It’s fall in Mississippi, and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. Football is in full swing, which tends to cause great havoc to my heart rate, and due to my loyalties to the hometown rival, can create a hostile work environment on the occasional Monday. It’s also the season for freaky weather. On a recent weekend I arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, one of my top three American cities, only to be greeted by a ninety-plus degree afternoon. The next evening I was wearing a heavy coat. (Huh?) Fall may also be the best season for Sunday drives. As I typed this, The Wife was at the wheel (she not only edits, she chauffeurs when I have a deadline). Fall colors are beginning to creep into the treeline, cotton fields are snowy white, and the ruddy orange of the sweet potato crop is beginning to emerge from the soil. For me, however, the pinnacle of autumn is the Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The Symposium has many layers. It is in part an academic conference. The SFA is housed within the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the Ole Alma Mater, and among other staff there is a professor devoted to the study of Southern foodways. Some of the lectures we hear are condensed versions of dissertations and scholarly articles presented by Ph.D.’s. Peel away another layer, and you find a family reunion. Chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, grocery store owners, and folks who are simply fascinated by all things culinary, all get together for this long weekend because – well, we just like being around each other.
It’s also very much about the meals. Even the most celebrated, James Beard Award-winning chefs are equally thrilled and filled with dread at the prospect of feeding this crowd. There are nine meals that fill the weekend, and each has its own story. We shall commence with breakfast.
Breakfasts at the Symposium are usually standup, casual and often served in brown bags, but that doesn’t mean any less work goes into them. On the first morning of the conference we arrived at the historic Lyric Theater to a bevy of brown breakfast boxes filled with the creative baking of Lauren Mitterer from WildFlour Pastry in Savannah, Georgia. The eye-catcher was a caramelized pecan sticky bun with cream cheese frosting. This was no wimpy little hint of glaze, like one might smear on a canned cinnamon roll. It was a thick swirl of white, crowning crunchy pecan halves, with the sticky bun serving as a solid foundation. Though I generally maintain a take-it-or-leave-it opinion when it comes to pecans, these were crunchy enough to provide a nice textural contrast between the copious icing and the sticky sweet roll. Slightly more savory was the fig, bacon, and goat cheese mini-quiche in another corner of the box. My relationship to goat cheese is off-again, on-again – it tends to be a stronger flavor than I can generally embrace. But in this pastry, the sweet fig and briny bacon worked well with the hint of sour-umami that the goat cheese delivered.
The second morning found us break-feasting outside on a campus lawn, with the early morning temps re-assuring us that fall might actually be coming. A table full of brown bags awaited the crowd, this time filled with kolaches. I occasionally see kolaches advertised in our area, but my first taste was in Central Texas, where Czech settlers likely introduced them many years ago. In my brief acquaintance with kolaches, I’ve seen them in basically two forms. They may look like a buns or rolls filled with breakfast meats of some sort, similar to a pig in a blanket. The other iteration has a bite similar to a cinnamon roll with a dollop of fruit or cheese filling on top. Our bags had one of each, brought to us by Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber of Revival Market in Houston, TX. The meat-filled kolache was laden with spicy boudin sausage (boudin in a blanket?) saving me the need for the saltine crackers I normally use as a vessel for breakfast boudin. They called the other one a Satsuma kolache, which had a cream-cheesy filling flecked with bits of Satsuma mandarin. The Wife went back for another one of those, and I did my part to help her make it disappear.
One of the speakers on Saturday talked about Cracker Barrel. The theme of the weekend was “Pop Culture: Who’s selling, who’s buying, and at what price?” and there is a lot of pop culture at Cracker Barrel. According to her research, the fine folks at the Barrel essentially invented the Hash Brown Casserole. For breakfast on the final morning, Chef Corbin Evans of the Oxford Canteen reinvented it. He called it Skillet Hashbrown Breakfast Taco Casserole with Salsa Verde and Crema (not in a brown bag or box, but on recyclable brown plates). I am not what you would call a frequent flier at Cracker Barrel. But if they had any part in the inspiration of this Latino version, then I am at least deeply thankful.
The food may change every morning, but there is one consistent factor: Royal Cup Coffee. In our home kitchen we have a collection of coffee tumblers that the Royal Cup folks provide for Symposium attendees each year. We pretty much wear them out. Over the years they have added the option of pour-overs, and an espresso-fueled truck. (Okay, that’s an embellishment – but you can get espresso drinks from the truck.) This year they also added a nitrogen-infused cold brew. I usually prefer my coffee sweet and creamy, but this cold brew didn’t need any add-ons. I was astounded and amazed. And after two of them, very much awake.
Stay tuned; lunch is coming.