The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) is part of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The group’s mission is to document, study and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American south. Founded in 1999 in Birmingham by author and activist John Egerton, the SFA has been led since then by the affable and intelligent John T. Edge.
On to the food …
Friday night began at the Powerhouse (an event space in an old power station) where cocktails and snacks were provided by The Inn at Blackberry Farm, in Walland, TN. I didn’t get a list of what was served, but I recall many creative uses of that Southern standby – the peanut. We also saw a 20-minute documentary by Joe York and Randy Fertel on Jackson, Mississippi’s Big Apple Inn, who with their Pigs Ear Sandwich, is keeping a traditional southern foodway alive. Then it was on to Mississippi’s most famous catfish joint, Taylor Grocery. Chefs from around the region served up:
Smoked Catfish parfait with Caviar Sabayon – R.J. Cooper, Vidalia, Washington D.C.
Catfish Fritters with Cauliflower Slaw and Andouille Debris – Duane Nutter, One Flew South, Atlanta
In the Grocery:
Fried Catfish and Damn Good Hushpuppies – Lynn Hewlett, Taylor Grocery
Saturday’s morning schedule included talks by Alice Randall on Mother Maybelle’s (Carter) Cookbook and Jett Williams on Mother’s Best Flour: Hank Williams Sings for His Supper. And somewhat oddly, but happily, we were treated to a 60-minute set by Chicago-based soul singer Otis Clay and his five man band.
The day’s lunch was prepared by award-winning New York City Chef David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants. As it turns out, David was raised in Virginia, and therein explains some of his leanings toward pork and peanuts. I asked David if he was from the suburban Washington D.C. part of Virginia, or the country farm part of Virginia. His answer was “spent a lot of time in both.” Chef Chang served:
Benton’s Ham and Baby Lettuce, coffee vinaigrette
Bo Ssäm: Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, bibb lettuce & kimchi
Kimchi Brussels sprouts, peanuts
Afternoon talks included New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Brett Anderson discussing “What New Orleans Music Taught Me About New Orleans Food,” and Nick Marino, Managing Editor of Paste Magazine talking about “Chicken Imagery in Song.”
At night, back at Powerhouse, we were treated to a nouveau southern feast including roasted goat, boudin-stuffed turkey from Cochon (New Orleans), a cornucopia of side dishes from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (Birmingham) and beer from Lazy Magnolia Brewing. I loved the roast goat (pulled) served with sweet and savory chutneys, and a local version of Chimichurri sauce. As a reference point, not surprisingly, roast goat tastes similar to roast lamb.
The current top chef in Mississippi is John Currence. John won the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Chef: South.” His flagship restaurant is City Grocery, on the historic square in Oxford. More recently, he opened BBB (Big Bad Breakfast) and in the adjacent space, Snackbar. My last meal before driving back to Memphis and flying home was eggs, grits, house smoked bacon, red eye gravy, tomato gravy and biscuits at BBB.
It was my first red-eye gravy (REG). I had naively assumed that REG had red beans in it, but I now know that is incorrect. Traditionally, red-eye gravy is a reduction of leftover pan ham fat and coffee, and it’s often sweetened with sugar. The waitress at BBB told me that Chef Currence’s version uses ham drippings, Coca Cola and molasses. It was good on grits, but I still prefer butter. As an aside, BBB does a brisk business in custom made BBB T-shirts. My favorite had the restaurant logo, and the catch phrase, “Lard Have Mercy.”
As you can sense, I ate well and enjoyed myself. But I am glad that I do not live in this region, if for no other reason than that it would be all too tempting to eat the things you have just read about … all the time.
Post contributed by Rick Smilow, President & CEO of The Institute of Culinary Education. Born in Annapolis, MD, and a graduate of Emory in Atlanta, Smilow considers himself 25 percent southern.