[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.