Posts Tagged With: sweet potato

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’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.  


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.  


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.  



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.  


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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Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival

Mississippians are truly fortunate.  Those reading this within the blessed border should already know what I mean.  Those reading from foreign lands like Cyprus, Egypt, or Kentucky may be suspicious.  We do get a bad rap sometimes because of various and sundry rankings, some of which may or may not be related to our interest in frying our edibles.  But the truth is that we grow some of the healthiest food in the country.  Consider the sweet potato.

According to a poster I recently saw on the wall of the school cafeteria in Vardaman, The Sweet Potato Capital of the world, sweet potatoes are virtually fat-free, cholesterol-free, and loaded with anti-oxidants like vitamins A, C and E.  I even saw a couple of references that made the claim of it being one of, if not THE most nutritious vegetable around.  Mississippi definitely has reason to be proud as one of the top five sweet potato-producing states.  And according to the poster, 90% of the ones grown in Mississippi are within a 40 mile radius of Vardaman.  Sweet potato capital, indeed.

As I began to think about this subject, I was sitting in BIN 612 having lunch and added a sweet potato to my order.  Nutrition aside, I like their versatility.  Baked, I can take the cinnamon/brown sugar route or simple salt and pepper (both must have butter.)  Mashed, they go in my biscuits, cornbread and grits.  I like them diced in my soup or sliced and candied like Mama used to make.  It didn’t cross my mind until my lunch arrived that the next day I would be headed to Vardaman for an afternoon of sweet potato eating.  I ate it anyway, but I’m sure all the other folks at the BIN wondered why I was grinning at my food.

This was my second year as a judge for the annual Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, held on the last day of the week-long festival honoring the orange root.  You would think I would have learned something from last year, when I waddled away from Vardaman, full as the proverbial tick.  But no, my attempts at moderation were defeated.  I succumbed to the versatility of the sweet potato and the creativity of the worthy cooks of Vardaman, Mississippi.  Willingly.

After the judges were paired up, we were asked if we had a preference of categories.  I knew we couldn’t go wrong in any of the genres, but given the proclivity for pies and cakes, I wanted to check out the savory recipes, so my partner and I headed off to the miscellaneous table.  Some of the entries were still sweet, such as the Sweet Potato-Pineapple casserole, a Sweet Potato Honey Bun Cake that may have been the sweetest bite in my mouth that day, and a Sweet Potato Flan.  A Sweet Potato Harvest Dip, served with vanilla wafers, was contained in a pig, cleverly carved from a fat sweet potato; had there been a design category, this surely would have won.  Something called Tater Wraps was also on the sweet side – a chunk of sweet potato wrapped with strips of dough and smothered in glaze – one of my favorites of the day.

Sweet Potato Wraps

Sweet Potato Wraps

We did eventually get to the savory dishes I had requested.  There was a Sweet Potato Shrimp Dip, a Sweet Potato Salad (think normal potato salad, but with pineapple instead of onion and lots more color), and Sweet Potato Cornbread Poppers.  The Poppers were little cookie-sized pieces of cornbread that were dotted with lots of other veggies, too, including greens.  Vardaman Trash was basically a hot refried bean and cheese dip with chunks of sweet potato mixed throughout.  Definitely a first for me, but I liked the sweetness the potatoes brought to the bite.  Leading the winners in this category was something called Southwestern Duo, another hot and spicy dip with chicken, black beans, corn and – of course – sweet potato.  (That was kind of a requirement.)  Multiple bites of this certainly contributed to the difficulty I had in sitting up straight an hour or so later.  Rounding out the winners was another first that I hope is not the last: Sweet Potato Deviled Eggs.  Just like regular deviled eggs (if there is such a thing as regular), but with pureed sweet potato mixed in with the yolks.

Sweet Potato Cornbread Poppers

Sweet Potato Cornbread Poppers

The one savory dish in the men’s category was a dip called Sweet Buffalo Chicken.  The buffalo sauce may have taken over the sweet potato in flavor and color, but hiding all that nutrition underneath the melted cheese might be a good way to get the kiddos to eat more of it!  The men of Vardaman also provided us with a Ponana Pudding Pie (you can probably figure out what was in that one) and perhaps the most unique recipe I saw that day: Sweet Potato Tomato Soup Cake.  Granted, there was not a lot of tomato soup in the recipe, but still – it’s not an everyday ingredient in the sweet shop.

The Youth category may have given us the widest range of dishes.  On the sugary side we had the winning Sweet Potato Bars and a Loaded Baked Sweet Potato (with roasted pecans and caramel sauce).  A Sweet Potato Omelet was a breakfast option and a Quesadilla represented international food.

The Mayor’s Cup winner was Wilma Johnson for her Simply Delicious Sweet Potato Cake.  (It was.) Lindsey Wade took second for her Sweet Potato Caramel Butter Bars – I couldn’t quit eating these.  Third place was Barbara Williams for a Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Pie.  It had coconut in it, but it looked like the kind of pie I would otherwise love.

Sweet Pig-Tato

Sweet Pig-Tato

Once I had tried everything I wanted (and snagged a cream cheese-stuffed muffin for the road) I moved the seat back as far as I could safely go, loosened my belt buckle, and regretted not wearing pants with an elastic waist.  Happily stuffed, and a bag of Vardaman’s finest in the back seat, I set out for home.

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