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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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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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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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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, the Final Chapter: Comfort Food

If there’s one thing I like about attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every year, it’s the nine meals we get to eat between meetings. Oh – and the snacks. Don’t get me wrong; the between-meal lectures are off the charts. The combo factor is what keeps me coming back. But if it were just these nine meals (and the snacks) I’d probably keep coming.
We began our first full day of the 2014 Symposium with Royal Cup coffee and a brown bag breakfast prepared by Cheryl and Griffith Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. The bag was heavy with apple spice crumb cake and a sweet potato and sausage hand pie, a nice complement of sweet and savory. The hand pie made me sorry I don’t get to Savannah more often, but glad that we live near Vardaman – the sweet potato capital of the world. The apple cake was the kind of good that makes you want just one more bite, then just one more bite, and so on till you’re miserable or it’s gone or both. I ate all mine and a little bit of The Wife’s, since she listens when her tummy tells her it’s full, and I … well, I listen less.

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

The noon meal that day was called the Nashville Steam Table Lunch in Black and White. For reasons I’m not sure can be fully explained, Nashville has become famous for meat-and-three style lunch spots, or as those of use who indulge in that sort of thing like to call it: comfort food. Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Sophia Vaughn of Silver Sands Soul Food were our guest comforters that day. Kahlil brought squash casserole, corn-crowned green beans, collard greens and banana pudding. The squash had a little bit of sweetness in it that I could really appreciate. The banana pudding had a lotta bit of sweetness that I also really appreciated. Sophia started us off as we waited in line with little discs of hot-water cornbread, then we got helpings of bitty baby lima beans, macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas. So it wasn’t really meat-and-three I guess, but I was plenty delighted with my pudding-and-six, with a side of cornbread, thank you very much.

Comfort food can be a little messy - but don't worry, I cleaned the plate.

Comfort food can be a little messy – but don’t worry, I cleaned the plate.

The Friday night dinner at the symposium is the traditional catfish feed at Taylor Grocery, featuring Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish. The meal itself changes very little from year to year, and for that we are thankful. What varies are the small plates served in front of the restaurant that whet our appetites. In previous years we have had all manner of things at these outposts, but this year it was all about Delecata. The Delecata cut is what Simmons calls a “prime cut” of catfish: skinless, boneless, hand-filleted and deep-skinned. Others have called it “the filet mignon of the pond.” Charles Phan of The Slanted Door (and more) in San Francisco gave us a riff on a catfish spring roll – Mississippi catfish with a California spin. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner (and more) in Raleigh, NC, took that prime cut, brined it, seared it, glazed it somehow with smoked ham hock, put it over creamed turnip greens, topped it with roasted tomato relish, and garnished it with cornbread crumbs. This is not your Aunt Ruth’s filet mignon.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

On Saturday night it was the Lodge Cast Iron Beans, Greens and Cornbread feed. We like our cornbread at the SFA, can you tell? “Make Cornbread, Not War” – that’s what the hat says. Beans and greens may sound simple, but I’ll let you decide. Our cardboard trays were loaded with four variations on the theme, all from Georgians. From Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol (Atlanta): Charros, Turnip Greens and Green Chile Cornbread. Duane Nutter of One Flew South (also Atlanta) gave us Gulf Drum and White Bean Stew with Shrimp Acaraje’ (a black-eyed pea fritter.) Whitney Otawka (the one Athens representative) of Cinco y Diez, featured the Brazilian side of things with Carne Seca (a dried beef), Linguica (a sausage) and Lengua (yep – it’s tongue) with Feijoada (Brazilian stew) Sauce. Kevin Gillespie, chef at Atlanta’s Gunshow (the restaurant, not the firearms sale), had Heirloom Bean and Fatback Soup with Puffy Cornbread, probably my favorite cornbread of the night. We puffy people like puffy food, I guess.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness' sake.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness’ sake.

Dessert that night and a surprise afternoon snack came to us all the way from New York City. The Big Gay Ice Cream truck took a tour through a handful of Southern cities on it’s way to Oxford, where they passed out their special soft-serve, dipped in unique things like Nilla wafer crumbs and Wasabi pea dust. Our collective sweet teeth were satisfied in the evening with a choice of Coconut Ice Cream with Amarena Cherry Swirl or Dirty Banana with Crushed Nilla Wafers and Dulce de Leche. You know which one I got firsts and seconds of. “Just say no” to coconut. But yes, I dig homemade banana ice cream.

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Our final brunch was preceded by the usually unusual blend of the arts. While we ate Corbin Evan’s Bacon-Egg-Cheese Bread Pudding, we listened to Repast, an oratorio commissioned just for the symposium, focusing on Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s in Greenwood back in the 60’s. Following that, logically, we ate the Greenwood Steak and Shrimp Brunch, led by Stevens Flagg, David Crews and Taylor Bowen Ricketts, all of whom do food right in their own way in the Delta. If you’ve ever been to Lusco’s or Giardina’s, you might recognize the flavors: Gulf Shrimp in Butter Sauce, Drenched Salad, Fried Onion Rings, Spinach and Oyster Madeleine, Baked Potatoes, Roasted Black Pepper-Crusted Rib Eyes, and Lemon Pie. Both the oratorio and the meal were a fitting tribute to Mr. Wright and the menu he used to sing.
It’s over. Sigh. Time to start saving dollars and calories for next year.

Delta Dinner

Delta Dinner

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