Everything I Ate at the Southern Foodways Symposium
Every fall, those lucky enough to snag a ticket descend upon Oxford, Miss., for an epic gathering of like-minded people—the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, a gathering of thinkers who present on topics revolving around a theme. And while there were readings from Faulkner and others—and the brain food was nourishing—everybody’s gotta eat. And eat, we did.
The welcome dinner, cooked by Brown in the South chefs Meherwan Irani, Cheetie Kumar, and Vishwesh Bhatt was an ode to American curry houses. A celebration of South meets South, Konkani Fish Kadi, local catfish was fried and bathed in a coconut curry sauce, was a huge hit with the crowd. Classic steam table items, like pork vindaloo, butter chicken, and aloo gobi wound around the long tables in family-style portions for passing. The meal concluded with Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice Kheer, a fragrant rice pudding with saffron and raisins.
The next morning, Cynthia Wong served up peaches and waffles along with her signature treat from Life Raft Treats, a cornflake-crusted ice cream “fried chicken” pop, complete with a chocolate-covered pretzel rod bone. Bonkers, and what better way to fill the tank for a morning of lectures by luminaries Valerie Boyd, Monique Truong, and James Hannaham.
With each meal setting the bar higher and higher, Nina Compton delivered a home run at Friday lunch. Drawing inspiration from Caribbean folktales, as she did for the name of her first restaurant Compere Lapin (“Br’er Rabbit”), each course brought a character to the table. Among them Pelau, a rice dish with coconut, black-eyed peas, and chicken, symbolic of a soucouyant, an evil witch, who could be drawn from the shadows by piling rice around the home.
For dessert, pone, a kind of baked pudding made of yucca, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin, and served with a bathtub-sized bowl of rum and molasses caramel studded with pecans for drizzling.
An afternoon of lectures and accolades was followed by a good ol’ fish fry at Taylor Grocery, a destination for fried okra, catfish, and red beans and rice.
Brewery Bahavana was pouring beers.
And Andy Chabot of Blackberry Farm curated a selection of Virginia wines for each dinner.
Cocktails were mixed by Joe Stinchcomb of Saint Leo featuring Makers Mark and Cathead vodka.
Breakfast was poetry ballast in the form of Willa Jean’s chef Kelly Fields, who served her famous biscuits layered with boudin and greens in honor of Kevin Young, the poetry editor of the New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center, who read from his new collection of poems Brown.
The crowning meal of the symposium is always Saturday lunch, and this year Mashama Bailey brought the heat. Guests sat down to a meal in tribute to Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Pulled rabbit with Tabasco was served with piping hot yeast buns and muscadine jelly. Bread and butter pickles and peach preserves lined the tables and were passed among new friends.
Red rice and shrimp, stewed okra, smoked whiting and grits, and braised collards with pig tails all made an appearance. Possibly the best bite of the meal was the ash-roasted sweet potatoes served with a smoky sauce.
To finish things off, Mashama Bailey served cornmeal and buttermilk tea cakes, in homage of Zora’s character Tea Cake.
And lest we go hungry on the last night, Lodge Cast Iron sponsored gumbo three ways, cooked by Paul Fehribach of Big Jones in Chicago in honor of Eugene Walter’s travels.