Posts Tagged With: corn

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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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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