Posts Tagged With: Southern Foodways Alliance

A Gumbo Fugue

(This is the final reflection from the 2018 Southern Foodways Symposium.  As it goes up, the 2019 event is just hours away from the last meal and lots of goodbyes till next year.  Till then, here’s my take on the last meal from 2018.)

I’m treading on dangerous ground here.  This piece is about gumbo, and people are serious about gumbo.  There are right ways and wrong ways to make gumbo, to eat gumbo, and maybe even to write about gumbo.  There may be gumbo po-po lurking about, waiting to read this and tell me what I said wrong.  The loophole, thankfully, is that while individual opinions are strong on this subject, those strong opinions also vary.  Please be kind to the messenger.

I’m also about to take on a bit of a history of a man that I don’t know well enough.  It’s a man I’ve heard about many times at Southern Foodways Alliance Symposia, though I was never really sure why.  This past year, in fact, much ado was made about him – in fact, an entire album of music was written and performed for us by musician Paul Burch and friends, just before we were treated to the Lodge Cast Iron Supper: A Gumbo Fugue in Three Movements.

The chef for that dinner was Paul Fehribach from Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, which bills itself as being “Inspired by the People, Places, and History of The American South.”  Chef Paul grew up in Indiana, and as far as I have been able to determine, has never actually lived below the Mason Dixon line, but takes great pains to shape the menu around historic Southern recipes.  From where I sit, that sounds like someone who recognizes the importance of the Southern larder in the American culinary experience, and I can get behind that.

As for the man the evening was based around, we’re talking about Eugene Walter.  I knew the name, but learned quite a bit more about him through the music and the menu.  He was an actor, translator, cryptographer, poet, chef, food writer, raconteur, and more – all affirmed by le Pedia de Wiki.  The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d had the chance to be in his circle; I get the feeling life was never dull around Eugene Walter.

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It was his food writing – cookbooks in particular – that inspired Chef Paul.  According to our guide to the evening (a menu of sorts, with more stories than ingredient lists), he read Walter’s “Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall”, which referenced an unpublished book called, “A Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo.”  The mention of the book led the chef to an essay titled, “The Gumbo Cult”, and his delight in reading it resulted in a multi-gumbo menu representative of Walter’s life work.

The first platter to catch my attention was piled high with corn sticks, for dunking purposes.  The cover of Walter’s “American Cooking: Southern Style” featured the same.

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Green Gumbo with Vanishing Bread filled one enormous cast iron pot.  This goes by another name you may have heard, gumbo z’herbes.  Numerous references tell me that this one is usually full of greens, and was often served meatless during Lent – but Andouille sausage and such can always be added.  As for the vanishing bread, at Big Jones it’s described as pecorino-crusted baguette.  Ours were crouton-sized, which logically follows Walter’s reminiscing about North Alabamians putting croutons (or sippets, as he called them) over greens.

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Gumbo the second was Crevettes et Crabe Bouillies with Okra and File’ over Creole Boiled Rice.  This is where I got into trouble the last time I talked about gumbo, trying to differentiate between when okra and file’ were used.  Well, this one had both, so figure that one out.  (Gumbo is personal, y’all.)  What was interesting, per Chef Paul’s description, was that his brother harvested the file’ himself from a sassafras tree in the woods of Southern Indiana.  Crevettes, by the way, are large prawns cooked in the shell, and our “crabes” were crab claws placed along with prawns atop the gumbo.

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I think the third was my favorite, and featured a tradition I was unaware of until that night.  It was what you might call a traditional gumbo: a very dark roux with chicken and andouille.  What threw me was the underpinning – it was served over Abruzzi potato salad.  I’d never had gumbo served over anything but rice (except for that time I served a version of my own over grits.)  But apparently it’s pretty common for potato salad to be served either with or in gumbo.  Who knew?  The Abruzzi recipe comes from Walter’s book, “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter” and has a splash of white wine in the ingredient list.  Mr. Walter was quite fond of spirits, as I understand it.

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That fondness also showed up in the dessert: Tipsy Parson with muscadines, a sort of parfait with sherry-soaked pound cake as the base.  He called it “the grown-up cousin to banana pudding.”

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As much as I enjoy gumbo, I don’t choose or make it near enough.  But now that I know there are options, be it cheese-encrusted croutons on top or potato salad underneath, I may give this dish another whirl.  I just hope I do it right.

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Faulkner and the Oxford Curry

(As this posts, I’ll be getting ready for breakfast at the 2019 Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Meanwhile, my appetite is already jump-started by looking back at another of the meals from the 2018 event.)

It was an auspicious beginning.  The Wife and I had just stepped down from the top level of Oxford’s double decker bus, after a tour of literary landmarks around town.  We walked a short distance down a sidewalk, then onto a well worn path that eventually led to perhaps the most auspicious of those literary landmarks: Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner.  

This was the opening reception for the 2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held on the lawn at Faulkner’s home.  There were lights in the trees, twinkling as the sun set, and for those so inclined, Joe Stinchcomb, director of the bar program at Saint Leo restaurant, had cocktails waiting which included whiskey, one of the author’s favorite beverages – in this case, Maker’s Mark.  Though I was fascinated by the commemorative glasses (dipped in red wax, like the seal on the MM bottle), I was even more fascinated by what was being passed around on the plates.  

I hope the reader (as well as those involved with the hors d’oeuvres) will forgive if I get a bit of this wrong – I’m more of a storyteller than a journalist, and more of an eater than a storyteller.  In other words, I need to learn to take more notes, ask better questions, or both.  In any case, the program credited this welcome snack to Chef Dan Latham, another of the collaborators at Saint Leo.  But on the serving tables were cards describing the meats available at Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates, Georgia.  So I’m going to assume that Chef Latham put this together using meat from Pine Street Market.  Sound good?  Well, it was.  

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What I did write down was that the pork belly on these sliders was made from one of Faulkner’s own recipes, marinated in molasses for 30 days.  I wanted to know more about this, and sure enough – it didn’t take a very challenging web search to find “‘Pappy’ Faulkner’s Recipe for Curing Pork.”  And sure enough, molasses was one of the primary ingredients.  Slices of the dark, richly flavored pork belly were topped with a red cabbage slaw and served on a sweet potato roll.  Between the whiskey and the pork belly, Faulkner’s spirit was very much among us at Rowan Oak that evening.  

From there we moved en masse (this time by single decker bus) to the Powerhouse, home of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, where most of the SFA dining takes place.  Waiting there for us was the Oxford Curry, our first dinner of the weekend.  According to SFA Director, John T. Edge, there was a hidden joke in the name – something about the Oxford comma – but I never really got it.  Again, not an official journalist.  But definitely an eater, and a hungry one by now.  

There is a particular group of chefs, all of Indian descent, who have settled in the South.  Of late they have come together to create dinners that showcase their culinary styles and heritage, while at the same time featuring local ingredients and Southern themes – they call it the “Brown in the South Supper Series.”  Volume One focused on “masala meets meat and three”; the second dinner celebrated “Indian Summer.”  Our dinner, led by two of those chefs, Meherwan Irani and Cheetie Kumar (and friends), was all about redefining what the word “curry” represents.  

When we arrived at the table, we found dishes of Achar pickle, Raita yogurt, Kachumber salad, Papadum crackers, and Naan bread.  I won’t say that I could have made a meal out of this, but I will say that the Papadum and Naan were among my favorite bites that night.  Simple pleasures.  Similar sentiments for the Jeera Chawal (cumin-scented basmati rice): it was the anchor for all the other dishes.  Having lived on that side of the world for a season, in a place where cumin was a pantry staple, I developed a taste for the spice I first knew as “kemoon.”

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Of all the foods in the world, I am perhaps least acquainted with Indian foods, so I am relying on the menu that was provided to us that night.  Perhaps this is something I should work on in the new year.  But in the meantime, here’s a rundown:

Konkani Fish Kadi.  This was the representative seafood dish, from the southwestern coast of India, but made with Simmons Catfish from Mississippi, which happens to be near the southwestern “coast” of the state if you’ll allow the Mississippi River to be a coast of sorts. The fish was bathed in coconut milk, spiced with red chilies, garlic, black pepper, curry leaves and fresh lime.  My horizons are expanding.

Goan Pork Vindaloo.  The spicy one, from the Portuguese colony of Goa, and did you know the Portuguese brought the chili pepper from the Americas?  What goes around comes around, it seems.

Punjabi Butter Chicken.  This one I knew a little something about.  I’ve actually made a version of this from scratch, and have tried several bottled sauces as well.  It’s my fave, my Indian comfort food if you will.  The chefs used charred bell peppers to add a smokiness and jaggery sugar took the place of the refined stuff.  The color red was played by Kashmiri chilies.  

Maharashtan Aloo Gobi.  Such a fun name for a vegetarian dish.  Potatoes, cauliflower, onion, garlic and chilies.  And finally…

Kheer.  The dessert, more or less: Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice, cooked slowly in milk and sugar, flavored with cardamom and saffron, studded with cashews and golden raisins.  

I don’t have real insider knowledge, but I’m guessing another Brown in the South dinner will pop up soon.  If it’s nearby, or you feel like a road trip, I highly recommend it, even for novices like me.  And if you’re at all literary-minded and haven’t seen Rowan Oak – it’s time, with or without a whiskey.

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Lunch with Mashama, Again!

(It’s time for the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Here’s another look at a tale told through lunch from the 2018 event.)

There are always new people at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I was one of those new people once, and a few years later The Wife was a new people.  This year the event was opened up to the public (usually it’s limited to members), so there were lots of new people.  

Whenever we sit down for a meal at this eating-meeting we have a choice to make: we can try to sit with folks we already know, which is fun because we often only see them once a year, or we can go potluck (food pun intended) and sit with complete strangers.  The great thing about potlucking with strangers is that they are not strangers very long.  Then you have new friends to sit with next year.  

A few years ago, at a lunch early in the weekend, we sat down and began making conversation with a couple of nice ladies from Savannah, Georgia.  And as we conversed The Wife and I discovered that one of them was Mashama Bailey, Chef at The Grey.  Not only was she a chef, she was also the chef that would be making lunch for us the next day.  I’ve seen a little behind-the-scenes video of what it takes to pull off one of these lunches, so in hindsight I’m wondering how she wasn’t already in a kitchen prepping to feed 300-plus people, but hey – chefs gotta’ eat, too, right?  And they don’t want to miss any of these meals, either.  

Fast forward to this year.  Since the day we sat with Mashama she has become a finalist for a James Beard Award (Best Chef Southeast), and The Grey was Eater.com’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year.  (Now all the chefs want to sit with us…)  Not a bad resume, considering she had already worked for years with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in NYC, and was hand-picked through that relationship to open up The Grey in 2014.  And we are grateful that she was also hand-picked to cook lunch for us again.  

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The theme for the SFA’s 2018 programming was the link between food and literature, in a vast number of forms.  This lunch was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, a writer known for the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937, along with more novels, an autobiography, short stories, essays, plays and more.  Hurston was not a cookbook author, but as her biographer, Valerie Boyd (who spoke to us at the Symposium), noted, food was an integral part of her personality.  To research, Chef Mashama worked with Boyd, and read a lot of Hurston’s works for inspiration.  Here’s what she came up with.  

On the table as we arrived were what she called “Jook Snacks,” foods that people from her small-town Georgia roots (and Hurston’s in rural Florida) would have eaten simply because they were around.  There were hot buns with preserves, bread and butter pickles, and a platter of pulled rabbit with Tabasco sauce.  How old were you when you first sat down to a platter of pulled rabbit?  On the day we had it, I was that day old.  

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The second course was Savannah Red Rice with Shrimp, and Stewed Okra.  According to Mashama, chicken and rice was Hurston’s dish, so the translation to Savannah was simple.  Over the last few years I’ve eaten less rice than I used to (you know, carbs and all), but I didn’t hesitate to dive into this.  I’ve even made a version of it before, a baked rice dish flavored (and colored red) by tomatoes, accentuated with onion and bell pepper, and studded with bacon or sausage – or, in this case, shrimp, which was absolutely appropriate for a port city dish.  Stewed okra, of course, is not just okra – it’s got tomatoes and onions going on, too.  

The third course took us to the juke joints Hurston wrote about.  Mashama said, “Fish is the ultimate juke-joint food.”  So instead of shrimp and grits, she made fish and grits.  Not like your mama’s fish and grits, though.  (I’m just kidding – if your mama made fish and grits, please let me know.)  These were mostly-whole whiting atop grit cakes so carefully put together they almost looked like thick slices of potato.  So now I have another way to love grits.  Alongside were Tabasco Sauce-braised collards with smoked pig tails.  (By the way, did I mention that this was the 2018 Tabasco Luncheon?)  Again, did your mama put pig tails in the collards?  If mine did, she didn’t tell me – I wasn’t always as adventurous as I am now, so her silence would have been a good idea.  And it was a good idea, indeed – the pig tails, I mean.  Ash-roasting sweet potatoes was also a good idea, served on a bed of thick, red sauce that I meant to ask about…but didn’t.  

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Let’s talk about dessert.  This is the part where I’ve already confessed in previous writings that I like to hang around and partake of leftovers.  This time was no different.  Tea cakes made with cornmeal and buttermilk were the centerpiece, because Tea Cake is a main character in Hurston’s first novel, and according to Boyd’s biography, cornbread and buttermilk was Zora’s favorite childhood breakfast.  I had a few of these, but not a few too many.  To accompany the tea cakes were candied pears – I love pear preserves and these were an interesting twist – and peanut brittle that was kinda’ fancy.  

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Not only did this lunch make me want to go to Savannah, it also made me want to read some Zora Neale Hurston.  Eating and reading – two of my favorite things to do. 

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Brother Rabbit Brings Lunch

(Lunch is a big deal at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  As we get closer to the 2019 event, here’s a look back at a noonday meal from 2018 that truly embodied the spirit of the theme, celebrating the connection between food and literature.  And yes, menus are literature.)

It’s no secret among those I’m close to that I’m a collector.  Most likely I’ve mentioned it in these pages before.  Some might even say that I’m a hoarder, but there’s a vast difference.  Number one, you can easily walk around in my house.  And number two, I choose to believe the things I collect are valuable and will one day be treasured by my children, or sold immediately upon my departure from this earth.  Either way, in my mind it’s a win-win for them.  

Among those collections is a file of menus.  Note that I said “a” file – as in “one.”  Not a file box full, not a closetful.  See? Not a hoarder.  I do have a small box or two full of food-related memorabilia which may also contain some menus, but generally speaking, it’s a small, manageable collection.  Not like the 45,000 plus that the New York Public Library boasts.  The Wife would have to give up some purse storage space if mine was that big.  Thus, it will never be that big.  

One of the most fascinating speakers at this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium was John Kessler, a former food columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The theme of this year’s symposium was “Reading Food: From Menus to Soap Operas to Novels.”  His topic was “Menus as Texts.”  He showed us how menus have changed over the years and how each told a particular kind of story.  It didn’t take long for me to realize my file is not just a collection of dish descriptions, it’s a folder full of memories.  

Ordinarily, at each symposium meal we are given a colorful menu card with some amount of detail regarding what’s in each dish.  I’m not gonna’ lie – those menus are excellent cheat sheets.  With them in hand, I don’t have to ask a lot of questions about what’s in the dish or how it is cooked; everything is there already, documented for posterity.  I don’t have to keep a list of ingredients in my pocket-sized notebook, only my reactions to what those ingredients trigger on my tongue.  

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This year most of the menus were different.  At breakfast, for instance, we got the name of the dish, but instead of a description of how the chef’s mother used to make this back in the day, we got a poem or a paragraph from a novel.  In most cases, we got more story than a list of groceries, but that makes some sense, considering the theme.  At Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q Luncheon on Friday, we got folktales.  

The storyteller that day was Nina Compton, the chef at Compere Lapin in New Orleans.  Compere Lapin means “Brother Rabbit” in French, and refers to folktales Chef Compton heard as a child in St. Lucia about a mischievous rabbit.  Her menus, both at the restaurant and at lunch that day, are inspired by the playfulness of those stories, and reflect a brotherhood of Caribbean and Creole cuisines.  

We began with Conch Croquettes.  If you’re unfamiliar with conch, it’s only because you didn’t know the name of that enormous seashell sitting on the shelf, the one you can put up to your ear and hear the ocean.  As a young man, my folks took us to the Bahamas and I had my first conch fritter, so this was not my first conch rodeo.  This, however, was different from the dense tuna croquettes that I know how to make; instead it was tender inside the slightly crunchy batter.  

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Our next course was Cowheel Soup, a street food in the Caribbean that is supposedly enjoyed by mythical ladies of the evening who actually have cowheel feet.  I must confess that I didn’t read the word that carefully at first.  I was focused on the soup itself, which reminded me a little of the broth from a good lentil soup, but with chunks of bone floating around.  Bones help flavor and can even add thickening to a soup, so that wasn’t so surprising.  It was only later that I realized, those were small chunks of cowheel.  The heel of a cow.  Words have meaning, it seems.  

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The main dish made me a little nervous at first, given that the word “coconut” was in the description: Pelau with Spicy Coconut, Black-Eyed Peas, and Chicken.  My hope was that the coconut would be in the form of milk or cream, without those pesky flakes.  Hope fulfilled.  A large round skillet was brought to the table, filled with a dense mix of rice and black-eyed peas, the chicken legs fanned out in a circle.  Google tells me that traditional pelau has a bit of sugar and a mix of warm spices such as cardamom and cloves, and I did detect a note of sweet which I’m sure was a factor in sending me back to the dish for more.  The menu, however, told the story of a soucouyant, a shapeshifting witch in Caribbean folklore that could be caught by heaping rice around the house.  It just goes to show that collecting can be useful, as long as you collect the right things.  

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We finished up with a Pone with Rum Caramel, a dark cake topped with pecans trapped in a thick, rich caramel.  Appropriately, the accompanying story was of the Jab Molassie, a devil character whose end came when he fell (or was thrown) into a vat of boiling molasses on a sugar plantation.  Would that constitute a sweet ending?  Perhaps not for the Jab.  But for those of us at lunch that day, it certainly was.  

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Ice Cream and Collards (Breakfast is Served)

(In just a few short weeks, the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium will begin.  As has become my habit, as the day approacheth, I’ll look back at the 2018 Symposium.  Let the drooling begin.  And what better way to begin than breakfast?)

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I look forward to breakfast.  Full stop.  There are days when it’s just a banana, a single (albeit large) cup of butter coffee, or – heaven forbid – plain eggs.  But not if I can help it.  I seek adventure in the breakfast nook.  

The offerings for early morning repast at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium never fail the thrill seekers.  Normally, there are glimpses of recognition.  Last year we had Mote Pillo, which is scrambled eggs (check) and hominy (huh?).  Now if I’d said eggs and hominy grits, nobody would have blinked an eye, but these were grits in their native form – unground, whole kernels of hominy.  

Last year’s other breakfast featured a riff on Eggs Benedict, at least for those with a big imagination.  Biscuit instead of English muffin, chorizo instead of Canadian bacon, chipotle gravy rather than hollandaise sauce – the only bridge between the two was the poached egg.  It was even served in a cup.  But I licked the cup.  (Not really – that’s figurative.  If you’ve ever tried to lick the bottom of a cup, you’d realize, like me, that it’s practically impossible.  And I never remember to pack my tiny silicone spatula like my friend carries in her purse, to scrape up every last bit of deliciousness.)

This year was no different.  Of course, we have to have our morning coffee, and Royal Cup takes good care of us.  In addition to the hot coffee that was much appreciated on those finally cool mornings, we also got to taste their new cold brew products.  But wait!  There’s more!  They also had bottled iced tea for the first time, including a peach variety.  The tea was more of a “Here is something new to try, and we are here now, so please take one and enjoy it later,” than a “Don’t you drink iced tea for breakfast?” type of situation.  I’m particularly fond of peach tea, and this one ranked high.  I described it to The Wife as a peach juice drink with some tea added, perhaps even reminiscent of what a peach Jolly Rancher would taste like if it were made from natural flavors.  Please understand – these are good things in my view.  And the sweet tea version (sans any fruit flavor) was just the level of sweetness I would want with a big barbecue sandwich.  But we were talking about breakfast, weren’t we?

Day One was completely unexpected, as expected.  I’d seen a social media post from an early riser before we got there and knew that there would be a rice waffle, smeared with clotted cream and topped with peach slices.  That alone would have been sufficient.  I’m all about waffle variations, and seriously – how many of us get up in the morning and smear clotted cream on anything?  That’s special.  But here’s the good part.  Chicken and waffles are a big thing now – it’s the new shrimp and grits for restaurants that claim Southern roots.  As Chef Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats (Charleston) handed me what appeared to be a chicken drumette in a clear plastic envelope, she described the dish: “Not Fried Chicken and Waffle.”  The Not Fried Chicken drumette was ice cream.  I know!  Isn’t it great to be an adult??  

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We’ve probably all had oven fried chicken at some point in our lives, coated in crushed corn flakes or the like.  Ditto here (plus caramelized white chocolate), which made everything look normal.  But after taking a bite of the drumette you could see it was white instead of the usual dark, because … it wasn’t meat at all.  It was waffle ice cream.  There was even a chocolate cookie “bone”.   Call me flabbergasted.  And allow me to be accountable: as breakfast was winding down, I noticed some Not Fried Chicken still sitting around and it’s a crime to let ice cream melt unnecessarily. (It was cool weather, but not that cool.) I’m sure you can guess what happened next.  

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The next morning was more of the same when it came to creativity, though there was no ice cream involved.  I’m told that Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean Bakery and Cafe is known for her biscuits.  The restaurant is in New Orleans, and I haven’t been to NOLA since Katrina, so I’ve been out of the loop.  I’m very thankful that the loop snuck up to Oxford for breakfast and brought me in.  

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Have you ever been handed a breakfast biscuit or the like, wrapped in a foil wrapper, and your first thought was, “This is heavy.”?  I saw the description on a stand at the end of the table: I knew it was a biscuit with boudin and greens.  But my usual modus operandi is to go back for a second breakfast (after a polite wait, of course), be it a fresh serving or half The Wife’s.  Due to the sheer weight of what I held in my hand, I wasn’t sure that would happen this time.  The biscuit was squarish, flaky, and golden buttery brown.  The collaborative layer of collard and mustard greens was chock full of ham chunks.  The boudin was in patty form, crisp on the outside, perhaps pan-fried.  I’ve had boudin in many iterations – perhaps even in a biscuit once – but never in a biscuit with greens.  And each biscuit came with a tiny bottle of green Tabasco sauce, for those who dig it spicy.  It served as our breakfast, but I could have one at any point of the day.  Willa Jean?  I say, Willa Genius.  

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Two great starts to two great days.  Then again, it’s hard not to have a great day when they start off with happiness and joy, or in this case, ice cream and collards.  

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Tex-Mex and Tortas

(This post tells of the beginning and the ending of last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Appropriate, as the 2018 Symposium begins the day this posts to end this series of throwback thoughts.)

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my half a century.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned it once or thrice.  And it should be a surprise to no-one that as we travel, we find food traditions that are different than our own.  You don’t even have to go out of the country to see it.  Take barbecue for instance.  Eastern vs Western North Carolina styles.  Mustard sauce in South Carolina, white sauce in northern Alabama.  Beef brisket in Texas, mutton in Kentucky.  I could go on and on.  But if you take a minute to see past these differences, you might just see the common thread: people everywhere like barbecue of some sort.  Each style, flavor, meat and source of fire has its own team of loyal advocates, but ultimately they are champions of cooking proteins low and slow.

On the first night of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, we were treated to a dinner that crossed some of those style boundaries.  There is Mexican food, and there is Tex-Mex.  Though there is certainly some overlap between the two, Tex-Mex is a cuisine all it’s own.  Miguel and Modesty Vidal were our guest chefs, from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas.  Already another boundary crossed: not just Tex Mex, but Tex Mex BBQ.  These are some of my favorite food groups; I was feeling pretty good about this meal already.  

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We began with a ceviche that featured shrimp, fish and avocado.  If I’m not mistaken, it was at another SFA Symposium that I had my first experience with ceviche, and it was a good introduction.  This one was also a good introduction to the evening.    

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The sides came out family style, in large bowls that encouraged seconds.  First was a cole slaw made from purple cabbage.  Following closely behind was a bowl of smoked corn, reminiscent of Mexican street corn but freed from the cob.  Finally, we were brought a bowl of charro beans, creamy and peppery.  My favorite way to eat these was to get a little bit of each in one bite – crunchy slaw, smoky corn, and savory beans, all in one delicious mouthful.  I kept going back to that, even with the dishes that came next.  

The carnitas tacos were classic, no-frills street tacos – the best kind.  Tortillas, shredded pork, cilantro, and onions caramelized to the ultimate sweetness.  No other accoutrements needed.  Then came the smoked brisket.  It had a dark bark and was served with a bit of tangy sauce on the side.  Our table had one empty place as I recall, which meant there was more brisket and tacos for the rest of us, and that was a very good thing.   

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I was happy enough, but dessert was still to come: smoked bread pudding.  Fascinating.  It was typical in many ways in its construction, not too far off the traditional bread pudding path.  But the hint of smoke was unmistakable, just enough to let you know it was there.  

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The final evening meal of the weekend also represented a universal food.  In Starkville alone we have oodles of places to get a sandwich.  You can hardly throw a rock here and not hit a sandwich.  I have wondered sometimes if it was just us, but if I take a moment to stop and think, it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon.  Even in our house we regularly cross sandwich borders.  One of our favorite meals is a sandwich made simply with boiled eggs and feta cheese, best served on a crusty baguette.  We learned this one in our corner of the Middle East, the same region where I had a bean sandwich for the first time.  Last week we made paninis with our seriously under-used George Foreman grill and some Hawaiian chicken.  (That may be a stretch for a cross-cultural sandwich example, but it’s a start.)

In Mexico, the sandwich is called a torta.  Sounds like a tortilla, yes, but there’s no illa.  According to one source, the bread for a torta is usually round, and may have originated from French influence when France occupied Mexico back in the 1860’s.  That’s a border-crossing influence I never would have guessed.  

Our SFA meal was a Tale of Three Tortas, or as the menu said, Lodge Cast Iron Tortas del Munda (sandwiches of the world).  All had Latin influence, but each had its own flag planted firmly in the bread.  (Seriously.  There were little flags staked in the bread.) 

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Alex Raij is a New York City chef with Argentinian roots, serving foods from the Basque region of Spain in her restaurants.  Her sandwich featured bondiola (thin sliced pork shoulder, Argentinian style), charred eggplant mayo, and tximitxurri (also known as chimichurri), with shaved red cabbage slaw.  Another way to eat shoulder – score!

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Rodolfo Montero of El Molino in Charlotte made a Torta de Chorizo Espanol, with a side of black pealla (very black) with shrimp and cuttlefish. Sources say a similar Montero-made sandwich in it’s natural habitat (inside Sav/Way Foods) is magic.  Thank goodness Younger Brother lives in Charlotte.  I think it’s about time for a visit.  

Jonathan Magallanes, from Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Memphis, did his part with a Gulf Shrimp Torta, and more of that corn I love: Elotes (street corn) with Cotija (the Mexican version of Parmesan cheese) and Chile Pequin (a hot pepper).  Also from Memphis, La Michoacana (a Mexican ice cream parlor that seems to have much more than desserts) sent down some paletas (aka ice pops.)  I think it’s safe to say that ice pops span the world in one form or another as well, so these final bites certainly fit the theme.  Though we were sad that the Symposium was ending, it was a terrific taste on which to end.

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Lunch with Hugo Ortega

(Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 Symposium is almost here!  The lunches are coming, the lunches are coming… Meanwhile, a look back at one of 2017’s noontime culinary artistry, courtesy of Tabasco and Chef Hugo Ortega of Houston.)

Houston, Texas.  City of my birth.  City of NASA, which is the reason it was the city of my birth.  Not in any way due to an early-entry astronaut program (though I’m sure I would have qualified); rather, because my father was a mathematician for the Apollo Program.  Despite only having lived there the first five or so weeks of my life, I claimed to be a Texan for many moons.  

Houston has had a rough go of in recent years, particularly with all that Hurricane Harvey threw at it.  But there are many good things happening in Houston, too, and one of those is Chef Hugo Ortega.  

June 20, 2017, was Hugo Ortega Day in Houston.  That’s right, the mayor of Houston, Texas, made a declaration.  And if you read the list of Ortega’s accolades, this day was a long time coming.  He was also awarded Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation.  That’s kind of a big deal on its own, not to mention he was also the first Mexican-born chef to win a James Beard award. 

Given the national attention he, his restaurants, and his cookbooks have earned in the last couple of decades, would it surprise you to learn that his culinary career began as a dishwasher in one of the restaurants he now co-owns?  Chef Ortega immigrated to the US (Houston, in particular) in 1984, and after taking on a few other jobs, landed a position as a dishwasher at Backstreet Cafe.  Fast forward through a few promotions and completion of the culinary arts program at Houston Community College, he and his wife now co-own at least four celebrated restaurants in the Houston area, including Backstreet.  

At the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium earlier this month (2017), he won something else: the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.  Here is how the SFA describes this award: “The SFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to an individual whom all thinking eaters should know, the sort of person who has made an indelible mark upon our cuisine and our culture, the sort of person who has set regional standards and catalyzed national dialogues.”  I’ve only told you the highlights of Ortega’s remarkable career as a chef; add everything up, and this honor makes perfect sense.  

Every year the honoree receives a commissioned art piece by Oxford artist Blair Hobbs, and a short film is made about his/her life.  But it’s not every year that the attendees of the Symposium get to eat the honoree’s food.  This year we had the privilege of experiencing the reasons he is a perennial winner.  

As I have mentioned once or thrice, lunch at the SFA Symposium is so big that it requires a sponsor (this time, Tabasco) and has lately been served in multiple courses.  The treats that awaited us at the table that day may surprise the average local reader-eater, but are apparently quite common in Puebla, and Oaxaca, Mexico.  Bugs.  Oh, there was some queso del rancho, some chicharrones, and some huaxmole rojo.  But it was hard to overlook the bugs.  Chicatanas (flying ants) – “rich and beefy”, per our menu.  Chapulines (grasshoppers) – “taste acidic”.  And gusanos de maguey (agave worms) – “soft and milky”.  At first I just wasn’t sure.  But after The Wife tried one, I couldn’t let her outdo me.  Now I have been there and I have done that.  

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The next course was a tamal de elote (corn tamale) with queso fresco, crema and tomatillo criollo.  I have racked my second brain (aka the internet) trying to find a good definition of a criollo, to no avail.  But in this case, I think it was essentially a tomatillo salsa verde topping this tasty tamale.  

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Next we were presented with a plate of Chiles en Nogada.  This was a wild one, though again, it appears to be a classic dish in certain parts of Mexico.  Poblano chiles were stuffed with a picadillo, a mixture of shredded chicken, fruits, almonds and spices, then topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds.  Anybody had that at your local Mexican restaurant lately?  Yeah, I thought not.  And that may be because it’s not exactly easy to make, even if you are a James Beard award-winning chef.  We were told that Chef Ortega and his crew “began cleaning walnuts for the Chiles en Nogada this May.”  Wow.  Fascinating and beautiful.   

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The plate that followed was also a new entry into my Mexican lexicon: Tabasco Pepper Mash Mixiote de Res in Agave Skin.  Translated?  A Bag of Delicious.  Okay, so I took French in high school, not Spanish.  But surely that is close – at the very least, it is accruately descriptive.  Upon opening the little bag, I found tender beef chunks (de res) and cactus paddles, seasoned with avocado leaves and the aforementioned Tabasco pepper mash.  Traditionally this is cooked by burying in a pit, though it can be done in an oven.  I was getting a little full by this point in the meal (gusanos de maguey are surprisingly filling), but of course I didn’t let that stop me. 

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Nor did I let a little fullness keep me from dessert: Flan de elote (corn) with guava-tequila gelee, and brioche croutons.  Creamy and rich does not begin to describe this dish, of which I unashamedly ate at least two.  (It pays to linger at the table after these lunches.  Just sayin’.)  We even got a chance to try a little glass of Tejate, “a nonalcoholic, pre-Hispanic beverage made with maize and cacao.”  

Houston will recover, and you will want to visit – if not to calculate flight paths for the next space flight, at least to eat.    While there, celebrate with Chef Hugo Ortega.  Bugs optional.    

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Giving Lunch Its Due

(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is just days away.  Lunch is a big deal there, and the one described below was perfectly suited to last year’s El Sur Latino focus.)

I think lunch in the good ol’ USA gets a bum rap.  In some countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day.  There, if you’re going to get invited to a meal, it’s usually lunch.  There are courses sometimes.  And maybe tea afterwards.  And the best places are the ones that encourage naps after all that, as the good Lord intended.  (Otherwise why would we be sleepy after lunch?)

Meanwhile, in the 8 to 5-ish workweek here in America, if you get an hour to eat lunch (never mind the time it takes you to get to a restaurant and back) you’re pretty lucky.  Some get a half hour, and many eat at their desks or standing up while continuing to work.  Sunday lunch is about as close as many of us get to a leisurely noonday meal, save perhaps the occasional holiday feast.  

That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  There, lunch is celebrated.  The skills of the chef are extolled.  The tables are decorated to the nth degree.  The servers are given standing o’s.  And the eaters partake of multiple dishes that yesterday we didn’t know we loved.  These lunches are so big they require a sponsor.  

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Just an average lunch setup at the SFA…

Our first lunch of the weekend, brought to us by Springer Mountain Farms, featured Chef Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria Del Sol.  I was first introduced to this group of restaurants a few years ago in the Atlanta metro area – they have since expanded into Nashville.  Chef Eddie has developed a menu there that blends the flavors and traditions of his home, Monterrey, Mexico, and the American South.  I think I can say with 97% certainty that it was in one of his restaurants that I enjoyed my first barbecue taco, which he calls The Memphis: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce.  Since then I have had many, but Chef Eddie’s was my gateway barbecue taco.  

This SFA lunch was also given a name.  (Do you name your lunches?  No?  See what I mean?  No respect.)  He called it, “Five Stops on a Journey from Monterrey.”  The first stop on the journey was waiting for us on the tables: Cajun boiled peanuts with chile de arbol, a blend of flavors from Georgia, Louisiana and Mexico.  Boiled peanuts are a snack that I didn’t appreciate till I’d been overseas a few years and someone sent a pack to a friend of mine.  All of a sudden I became the expert in the room.

Next we were served a red chile pork tamale, inspired by his travels through Texas as a musician, where he learned, “just about everything goes with tamales.”  Apparently, even armadillo.  We were not served armadillo that day.  But I was intrigued by the story he told of the crawfish tamale with the etouffee sauce.  Tamales are another food I didn’t appreciate until adulthood – perhaps because as a youngster, I’d never seen one that didn’t emerge from a can.  Now that I’ve made them myself, it’s a whole new world of masa and more.  

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The next plate to come out was refried pinto bean tostadas with Doe’s Salad.  I haven’t been to Doe’s yet (I know, I know…it’s time to change that), so I haven’t had the salad.  But apparently their style of salad is similar to what is served in the ports of western Mexico, dressed with lemon and oil.  I was stunned at the brightness of flavor this salad brought to a refried bean tostada.  And somehow, some way, they also tasted buttery – it must have been the beans.  This was one of my favorite bites of the weekend, and from an informal poll (so informal you could call it eavesdropping, I guess) many others agreed with me.  

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Another favorite bite was his Chicken Pot Pie with a side of turnip greens. How many times have you heard about a taqueria with amazing turnip greens? These turnip greens are served at Taqueria del Sol and were featured in Garden and Gun magazine as one of 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Must Eat Before You Die.  (I carry that list when I travle.  Now make that 14 down, 86 to go.)  TDS greens have onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, chicken stock (no pork in these), and more chile de arbol.  Side note: my uber-powerful search engine tells me this pepper is also known as a bird’s beak chile or rat-tail chile, but I bet those names won’t be on the placard at the grocery.  

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Okay, back to the pot pie.  I grew up with chicken pot pie – the kind that started as a frozen block which could be used as a weapon, then after an interminable wait (those were the days before microwaves) were delivered with lava-hot insides to unsuspecting children.  This one was very, very different.  The secret, says Chef Eddie, was in roasting the chicken before putting it in the sauce.  And that sauce; it was so rich it almost had a sweet taste – I couldn’t get enough.  But what set this pot pie apart from any and all others I have ever enjoyed was the “crust”.  All this deliciousness came in a bowl made from a tortilla.  It was not crispy like a taco salad shell, but just hard enough to hold the filling.  Now I’m spoiled forever.  

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Dessert was one more blend of Mexico and the South: chocolate chimichanga with tequila-Grand Marnier cream sauce.  The dark chocolate filling and that drizzle of cream were made for each other, a want-to-lick-the-plate kind of experience.  (I settled for a serious plate-scraping with my fork.  There were lots of cameras around.)

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If you find yourself in Atlanta (and who doesn’t, eventually?), I suggest you find yourself at a Taqueria del Sol.  

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Fish are Friends..and Food

(Once again, I am back to the blog in anticipation of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, coming in just a couple of weeks.  Over those weeks I’ll be re-living the meals and mood of last year’s Symposium, El Sur Latino, by way of these written reflections.)

From toddler days through college years, much of the time I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house was on the golf course at the Redmont Country Club (in Red Bay, Alabama).  My grandfather, Pappy, was a pretty decent golfer; when it came to long drives, however, I was more interested in the cart than the club.  But my golf course memories actually have very little to do with golf, because most of that time we were fishing.  There’s no telling how many hours my brother and I spent out there with Pappy and Ma-Manie, our great-grandmother, who absolutely loved to fish.  In the early days we fished on the lakes for bream, maybe some bass. Later, they built another lake, and it was there that I first came across the catfish.  

Generally, Pappy did all the hands-on work once Younger Brother and I reeled them in – he didn’t want us to get cut by the fins, and that was perfectly fine by us.  Once they were cleaned (again, Pappy), Granny took over and handled the frying: usually whole fish coated in cornmeal and scored into finger-sized segments.  Oh, and she cooked it in the same oil every time.  (Fun fact: Granny passed away in 2013, and she had probably not fried fish since sometime shortly after Y2K.  Not long ago, after much wondering aloud about where it may have ended up, we found her cast iron pot in a corner of her outside kitchen…still full of grease.  We opted not to fry in it.)

Of course this was long before aquaculture (a fancy word for catfish farming) became one of Mississippi’s top five agricultural products (netstate.com).  And long before I was introduced to Taylor Grocery and some of the fine folks from Simmons Catfish.  Over the past few years, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, those introductions have turned into friendships.  

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Okay, I don’t know if you can have a friendship with a catfish joint, but I do like spending time with it.  Or in it, as the case may be.  Son even had some of his senior pictures made there.  In all the years I’ve gone to the SFA Symposium, we’ve been bussed out to Taylor for the Friday evening meal.  At first it was just a big plate of fresh-fried catfish with all the trimmings, and that was enough.  For folks like me who attended the Ole Alma Mater, it is a nostalgic trip (made even more so by the school bus style of carpooling.)  For those coming from out of town, out of state, and outside of the South, it provides a true taste of an Oxford institution.  In the past few years, however, the organizers have upped the ante, adding a couple of appetizer stations outside the restaurant.  

I’m not talking about fried cheese and wings here, people.  Not that kind of appetizer.  These are special.  The chefs who are invited to make these have essentially one guideline: they have to use the Simmons Catfish Delacata cut.  I’ve talked about this cut before, but let’s review.  The Delacata is a deep-skinned filet cut from the center, thickest part of the fish.  It’s skinless, boneless, hand-trimmed, and mild in flavor – sort of the filet mignon of the catfish.

Lis Hernandez, Chef-Owner of Arepa Mia in Atlanta, was manning the first station we came to.  Again, a quick review.  An arepa is a sandwich made from a corn cake that is split and stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness.  Chef Lis is originally from Venezuela, where she learned to make arepas from her mom.  A few years ago she served us breakfast arepas at the symposium, and I fell in love.  Just this year I was able to make it to one of her two Arepa Mia restaurants in Atlanta.  I’m a big fan.  On this night she made Delacata arepas, with a piece of the fried fish, jalapeno pico, cilantro sauce, lettuce and tomato.  Ours came right off the grill, piping hot and could have almost served as a small meal of its own.  That didn’t stop me, of course, and I didn’t leave a single crumb. 

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Arepa Mia Delacata

Up on the porch, Chef Jesus Carmona from Tacos Mariachi in Dallas, was dishing out Delacata tostadas.  I haven’t been to Dallas in a few years, but after taking a look at his menu, I think a trip may be in order.  He offers all the normal fillings like chicken, pork, steak, and tongue.  For the more daring, there are also tacos with grilled marinated octopus and huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle, aka corn smut).  I also noted mole fries and pork chicharron-crusted cod.  I already know my order.  For Symposium attendees he grilled the Delacata and dressed it with avocado crema, a dab of pico-like relish, and a generous portion of cilantro.  It was crunchy, creamy, and salty all in one great bite. 

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I call this, “Delaca-ta-co with Halo.”

 

For those who travel, particularly those who eat while you travel – or like me, those who travel to eat – consider this column a travel guide.  East to Atlanta for arepas, West to Dallas for all manner of tacos, north to Oxford for catfish and the trimmings, and south of the border to see where El Sur Latino was born.  And please save a seat for me.  

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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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