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An Edible Alliance

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An Edible Alliance
Text by Rien Fertel / Photos by Denny Culbert

CELEBRATING ITS FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY,
THE ESTEEMED SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE PREPARES FOR ITS ANNUAL SYMPOSIUM.

HERE’S A LOOK AT THE TEAM WHO MAKES IT ALL HAPPEN.

In October 2006, over a chilly weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, I unexpectedly fell in love with a group of 250 strangers. We were a diverse group of culinary professionals and Southern food devotees joining over a common table. We shared stories over plates of fried catfish; laughed at ourselves as we shamelessly gobbled down Barq’s root beer and roasted peanuts for breakfast (immersing the goobers in the soda bottle for maximum effect); and became fast friends while sopping cornbread in Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins’s peanut and shrimp-laced Velvet Soup.

The common table that weekend had been set by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi-based organization devoted to “documenting, studying, and celebrating the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” Since 1999, the SFA has collected over a thousand oral histories; produced nearly forty documentaries; and published a quarterly journal, a community cookbook, a Southern foodways encyclopedia, a forthcoming scholarly essay collection astutely named The Larder, and six installments of their Cornbread Nation anthology series (with a seventh on the way).

But at the heart of the SFA’s intellectual and celebratory mission is their annual Fall Symposium, this year marking its fifteenth anniversary. This year’s theme, “Women at Work,” will explore the role of female cooks, farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs. Talks cover everything from the history of Duke’s mayonnaise to a pie versus cake Lincoln-Douglas debate. There will be toasted cornmeal pound cake for breakfast and a supper featuring a mighty triumvirate of famous fried chicken cooks hailing from Tennessee, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

At the heart of the heart of the symposium is the SFA’s core team. Each member rarely receives enough praise for his or her fine work in fulfilling the organization’s mission. Today, the common table is set just for them.

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Melissa Hall / Photos by Denny Culbert

John T. Edge

I direct the SFA. That means I work with my colleagues to keep our organization focused on its mission. I also help shape how SFA tells stories to members as well as outside audiences. I raise the dollars that fund our operations. And I ask goofball questions like, “Hey, what if we constructed a bacon tree and installed it at the symposium?”

The SFA defines its mission as setting “a common table” regardless of race, class, and history. Which individuals and/or groups inspired this ethic?

I came to the University of Mississippi fixed on studying race relations. I love my region. But I’m angered as all get-out by the failures of leadership that have bedeviled this place, especially the failures of state and local leadership in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education that still reverberate today. So I came here to study race relations with the idea that after grad school I could contribute to a progressive and better South. Reading the works of John Egerton and Jessica Harris, on both race and food, studying with scholars like Charles Wilson, Bill Ferris, and Ted Ownby, I came to see that I could write and think about food and, potentially, have a positive effect on race relations in my region. The SFA followed a similar path, organizationally. We’ve taken our cues from those scholars and thinkers. Most important, we’ve embraced the intellectually curious and inclusive ethic of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, our parent institute, which pioneered regional studies in the United States.

This October the SFA celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the first symposium, which was titled “The Evolution of Southern Cuisine.” How have you seen Southern Cuisine evolve over these years?

We’ve become far more self-confident about our cuisine. We’ve recognized food—from fried chicken to collards to gumbo—as a regional totem. And I think we’re beginning to get past this omnipresent effort to preserve our past. SFA is focused on documenting Southern food as it evolves, not preserving it in amber.

How has the SFA evolved over this period?

We began as an insurgent organization with great intentions, no experience, and no money. Now we’re the supposed grownup in the field. We have been granted an oversized megaphone to shout out stories about our region, stories that matter, stories that challenge us to think in new ways about race, class, gender, and regional identity. That’s a big responsibly. We aim to meet it.

What role do you think the SFA as played in that evolution? How have y’all changed the way Americans eat? 

The SFA has been granted a megaphone. On a national level, people now listen to what we have to say. And we have a responsibility to leverage that influence for a better, more progressive South.

In a larger sense, what responsibility does the SFA have to encourage its members to rethink the South?

Southerners are less insecure about their culinary culture now. I’d like to think that SFA documentary work and events have turned a mirror on the region and fostered some of that attitude change. I hope we have also helped people outside the region understand, through what might be termed celebratory activism, that Southern farmers, artisans, and cooks have stories to share and lessons to teach.

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Melissa Hall / Photos by Denny Culbert

Melissa Hall

My focus as SFA’s assistant director is outreach, donor relations, and long-range planning. Like most of the staff, I began as a volunteer. In 2003 I volunteered at the Fall Symposium, [making] thirteen half gallons of pimento cheese and in 2004 a thousand deviled eggs. I was hooked. Since joining the SFA’s staff, I’ve led field trips and Summer Symposiums, organized countless Potlikker Film Festivals across the region (and beyond), and served as operations manager for eight Fall Symposiums.

A thousand deviled eggs?!?

I moved to Oxford in 2001. There was a story about the SFA in the Oxford Eagle, just after the first Barbecue Symposium (2002). I was an avid home cook and a voracious reader of food magazines. I asked a friend of mine to introduce me to John T. because I thought I might like to “do something for the SFA.” She did. John T. and I met for lunch. He asked if I would be willing to serve as mistress of pimento cheese for the upcoming symposium. The job was this: The SFA would put out a call (in newspapers across the region) asking for folks to send in their favorite pimento cheese memory and recipe. My task was to read the entries, test the recipes, and compile a book of the recipes and stories. And, at the reception celebrating the contest, make enough pimento cheese for a cocktail party of 250 guests. The previous year’s contest, a celebration of potato salad and cole slaw, had yielded about fifty stories and recipes. The pimento cheese contest yielded about 350 stories and recipes. On Friday night of the 2003 symposium, folks tasted the top five recipes and heard the top five stories. The Pimento Cheese Queen was crowned. I made countless individual batches during the testing/scoring process. My food processor limped through the project but had to be put down shortly after the symposium. The SFA called the next spring and asked if I’d be up for a deviled egg contest. Same story but this time 250 stories and recipes. And for Friday night of the 2004 symposium I made a thousand deviled eggs. A thousand.

I’ve talked to numerous people over the years who, upon leaving their first SFA Symposium, declared it the best-run, most fun event they’ve experienced. What is the organization’s secret to coordinating and executing the perfect party?

I’m not sure I’d call it a secret. SFA staff spends a HUGE amount of time discussing and planning how we will execute each part of the event. And we have a great time doing it. Yes, it’s exhausting and overwhelming, but we really do love it. And I think that shows. We tend to view the symposium as a series of small events rather than the behemoth it is. That makes the work manageable and helps us create a punch list for what needs to happen at each moment in the weekend. Let’s take Saturday at the symposium as an example. The SFA staff doesn’t view it as a day, we see it as six separate events in one day—breakfast, morning talks, plated lunch, afternoon talks, reception, awards, supper. Each of those six events has its own to-do list, equipment needs, and volunteer requirements. It is our intention to tell a comprehensive and cohesive story throughout the whole of the weekend. We don’t really advertise that that’s what we’re trying to do. We just do it. Practically that means every bite of food, every drink, every snack, every give away, and every atmospheric (bacon forest, 45s and LPs hanging from the ceiling, vegetables on a clothesline) is meant to illustrate the larger theme of the weekend or to underscore a talk guests have just heard or are about to hear. We do that hoping that folks will walk away knowing that the experience they had was somehow different from all the other conferences they’ve attended. Even if they can’t say why exactly.

You recently described the SFA as “magpies for new technology.” How so?

We are always looking for new and compelling ways to tell the SFA story. Right now we have nearly a thousand oral histories and close to forty films. We add new projects and

new films every year. Our hope with any new technology is that it’s going to help us share that content in innovative and intriguing ways. In other words, draw more folks in to meet the people behind the food.

What are the themes of future symposia?

Next year, 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of the restaurant in the South, will be the year of “Inclusion and Exclusion in Southern Food,” 2015 will be the year of “Southern Food and Pop Culture,” and, in 2016, we’ll contemplate “Southern Food and Spirituality.”

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Mary Beth Lasseter / Photos by Denny Culbert

Mary Beth Lasseter

I am the associate director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I work with the staff to develop long-term special projects, like our information management systems. I also work with staff to manage the annual budget and expenses and draft grant applications.

You’ve been involved with more SFA symposia than anyone but John T., from volunteering at the third meeting in 2000 to acting as associate director since 2005. How have you seen these annual events progress?

It’s been exciting to see the growth of SFA events and a corollary increase in the size of our general membership over the past thirteen years. Our symposium has grown from 100 to over 350 guests annually, and our membership now numbers around 1,200. The Barbecue Symposium in 2002 was an important turning point for us. The event earned a good amount of national press, and it was around that same time that our oral history initiative took off with our first barbecue interview project, focused in Tennessee. Since then, we’ve grown our oral history archive to over 800 interviews, developed a film initiative that’s produced more than thirty short documentaries, contracted two book series with UGA Press, and reinvented our Gravy [print quarterly] food journal. Our staff has grown in number from two part-time staffers to six full-time employees plus part-time and contract staffers. With the help of a grant from the Chisholm Foundation, we’ve had funding for a post-doctoral position to teach foodways courses in the Southern Studies program, and by fall of 2014 the SFA, with help from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts, will sponsor a full-time tenure-track professor of foodways studies.

How has the SFA encouraged the membership and support of individuals who do not call the food/drink/hospitality industry their primary home?

The SFA is successful both with food professionals and non-professionals alike, I think, because we take our work seriously but not ourselves too seriously. We approach academically rigorous topics with speakers who offer intelligent and articulate presentations in an approachable manner. Our events are fun, certainly, but our work is meaningful and holds popular appeal. The camaraderie of our membership should not be underestimated in the story of SFA’s success, either. Our members may initially meet at SFA gatherings, but their friendships extend beyond our events. We have shared visions and goals, we appreciate good food and good stories, and many of us feel we are part of an extended family, not a membership organization.

Any themes you’d like the SFA to tackle for future symposia?

I’ve already enjoyed symposia on some of my favorite topics—sweetness and sugar and food and music. For the future, I have a strong interest in social justice movements, and I’d love to see a symposium that explores issues surrounding labor and workers’ rights, immigration, or public policy. On a lighter note, I hope we’ll host an event on food and sports culture. Perhaps it’ll explain to me why I always order a hot dog at a baseball game.

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Amy Evans / Photos by Denny Culbert

Amy Evans

I am the SFA’s lead oral historian. I travel the region collecting the stories behind the food. I also manage a stable of collaborators, attend conferences to spread the good word about our documentary work, and conduct an annual oral history workshop at SFA World Headquarters. After a decade of doing this work and watching the field change, in regard to our archive, I’m really proud of what we’ve built and how we’ve built it. We committed ourselves to sharing our work with the widest audience possible from the get-go, and we’ve tried to update our methods as new media (outlets, as well as tools) has become—and continues to become—available. That said, though, I think we really set ourselves apart by staying committed to the long-form oral history interview. Different forms of media are so inexpensive and accessible now. Stories are shorter and everyone is telling them, but we continue to invest in formal interviews. I’m proud of that.

Take us back to your very first oral history for the SFA. Who was it and how did you choose the subject?

The first formal assignment I received from SFA was in 2003, when I traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi, to document local restaurants. The project was a collaboration with our long-time partner, Viking Range Corporation, based in Greenwood. Three iconic Delta restaurants were on my must-interview list: Lusco’s, Giardina’s, and the Crystal Grill. But I was charged with completing eight oral histories, so I spent time exploring Greenwood to discover other places and people to document. I was fortunate to be given a lot of freedom to complete the project and was able to paint a diverse picture of the Greenwood community and its foodways through this collection of interviews. In the fall of that same year, we partnered with Viking to put on our first-ever Delta Divertissement, the SFA’s annual field trip based in Greenwood held just prior to our annual symposium in Oxford. We brainstormed the Delta event to be an experiential learning excursion, highlighting the culture of the Delta and giving our members an opportunity to see and explore another part of our home state of Mississippi. At the conclusion of the Greenwood Restaurants project, our first formal oral history project, we really committed ourselves to pursuing documentary work and used it as a guide—a sort of scaffolding for projects going forward. It really set our Oral History Initiative in motion and it also set the stage for our efforts to promote culinary tourism throughout the state and region.

How does your oral history work go together with SFA programming?

Our documentary focus changes each year with our programming theme. The best marriage of oral history and programming is our Summer Symposium, previously known as “the field trip.” We always do an oral history project in advance of the event and then celebrate the people we interviewed as part of our programming on their home turf. It’s so wonderful to be able to introduce oral history subjects to our members and honor them in person—put them on a stage, if you will. And for me, it’s super satisfying to be able to revisit people I interviewed.

How close have you come to a perfect oral history interview?

I think that a perfect or near-perfect oral history has less to do with the actual interview and more to do with the entire fieldwork experience surrounding an interview. For me, that would be John Saucier of Saucier’s Sausage Kitchen in Mamou, Louisiana. He wasn’t a scheduled interview. I saw his hand-painted sign on the side of the road and followed it. I pulled up to his house and asked him for an interview. He obliged. We conducted it on his front porch. His boudin story is the story of the fading boucherie tradition in South Central Louisiana. He has an amazing accent. I never tire of listening to it, and hearing his voice is always a reminder of the importance of sharing voices on our online archive, bringing these interviews to life.

You work closely with educating students to seek out and record their own oral history subjects. How does this work within the SFA’s mission?

The primary goal of the workshop is to bring more people into the field of oral history. But I also started the workshop because I wanted to interact with students (I have a background in teaching), demystify the process of conducting oral history interviews, and introduce people to Mississippi. As it turns out, the workshop (and my summer internships) has been a great way to identify possible collaborators. In the three years I’ve done the workshop, I think at least five students have ended up conducting fieldwork for us.

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Sara Camp Arnold / Photos by Denny Culbert

Sara Camp Arnold

A big part of the job of every SFA staffer—from filmmaking to event planning—is to be a storyteller. As the SFA’s managing editor, I have a hand in assigning, writing, and/or editing most of our print and web content. This includes editing Gravy, overseeing the blog and original web content, commissioning Greenhouse Films, and serving as an editor and liaison between the SFA and University of Georgia Press for our book projects, such as the Cornbread Nation series. I’m responsible for both creating new content and sharing our existing work—especially oral history and documentary film—with a wider audience.

How has the organization targeted new mediums and audiences?

I first volunteered with the SFA for the 2009 Symposium on food and music. As you’ll hear many SFA enthusiasts say, my first symposium got me hooked. I began working for the SFA part time as the editor of Gravy in summer 2010. In May 2012, I moved from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Oxford to become the SFA’s full-time managing editor. I still consider Gravy my baby, and I think it’s very important for us to retain a print presence/identity. That said, a lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis involves sharing SFA content online, both at our website (southernfoodways.org) and with a handful of partners we’ve begun working with over the last year (Southern Living, the Oxford American, and CNN’s Eatocracy). Our relationship with these websites is a great way to share our work with an audience who might not know about the SFA but is likely to be interested in our work.

One of my favorite online projects is working with a rotating cast of guest bloggers to bring fresh voices and topics to our website. Last summer, we invited three food writers and barbecue experts—Robert Moss, Adrian Miller, and Daniel Vaughn—to write weekly posts for us. The response was so positive that we’ve since commissioned a variety of mini-series on the blog: “Give Me Some Sugar” by Emily Hilliard introduced readers to Southern female pastry chefs; photographer Penny De Los Santos shared her work and some tips for aspiring food photographers; and right now, Virginia Willis is doing a series on iconic Southern summer foods, complete with recipes. We want people to come to the SFA website—and return often!—for smart engaging bits of content, ranging from food news and beautiful writing to short web-ready films to audiovisual snippets of our oral history work.

If you could require everyone to read one book or article on Southern food, what would it be?

To me, the best food writing—Southern or otherwise—uses food as an excuse to explore larger themes, such as race, class, family, gender, place, or the identity of an individual or a group. Almost without exception, I want to read a story where food is a jumping off point for something bigger—tasting notes are secondary. This is kind of an unorthodox answer because the book I’m going to suggest is not an all-encompassing tome on Southern foodways. But I’d say Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen. (And that has everything to do with Sara’s awesome writing and nothing to do with the fact that she’s our board president. Seriously!) To me, this is exactly what food writing should be. It’s personal without a hint of self-involvement. It’s deeply rooted in a place—New Orleans—and you feel like you’ve traveled all over the city with Sara, even if you’ve never been to Louisiana. It demonstrates how food brings people of different backgrounds together and how it can help you find your way in a strange place—but at the same time, it can also be sort of magical to give in to that strangeness and love it for what it is, even if you don’t completely understand it. It’s optimistic about the possibilities of connecting with people and place through food without being overly idealistic. On one level, Gumbo Tales is one person’s experience with the food of one city. But it also reads as much more than that. I’d like to press it into the hands of every young aspiring food writer—Southern and otherwise.

By Rien Fertel  / Photos by Denny Culbert
Emilie Dayan / Photos by Denny Culbert

Emilie Dayan

My official title at the SFA is project coordinator, but I like to consider myself the “chief collaborator.” The nature of our work, and even the design of our workspace, is collaborative. This has made the SFA workplace a dynamic and creative force. As the SFA has grown, we want to ensure that our initiatives don’t fall between the cracks. That’s where I come in. My goal is to manage every project happening, serving as a liaison between staff and outside parties to make sure each person has the resources he or she needs and to make sure projects stay on schedule. With most projects at the SFA—oral histories, publications, events—I’m about as “behind the scenes” as it gets. Going forward, though, I’ve got some really exciting and long-term projects dealing with the more quantitative side of things: How do foodways and the SFA’s documentary work impact local (and often rural) economies? How do foodways shape social and economic development? Can we measure this?

What attracted you to the SFA and its mission?

Well, it involves a little background story on me. I am Southern in every sense. I consider Mississippi home, but I spent much of my childhood in southern France because that’s where the paternal side of my family lives. Growing up, I never truly embraced being Mississippian (or Southern, for that matter) and always had my eye set on living and working abroad. And I did. After college I spent a few years living, working, and studying in Paris, France. The thing is, the entire time I was studying in Paris, I found myself thinking of Mississippi and the South. I realized that what I’m passionate about, what inspires me, is harnessing the rich cultural economy of the South for the promotion of my state’s social and economic development. And that’s what the SFA does regionally by documenting, studying, and celebrating Southern foodways. And that’s why I love coming to work every day.