Tina Antolini and Sara Camp Milam are Tracking Southern Food Culture
With a print journal and a podcast, these two women are exploring the rich culinary history of the changing American south.
The beauty of Tina Antolini's job is in the variety. One day, the New Orleans-based radio producer is chatting with a reporter about Oktoberfest in Huntsville, Alabama, and the German rocket scientists who brought it there. The next, she's editing a podcast about the multi-cultural dried shrimp business in south Louisiana. On another day, she says, she might be "thinking about coal miners and what they eat for lunch."
That describes a typical week for the producer of the "Gravy" podcast, the newest arm of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Downloaded about 50,000 times monthly, the two-year-old podcast is the audio counterpart of the SFA's print journal by the same name, edited by Sara Camp Milam. Together, Antolini, 34, and Milam, 32, shape much of the content the SFA puts out.
Founded in 1999, the SFA blazes a singular path through the food world by sharing "stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat." The organization is a unique hybrid of the academic and the popular, a steaming cauldron of folklore, storytelling, and synergy that's based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture on the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi.
Directed by the respected food writer John T. Edge, the SFA has amassed a priceless trove of oral histories over its 17-year history—and it recently produced its 100th documentary film. The SFA shares an endowed professorship in foodways with the Ole Miss anthropology department and hosts regular dinners, conferences, and symposia, making it a kind of hip think tank for the ever-evolving Southern food world.
Over the past couple years, both the "Gravy" journal and podcast have received national recognition. When Milam took over the journal in 2010, she transformed it from a 16-page black-and-white pamphlet to a 70-page full-color compendium of food writing. The journal took home a James Beard award in 2015 for publication of the year, and the podcast won another James Beard award in 2016.
The SFA's wide footprint belies a lean operation. It runs on eight full-time employees, a handful of contractors who live across the country, and a budget of just over $1 million, most of which comes from SFA membership, individual and corporation donations, and charitable foundations.
Milam and Antolini's complementary strengths have enabled them to take the SFA to another level in both print and audio. Both Milam's literary interests and her experience working at The Oxford American have enabled her to recruit a diverse roster of both established and emerging writers.
Antolini, meanwhile, brings a deep background in radio to the job. She has a degree from the Salt Institute for Documentary studies and 10 years of public radio broadcasting experience, including award-winning work on an NPR program called "State of the Re-Union"—all of which have helped account for Gravy's rapid development.
For both women, the goal is to find stories where, as Antolini puts it, "food is a doorway into a culture, business, or some other aspect of life in the South," and to create synergy between print, film, audio, and oral history.
"We see a lot of the things we do as connected, and we're always trying to do a better job of having all of those [platforms] speak to each other," says Milam. A story that ran in the summer 2016 issue of Gravy quarterly, for example, was born out of several other SFA projects: The piece, which detailed the various subclasses of the so-called slugburger—a crispy hamburger stretched like the proverbial dollar with cracker meal, grits, oatmeal, or the like—grew out of a charming short film and an oral history project on the subject.
Race, too, inevitably looms large in the SFA's growing compendium of content. Standout examples include the podcast "Fighting for the Promised Land," about the institutional racism that has cost tens of thousands of black farmers their land over the last half-century, and "What's Growing in Mossville," about how a Louisiana town founded by freed slaves in the 1700s evolved from a hunting and fishing Eden to a toxin-laden backwater. Created in collaboration with a group of documentarians, the podcast is another example of the kinds of layered collaborations that Antolini and Milam like to forge.
The magazine and podcast also work to cover the changing face of the ethnic South, or as Antolini puts it, "the way immigrant cultures marry with the pre-existing culture," creating a multitude of micro-cultures. Films and stories in this category cover the Little Kurdistan community in Nashville, the phenomenon of Indian-run "Patel motels," and the connection one writer makes between Hoppin' John and the Nigerian food her father made for her as a child. Another episode looks at the cognitive dissonance that arises when comparing Arkansas's beloved, bright orange liquid "cheese dip" and the queso fundido that more recent Mexican immigrants have brought with them.
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While their work frequently explores issues of race, ethnicity, and food justice, Milam and Antolini make it a point to explain that the SFA isn't out to influence policy or advance any political agenda. For example, an heirloom hog farmer will get the same treatment as a commodity hog farmer if his or her story (and the barbecue that results) is compelling enough.
As non-judgmental as the SFA is, there is one political stance it does get behind. Antolini signs off every podcast with the SFA's motto, which is emblazoned on its logo tees, totes, and hats: "Make Cornbread, Not War."