Is it over already? Do I have to go home now? I mean, I love Son and Daughter and all (though I’m not 100 percent sure we are missed when they are under the care of Doc and Gran), and there was that reality of our moving all our earthly belongings from one house to another the following day, not to mention the imminent arrival of Maw-and-Paw-in-Law – all important reasons to re-enter life, I grant you. But I was not ready to leave Oxford. I know that is a challenging idea for some of the cowbell-inclined – just try to see it from my point of view. The Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is the weekend for which I deposit my birthday money, bank my vacation days, and yes: exercise. We had a half day and two meals left. There was some sadness.
That sadness, however, was rather quickly abated with something happy: a biscuit sundae. If I have never had a biscuit sundae before, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you haven’t either. Vishwesh Bhatt, chef at Oxford’s Snackbar, served us bright red take-out boxes full of crumbled chunks of biscuit tossed with shrimp, tomato gravy and crisp pieces of chicken skin (the second time it was featured that weekend.) It was a box full of unique bites. Some with shrimp, some without. Some with the gravy soaked into the biscuit crumbs, some with the crunch of chicken skin. I don’t eat shrimp for breakfast very much at home, but I have learned that’s mostly because I’m a landlubber. Folks who live near the coast and make their living from the water often work from a different morning menu. So I’m more open to that now, and the more I ate this, the more I liked it. The Wife opted out. She wanted to try it, but told me her stomach said “no” in anticipation of the brunch to come. My stomach spoke a different language. After cleaning up mine, I just wanted another bite or two out of her box. I took those bites and then, mysteriously, it was gone.
Most of the rest of the morning was focused on the late chef Edna Lewis. Miss Lewis, granddaughter of freed slaves, went north to New York from her home in Virginia, eventually becoming chef of Café Nicholson in NYC. Many years and four seminal cookbooks later, she is well-known in the culinary community (and highly-awarded) as a major influence in the genre of true Southern cooking.
Between the sundae and lunch we got to know her a little bit via Shay Youngblood’s one-woman play: “Edna Lewis Requests the Pleasure of Your Company.” One of the many fascinating things we heard about was her menu for an Emancipation Day celebration, which was included in her cookbook, “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Shortly after the play, we all celebrated with an interpretation of that meal.
At the outset, the plate looked like a simple meal that one might come across at a church banquet. Now I know I’ve probably gone to meddlin’ here, potentially upsetting the fine chefs that put this together, church banquet committees across the South, and the memory of Edna Lewis – so hear me out. A quick first glance (without any foreknowledge of menu specifics) would indicate we were about to eat chicken, rice pilaf, green beans, and rolls. Are you feeling the excitement yet? A closer look – still observation only – revealed that the bird was prepared several different ways, the pilaf had pecans in it, and the green beans had an entirely different vibe – not cut beans dumped out of a can and boiled to oblivion. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up my plate and got in line was that the chicken seemed a little small. But small is relative. Chickens that graze and truly run free on the farm aren’t as chubby as the ones we commonly see on sale at the grocery, but they tend to have more flavor. In this case, however, I found out it wasn’t a chicken at all! We were eating griddled, braised and grilled guinea hens from White Oak Pastures. This was my first guinea hen, and I thought it was delicious in all three forms. “Guinea some more!” I cried. (Not really.) The pilaf was wild rice and Carolina Gold with watercress and a healthy portion of pecans. Still a relatively recent convert to the pecan, I was somewhat suspicious, but the flavor and texture it added to the rice was quite nice. The green beans with cherry tomatoes in herb vinaigrette, as the name suggests, was more of a green bean salad than anything else, an interesting diversion from the norm and a burst of color on the plate.
My sadness returned when it was time to fetch dessert. This was it. The last few bites and it would be time to exit, back to reality. But it was hard to stay sad with this little plate full of sweets. First was pound cake. Again, simple. Served in a small jelly jar with a dollop of preserves (pear, I think) and whipped cream, it was hard to beat. But they tried. A purple plum tart was alongside, a circle of pastry anchoring a pinwheel arrangement of plum slices. Butter cookies with stewed quince filling. Quince. Wow. To go along with dessert, of course, was coffee. Eggshell coffee. At the time I just trusted my chefs and drank it. Since then I’ve learned that the alkaline properties of the eggshell counteract the acidity of the coffee. Makes sense.
Lots to ponder, lots to try at home, and lots of calories to work off. No, I did not want it to end so soon, but we left happy. Amen.