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SFA 2016, The Final Chapter

[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.]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Tale of Two Suppers

[Part the Fourth of this whirlwind series looking back at Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2016, with the 2017 celebration in my sights.]

It has recently occurred to me that we human beings tend to eat by themes. In large part, restaurants set their menus by themes. Italian, Mexican, Thai, Southern, etc. Even in the home you can see it: pizza night, taco night, greens-and-peas-and-cornbread night. The idea doesn’t really stand out until you find places that shake up our thinking. For example, I ran across a place in Birmingham last week called Wasabi Juan’s Sushi Burritos. I kid a lot, but this place is for real. In Dothan, Alabama I found a place that featured hibachi and yogurt, another with Indian food and barbecue. I guess this is what those in the biz call “fusion”.
Suppertime at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium can certainly be classified as fusion of many sorts. Our opening meal on Thursday night was branded the Brunswick Stew Welcome Supper with Rainbows, Unicorns and Pie. Though many were involved in the meal in one way or another, the coordinator extraordinaire was Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nancie is a terribly nice lady I met last year who happens to be a prolific cookbook author and cooking teacher, among other gifts I’m quite sure. When we arrived at the table, a bounty was already awaiting us: deviled eggs with cilantro and curry, watermelon rind pickles, Erika Council’s cornmeal cream biscuits with country ham, Bill Neal’s pimento cheese, and spiced pecans. It was a veritable picnic on the grounds, except these grounds had been taken over by a herd of unicorns.

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The hot part of the meal was Brunswick Stew with hominy, creamed corn and edamame. Remember that this weekend was all about corn? And remember I said there was fusion? Thus the edamame. I’ve never had Brunswick stew with relishes, either, but we had pico de gallo, curried apple chutney, and John Martin Taylor’s chow-chow – and saltines, of course. Fusion. On the side were Virginia Willis’s Sweet Potato Spoonbread (one of hundreds of names of corn-based bread) and Eugene Walter’s Hoecakes with butter and Muddy Pond Sorghum. Hot stew with cornbread and syrup on the side? Yessir, anytime. For dessert it was Bill Smith Sr.’s Sweet Potato Pie (deliciously spiced, I must add) and Sweet Corn Custard Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream.

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Now that you’ve got an idea of what the table held – barely – let me backtrack a little and ponder aloud on the fusion idea as a whole. Towards the end of our meal, Nancie was brought out from the tent kitchen – still in her apron – to talk to us about how the meal came to be, and what she said really resonated with me. Because I didn’t have the good sense to record the moment, I’ll paraphrase. She said that when it comes to food, cooking, or iconic dishes like Brunswick Stew or barbecue, we say there are “rules” – but really there aren’t. One eater may like the stew from the annual volunteer fire department fund raiser, while the other may prefer her grandmother’s recipe. Was it odd that Nancie’s stew (for that night anyway) had edamame in it? Compared to traditional recipes, yes – it wasn’t “normal”. It was still good, and it still had the familiar flavors of most other Brunswick stews I have come upon. But my first with edamame.

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Sadly, I couldn’t get out to Starkville, Mississippi’s Oktoc Country Store this year, but in previous years I have bought their stew by the gallon, with nary a soybean (aka edamame) to be found. It is consistently hearty and I measure all other Brunswick stews on the Oktoc stick. I came across a similar dilemma in my years in North Carolina when it came to Western North Carolina barbecue (tomato-based sauce, usually shoulder) or Eastern style (whole hog with vinegar sauce). What is best? What is “right”? What is “normal”? The answer is “D: All of the Above.” It’s all good to somebody.
Food can be a divider, as we have studied in previous symposia, but it’s much more fun when it brings us together to a level table, regardless of how the bowl in the center is filled or who filled it. This meal, with friends and well-behaved unicorns all around, was a great introduction to our corn-centric weekend.
Friday night dinner at the SFA has come to be a fusion of tradition and experimentation. The annual fried catfish dinner at Taylor Grocery – complete with fries, hush puppies and slaw – was somehow even more satisfying than usual. The bonus bites on these nights are the chefs that transform Simmons Catfish Delacata cuts into some pretty amazing creations. Chef Alex Raij of Txikito in NYC created a Delacata catfish empanada infused with the flavors of Spain and the Basque regions that her restaurants celebrate. Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina, used that same Mississippi catfish to create Delacata Mortadella Sandwiches. I need to tell you that I had a vision of what Mortadella was supposed to be, and I didn’t have high expectations. My experience with traditional Mortadella, though limited, was not especially positive. Perhaps I need to try your Italian grandmother’s Mortadella and re-evaluate. My wish for you, though, is to one day try this catfish-infused version. These perfectly round slices were pan-fried, dabbed with tartar sauce, and served on a little slider bun. They were incredible. I seriously considered making a meal of them and skipping the catfish inside. I didn’t consider it very long, but I considered it, and that says a lot.

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I confess I did not test the sushi burrito, the hibachi chef’s yogurt, or the Indian barbecue, but I absolutely appreciate their willingness to go there. Somebody had to be the first to say, “Instead of throwing away these watermelon rinds, let’s pickle them.”

Why not edamame in my stew, or Mississippi catfish in my Spanish empanada?

Why not, indeed.

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Literary Lunchtime at the SFA (2016)

[What follows is Part the Third of this series on the 2016 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Working up an appetite for the 2017 meeting…as if that were necessary.]

Over my lifetime the significance of the noontime meal has ebbed and flowed. Even the names have changed. As a kid, we ate dinner at noon and supper in the evening. Meanwhile my friends were having lunch and dinner. If a buddy invited me over for dinner, I wasn’t sure when to show up.
During those early years lunch was likely to be light: sandwiches, soup, maybe just peanut butter and crackers. Either that or whatever the school was serving. Dinner – supper, I mean – was the big meal. That’s where we had the barbecued chicken, lemon pepper pork chops, lasagna, or casseroles. Then I got married and moved across the world. Over there lunch was the big meal, and the evening meal was basically a repeat of breakfast.
So now I’m back where I started, and I have a wife and kids and a chaotic schedule. It’s difficult to find a pattern anymore. One weekend a year, however, we go to a magical place where no meals are to be missed. That place is the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. But even there, lunch is particularly celebrated and this year brought some interesting twists.
Most of the meals at SFA have a name – “lunch” is just not sufficient. On Day One we were served a “Midday Meal Absent Colonial Thought.” That took some explaining. Chef Sean Sherman of Minneapolis – aka the Sioux Chef – put together a pre-colonial meal taken from the pantry of the South, “when all Southern foods were Native and so were all Southern cooks.” This meant no sugar, no eggs, no pork, no wheat. Nothing that was brought to the land by the colonists. I could not have imagined how to put a meal like that together, but Chef Sherman has been studying this for a piece. And though not everything on the table was something my 21st century taste buds will crave again, it was truly a meal for the bucket list.
The focus of the symposium was corn, and we learned that a grass known as Teosinte is one of the corn plant’s ancestors. For this meal, the Teosinte was bound with a white bean pulse and smoked fish, garnished with wild greens and a crisp piece of fish skin. Consuming the ancient great-great-granddaddy of corn: that’s definitely pre-colonial. Slightly more recognizable were the slices of duck, with a dollop of honey, crab apple, and corn mush. The salad was a mix of wild greens, mixed with sumac-stewed sun-dried rabbit. I didn’t even know sumac-stewed sun-dried rabbit was on my bucket list, but it is checked off now.

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Another meaty dish was cedar bison (that is, bison slightly flavored with cedar) with a corn cake made from Anson Mills Native Coarse Blue Corn Grits. This was probably my favorite dish of the meal. I have looked into buying blue corn grits before – they just look like fun. (Green Eggs and Ham, with a side of Blue Grits – I can definitely see that.) Another favorite at the table was a savory little cake made with sunflower and acorn, highlighted by tiny little beads of popped amaranth.
Would you like to guess what we washed all this down with? You won’t get it right, trust me, so I’ll just tell you. Cedar tea. That’s right. We drank tea flavored by boughs from cedar trees, at least some of which came from Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner. One swig and I felt downright literary.

IMG_3519Lunch on Day Two bore the name “Georgia Corn Husker Luncheon” but could have also been called “Corn – Fourteen Ways.” To prepare for this meal, we were told, Chef Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta kept a year-long running list of corn dishes. It turned out to be almost a contest to see how many variations of corn he could plant into one lunch. I don’t know who he was competing against, but he surely won the game. Let’s count.
One: Corn Cob Iced Tea. What can I say? We drank corn-flavored tea, and it was better than it sounds.
Two: Homemade Corn Nuts from nixtamalized hominy marinated in lime juice, lime zest and Tabasco. Side note here. Nixtamalization is the process by which corn is soaked in lime (not the fruit – the other kind), hulled, and turned into things like masa, which is then turned into tortillas and such. It essentially transforms the corn into something more nutritious. I’ve certainly oversimplified it, but it’s an important process. The more you know…
Three: Paprika Popcorn. Just a little snack.
Four: Pickled Cornlettes. AKA baby corn on the cob.
Five: Anson Mills Blue Corn Nachos topped with black-eyed peas, green tomato pico, turnip greens, pickled jalapeno, radish. If we had stopped there and jumped to dessert I would have been completely satisfied. But there are nine to go.

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Six, seven, eight and nine: Smoked trout, (6) Jimmy Red Grits, pepper gravy, (7) corn and pepper relish, (8) charred corn, crispy trout skin, (9) skillet cornbread and greens. Just a word here: loved the color-speckled grits. Except for the cornbread, this was all together in one big bowl – as delicious as it was colorful. And the greens were all up in the cornbread – I’ve eaten greens and cornbread together before, but not greens baked into the cornbread.

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Ten and eleven: (10) Sweet corn, field pea and duck confit succotash, (11) cornmeal spoonbread, pumpkin-persimmon jam and arugula. Maybe my favorite (until dessert). The spoonbread had two layers, creamy on top with a little more texture on the lower part. This was a plate for the ages.
And finally, corn-coctions twelve, thirteen and fourteen: Ice cream sandwiches made with (12) cornmeal blondie cookies, (13) sweet corn ice cream (much better and milder than the batch I made a few years ago), rolled in (14) corn dust. I ate several of these. They were little and I am not. Definitely not now.

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Breaking Breakfast Barriers at the SFA (2016)

[This is Part the Second of my throwback series, reminiscing about last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium as I prepare for the 2017 iteration.]

The Wife and I just returned from this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I have decided that this once-a-year weekend full of food tasting, food knowledge, and a touch of food frivolity is akin to college football season: when it’s over, we just kinda’ live for the next one to start.  This year’s theme was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  I had no idea how much there was to know about corn.  This new hat I’m wearing – Corn Expert (check out my authority here) – is liable to keep me pretty busy.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, so let’s start there.  Our first morning began with Royal Cup Coffee out of Birmingham.  The Wife likes to get the fancy stuff, like lattes and cappuccinos.  I’m not averse to waiting for pour-overs when I have the time, but my favorite beverage from the Royal Cup truck is the nitrogen-infused cold brew.  I’ve lauded this coffee a number of times before – it’s cold (but not iced) and it’s strong (but not bitter).  And somehow, miraculously, it needs no cream or sugar.  But wait – there’s more!
This time I learned a little more about how it’s made.  With Royal Cup’s “tap” the coffee is infused with the nitrogen as it is dispensed, which helps keep the nitrogen from over-interacting with the coffee in the tank.  And instead of carrying around giant nitrogen tanks, they have a machine that generates the nitrogen from the ambient air.  It’s true that I mostly care about how great the coffee is, but my inner nerd did find that fascinating.  Now, on to the eats.
Breakfast number one was performed (because it’s art, people) by Chef Edouardo Jordan of Salare restaurant in Seattle, Washington.  Yes, we know that is not in the South, but this gathering draws folks from all over.  He’s actually from Florida (which by some accounts is not in the South, either, but I’ll leave that for a later debate), and the menu at Salare lists the American South as one of the influences.  Case in point: one of the first things you’ll see on the menu is Pork Trotters served with Collard Greens.  Chef Jordan was also listed as one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2016.  So his Washington license plates didn’t really cause a stir, and no one asked him to produce a birth certificate.
There were no pig’s feet to be seen in our breakfast, but it was nevertheless unique: Okra Stew with Whole Duck Confit, Berbere, Egg and Cornbread.  One of the hallmarks of the SFA is to break down barriers, so that we can understand each other more fully, more fairly.  Other folks do that, too – we just do it over amazing meals.  This one helped break down the barrier of what someone “should” have for breakfast.  “Egg” was the only thing I recognized from previous morning meals – never had okra, duck, or cornbread that early.  Berbere is an Ethiopian spice blend, and I’ve been to Ethiopia several times, which – oddly enough – probably means that it’s the only other component of this dish I may have eaten for the morning repast.  Barrier broken: okra stew for breakfast is a winner.

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These are a few of my favorite things…

At a corn conference, how do you top the idea of serving cornbread for the first meal of the day?  How about corn granola and a corn pot pie?  That’s not exactly what Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois of Blue Smoke restaurant in NYC called them, though.  The Roster of Eats and Drinks for Day Two listed them as Andouille Breakfast Pot Pie and Corn Granola Custard Parfait.  The pie did have an egg hidden amongst the corn and sausage, tucked under a beautiful crust, therefore: breakfast.  The custard had a bottom layer of fruit and was topped with the corn granola – imagine your favorite crunchy, nutty granola, then add crunchy kernels of corn.  Who would have thought the words “corn” and “parfait” would go together?  Or “egg” and “pot pie”?  And for breakfast to boot?  Not me, for sure.  But I won’t forget them, and would order them at any opportunity.

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Breakfast on Day Three is always tough.  It’s the next-to-last meal of the weekend.  Mere hours from its consumption and we’ll be counting the days till next fall.  It would be sadder if the food wasn’t so wonderful.  Chef Jeremiah Bacon from The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina, keenly kept to the theme of “You’re giving us WHAT for breakfast?” with his Tabasco Clam Quiche.  My primary experience with clams is of the fried variety, so I truly did not know what to expect.  Tabasco I can deal with – I don’t always put hot sauce on my eggs, but it’s a familiar concept.  And if you Google “breakfast quiche” the hits are legion.  Clams, though.  Clams not crisped with fried batter, or stewed in chowder.  Again, however, my trepidation was for naught.  Chef Bacon did us right and brought a little Charleston sunshine to our last day in Oxford.

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One might say, who would want (fill-in-the-blank with okra, duck, corn or clams) for breakfast?  Once upon a time I may have leaned in that direction.  But somebody had to be the first to eat shrimp and grits in the morning, be it a citizen of South Carolina’s low country, or of Mozambique (the true origin of that dish, per culinary historian and symposium speaker Michael Twitty.)  As a matter of fact, somebody had to be the first to eat a fried egg in the morning or decide that milk on corn flakes was a good idea.
So let’s raise a glass of nitrogen-infused cold-brewed Aztec organic coffee to the chefs who broke down those barriers and broadened our breakfast horizons.  Cheers.

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County Corn Expert

[The 20th Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is coming soon.  To prepare for that auspicious weekend, I’m sharing my throwback recollections from last year’s Symposium, the theme of which was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  Before I got into the details of the meeting, I was compelled to establish my authority…]

I am now my county’s foremost expert on corn. I know what you may be thinking: “I thought he was a Pharmacist, not a Farm…Assist.” Perhaps if you are in my immediate family or a close friend, you are recalling something I said that might have been “corny”- but hilarious nonetheless. (See play on words in previous sentence.) Perhaps you are a county extension agent whose specialty is corn, and you might be wondering if I have a degree in Zea Mays farming methods that I’ve never mentioned before. As it happens, I do not have such a degree, but I have recently been in four days of meetings about corn, and in between discussions have eaten ten corn-based meals. I think that ought to do it, don’t you? You do realize how many people on the world-wide interweb claim to be experts with much less experience than that? They are legion.
But before I ruminate aloud on all that new knowledge, I’m going to offer a prelude, with some of my favorite corn memories that have prepared me for this season of life.
My most vivid memory is the summer that I worked in the research cornfields of Mississippi State University’s North Farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked as hard as I did that summer. And I’m certain I was in the best physical shape of my life by the time it was over. We hoed corn. We sprayed stuff on corn. We hoed corn again. We cross-pollinated corn. And … that’s where my corn career ended. Apparently I was allergic to corn pollen. And when you start shaking the stalks to facilitate the separation of the pollen from the thingamawhich that produces the pollen (remember I wasn’t an expert then), it will rain down on your head and turn someone like me into a giant, sneezing, itchy, red minefield of whelps. But it was fun while it lasted, and I had a rockin’ tan.
Growing up, Mama made two kinds of cornbread: regular and Kentucky. Both were baked in a cast iron skillet, as the good Lord intended, but the recipes were different. Regular cornbread was pretty much made of corn meal, and I preferred that version for the times I slathered it with butter prior to covering it with Blackburn’s syrup for dessert. Kentucky cornbread had a can of actual corn mixed in it, and it was my favorite for eating alongside beans and greens and such. In college I moved into an apartment and found a new recipe for Kentucky cornbread left in a drawer by a former resident. This one had chopped onions and sour cream added to it, and was kind of an antithesis to “regular cornbread” – in other words, it was very moist. It’s still my favorite one to make, so shout-out to that mystery former apartment dweller.

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How can I bake thee, cornbread? Let me count the ways.

A thesis on corn in my family wouldn’t be complete without another shout-out to Dawn, Hair Stylist to the Stars, who introduced us to her Corn Casserole. You might call it corn pudding, the staple dish of church potlucks, and that’s okay – they are at least close cousins. Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, butter, sour cream, whole kernel corn and cream corn. Mix and bake. It’s easy, and it’s delicious. I have tried add-ons like cheese and Tony Chachere’s, but they don’t improve it. I’m not even sure bacon would make it better, and that’s near blasphemy.
Corn salad, the picnic dish made properly with white shoepeg corn, is also a family favorite, though I was probably a grown-up before I really began to crave it. We don’t have an heirloom recipe for this one, however – we just get it from The Little Dooey. Why mess up a good thing?
Here’s another question. Why don’t we see more corn in Mexican restaurants? That is, besides the ground up version that morphs into tortillas, tamales, or baskets of chips. I seriously dig what is often simply described as Mexican street corn. I don’t know how authentic the term is, as the only Mexican street I’ve ever walked down was in Cozumel on a cruise excursion, and I don’t think that counts. But I know it’s awesome. Grilled corn, slathered in a mix of mayo and sour cream, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime. Delicioso. Let’s encourage our local restaurateur amigos to andale and arriba that onto their menus, okay? (My apologies to actual Spanish speakers. I’m a corn expert, not a linguist. My Spanish tutor was Speedy Gonzales.)
Long time readers may remember the corn-centric birthday I had a few years ago. I decided to make my own birthday cake and ice cream, and both were corn-flavored. The cake was sweet, but had a high percentage of corn meal in the recipe, giving it a texture somewhere between cornbread and standard cake. What made this particular cake even more unique was it’s color. I had a little bit of blue cornmeal in the pantry at the time, which I mixed in with the yellow cornmeal the recipe called for. You know what blue and yellow make, right? Yes, they make a green cake. Mold green, to be precise. Tasted great. Looked spoiled. Lesson learned. And the corn ice cream – well, it was certainly successful in the sense that it tasted like corn ice cream. I worked hard making that custard, and it was a smooth, rich result. But a couple of bowls and my curiosity was satisfied.

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Can I get you another bowl of corn?

A man corn cob walks into a hipster coffee shop, sits next to a lady corn cob and says, “Come ear often?”
Yep, I’m an expert.

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The Taste of Magnolia

I do my level best to go to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every fall for a plethora of reasons.  The post-symposium tales I tell usually involve detailed descriptions of the food, which never fails to be stupendous.  But in between meals there are speakers, one of whom was author and chef Eddie Huang.  His topic was barbecue, but what I remember most from the talk was his spice story.
I think it is fair to say that knowledge of spices is essential to a chef worth his or her…salt.  Salt and pepper may be the Mama and Papa of the seasoning world, but they are really just the tip of the spice-berg.  Chef Eddie’s method of study was simple: he tasted them.  One by one.  By themselves. The picture in my mind’s eye is of him sitting at a table with a row of spice jars lined up from left to right – a “flight” of spices, if you will – tasting them individually in order to understand the true flavor of each.
Since that talk I’ve been fascinated by this idea.  And though I haven’t yet dragged out my entire seasoning collection for a full-on tasting (it is even more vast than my collection of barbecue sauces), I have certainly taken multiple opportunities to pour little bits into my palm for a lick.  (Clean hands, of course.)  Daughter likes to eat plain salt; I prefer blends.
About a year ago I had to buy a bigger spice rack.  A gentleman I had never met before stopped by my office and told me a story about his company – Magnolia Seasoning. It’s a hop and a skip from my house – not even a jump – practically under my nose.  And just like that, I was fascinated by spices again.
If you followed Mississippi food news in the last decade or so, you’ll know about Bryan Foods in West Point.  You may also know that somewhere along the way, Bryan was purchased by Sara Lee.  In the mix at Sara Lee was a division that created many of the seasoning blends used by the company for its food products.  Then, when Sara Lee closed its operations in West Point, Mr. Z (the aforementioned gentleman, who oversaw that division) opened Magnolia Seasoning.
Today, Magnolia Seasoning is still growing after almost ten years in the spice business.  In fact, they are the only company in the South who will make custom spice blends.  Primarily, they sell in bulk to restaurants and grocery stores, but if you look hard enough, you might just find some of their offerings in your own neighborhood grocery.

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Recently I had the rare opportunity to tour the Magnolia Seasoning operation.  I saw a giant mixer where Mr. K was blending up what appeared to be a fresh batch of lemon pepper.  Other mixers were so big I could have laid down inside them.  (I didn’t.)  Elsewhere on the production floor, bottles were being filled with a barbecue blend of some sort.  And somewhere in the building is a computer that guides the measurement of each individual ingredient, maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
One of my biggest questions had to do with recipe development.  How did they decide something tastes like it’s supposed to?  As it turns out, they have a taster: Mr. G.  In his own little laboratory, he develops each formula using a scale and what must be an exceptionally sensitive set of taste buds.  For example, if a chef wants a certain blend similar to an expensive national brand, but a little hotter, a little more salty, or a little less garlicky, Mr. G can match it.
I had been playing at home with Magnolia Seasoning blends for a while, but some of the things I learned on this visit inspired me to take greater steps towards my spice education.  For example, one of the best ways to taste spices is to put them on foods that have little flavor of their own, like chicken or cottage cheese.  I haven’t tried the cottage cheese test yet (though I bought some for that purpose), but I did have some fun with chicken.
I had a dozen wings that I planned to cook using my wing rack on the grill, so I picked six different blends and got to shaking: 3 Gunslinger’s Old West Steak Dust, Kickin’ Chicken, Redneck Bob’s BBQ, Orange You Glad, My Smokey Butt, and Lemon Pepper.  The Wife got the first bite when they came off the grill, and she was sold – lock, stock and gun barrel – on the Old West Steak Dust.  (I know it wasn’t a steak, but this blend was so tasty in my palm that I figured it was worth a try.)  My favorite was the Lemon Pepper, which Mr. Z told me had never lost a blind taste test versus lemon peppers from other companies.

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Over Labor Day Weekend I used the same method, but with riblets.  For these I used Gunpowder (which gets its name from the color), Steak & Rib, Smoky Steak & Rib, Barbeque, Memphis Baby Back BBQ, Whiskey Creek Bourbon BBQ, Hickory Smoked BBQ, and Buttery Mesquite BBQ .  Have you noticed the names?  Sometimes the name begets the mix, and sometimes the mix begets the name.  Some blends require certain names, while others end up with something wild.  Either way, they are having fun.  And if there is an unofficial motto of Magnolia Seasonings, it’s this: “If it’s not fun, why mess with it?”
My tastebuds are also having fun with the Greens and Vegetable seasoning that I picked up at Vowell’s (a locally owned market) a few months back.  Most recently I have sprinkled it on oven-roasted vegetables, as well as grilled mushrooms with a dash of Gunpowder to boot. (Son just about wiped out the shrooms before I could try them).  Mr. Z suggests sprinkling it on eggs – pizza, too! This bottle has earned a prominent spot on my rack.
Tailgate time is here, and the holidays are coming.  You need seasoning.  And you know it’s better to eat local.  Magnolia Seasoning covers it all.  Taste and see.

(Disclosure: As mentioned above, Mr. Z did bring me some sample seasonings to try.  However, I later discovered that I had experienced – and enjoyed – some of their products sold under a local store label.  So I think it’s safe to say that my opinions, though broadened by the generosity of Mr. Z, are my own. JR.)

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A Tale of Two Twinkies

I get a lot of flack for what I eat. More accurately, I get a lot of flack for what a lot of people assume I eat. “Why are you not 500 pounds?” they cry. Other times, it’s “Your poor arteries!” Why? Because I dig the fried stuff.
I didn’t fully appreciate the crucial role the fryer plays in the life of my family (and others in our community) until recently. It was The Wife’s birthday and we decided to go out for lunch. Son had an open schedule due to the life of luxury bestowed on college students, and tagged along. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were notified that the gas line was temporarily out of order. Translated: we could order nothing that was fried. Grilled? Okay. Pan-Seared? No problem. Blackened? Yep. But no fried chicken. No fried pork chop. No french fries. No po-boys (fried shrimp). You get the picture. I still managed to have a lovely meal, but I was slightly taken aback by how much of the menu depended on hot oil and gas.
If I were to list all the crazy fried things I have consumed over time, I’m quite sure it would be novel-esque in length. I’ve been to the Texas State Fair, and that’s pretty much a trump card when it comes to fried goodies. Going to the Texas State Fair is like going to the Boston Marathon – you need to qualify first, and I did so through a steady attendance rate at the Mississippi State Fair and scads of street festivals.

Big Tex says, "You finally made it!"

Big Tex says, “You finally made it!”

Years ago I was at a Wal-Mart – it had been a while since I’d been in one because we lived overseas – and I saw a Fried Twinkie Machine on the shelf in the checkout line. Now I can’t even find one on eBay. I guess everybody who bought one is keeping it, or they went the way of Mr. President’s “Cash for Clunkers.”
Nevertheless, the Deep Fried Twinkie may have been the first UFO (Unidenti-Fried Object) I ever tasted. It was at an upstairs shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and every time I return to that area I look up and remember the moment fondly. Since that time, however, I have focused on other UFO’s: Snickers, Milky Way, Reese’s Cups, Moon Pies, Goo-Goo Clusters, butter; the list goes on and on. (Remember? State Fair of Texas.)
But in Tupelo recently I returned to my roots. I was there for the Tupelo BBQ Duel. The night before, I was on a panel of judges that had the responsibility of choosing the best ancillary dishes prepared by the competitive barbecue teams. The next day I joined the throng of Tupelo citizenry around lunchtime to help determine the People’s Choice Award. Later that afternoon I spent some time with Mitch McCamey, of The Neon Pig and Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, who was doing a demonstration on the breakdown of a whole cow.
After all the pork consumption and beef education it was about time to head back home. As I began wandering towards my truck, I slowed down to check the menus of the non-barbecue food vendors set up at at the festival. Not surprisingly, I noticed one was selling deep fried Twinkies. It had been a while, and I debated whether or not I needed one. Funny, huh? Who NEEDS a deep fried Twinkie? Me, I guess. I ordered it. They dipped it in the batter. They fried it. Then sprinkled it with powdered sugar. And it was awesome. It was so awesome I ate it before I could take a picture of it. For me, that’s a big deal. So I debated again. Could I handle another one for posterity’s sake? It was only a few bucks, so yes – I could handle it, even if I only ate a little of it. Did I only eat a little of it? Heck, no. The second was as awesome as the first. And that is the Tale of Two Twinkies.

The Deep Fried Twinkie in its natural habitat.

The Deep Fried Twinkie in its natural habitat.

Twinkie Two, seconds before it disappeared.

Twinkie Two, seconds before it disappeared.

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Hagelslag: It’s What’s for Dinner

One night not long ago, I was surfing the World Wide Interweb, minding my own business, when two worlds collided. I suppose that sounds pretty dramatic; it was a little more subdued than that. This collision was more like a crazy connection between past and future, domestic and international. This was a collision of sprinkles.
Sprinkles don’t play a prominent role in my life. And to be clear, I’m not talking about light precipitation falling from the heavens. I’m talking about the colorful little edible beads that kids (of all ages, as you will soon see) tend to distribute on top of their cupcakes, ice cream, and more.
My most recent meeting with a sprinkle was the weekend before Daughter’s birthday when her long-lost friend Bama Buddy came for the weekend. (Bama Buddy is long-lost if you consider that she now lives over an hour away; not so much, though, since she joins our family via FaceTime most nights of the week.) Bama Buddy brought homemade cupcakes to the party, all but a few topped with sprinkles. I ate one or two, and enjoyed them, but I must confess: aside from a dash of color and a little texture, they didn’t add a tremendous amount to the cupcakes.

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Disclaimer: this is not Bama Buddy’s cupcake.

I also see lots of sprinkles on my Instagram feed. I follow my friend The Biscuit Lady; she bakes a sprinkles-laden biscuit that has got to be The Biscuit Shop’s best-seller. I’m more of a “what’s the new flavor this month” kind of a customer, but I have had my share of the sprinkley ones, too.
There is a reason I don’t interact too often with sprinkles, and it can be traced to a taste memory from the distant past. Somewhere along life’s journey, I must have met a batch of sprinkles that tasted like coconut. And that was the end of that. No more sprinkles for me. But in my old age I have ventured out again and found that my taste memory might be somewhat distorted.
What’s in ‘em, anyway? As you might suspect, they are mostly sugar. Throw in a little corn syrup, corn starch, food grade wax, artificial coloring and flavoring – and voila, a sprinkle is born. The chocolate ones? They have cocoa powder. No coconut to be found, unless that is one of the artificial flavors. I’m sure it comes as a great relief to know that no unicorns are harmed in the making of this rainbow-colored topping. It’s just a highly processed food that magically attracts the attention of small children when atop a donut, cake, or fro-yo.
That’s the back story – now let’s regroup and get back to the collision.
Sometimes I know why things pop up in my email, and other times it’s a mystery. Why I get a regular update from Good Housekeeping magazine is a mystery. No doubt I clicked on a recipe or bought a subscription to another magazine published by the same house. Either way, they send me mail. I clicked on a story I wanted to read, and off to the side (this is how they get you) there was a teaser for another article entitled, “It’s Totally Normal to Eat Sprinkles for Breakfast.” I took the bait.
Of course, around these parts that headline wouldn’t really be much of a shocker. See aforementioned reference to the sprinkles biscuit. See aforementioned reference to sprinkle-topped donuts. Sprinkles are not that uncommon for breakfast if you think about it.

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Behold: the Sprinkles Biscuit

But it wasn’t biscuits and donuts that triggered the memory in my brain, and in my taste buds. It was Fairy Bread.
When I was first introduced to this magical meal, our Dutch friends didn’t call it that. In fact, I don’t remember what they called it. We were invited for “breakfast for dinner” one night when we both lived in a kingdom far, far away. They told us ahead of time that it would be a simple meal: essentially just jam and bread. But when we sat down to eat, there was a box of chocolate sprinkles on the table. I was fascinated. What would these Netherlanders do with these sprinkles? And who even has an entire box (at least a liter in volume) of sprinkles, anyway? Don’t they usually come in little jars? It’s safe to say I was stupefied. The funny thing was that they were equally surprised that we didn’t know what to do with them – at least at the breakfast table.
It was nothing too fancy. They start with toast, slather some kind of spread on it (butter, nut butter, cookie butter, Nutella, etc.), then pour on the hagelslag. I didn’t learn that word till recently (they spoke English – we didn’t speak Dutch), but that’s what they would have called it: hagelslag is a Dutch word for sprinkles. Their box was chocolate-flavored, but a quick search on Instagram of #hagelslag will reveal all kinds of variations on that theme. In fact, if you like sprinkles at all, that search will set your mouth to watering.
The Fairy Bread term is an Australian thing. Same idea, different continent. Oddly enough, our Australian neighbors in that same far away kingdom never mentioned it. Or maybe they just didn’t invite us to breakfast.

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Lest I forget, I should say that a heavy layer of chocolate sprinkles on buttered toast is actually quite good. It’s even better with a base layer of Biscoff spread (see above). Call it fairy bread or hagelslag, it’s a delicious part of breakfast for dinner. At least it should be.

What’s your favorite way to eat hagelslag?

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Dinner With the SFA

Winner, winner, chicken dinner! That’s what I felt like shouting after all three dinners at the 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. But I didn’t. That would have been slightly inappropriate and surely would have embarrassed The Wife. Wouldn’t have surprised her, but would have embarrassed her. And come to think of it, there was hardly a chicken to be found.

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On the first night, after the always fantastic foodways-focused taping of Thacker Mountain Radio, we sat down for a six-course dinner from Rob Newton, a Brooklyn, NY chef with Arkansas roots. At this dinner (as he does at his restaurant Nightingale 9) he took Southern standards and gave them an Asian spin.
A few things recognizable to most Southerners were waiting for us on the table: boiled peanuts in a Mason jar, slices of country ham, pickles. On the same plate: spiced duck breast and rolled rice sticks. This sort of snack would be served along with bia hois, a unique Vietnamese beer – much like bowls of pretzels and nuts at a local bar.

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The next course was a little cup of pho bo, aka the national dish of Vietnam. This soup can be really simple, as was ours (rich beef broth with herbs), or it might have rice noodles, beef strips, chicken, vegetables, etc. In Vietnam it is often a breakfast dish, but I don’t think anybody was worried.
Post-pho we received a little take-out container full of grits congee. Congee, in the simplest terms, is a rice porridge; our version was Southernized with grits standing in for the rice. Field peas gave a little texture, butternut squash provided some sweet bites, chicken and chanterelles provided the umami – and the crispy chicken skin was the perfect garnish.

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Then the salad, unlike any salad I’ve ever seen. When it was brought to the table, all we could see was a plate-sized piece of grilled rice paper covering a hidden bounty underneath. We shattered the rice paper to find pumpkin seeds, green papaya, herbs, fried shallots, and sorghum grains. Sorghum: that’s molasses, right? Yes, but wait! There’s more! In Asia it can be used as the base for spirits and aged vinegars or cooked, as it was in this salad.

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The main course was grilled quail stuffed with a Vietnamese-style boudin sausage, served with duck hearts, peanuts and baby collards over shaved slices of green tomato. Duck hearts I had only seen on Chopped; they reminded me of liver, perhaps a little more dense. The green tomato gave just enough brightness to offset the rich, dark flavor of the grilled quail. I could have eaten at least another serving of this. (Quail are small, remember. Quail are small.)

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Dessert was street style pineapple: fresh chunks of pineapple on a stick, with a sour coconut milk for dipping (The Wife represented on that one), plus Vietnamese chocolate, and a little tiny bag of spicy salt to sprinkle on the fruit. This was not my first time to combine chocolate with pineapple, but the spicy salt was a nice diversion from the norm.

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The following night we were back, as usual, to a Taylor Grocery catfish feast. No big changes to the fare Taylor provides – and that’s the way I like it. What differs from year to year are the catfish samplings outside – aka the Degustation. Chef Katie Button (Asheville, NC, our home away from home) took the Simmons Delacata cut and came up with a Chow-Chow Delacata Ceviche, served in crunchy little cones. Chef Justin Devillier (New Orleans) made Delacata Andouille Dogs with Turtle Chili. I think I’ve had ceviche twice in my life, and both times were at these meetings – any other place I may have passed it by, but I try most everything here. On the other hand, I’ve had lots of hot dogs, made with a myriad of meats. Never had a catfish dog. Never had turtle chili – only soup. It was a good night for firsts and seconds.
The final dinner was certainly right up my alley: the Lodge Cast Iron “Blank and Grits” Feed. I love grits in every form; this was grits heaven. Chef David Carrier (St.Simon’s Island, Georgia) started us with Deviled Shrimp and Grits Eggs. The yolks were “infused” with grits and the eggs were topped with a tasso and shrimp remoulade. My shrimp and grits world was turned upside down. The next world-turner was the Krill and Grits Tart from Kim Floresca (Chapel Hill, North Carolina). I confess: I didn’t know what a krill was until I saw the movie Finding Nemo, and here I was eating crispy fried krill in (and on) a quiche-like grits tart. Slightly more familiar was the Crab Cream Grits (Ricky Moore, Durham, North Carolina) and the Yellow Corn Grits with Squash and Grit Crumbs. One of my favorite bites was the Crispy Rice Grits with a side of Greens: think hush puppy sized, super crispy on the outside, tender inside. Think yum.

Dessert that night was not grits-related, but it was served out of cast-iron skillets, so it still fit the theme. Seersucker Candy of Nashville sent three of their handmade candy spheres: Muzzle Loaders (salted bourbon caramel), Cherry Bombs (pickled cherry cordials), and Lemon Drops (lemon drop-ish crunchy outside, lemon curd-ish creamy inside). I was sitting way too close to that table. It’s a good thing grits are filling and I didn’t have bigger pockets. These should definitely be on your bucket list; in fact, I suggest ordering a bucketful.

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From duck hearts to Delecata, congee to Cherry Bombs, and oh my goodness that black pepper pastry filled with spicy green tomato jam, my taste buds have once again made memories. Thanks, SFA.

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What’s in your lunchbox?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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