest of the year. Despite what seems to be our third or fourth Indian summer in Mississippi, there have been some refreshing moments outdoors when my skin felt cool once again. Visually, those summer rewinds may be slowing down the autumn colors on the trees in my neighborhood, but I can imagine how the reds and golds must be transforming the Blue Ridge Parkway near our second home (in spirit, not in bricks) in Asheville, North Carolina. You know I love hearing roaring crowds and ensuing fight songs under Friday night lights and north to Vaught-Hemingway. The crisp, cool air is somehow a purer carrier of the perfumed clouds wafting from grills and smokers which are slowly transforming the other white meat to tender perfection. And every fall brings the Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a sensation of taste like no other that cleverly teases the other four senses as well. It will take me weeks to tell about it, so sit back, loosen up the top button on your pants, and enjoy the meal.
Though the Symposium officially kicked off on Friday morning, there were several Thursday evening activities available for early-arrivers. Once again, we began with a special food-themed edition of the Thacker Mountain Radio show, taped at the historic Lyric Theater. In keeping with the theme of this year’s symposium, “Women at Work”, author Charlotte Druckman read excerpts from her book, Skirt Steak, about the experiences of women chefs. Film-maker Joe York interviewed fashion designer Natalie Chanin from Florence, Alabama, who told about her experiences making Southern-style biscuits for the inhabitants of an island off the coast of South America. Chef John Currence celebrated the release of his new cookbook, Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey by telling the tale of “Punishment Soup”, which involved his mother (who was sitting on the front row). The Yalobushwhackers, the house band, sang about cornbread and butterbeans, jambalaya and crawfish pie, featuring Starkville native Jeff Callaway on trombone. It’s always fun to know somebody in the band. And let’s not forget the Gee’s Bend Singers. As the show closed, volunteers brought around little cups of yakamein, a noodle soup (this one with smoked pork) topped with bits of boiled egg, commonly found in New Orleans. Simple but tasty, it was a nice start to the eating part of the weekend.
After the show, several local restaurants offered unique menus especially for symposium attendees. We joined J.J. and John Carney of Eat Drink Mississippi magazine for dinner at Ravine Restaurant. Several miles south of the square in Oxford, Ravine is in a log chalet and just far enough off the beaten path to offer something of a secluded experience. Chef Joel Miller called the menu “Hand Me Downs” and aimed to celebrate the women (including his mother and wife) who had inspired him in the kitchen.
As we studied our course selections, we enjoyed what he called “Breads from my Youth” – little biscuits with sweetened butter and something akin to Parker House rolls. The amuse bouche was a spoonful of beets with goat cheese. I have yet to be converted to beet-lover, but it was a worthy attempt. The Wife’s appetizer was a riff on Oysters Rockefeller. I’m about as much an oyster guy as I am a beet guy, but I had never tried one of these and was terribly curious. These were not on the half-shell as I am told they are normally served, but nevertheless ranked pretty high on my “oyster dishes I might actually order” list, which is a pretty short one. My dish was a carefully layered arrangement of Jamaican jerk chicken, tostones and arepa. I had to look that last one up. Tostones I have had before and have ordered elsewhere – plantain slices, twice fried. Arepas are essentially corn pancakes common to Venezuela or Colombia – these were new to me, but more in name than concept.
For the entrée, The Wife took a trip back to our Middle Eastern days with a mezze plate, which included a unique version of falafel (deep fried fritter of chick peas or fava beans) that I really liked. Since the Caribbean Voodoo shellfish stew was cooked in tomato coconut broth, I was left with the slow braised lamb shank, stewed white beans and gremolata. Lamb is not usually my favorite meat, but that may be because I have never had lamb this good. And I had to get the dictionary out again for gremolata, a chopped herb garnish made of lemon zest, parsley and garlic.
The Wife’s dessert was pineapple cake with coconut sorbet. I abstained from trying a bite due to the proximity of the coconut, but it looked great and she came close to licking the plate. I was quite happy with my Chocolate Almond Napoleon, thank you very much. Napoleons come in all shapes and sizes – they are not all short but confident French leaders. Not to be confused with Neapolitan, the tri-flavored ice cream I favored as a youngster, this is a layered dessert made from puff pastry and cream. Ours had a little scoop of vanilla bean ice cream as a bonus.
The Symposium is over for this year (insert sad face here), but Thacker Mountain radio is still broadcasting and Ravine will keep serving great food – you can even spend the night in the guest cabin. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening in Oxford, and it was a great way to start the weekend.