Sunday, October 28
Praise the Lard and Pass the Biscuits
“Would y’all please take your seats?” Every morning began this way, with SFA board member John T. Edge using his Southern charm to coax people into their seats. And this, the last morning of the conference, was no different. A ceremony was about to begin: awarding Alice Waters with the key to Oxford and Roy Blount Jr. with an Oxford SWAT team T-shirt (he had requested being made temporary sheriff—the T-shirt was a consolation gift).
In a church service of sorts, Waters was there to spread the gospel of the Edible Schoolyard and how its implementation across the country could be the answer to a lot of what ails us: childhood obesity, depleting family farms, and faltering school systems. For the most part she was preaching to the choir, with the exception of Gillian Clark, chef-owner of the Colorado Kitchen and a former schoolteacher, who questioned how putting one more responsibility on the backs of underpaid, overworked public schoolteachers could possibly be a good thing. Clearly the dialogue has just begun, and as with any call to action there will be a learning curve on both sides. Thoughts were provoked, and then it was time for breakfast.
Brunch was held at City Grocery, a beloved Oxford eatery. We had creamy grits, house-made sausage patties, herbed biscuits, and, of course, bacon. The food was delicious, but it was time for me to go. With a tinge of sadness I took my last bite of bacon, licked my fingers, and hit the road.
Saturday, October 27
“Without you I’d be umpteen pounds lighter and a lot less alive,” read Kevin Young from his poem titled “Ode to Pork”; we all nodded our heads in agreement and popped more roasted peanuts in our mouths. Literature and history were the topics of the morning, and to make sure no one dozed off we’d been given provisions of Coca-Cola and roasted peanuts.
The sun finally came out in Oxford today, and for the first time during the symposium we were happy to be eating lunch outside. Celebrating the next generation of Southern chefs we were treated to braised pork cheeks with Anson Mills polenta, onion jam, and pickled turnips all prepared by the young chef Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia.
To round out our education we got a science lesson by Sean Brock, chef of McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina. With the help of Shirley Corriher and a cotton candy machine, Brock demonstrated how you can take just about anything—in this case, boiled peanuts—and turn it into ethereal little strings of spun sugar. The smell of toasted peanuts, salt, and sugar filled the auditorium as Brock poured peanut powder into the machine and people rushed the stage to get a taste of this feat of molecular gastronomy.
After science class I decided to head over to see how Ed Mitchell and his pigs were doing. I arrived in time to witness a fury of chopping and pulling: The crew had just taken the pigs off the smoker and was preparing them for tonight’s dinner. Grease and juices were pouring off the chopping block, and the guys were slipping and sliding as they worked. The vinegar-doused pork was the highlight of tonight’s “Year of the Pig Feed,” but there were other equally delectable morsels: deep-fried boudin balls, pig ears in mustard sauce, and rutabaga and yam gratin just to name a few. I was surrounded by blissful, albeit greasy, faces; I even saw Alice Waters go back for seconds.
Friday, October 26
A Mouthful of Mississippi
The day started on a scholarly note. We discussed the history that has led to the almost nonexistence of homegrown African American celebrity chefs and how the words barbarian and barbecue are interrelated. We then were joined by Amy Evans, oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance. She shared photos and stories from her travels gathering information on the lives of the people who make Southern food. One of her recent projects was creating the Southern Boudin Trail. Boudin is a fresh sausage filled with pork and rice native to Cajun country. After about five minutes of Evans’s talk everyone in the room was salivating, so it was time to adjourn for lunch.
Much to our delight, on the menu was that distinctive porky sausage we had just been discussing, as well as succotash, sweet potato salad, coconut cake, and another smoked sausage called Elgin Hot Guts. I didn’t ask what constituted hot guts sausage (knowledge has a way of killing your appetite); whatever it was was meaty, juicy, and infused with just the right amount of smokiness.
With our bellies full of pork once again, we headed back to class to be schooled in the “State of the Plate.” Fried chicken, greens, cornbread, and coconut cake were all up for discussion. The speakers were insightful and eloquent, giving brief histories of each foodstuff and where it stands today. You can’t have food without something to drink, so the next topic was the “State of the Pour,” where we discussed absinthe and the classic New Orleans cocktail the Sazerac.
We were dismissed from class and told to grab a sweater and a hat and meet back at the local arts center. When we arrived, a long table was arranged with 300 shots of Jack Daniel’s to prepare us for our trip on a double-decker bus headed for Taylor, Mississippi. Taylor, a small town outside Oxford, is said to have the best fried catfish in the world. I can attest to that statement: The catfish was moist and delicate and covered in a sandy-colored, crunchy breading. While it was unfortunate we were not having pork, my porcine deficiency was cured by my tablemate, Ed Mitchell. Mitchell, his crew, and their semi truck–size barbecue pit would be cooking up Mitchell’s infamous North Carolina–style whole hog barbecue for us tomorrow night.
Thursday, October 25
Food Stories, Food Poetry, Food People
The elevator reeked of bacon this morning: Breakfast was cooking. I sat next to a fellow named Rathead and his wife, Linda. As we munched on fresh bacon, Dr Pepper–glazed ham, and ambrosia, we chatted about family and Rathead’s fascination with Southern food, which is completely unrelated to his daily life as an insurance salesman.
Soon after the class ended, I made my way over to the beautifully restored Nutt Auditorium on the University of Mississippi campus to catch the Thacker Mountain radio show, a sort of bluesier version of A Prairie Home Companion. It was the program’s annual food show, in honor of the symposium. It featured the Kitchen Sisters relaying stories from their trip to Texas, some cocktail tips from Esquire magazine’s David Wondrich, and an amusing reading of food poetry by Roy Blount Jr.
At dinner, I found myself sitting at a table with Kim Severson, food writer for the New York Times, and Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as an English professor, a lawyer, and Scott Peacock, chef of Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. And herein lies the beauty of the Southern Foodways Symposium: There are no criteria for attending, other than an interest in supporting and sustaining Southern traditions. Well, there is the food too, which is reason enough.
Wednesday, October 24
You’ve got to love a place where Hambone is a common name (I’ve met two of them already). Welcome to Greenwood, Mississippi, where thanks to the vision of Fred Carl, the CEO and founder of Viking, the town has transformed from a bygone cotton burg to a viable Delta community.
Upon arrival we received church fans, just in case it got hot, and hopped in a van to tour Greenwood’s milk and honey, the Viking plant. Originally we were supposed to be touring the range-making facilities, but due to some undisclosed breakdown we had to settle for the refrigeration factory instead. We saw a lot of metal and plastic parts, and got a good dose of the company’s history. Carl, a native of Greenwood, decided he wanted to make professional-style ovens for home cooks; 20 years later, Viking is basically sustaining this small Mississippi town.
This being a pig festival, it was now time to get down to business. First on the hog agenda was a class on breaking down a pig, taught by the sausage king of San Francisco, Bruce Aidells. It is not often you get to see the whole hog turned into quick-cured bacon and York-style ham in no time. Then it was off to the boucherie, a communal butchering. Ours was prepared by Donald Link, chef and coproprietor of New Orleans restaurants Cochon and Herbsaint, and was spectacular: whole boneless pig, slow-roasting since eight in the morning, accompanied by baked Alabama sweet potatoes, black-eyed-pea gumbo, greens, and Abita Beer. For dessert, fried pies—chocolate and apple. We’ll be eating our bacon and ham from today’s class tomorrow for breakfast; tonight I anticipate a spirited dialogue between my head and my stomach.
Tuesday, October 23
Before the Storm
I’m anticipating my upcoming trip with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. Starting Wednesday, I’ll be in Greenwood and Oxford, Mississippi, attending the annual Southern Foodways Symposium. In its 10th year, the conference is focused on reassessing the state of Southern food. It is organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group of dedicated individuals whose sole purpose is to document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South. I intend to be educated. I’ll be attending a class on “The Science Behind Crispy and Flaky” (I’m not sure if that means pie crust or fried food), as well as lectures on everything from coconut cake to thoughts on class and consumption. And of course I will eat well: This being the year of the pig, there will be a whole hog barbecue, not to mention plentiful boudins, cracklings, and bacon. So join me as I find my inner Southerner and attempt to pace myself at the dinner table.