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8 Stories of Women Shaping Southern Food

8 Stories of Women Shaping Southern Food
Written by Maggie Ward | Photo by Marianna Massey

Women Who Inspire

Coming off a year when women were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, which drove two million female workers out of the workforce in 2020, it is more important than ever to recognize the strength and immense talent of the women who make up the food and beverage industry. From thought-provoking authors to pioneering chefs to impactful organizers, we’ve gathered some of our most loved female-focused stories (all written by women, in fact) in celebration of International Women’s Day and the inspiring women who have long shaped Southern food and continue to push it forward.

The Keeper of the Flame

Written by Erin Byers Murray | Photo by Ken Goodman

While late legendary pitmaster Mike Mills still holds many of the barbecue championship titles, it’s Amy Mills who has managed to package both the 17th Street restaurant and her father’s role as soothsayer into a blockbuster brand that’s recognized around the barbecue circuit and beyond. A rare female face in the world of smoke, she’s quick to jump into the mix, mopping sauce onto a pig in the pit, loading logs into the fire starter, or cutting ribs at a competition. But she also knows every facet of the back-end of the business, from the company’s growing mail-order business to how and where to source her family’s pigs. If Mike once served as the boss of the operation, Amy has become the heart, soul, and brains behind 17th Street. Read her story here.

The Visionary (and Gardener, Seed Savor,
Author, and Speaker)

Written by Stephanie Ganz | Photo by Fred + Elliot Photography

Ira Wallace is a woman of ideas. For the past seventy years they’ve carried her, from Florida to Canada to Virginia, on a breeze of inspiration—cooperative businesses that sustain the intentional communities where she lives, articles and books that share her vast knowledge of gardening and seed saving. They come to her like visions, and she follows them until she lands on her next project, whether it’s a food festival on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or a research grant to investigate crops associated with the African diaspora. Read about her work here.

The Party Planning Philanthropist

Written by Emily Storrow | Illustration by Kristen Solecki

Southerners love to entertain (and we have the porches to prove it). Perhaps no one knows this better than Sarah Adams, a native of Sullivan’s Island, just east of Charleston, who’s made a career of cooking for folks and hosting fêtes. After getting her start in some of the Holy City’s top kitchens, she co-founded Bad Bitches, a dinner party series that raised continuing education funds for women in food and beverage, to the tune of $60,000 in six months. Read her party planning tips here.

The Traversing Southerner

Written by Keia Mastrianni | Photo by Cybelle Codish

Von Diaz, writer, radio producer, and cookbook author lays claim to two distinct places–the Deep South and the Caribbean. She grew up Latina in the suburbs of Atlanta, away from a Latino community but largely influenced by the Puerto Rican women in her life; her culinary identity was shaped by the South she came to know by both living in it, and living away from it. Her inaugural cookbook, Coconuts & Collards traverses her food life and its dualities. Read about her experiences here.

The Preservationist of Creole

Written by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay | Photo by Marianna Massey

Melissa Martin serves Cajun classics with a side of community and conversation at the Mosquito Supper Club, a once-weekly dinner series the chef hosts in New Orleans that invites guests to a yellow Creole cottage just outside the Garden District. But she gives diners more than shrimp roulettes and crawfish pie to chew on. Each evening also opens a doorway into Martin’s heart and mind. “I grew up eating the food I serve at Supper Club, but I never cooked it myself until I left,” she says. “At some point, it just became so important that I learn it and preserve it, so I called my aunts, my mom, my grandmother and asked them a thousand questions about how they made these things. I kept working with their recipes and their advice until I recreated the smells and flavors I remember.” Read Mosquito Supper Club’s story here and read her words on the her cookbook Ode to Chauvin here.

The One Million Dollar Community Organizer

Written by Emily Storrow | Photo by Justin Fox Burks

Ten years ago, Cynthia Daniels decided to take a chance on Memphis. She’d been laid off in her hometown of Atlanta, and saw the city as a fresh start. An experience helping manage social media for a minority-owned restaurant opened her eyes to a reality in town: Black-owned businesses typically lack the resources to market themselves in today’s landscape. In 2016, she founded Memphis Black Restaurant Week—seven days of dining specials aimed at increasing patronage and profits—to help change that. To date, the event has brought more than one million dollars to Black-owned restaurants in the city. Black Restaurant Week is in full swing in Memphis through March 13. Read her interview here.

The Southern Hero

Written by Erin Byers Murray | Photo by Neon Bites

In the year of the pivot, the LEE Initiative—short for “let’s empower employment”—embodied the term. Co-founders chef Ed Lee of Louisville’s 610 Magnolia and managing director Lindsey Ofcacek have reimagined their nonprofit to consistently act swiftly in order to meet the immediate needs of their community. What started in 2018 as an effort to combat the industry-wide issues brought to light during the #MeToo movement—they established an intensive mentorship called Women Chefs Program—has exploded into a fund-raising force. Over a two-week period in March 2020,  the organization set up relief kitchens in nineteen US cities, including its own, in order to get hot meals and essentials into the hands of out-of-work food service employees. The mission, says Ofcacek, is “to create small impactful programs that directly help people in the industry.” Every program starts with a bottom-up approach. “We’re asking people what they need in that moment,” she says. “This was an entire industry who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and who historically don’t have a lot of safety net.” Read about the initiative here.

The Hometown Empress 

Written by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay | Photography by Jessie Kriech-Higdon

Twenty five years after returning home, Ouita Michel has created a mini-restaurant empire built on Bluegrass bounty. She left the heat of Manhattan’s kitchens and came home to Kentucky not to settle, but as a choice. Choosing to rediscover roots; choosing to focus on food, not fanfare (although she’s earned numerous accolades, including multiple James Beard award nominations).She was ahead of her time in this and other aspects of her Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants. “I’m loving that now, especially in the South, there’s a renewed recognition of rural areas and smaller cities,” she says, a recognition she helped fuel. Read her story here.

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