Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2009: a report from the twice-over awesome Adrian Miller & The Rabbi
Cool & amazing things are what happen when you’re busy making other cool & amazing things happen, to paraphrase Lennon. As wrapped up as I am in the Starz Denver Film Festival, I’m aware the world is going on elsewhere without me—especially in Oxford, Mississippi, where the Southern Foodways Alliance, a renowned organization dedicated to “documenting, studying & celebrating the diverse food cultures of the changing American South,” held its annual symposium on Halloween weekend.
Upon discovering that not 1 but 2 fine gentleman-scholars I know & respect were attending this year, I had no choice but to browbeat them into interviews. You may have met Adrian Miller, an expert in both policy analysis for Governor Ritter & in soul food, when I profiled him here; now meet The Rabbi, aka Mark Rabinowitz. I first encountered the cofounder of major film-industry site indieWIRE & author of The Rabbi Report 2 years ago when he came to cover SDFF 30; I’ve since learned he knows as much about food as he does about movies—including this dessert he sampled at David Chang’s [of Momofuku] symposium luncheon (about which more below. The 1st course was apparently a baby lettuce & ham salad with coffee vinaigrette, something I’d slaughter the pig myself for right about now).
Momofuku Milk Bar‘s famous crack pie
What brought you to the symposium this year?
MR: I was in the midst of a 9-week road trip around the South in pursuit of film festivals, minor league baseball, good food & civil rights monuments. During the Florida Film Festival, my friend Sigrid Tiedtke mentioned that the SFA director [& acclaimed food writer] John T. Edge was a friend of hers. The name rang a bell & I realized it was his book, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South, I’d been using as one of my culinary guidebooks to the region.
A couple of weeks later, I drove to Oxford to meet John T. (as he’s known) as well as John Currence, owner of 4 fabulous Oxford restaurants. John T. and I had breakfast at Currence’s legendary Big Bad Breakfast & that was that: I committed to attending on the spot.
AM: I’ve attended the SFA Symposium since 2002. As with Rabbi Mark, it started with John T. Edge. I was in the initial phases of researching my soul food history [more on which in the abovelinked blogpost] & I came across the Southern Foodways Alliance. I e-mailed John T., & after a brief exchange, he persuaded me to attend the SFA’s field trip to Austin, TX. Every year the SFA symposium has a theme & a corresponding field trip to reflect the theme. In 2002, the theme was barbecue.
I ended up spending 3 days in Austin & environs on a SFA-curated barbecue tour. It was 3 of the happiest days of my life. I figured that a group tour set up would have lots of leftovers, so I brought plastic food storage bags. I talked the hotel into letting me store the barbecue in its restaurant’s refrigerator. Everyone on the trip was clowning me, but they were really jealous when I went home with several bags of excellent barbecue. Even the airline folks wanted to “confiscate” the bag when I checked it!
Since that time, I’ve been a SFA “lifer.” I’ve gone to every symposium since, & I served on the board. In fact, I was responsible, along with John T., for cooking up the yearly themes & symposium programming. My term ended with this symposium, so it was bittersweet. I did get a ceramic pig as a parting gift for my service. It was awkward when the TSA agent at the Memphis Airport said “Sir, do you have a piggy bank in your carryon?” I’m sensing a theme here with the SFA and airports.
Speaking of themes, this year’s was
Others, for instance those Adrian has helped plan, have been Food & Race, The Gulf South, & Sugar. What did you appreciate most about this year’s theme?
AM: I really enjoyed the Saturday afternoon segment where [journalist, author & jazz pianist] Tom Piazza, [music critic] Nick Marino, and [author & humorist] Roy Blount, Jr. all held forth on food imagery in music. I think Tom Piazza had the best line at the symposium when he referenced the blues lyric “I heard the voice of a pork chop.”
MR: There’s a visceral and emotional connection to both food & music that starts very early in life. But on this one I have to admit to being a bit of a douche—I missed what was apparently the musical highlight of the event, the morning performance/invocation by [soul & gospel legend] Otis Clay & his band. As for other performances, I have to echo Adrian below & say that Ballet Memphis’s Chitlin Ballet was exceptional.
What was one of the most surprising moments of the symposium?
MR: I’m not sure “surprising” is the right word for it, but [New Orleans Times-Picayune dining critic] Brett Anderson’s speech about New Orleans music & food was an unexpectedly moving experience, as Brett had to stop several times to compose himself while discussing Katrina. All the video coverage in the world can’t make up for witnessing pure human emotion up close & personally. But what most struck me overall was the summer camp aspect. For those of you who have never been to camp, at the best of them, the last day is heartbreaking. You just don’t want to leave. And on Sunday, Oxford’s historic Courthouse Square was full of dawdling symposium attendees, dragging their heels.
AM: For me it was the Chitlin Ballet performed on Sunday morning [pictured above]. Roy Blount, Jr. has collected 1000s of songs that reference Southern food, and he donated them to the University of Mississippi archives. Someone took the time to carefully craft a ballet from all the source material, and it was wonderfully danced by the Ballet Memphis. I was curious about it when I saw it on the program…and I’m still curious.
What were some of your favorite dishes?
MR: David Chang’s Bo Ssäm (slow-roasted pork shoulder) was amazing & perfectly paired with kimchi brussels sprouts & whole peanuts.
Then there was a book signing sponsored by the National Peanut Board, with food & cocktails prepared by Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm with refreshments based on, well, peanuts. Peanuts are legumes; if handled correctly, the bean-pea flavor of the peanut comes out. The farm’s pork rillettes with peanuts were amazing, as was a cocktail of strained, boiled peanut milk with Jameson’s, amaretto &, believe it or not, roasted marshmallow syrup. [pause for my drool]
AM: I thought David Chang’s meal was amazing too, but my heart & stomach go to the Sunday brunch [menu below] that was prepared by Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef Restaurant in Houston, Texas, &
John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford.
We always have a slammin’ brunch to round out the weekend, & this one didn’t disappoint. I was especially seduced by the gumbo gravy (essentially gumbo). The menu paired it with biscuits, but I decided to ladle it over a soft pillow of true Southern grits–never instant! It was yummy!
White Lily Biscuit Brunch
Piping-Hot White Lily Biscuits with Gumbo Gravy
Big Bad Bacon & Breakfast Sausage
Straight-Outta-the-Gulf Fish with Pecan and Shallot Cracklins, Potlikker, & Collards
Next year, my turn.