My eyes were riveted on my laptop screen like a prepubescent adolescent’s anxiously awaiting Justin Bieber concert tickets to go on sale. The last few minutes went by with excruciating slowness, my hands poised over the keyboard.
Suddenly the registration link activated. One click and it filled the screen. Hurriedly typing in my personal and credit card information, I made several spelling mistakes in my haste. Only after the confirmation number appeared did I sit back and relax. I’d done it! I was going to the 15th Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Miss. on Oct. 19-21, 2012.
According to its website, the Southern Foodways Alliance “documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor – all who gather – may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.”
“A member-supported nonprofit, based at the University of Mississippi, we stage symposia on food culture, produce documentary films, collect oral histories and publish compendiums of great writing. In the Atlantic Monthly, [food writer] Corby Kummer dubbed the SFA ‘this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.’”
They also throw one helluva party.
My first sojourn to the SFA’s annual symposium was in 2010. Each year has a different theme, and 2010’s topic was the Global South, an exploration of how immigrants have affected Southern cuisine that ranged from African slaves who taught their owners how to grow rice in the Carolinas and Louisiana (their masters claimed credit for that expertise) to a more recent influx of Vietnamese who have found that the Mississippi Delta as it flows into the Gulf of Mexico provided similar shrimp catching opportunities as their native Mekong Delta. At lunch one day, I sat at a table with three attendees who argued at length about whether Memphis could truly be considered Southern.
Serious stuff. (OK, maybe not the Memphis debate) But the symposium lecturers were a perfect blend of serious, lighthearted and even artistic speakers. The food was phenomenal; so was the camaraderie. I knew absolutely no one, but as food world folks usually are, the 400 plus attendees were a gregarious bunch: chefs, food writers, academics, artisanal producers and some just interested in Southern food culture. Most were Southerners, but there were significant numbers of Northerners from coast to coast, including representatives from national publications and other media such as CNN.
I had wanted to attend this year’s event, but my enthusiasm skyrocketed upon learning that this year’s topic was barbeque. I wasn’t alone: for the first time only SFA members could register. The day after registration began, an SFA email arrived: the symposium had sold out in 12 minutes; lots of folks had been badly disappointed.
The knowledge that we were the fortunate few added a dash of excitement to the already upbeat crowd that gathered in Oxford, Miss. last month. True to form, the SFA had meticulously organized three incredible days of education and entertainment. That barbeque can be a subject for serious study was made clear by a Politics of Protein and Tomatoes panel discussion between a workers’ rights activist, a cattleman (cattleperson?), and a pig preservationist. If Taiwanese/Southerner Eddie Huang and Mexican-American Gustavo Arellano ever decide to quit their food-related careers, they’d make phenomenal stand-up comedians. The Food Network’s Alton Brown provided a scientific analysis of what makes great barbeque.
Naturally barbeque appeared in multiple forms: smoked brisket-and-egg breakfast tacos, hickoried white sauce chicken, beef ribs and whole hog among them. But the most astonishing meal was a vegetable lunch by North Carolinian Ashley Christiansen. The 12-course riff barbeque sides, was easily the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had, with such offerings as smoked tomato pie with silver queen cornbread with whipped corn cream, coal-roasted sweet potatoes with red-eye sorghum butter and creamed cider-braised Carolina “salad.” I’m hoping to get some of those recipes to pass along to IT readers.
The SFA website, www.southernfoodways.com, has a wealth of interesting and informative material.
The SFA Community Cookbook says, “When John Egerton was researching his book Southern Food, he found 16 alternate spellings of pilau – purloo being one of them. In The Carolina Rice Kitchen, Karen Hess wrote, ‘Word and dish come from Persia; the Persian word pilau took various forms in the countries to which the dish spread, such as pullau in India, pilaf in turkey and pelau in Provence.”’
This version from South Carolinian Robert Stehling, adapted from a recipe in the SFA Community Cookbook, includes eggplant as well as the traditional okra, another African/Southern transplant.
• 1 approximately 4-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces
• Kosher salt
• 3 T. bacon fat or peanut or other vegetable oil, divided
• 2 c. diced yellow onions, NOT supersweet
• 1 c. diced celery
• 2 T. minced garlic
• 1/2 c. diced green or red bell pepper
• 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
• 1/4 tsp. dried basil
• 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 c. peeled and diced eggplant
• 2 c. long-grain white rice
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 c. diced tasso or other smoked ham
• 2 c. sliced okra
• 1/4 c. red wine
• 2 1/2 c. canned whole tomatoes, chopped
• 2 c. chicken stock
• Hot sauce, optional
About 4 hours before beginning the recipe, combine 1 cup kosher salt and a gallon of cool water in a large bowl. Stir until the salt completely dissolves. Add the chicken and let stand.
Drain the chicken pieces and pat them dry with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 375°
Heat one tablespoon of the bacon fat or oil in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium high heat. Brown the chicken pieces on all sides, then transfer them to a bowl and set aside.
Add the onion and a teaspoon of fat, if needed, to the pan. Sauté until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the celery, another additional teaspoon of fat if needed, and sauté until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, bell pepper, red pepper flakes, basil, thyme, and bay leaves and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant, another teaspoon fat if needed, and sauté until it’s tender, about 4 minutes. Spread the vegetables and pan juices evenly in a shallow 3-4 quart ovenproof casserole dish.
Heat 2 teaspoons of fat in the sauté pan. Add the rice and sauté until lightly toasted, 2-3 minutes. Spread the rice in an even layer over the vegetables in the casserole. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, remembering that the chicken has been salted during the brining.
Heat another teaspoon of fat in the pan. Add the ham and sauté until it’s fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the okra. Sauté until lightly brown, about 6-8 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the pan is almost dry. Add the tomatoes and simmer vigorously until the mixture thickens, about 6 minutes. Spread the okra mixture evenly over the rice.
Bring the stock to a boil in a saucepan and set aside. Arrange the chicken pieces over the rice, placing the legs and thighs around the edges and the breast pieces in the center. Add any pan juices from the bowl.
Pour the hot stock over the casserole; cover tightly with a lid or foil. Bake until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, about an hour. Serve hot. Serves 4-6
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.