One of the many cultural tidbits we picked up in our years overseas was the significance of lunch. With a few exceptions, Americans tend to steer towards light lunches and big dinners. But in the Middle East it is flipped. Weddings are celebrated with big lunches. Agreements are sealed with big lunches. Lunches are the big deal. That has very little to do with the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium except for this: lunches are a big deal there, too.
Truth be told, all the meals at an SFA function are a big deal. Not only that, there are themes that are pretty consistent year to year. The first lunch, for example, is usually in a box. This year was no exception, save the fact that the box looked like a suitcase. A suitcase full of food – now that’s my kind of trip.
During dinner the night before, we sat across from Chef Mashama Bailey and her colleague, Max, from The Grey in Savannah, Georgia,. Chef Mashama was responsible for packing the suitcase, called the Carry On/Throw Away Lunch. She doesn’t like to throw food away, we learned, and this lunch was all about finding taste in the parts that many of us may toss in the trash or the compost bin.
We started with a collard green stem salad with ham hock vinaigrette. Stems do get soft and tasty if you cook them long enough. Alongside the salad was a Harris Neck Oyster hand pie – I’m not even a big oyster guy and I ate every crumb. I don’t know the whole story, but I read enough to know that we were lucky to have any oysters from the Georgia coast; sounds like they are coming back. Middlin’s, also known as rice grits, are the little bits leftover from the rice milling process. Mashama transformed them into red rice, a Savannah standard. To wash everything down, it was just tea – but the sweetener was a bottle of simple syrup infused with herb stems. We may or may not have brought a bottle of that home with us. For dessert, we enjoyed one of the silkiest vanilla custards ever to coat my tongue, topped with another throwaway: watermelon rind brittle. Wish I had a suitcase full of that.
The next day was the Tabasco Appalachian Groaning Table Luncheon, prepared by James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock – and his mama. There were, oh, about 20 courses to this one, so I’ll hit the highlights. Awaiting us on the table were mixed pickles, pone bread, sour corn (a first), cucumber slices, banana peppers, green onions, pickled ramps, and kraut balls. I had only read of ramps before this day, and they turned out to be one of my favorite plates – very strong flavor, no doubt, but the pickling balanced everything, especially with a little piece of pone bread. I’m not certain what all was in the kraut balls, either, but I ate my fair share of those, for sure.
The next course was killed lettuce and onions, fried apples, dandelion-cornmeal fritters, soup beans and diced onion with Tabasco, and fried potatoes. My favorites in this group were probably the fritters, chock full of dandelion greens and topped with some sort of pickled relish. And those beans – not the least bit fancy, but crazy creamy.
The second round was a skillet of good cornbread, creamed corn, and a plateful of fried bluegill with tomato gravy. I recently learned that bluegill and bream were the same fish, and I grew up catching and eating bream – but no doubt this was the first time I’ve ever had tomato gravy on fish. It was a very pretty plate. Next up were greasy beans (called that because of their non-fuzzy coat, not necessarily because they are cooked in bacon grease), chicken and dumplings (self-explanatory), and leather britches (green beans preserved by drying, rather than canning.) I got a real bean education at this table. Finally, we got a box of desserts: paw-paw and banana pudding, hillbilly fudge (made with Velveeta, but you’d never know) and My Sister’s Chocolate Eclair Cake, which was a great way to end the meal. And after all I ate, the table wasn’t the only thing groaning at the end.
The final lunch, at the close of the Symposium, was something of a departure from the norm. They called it a Pappy Meal. It was served in a box with a handle, much like the other take-out meals that go by another name that rhymes with Pappy. But this one was for adults, supplied with a little bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Strategic Reserve. I don’t partake, but I heard William Faulkner was a fan, so I gave most of mine to him.
As for the eating, at least seven different chefs contributed to the bounty. Fried Chicken Green Tabasco Potato Salad Pushups from Oxford’s John Currence. Remember the orange ice cream pushups from childhood? Same vehicle, same method, except we were pushing up a very unique potato salad. The Wife named this her favorite. Roasted Sweet Potato and Smashed Cucumber Salad from Chef Rob Newton (a Southern chef in Brooklyn). More people should make potato salad from sweet potatoes. Spicy Pickled Vegetable Slaw from Justin Devillier (New Orleans). Interesting tweak on slaw, and a serious kick. Pickled and Jarred Okra by Katie Button (One of Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2015). I don’t always eat pickled okra, but when I do, I want more of hers. Fried Pork Chop with Greens, Onions and Comeback from Drew Robinson (Birmingham) and Friends, served on a Benne Seed roll from Lisa Donovan (Nashville). No one could call this “just a sandwich.” The sweet finish was a big but not big enough piece of Spiced Pecan and Peanut Brittle from Dwayne Ingraham (recent winner of Cutthroat Kitchen).
Are you wondering how we managed to eat dinner after all these? Moderation, determination, and the fact that they removed the serving dishes between courses.