[This is fifth and final post reflecting on the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium of 2016. As this posts, we are just a few days away from the 2017 Symposium. And I. Am. So. Ready.]
It’s always a little bittersweet as the weekend of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium comes to a close. Mostly bitter, I guess, because The Wife and I always wish we had another day or three there before getting back to reality. But also sweet – there are desserts involved.
This year’s theme was corn, and it even showed up in the small bites. In fact, some of the edible highlights of the weekend happen in the margins. (Yes – in between all the amazing multiple course meals, there are snacks!)
Truth be told, the bittersweetness starts at registration, because we know it’s going to fly from there. Then they feed us, so we forgive or forget – one or the other. This time it was a corn dog from Chef Kelly English. Corn dogs are simple to pick up, easy to eat, but not so easy to make. At least that’s my experience at home – my one experience. All that to say I can appreciate a good corn dog in my old age.
A Madeleine, so I’m told, is a little French butter cake that seems more like a cookie in the shape of a shell. One website described them as “often decorated with coconut”, which is probably the reason I don’t have them very often. And now I’ve been spoiled, because Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois (Blue Smoke, NYC) made his out of cornbread and gave me warm Steen’s cane syrup mixed with butter to dip it in. Since the cookie is French and the syrup is Cajun, I think it was a match made heavenly in my mouth.
To wash things down, for the first time ever perhaps, we had a choice of fun sodas. I’m not saying we’ve ever gone thirsty – don’t forget the cedar tea, the corncob tea, the nitro coffee, etc. – but sodas are not usually part of the mix. Cannonborough Beverage Company of Charleston takes seasonal fresh fruits and herbs to make their sodas. That’s right: seasonal soda. We got to try Grapefruit Elderflower and Ginger Beer. I am eager to try their Raspberry Mint and Sorghum Thyme.
The next evening, as we enjoyed another presentation, we had a Corncuit. Give it a minute and you can probably figure this one out. Cornbread. Biscuit. Corncuit. This one was created by Chef Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford. It was savory with a touch of sweet, shaped something like a parallelogram, and seemed to have a light glaze. Then the coup de gravy was a little tub of sorghum-curry leaf ghee to dip it in. Had there been a basketful, I would have probably made a fool of myself.
Of course, another reason they did not pass around baskets of corncuits is because dinner was coming shortly: The Saturday night Lodge Cast Iron Four Sisters Supper. According to our guide, “In Native American agricultural tradition, corn, beans, and squash are the Three Sisters.” All grow together, benefitting each other. Our supper was put together by four sisters, “because, sometimes, three isn’t enough.”
This meal always has a touch of home cookin’, and we saw that again this year. Dora Charles, chef and cookbook author from Savannah, Georgia, gave us butterbeans and okra, along with a crooked neck squash casserole. Helen Turner, pitmaster from Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee provided the Brownsville-style pork shoulder. These were the anchors – the bookends, so to speak. And solid anchors they were. Then things got twisty.
Cassidee Dabney of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee had two wildly different dishes. The first was Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans (a black bean thought to have been carried along said trail) with Smoked Venison and Wild Mint Pickled Onions. I’ve done similar combinations at home, but the pickled onions really cut through the creamy beans in this dish. The second dish was Crispy Hickory King Cornmeal Mush with Hominy, Pepper Jam, Dill Yogurt and Hazelnuts. This one reminded The Wife and me of Shafoot, a similar dish we had in the Middle East made with spongy bread and yogurt.
The other cornbread concoction emerged from the creative cooking of Cheetie Kumar of Raleigh (Garland restaurant): Indian Spiced Cornbread in a little square atop Wilted Greens, Charred Onion Compote and Paneer, with Butternut Squash Achaar (Indian pickles) on the side. This was yet another take on fusion of Southern and fill-in-the-blank food, and it was one of my favorites of the evening.
Sunday’s good-bye lunch has evolved over the years, and for the past two symposia we have been given a “Traveler’s Meal” as the last session ended. It’s a box lunch, but no less fabulous than the others. Chef Jean-Paul (Blue Smoke) was responsible for the smoky and tender beef jerky. Alex Raij (Txikito, NYC) introduced us to Gilda (not Radner) – a little skewer of anchovy, guindilla pepper (a favorite in the Basque region of Spain), and olives. A staple of Southern picnics, Cold Fried Chicken was cornmeal-crusted, crunchy and courtesy of Kelly English and Camron Razavi (Restaurant Iris, Memphis). For a little more corn, John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford) came up with a Sweet Corn Elote Salad. I love Mexican street corn, and this was a neat take on that concept that I intend to adapt early and often. The sweet of this bittersweet last meal was a sweet potato cookie from Chef Edouardo Jordan (Salare, Seattle). This was a hearty cookie – big and thick and chewy. And it had a kick, unusual for a cookie but welcome nonetheless.
The SFA Symposium is not all about the food we eat while we’re there. We’ve met fascinating folks from all over the South and beyond, as you can tell, from Seattle to NYC. And even corn is a fascinating subject to spend a weekend contemplating.
But I’m glad we get to eat.