The first full day of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is always full of anticipation. The first time I attended I was anxious because I had no real idea what was in store for me. I got registered, was handed a t-shirt and some uniquely-flavored peanuts, and sat down next to a group that turned out to be on Alton Brown’s television staff. Now, in my fourth year, I don’t get anxious because of the unknowns, I get giddy because I know I am on the brink of quite possibly the best three day event a food enthusiast can find.
Our first official meal of the weekend was also the simplest. But don’t be deceived: simple doesn’t necessarily mean plain or boring. As always, the Royal Cup Coffee Company was there to provide our souvenir mugs for the weekend and keep us caffeinated. And for breakfast? We had cake. Not coffee cake, not crumb cake – this was a genuine cake. Dolester Miles, pastry chef at Bottega restaurant in Birmingham, gave us hefty slices of toasted cornmeal pound cake – for breakfast – with jars of strawberry and fig jam around to give it a little bling. Not fancy at all, but if I had not known a great lunch was coming in just a few hours, I might have had a …third…piece.
Lunch on Day One, I have finally come to realize, follows a pattern. One year it was waiting for us in individual bento boxes, the next we got a shoebox full of more boxes – little metal containers labeled with the food therein, which now hold my paper clips and push pins as well as those taste memories. This time lunch was on a round metal tray covered by a banana leaf. You may wonder how a banana leaf ended up at a meeting focused on southern food. I did, too.
Country Captain Revisited was the title given the luncheon. I had heard of Country Captain but somehow never found an opportunity to give it a try. It is a curry-based chicken and rice dish that was likely brought to a southern port city via a British military officer linked to the East India Trading Company. (Definitely the simplified version of the story, I’m sure.) Chef Asha Gomez, originally from Kerala (southwest India) and currently at Cardamom Hill restaurant in Atlanta, took it back to its roots. Since rice is the normal accompaniment to the chicken, she created a version of vattayappam, a steamed rice dish also from Kerala. The green on the plate (besides the banana leaf) was Kale Thoren, which I had to forgo because the word “coconut” was in the description. (The Wife loved it.) The bright pink side dish was – you guessed it – Beetroot Pachadi. (You guessed it, right? At least Pachadi was on the tip of your tongue?) Someone was really trying to get beets into my system this particular weekend. Not bad, but you guessed it again – tasted like beets. Perhaps my favorite side was the sweet potato fritter with tamarind chutney. Chef Gomez told us that eggplant fritters are popular in Kerala, so she took one of our favorite Southern ingredients and did a little fusion. I would have scammed The Wife’s, but she liked it, too. For dessert we had Peach and Ginger Fried Pies with Cane Syrup and Jaggery. I had at least a couple of fried pies over the weekend, and this was probably my favorite. Nice by itself, the syrup and jaggery (unrefined sugar from palm sap) gave it the edge over the others. To drink, we had a cup of Cumin-scented Jeera Water. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this is a common drink in Kerala that pretty much cures anything and everything – if you don’t mind drinking cumin, that is. Then again, considering how some of the prescription solutions and syrups I have sold to many of you must taste, it really wasn’t too bad.
I need to give a mention to the afternoon snack. Somewhere amongst the fascinating talks about Eugenia Duke and her mayonnaise and Sister Schubert’s roll dynasty, we were given a little pack of Molasses Spice cookies from Grey Ghost Bakery in Columbia, SC. I confess: I ate them till I was dizzy. Not a smart move, perhaps, but Columbia is not a short drive. You do what you have to do.
Friday night dinner was another tradition, the Taylor Grocery Degustation. I always figured that “degustation” was just an eleven-letter word for dinner, and that the people who wrote the program were just trying to be creative. The creative aspect may be true, but I took the time to look up the word this time, and this is what Wikipedia told me: “Degustation is a culinary term meaning a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods and focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company.” Well, now I know that the program-putter-togethers chose just the right word. The description goes on to say that usually a degustation involves sampling small portions, and as far as the front porch at Taylor Grocery is concerned, that is mostly true. Anne Quatrano of Star Provisions in Atlanta made us little cups of something she called “Re-boiled: greens, peas and Tabasco-smoked catfish.” When we finished that we went inside and sampled some very large portions of fried Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish with all the trimmings. After enjoying some of that good company with friends from New Orleans, we decided to catch the school bus back to Oxford. I remembered that usually there are two front-porch appetizers, and I had only found one, until we headed for the bus. I had consumed much more than my fair share inside, but I still snagged a Griddled Catfish and Eggplant Rice Pocket Bread with Cucumbers prepared by Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint in New Orleans. One for the road.
Back at our rented hacienda, our cycle began: eat, sleep, repeat. Bring on Day Two.