Working Lunches

(Most of us take a break from work to eat lunch. To do that, someone else has to work to make our lunch, bring it to us, or grow the ingredients that compose it. We need to remember that. In this post, I remember the lunches from the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, as we work towards getting back to Oxford for the long-awaited 2021 event.)

I say this every year, but some things are just so true that they bear repeating: lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium are a big deal.  In years past we’ve eaten fantastic multi-course meals at the noon hour prepared by the likes of Sean Brock, Mashama Bailey, and Vivian Howard.  (If you don’t know these chefs, feel free to pause and Google – you’ll be impressed.)  This year was no different when it came to the culinary skills of the chefs, but there was a slightly different vibe.  The theme of the symposium was Food is Work, and we were encouraged to consider and appreciate all the steps that it took to get that food on the plate, and all the people that had a hand in it.    

On our first full day the plan was to enjoy lunch outside in The Grove.  Rain made that virtually impossible, so the fine folks at the SFA improvised, made easier because lunch that day was served on a cardboard tray and the focus was on po-boy sandwiches, which by nature and design are portable.  

Most food has a story, though not all lunches are given a title – unless you’re eating with SFA. “Food to Sustain a Strike,” was based on the 1929 New Orleans streetcar strike.  Two brothers, Bennie and Clovis Martin, were former streetcar conductors who opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922.  To support the men in the union, they offered free food to any of the strikers in Division 194.  When they saw one coming, they’d say, “Here comes another poor boy.”  Whether or not that was the first time these half-loaves of French bread stuffed with fillings were called Poor-Boys is debated, but the Martin brothers’ offer to feed those workers is definitely a part of the story.  

I make no claims to be a po-boy expert.  But I know what I like, and these sandwiches and what came alongside kinda’ blew my mind.  One was simply called a Ham and Cheese Po-boy, which at first glance doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but glances are not what count in such cases.  There was indeed ham, cheese, mustard and pickles.  No fancy stuff.  Just basic fixins’ that somehow became a sandwich I would very much like to be eating again. Right now. The other “half” of the loaf, while still not fancy, wasn’t something I see on menus that often, and it’s unfortunate: French Fry Po-Boy with Tomato Gravy.  Also on the tray was a little container of gumbo z’herbs over potato salad, plus a sweet potato fried pie to finish it off. The chefs behind this lunch were Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette in New Orleans.  I didn’t see any po-boys on their restaurant menu, but if they can make me crave ham and cheese, they are definitely on the list for my next NOLA visit. 

The next day featured a Working Woman’s Lunch, headlined by Maneet Chauhan of Chaatable (Indian Street Food) and several other restaurants in Nashville.  You may also have seen her judging Chopped on Food Network.  But before we get to the Indian food, let’s talk about the other folks who helped fill our Tiffin tin lunch box.  

Elizabeth Scott’s family of Scott’s Hot Tamales of Greenville (MS) provided – guess what?  A tamale.  Their recipe includes beef brisket and cornmeal, and of course, secret spices.  Delta tamales have a history that is closely connected to both Mexican and African-American field workers, thus their logical inclusion in a lunch connecting food and work.  

Chef William Dissen (Haymaker, Charlotte, NC), who has roots in Appalachia, brought us pepperoni rolls, the state food of West Virginia.  The lunch link here comes from Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro, who is credited with inventing this roll baked with pepperoni inside back in 1927 to sell to coal miners. 

The roll was in the top layer of our Tiffin box.  If you haven’t seen one of these (and I hadn’t since our days on the other side of the world), it is essentially a stack of interlocking tins that can hold different foods.  They’re great for people on the go who don’t like their food to touch, or just don’t want dessert merging with the salad.  I was thankful because it kept the coconut contained.

Chef Chauhan’s top layer of the Tiffin was a collard green and black-eyed pea curry, with tomato, caramelized onion, curry leaves and … coconut.  I make no bones about my aversion to those white flakes, but in this case I was able to parcel out one safe coconut-free bite to confirm The Wife’s opinion of the deliciousness of the overall dish.  Meanwhile, I focused on the next layer, a roasted sweet potato chaat made with pear, tamarind chutney, mint-mango chutney, spiced garbanzo and corn trail mix.  Somewhere between side dish and snack mix, this was probably my favorite layer.  The bottom tin held the sweetest bites: pumpkin cheesecake gulab jamun with chickpea pearl laddoo crumble over saffron cardamom rabri.  That’s a lot of words I don’t know, but I did look up gulab jamun, which is traditionally a ball of fried milk-based dough soaked in a sugar syrup, often infused with rosewater.  In this dessert the balls seemed to be incorporated into the cheesecake, almost like the ladyfingers in tiramisu.  India meets Tennessee in Mississippi.  I like it.  

I am as much an expert on Indian food as I am po-boys, which is to say…not at all. But Chaatable or another of Chauhan’s places in Nashville also goes on the “must-find-on-next-visit” list.  I depart inspired to make tamales again, to try my hand at a pepperoni roll, and to eat more things with French fries inside.  And maybe drive a streetcar.  

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