(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.