Southern Foodways Alliance

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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Oyster Night at Bill’s Place

(As the 2021 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium approaches, I find myself looking ahead to the list of chefs, mixologists, speakers, and attendees, and wishing I was already there. A little like Christmas. But I also like to look back and remember those same aspects – every year it’s a part of getting ready. Even after skipping a year of live events, looking back at 2019’s gathering makes me hungry. For all of it.)

People who know oysters know oysters.  I realize that sounds redundant, but here’s what I mean.   I would expect that someone who eats a lot of oysters could tell differences between different batches.  They have their own terroir, except it’s water instead of soil.  Oysters from Apalachicola, Florida, have a flavor that’s distinct compared to oysters from the coast of Virginia.  I have to assume that’s the case, because good oyster bars always have a list of where their oysters hail from, and if there wasn’t a difference, why buy the chalkboard?  

As you can probably tell, I don’t know oysters.  I might know something about them, but I don’t know them.  Many years ago, however, I had a brief relationship with oysters.  Shoney’s had great fried oysters back in the day, at least in the mind and on the palate of an uncultured pre-teen.  Until one day they didn’t.  I had one that didn’t taste quite right, or perhaps it was that dark green substance that appeared in the middle of a bite, and that was the end of that.  

At some point along the journey into grown-up-hood, I was talked into trying some raw oysters – rather, a raw oyster, singular –  and I did it just to say I’d done it.  Bucket list checked.  Then a few years ago at a Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, I had another chance to try them.  This time I was introduced to mignonette sauce – a mix of vinegar, shallots and pepper – which went a long way towards improving my oyster experience.  

Then we were back in Oxford at the 2019 SFA Symposium.  For the second year in a row we began the weekend in the company of William Faulkner, or at least it felt like it since we were on the grounds of his home, Rowan Oak.  The evening began with multiple tables filled with raw oysters from various locales, brought to us by Bryan Rackley (Kimball House and Watchman’s of Atlanta) and Oyster South.  I did try one, doused with mignonette, of course.  And that was that.  I’m sure they were amazing to people who know oysters, and I wish I was one of those people.  But the night was not over – I would soon give them another chance.  

Meanwhile, as we wandered around visiting old friends and meeting new ones, trays of smoked Simmons farm-raised catfish dip on house-made crackers were being passed around.  This was a seafood dish I could get into.  Rarely did a tray pass without my partaking of a bite.  

When it comes to seafood salads/dips I am most familiar with tuna.  These days I average eating tuna salad about once a week.  A few years back I had dip made from smoked mullet at Ted Peter’s Smoked Fish restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida, thanks to their appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  And I’ve had catfish dip at least once before.  This night’s version, from Chef Bill Briand (Fisher’s, Orange Beach) was excellent, and to take the time to make the crackers was an extra nice touch.  I only quit stopping servers to take another when I realized I might be full before the main event.  

Dinner (also from Chef Briand) was once again focused on the oyster.  Yes, there was a very nice spinach salad with red onion and a creole mustard vinaigrette.  Yes, there was a big bowl of root beer-roasted sweet potatoes.  (Sweet potatoes enhanced by more sweetness; a little more subtle than a brown sugar topping, but a sweet infusion nonetheless.)  But the centerpiece of the family-style dinner tables that night was the Back of the House Oyster Stew.  

Chef Briand used to work with Donald Link in New Orleans, and it was there that they came up with the idea of this stew, with herbsaint and fennel as the defining flavors.  As someone who doesn’t know oysters, I therefore don’t know much about oyster stew.  But even if I’d had ten varieties of stew in the month before this night, I still think I would have ranked this one near the top. 

It was a cool night, and a big bowl of this creamy, steaming stew was the perfect dish to warm us up.  There were big chunks of potato to help offset the rich cream stock, and the herbs were evident.  And of course, there were fresh oysters that had been added just before we sat down to eat.  It was the kind of dish that was so satisfying, bowl-scraping or sopping up the dregs with bread would have been completely appropriate.  Instead, I went back for another bowl.  Part of a bowl, at least – I tried to be gracious.  

I don’t know if I’ll ever become an oyster aficionado.  It would be nice to have the kind of trained palate that could taste one on the half-shell and be able to pinpoint the body of water in which it was born.  It’s unlikely…but stranger things have happened.  In the meantime, I feel like my relationship with oysters is back on the right track. 

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Fish and Biscuits, Two Beginnings

(My tradition has been to post memories of the previous year’s Southern Foodways Symposium as the next one approaches. Like most everything, the virus-that-shall-not-be-named put a dent in that practice last year. There was a symposium in 2020, but it was online, I had to cook my own meals, and I didn’t post the 2019 ponderings. Thankfully, we will meet again in Oxford just over a week from now, so it’s time to get back to business. Let’s remember the good old days of fall, 2019, before…you know.)

October is one of my favorite months of the year.  Usually we’ve had a few cold days by then – nights, at least.  I don’t have to mow any more.  (I probably need to give it another cut … but I probably won’t.)  Football is in full swing.  Leaves are beginning to turn red, cotton fields are turning white.  And The Wife and I head to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  

This year the theme was Food is Work.  As described on the SFA event page, we heard “stories of the domestic and public labor that powers growing, cooking, and serving food.”  We can all say we have a modicum of knowledge about this when it comes to the personal connections we have with our food.  We interact with servers in restaurants and might know the chefs.  We happen to know a few folks who sell food to restaurants.  If we go to the farmer’s market or participate in a CSA, we’re getting close to where the food begins it’s journey.  Once or twice a week, we exchange money with someone in the checkout line at the grocery store.  

But undoubtedly, as we look at our overflowing grocery cart or even one meal on a plate, a lot of work has been done between the source of the food and the final product.  We don’t know much about the day-to-day work life of the tomato picker in Florida that helps make our Caprese salad, or the risky work of the undocumented immigrant in the poultry plant that allows those chicken nuggets to be so inexpensive.  

Some of the talks were hard to hear; at minimum, eye-opening.  We were on a college campus, and we got educated. In particular, we left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the folks that made our amazing meals possible.  

Over the years I’ve picked up on the fact that the chefs tasked with creating meals for the 350 plus guests at the symposium put in a lot of work.  And that, I’m sure, is a serious understatement.  They test recipes long before they arrive, and often do prep work before they get to Oxford.  Once they arrive, hours upon hours are spent in the kitchen getting ready.  

I happened to be on the bus on the way to dinner at Rowan Oak the first night and recognized Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, who would be doing dinner the next night.  I introduced myself, and asked if he’d be prepping all the next day.  He looked at the nice lady who was sitting behind me and they just laughed.  Apparently the nice lady had just learned that she would be making the cornbread to go with his whole hog barbecue.  What I didn’t realize at the moment was that the nice lady was Erika Council, the force behind the Southern Souffle blog and Bomb Biscuits pop-ups in the Atlanta area.  Nor did I realize that she’d be making those biscuits for breakfast the very next morning.  The next 24 hours would be a little busy.  And as always, the attendees got a blessing.

Two Anson Mills bomb biscuits awaited us in our brown bags at the breakfast hour: one black pepper/ricotta, one sausage.  The black pepper ricotta was something entirely new, but when I Googled it to look at recipes, it seems lots of folks are making these.  So, entirely new…to me.  A little apple butter made it even better.  The sausage biscuit, however, was my fave.  It featured Jake’s Fresh Country Sausage, made in vast quantities (because it sells in vast quantities) at the 150 Quick Stop in Bardstown, Kentucky.  In the SEC Network food and culture program, True South, C.P. Smith tells host John T. Edge, “Not too many biscuits make it out of the parking lot.”  Thankfully, some of the sausage did.  

The next morning, we were treated to a tour of the Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus, home of the Center of the Study of Southern Culture, and the offices of the SFA.  We also had a chance to see Angie Mosier’s photography exhibit, Dish Pit Panorama – another view of the work done to make meals happen.  While wandering about the observatory, we dined on fish and grits. 

 

If that seems odd to you for breakfast, I would guess you didn’t grow up near the ocean.  I didn’t either, so I don’t have it for breakfast very often, but if I could have it this way, I’d have it once a week.  Chef Bill Briand from Fisher’s and Playa restaurants in Orange Beach, took Simmons delacata catfish, blackened it, placed it atop Anson Mills grits, then added Creole-style pork gravy on top of everything.   

These grits were some of the creamiest I’ve ever had.  Pillow soft, yet just enough texture to let you know grits were involved.  The catfish was perfectly cooked and seasoned.  And the gravy – I think that’s what took me over the edge.  Caramelized onions, bits of ham, big slices of garlic, herbs, and maybe some magic.  Or love.  Probably both.  It was rich and decadent, and the composed dish was one of my favorite breakfasts in recent memory.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Royal Cup Coffee for anchoring both mornings.  I was particularly fond of the lightly flavored cold brew they served on biscuit day – caramel bourbon, as I recall.  They are always there to take care of us, and never fail to properly caffeinate the masses for the day ahead.  There was much to ponder on these days, and we needed to be attentive. 

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