Posts Tagged With: simmons catfish

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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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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