(As this posts, I’ll be getting ready for breakfast at the 2019 Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Meanwhile, my appetite is already jump-started by looking back at another of the meals from the 2018 event.)
It was an auspicious beginning. The Wife and I had just stepped down from the top level of Oxford’s double decker bus, after a tour of literary landmarks around town. We walked a short distance down a sidewalk, then onto a well worn path that eventually led to perhaps the most auspicious of those literary landmarks: Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner.
This was the opening reception for the 2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held on the lawn at Faulkner’s home. There were lights in the trees, twinkling as the sun set, and for those so inclined, Joe Stinchcomb, director of the bar program at Saint Leo restaurant, had cocktails waiting which included whiskey, one of the author’s favorite beverages – in this case, Maker’s Mark. Though I was fascinated by the commemorative glasses (dipped in red wax, like the seal on the MM bottle), I was even more fascinated by what was being passed around on the plates.
I hope the reader (as well as those involved with the hors d’oeuvres) will forgive if I get a bit of this wrong – I’m more of a storyteller than a journalist, and more of an eater than a storyteller. In other words, I need to learn to take more notes, ask better questions, or both. In any case, the program credited this welcome snack to Chef Dan Latham, another of the collaborators at Saint Leo. But on the serving tables were cards describing the meats available at Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates, Georgia. So I’m going to assume that Chef Latham put this together using meat from Pine Street Market. Sound good? Well, it was.
What I did write down was that the pork belly on these sliders was made from one of Faulkner’s own recipes, marinated in molasses for 30 days. I wanted to know more about this, and sure enough – it didn’t take a very challenging web search to find “‘Pappy’ Faulkner’s Recipe for Curing Pork.” And sure enough, molasses was one of the primary ingredients. Slices of the dark, richly flavored pork belly were topped with a red cabbage slaw and served on a sweet potato roll. Between the whiskey and the pork belly, Faulkner’s spirit was very much among us at Rowan Oak that evening.
From there we moved en masse (this time by single decker bus) to the Powerhouse, home of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, where most of the SFA dining takes place. Waiting there for us was the Oxford Curry, our first dinner of the weekend. According to SFA Director, John T. Edge, there was a hidden joke in the name – something about the Oxford comma – but I never really got it. Again, not an official journalist. But definitely an eater, and a hungry one by now.
There is a particular group of chefs, all of Indian descent, who have settled in the South. Of late they have come together to create dinners that showcase their culinary styles and heritage, while at the same time featuring local ingredients and Southern themes – they call it the “Brown in the South Supper Series.” Volume One focused on “masala meets meat and three”; the second dinner celebrated “Indian Summer.” Our dinner, led by two of those chefs, Meherwan Irani and Cheetie Kumar (and friends), was all about redefining what the word “curry” represents.
When we arrived at the table, we found dishes of Achar pickle, Raita yogurt, Kachumber salad, Papadum crackers, and Naan bread. I won’t say that I could have made a meal out of this, but I will say that the Papadum and Naan were among my favorite bites that night. Simple pleasures. Similar sentiments for the Jeera Chawal (cumin-scented basmati rice): it was the anchor for all the other dishes. Having lived on that side of the world for a season, in a place where cumin was a pantry staple, I developed a taste for the spice I first knew as “kemoon.”
Of all the foods in the world, I am perhaps least acquainted with Indian foods, so I am relying on the menu that was provided to us that night. Perhaps this is something I should work on in the new year. But in the meantime, here’s a rundown:
Konkani Fish Kadi. This was the representative seafood dish, from the southwestern coast of India, but made with Simmons Catfish from Mississippi, which happens to be near the southwestern “coast” of the state if you’ll allow the Mississippi River to be a coast of sorts. The fish was bathed in coconut milk, spiced with red chilies, garlic, black pepper, curry leaves and fresh lime. My horizons are expanding.
Goan Pork Vindaloo. The spicy one, from the Portuguese colony of Goa, and did you know the Portuguese brought the chili pepper from the Americas? What goes around comes around, it seems.
Punjabi Butter Chicken. This one I knew a little something about. I’ve actually made a version of this from scratch, and have tried several bottled sauces as well. It’s my fave, my Indian comfort food if you will. The chefs used charred bell peppers to add a smokiness and jaggery sugar took the place of the refined stuff. The color red was played by Kashmiri chilies.
Maharashtan Aloo Gobi. Such a fun name for a vegetarian dish. Potatoes, cauliflower, onion, garlic and chilies. And finally…
Kheer. The dessert, more or less: Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice, cooked slowly in milk and sugar, flavored with cardamom and saffron, studded with cashews and golden raisins.
I don’t have real insider knowledge, but I’m guessing another Brown in the South dinner will pop up soon. If it’s nearby, or you feel like a road trip, I highly recommend it, even for novices like me. And if you’re at all literary-minded and haven’t seen Rowan Oak – it’s time, with or without a whiskey.