It was Hump Day at the SFA Symposium, the longest day of the event. At almost any other conference 13-14 hours of near-continuous activity might be a drag – or at least cause me to be dragging at the end of it. But not this one. Here we savored every minute, and every mouthful.
Saturday traditionally begins early with an outdoor stand-up breakfast. In past years we have enjoyed some sort of breakfast sandwich but this time Virginia Willis (author of Bon Appetit, Y’all) made individual breakfast casseroles. Grits-based with cheese, sausage and something with a kick, it was a nice diversion made even more meaningful because we had eaten lunch with Virginia the day before, where she regaled us with stories from her time on Chopped and with tips from her new Okra cookbook.
Between meals the Gee’s Bend Singers brought a little revival to the gathering, and we heard from Natalie Chanin, who confessed to over-handling her biscuit dough to great acclaim. Just before lunch Natasha Trethewey, the U. S. and Mississippi’s Poet Laureate, read poems from her friend the late Jake Adam York, last year’s symposium poet.
The Tabasco Luncheon was a meal I’d really been looking forward to. I’ve long been a fan of the culinary skills of Chef Vivian Howard, though I have yet to make it to her restaurant, The Chef and the Farmer, in Kinston, NC. Longtime readers of this column may remember the Collard Dolmades from a couple of years ago – that was Vivian. And after wowing us with her appetizers that evening, she and her husband, Ben Knight, happened to sit next to me at the awards presentation that followed – terribly nice folks. These days, in addition to their running the restaurant and raising twin babies, she is also the star of her own reality show, A Chef’s Life, running on PBS. (The very thought of all that makes me tired, but I’m glad she and Ben are up to the task!)
This lunch came at a leisurely pace, course by course, allowing plenty of time to savor each dish and visit with our table-mates. We started with a piece of tomato pie served with preserved butterbeans, corn and charred okra. The Wife never remembered having tomato pie and isn’t a big fan of tomato-ey things, but she loved this. I thought it was the best part of the meal.
Next came chicken and rice with herbed chicken skin and Tabasco salad. There was nothing fancy about the chicken and rice, but it was perfectly seasoned and was the kind of dish that leaves the eater warm and comfortable. The microgreens salad it was topped with not only added a touch of elegance, but also provided an extra burst of flavor mixed in with the chicken and rice. And how about a dish where chicken skin is celebrated rather than discarded? Loved it.
The main dish caused a bit of a stir, or at least triggered some intriguing conversation. It wasn’t the Sea Island Red Peas and Cabbage, though those peas are not particularly easy to find. Neither was it the sweet potato-watermelon rind relish, which was also quite unique. The raised eyebrows and table murmurs resulted from the Tom Thumb Sausage. According to the description we were given, a Tom Thumb is a hot sausage stuffed into a pig’s appendix. (Everything but the squeal, right?) I never quite got it straight if the casing was actually an appendix or not, but whatever it was, I ate every bite.
Dessert was a bit unorthodox, too – Benne Fried Green Tomatoes with Curried Peach Preserves and Whipped Goat Cheese. Goat Cheese is another of those foods I have tried to like – to very little avail. But in the proper proportion, in a bite that included the nutty crunch of the benne, the tart tomato, and the sweet preserves, I decided that Chef Vivian made it work. With all that goodness in us, plus a pack of Tabasco Jab Thumbprint Cookies for the road, we went back to hear a few more speakers before turning around to eat again.
The first event of the evening was a Lincoln-Douglas style debate between Kat Kinsman (CNN’s Eatocracy), who spoke eloquently on behalf of pie, and Kim Severson (NY Times) who defended the cause of cake. Both presented persuasive arguments and the debate was declared a draw, but I confess I clapped a bit harder for pie. Perhaps I was influenced by the box in my seat, which contained a fantastic dried apple hand pie and a piece of coconut cake prepared by pastry chef Lisa Donovan (Husk Restaurant, Charleston). Thankfully I was able to brush off the few offending coconut flakes that found their way onto my pie. So, yeah, in the box pie definitely won.
Sure, dessert came before dinner that night but that’s okay – we were all food-focused grown-ups who wouldn’t dare allow dinner to be ruined, no way, no how. They called this one the Lodge Cast Iron Fried Chicken Feed. All were given buckets and we lined up outside the Powerhouse to load them up. Andre Prince Jeffries of Prince’s Hot Chicken of Nashville was responsible for the breasts. I heard she toned down the usual heat a bit, but I still chased mine with some white bread and a pickle. Sarah O’Kelley of the Glass Onion in Charleston paid homage to Mary Lou Gadsden with my favorite piece of the bird, the thigh. And the classic drumstick came all the way from the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, courtesy of Kerry Seaton-Stewart. I can make a meal out of fried chicken just fine, but Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s provided some rockin’ mac-n-cheese, greens, field peas and a plug of cornbread.
Yes, I ate a bucket full of food. Then I went looking for another apple pie. My search was unsuccessful. Probably for the best – we still had one more day.