If there’s one thing I like about attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every year, it’s the nine meals we get to eat between meetings. Oh – and the snacks. Don’t get me wrong; the between-meal lectures are off the charts. The combo factor is what keeps me coming back. But if it were just these nine meals (and the snacks) I’d probably keep coming.
We began our first full day of the 2014 Symposium with Royal Cup coffee and a brown bag breakfast prepared by Cheryl and Griffith Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. The bag was heavy with apple spice crumb cake and a sweet potato and sausage hand pie, a nice complement of sweet and savory. The hand pie made me sorry I don’t get to Savannah more often, but glad that we live near Vardaman – the sweet potato capital of the world. The apple cake was the kind of good that makes you want just one more bite, then just one more bite, and so on till you’re miserable or it’s gone or both. I ate all mine and a little bit of The Wife’s, since she listens when her tummy tells her it’s full, and I … well, I listen less.
The noon meal that day was called the Nashville Steam Table Lunch in Black and White. For reasons I’m not sure can be fully explained, Nashville has become famous for meat-and-three style lunch spots, or as those of use who indulge in that sort of thing like to call it: comfort food. Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Sophia Vaughn of Silver Sands Soul Food were our guest comforters that day. Kahlil brought squash casserole, corn-crowned green beans, collard greens and banana pudding. The squash had a little bit of sweetness in it that I could really appreciate. The banana pudding had a lotta bit of sweetness that I also really appreciated. Sophia started us off as we waited in line with little discs of hot-water cornbread, then we got helpings of bitty baby lima beans, macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas. So it wasn’t really meat-and-three I guess, but I was plenty delighted with my pudding-and-six, with a side of cornbread, thank you very much.
The Friday night dinner at the symposium is the traditional catfish feed at Taylor Grocery, featuring Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish. The meal itself changes very little from year to year, and for that we are thankful. What varies are the small plates served in front of the restaurant that whet our appetites. In previous years we have had all manner of things at these outposts, but this year it was all about Delecata. The Delecata cut is what Simmons calls a “prime cut” of catfish: skinless, boneless, hand-filleted and deep-skinned. Others have called it “the filet mignon of the pond.” Charles Phan of The Slanted Door (and more) in San Francisco gave us a riff on a catfish spring roll – Mississippi catfish with a California spin. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner (and more) in Raleigh, NC, took that prime cut, brined it, seared it, glazed it somehow with smoked ham hock, put it over creamed turnip greens, topped it with roasted tomato relish, and garnished it with cornbread crumbs. This is not your Aunt Ruth’s filet mignon.
On Saturday night it was the Lodge Cast Iron Beans, Greens and Cornbread feed. We like our cornbread at the SFA, can you tell? “Make Cornbread, Not War” – that’s what the hat says. Beans and greens may sound simple, but I’ll let you decide. Our cardboard trays were loaded with four variations on the theme, all from Georgians. From Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol (Atlanta): Charros, Turnip Greens and Green Chile Cornbread. Duane Nutter of One Flew South (also Atlanta) gave us Gulf Drum and White Bean Stew with Shrimp Acaraje’ (a black-eyed pea fritter.) Whitney Otawka (the one Athens representative) of Cinco y Diez, featured the Brazilian side of things with Carne Seca (a dried beef), Linguica (a sausage) and Lengua (yep – it’s tongue) with Feijoada (Brazilian stew) Sauce. Kevin Gillespie, chef at Atlanta’s Gunshow (the restaurant, not the firearms sale), had Heirloom Bean and Fatback Soup with Puffy Cornbread, probably my favorite cornbread of the night. We puffy people like puffy food, I guess.
Dessert that night and a surprise afternoon snack came to us all the way from New York City. The Big Gay Ice Cream truck took a tour through a handful of Southern cities on it’s way to Oxford, where they passed out their special soft-serve, dipped in unique things like Nilla wafer crumbs and Wasabi pea dust. Our collective sweet teeth were satisfied in the evening with a choice of Coconut Ice Cream with Amarena Cherry Swirl or Dirty Banana with Crushed Nilla Wafers and Dulce de Leche. You know which one I got firsts and seconds of. “Just say no” to coconut. But yes, I dig homemade banana ice cream.
Our final brunch was preceded by the usually unusual blend of the arts. While we ate Corbin Evan’s Bacon-Egg-Cheese Bread Pudding, we listened to Repast, an oratorio commissioned just for the symposium, focusing on Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s in Greenwood back in the 60’s. Following that, logically, we ate the Greenwood Steak and Shrimp Brunch, led by Stevens Flagg, David Crews and Taylor Bowen Ricketts, all of whom do food right in their own way in the Delta. If you’ve ever been to Lusco’s or Giardina’s, you might recognize the flavors: Gulf Shrimp in Butter Sauce, Drenched Salad, Fried Onion Rings, Spinach and Oyster Madeleine, Baked Potatoes, Roasted Black Pepper-Crusted Rib Eyes, and Lemon Pie. Both the oratorio and the meal were a fitting tribute to Mr. Wright and the menu he used to sing.
It’s over. Sigh. Time to start saving dollars and calories for next year.