Searching for Food at the Southern Foodways Symposium

Changing environments

Kathryn McKee moderates a panel discussion with Carolyn Finney, Bita Honarvar, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil at the 2021 Southern Foodways Symposium
Kathryn McKee moderates a panel discussion with Carolyn Finney, Bita Honarvar, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil at the 2021 Southern Foodways Symposium (Jai Williams)

By Kathleen Purvis

What if someone put on a food symposium and hardly ever mentioned food? Would you feel fulfilled, sated, satisfied? Or just puzzled?

The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an arm of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, returned to an in-person format for its annual Southern Foodways Symposium on October 15-16 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Last year’s event was held virtually via filmed presentations and digital chats.)

It was a very different gathering than it has been in the past, and not just because of Covid-era masking and a reduced number of attendees. It was also the first in-person gathering since the organization and its founder, John T. Edge, came under fire in 2020 for leadership that was seen as too controlling and too closed to gender and racial diversity.

When it was launched in 1999, the SFA was the third try at setting up an organization to seriously study Southern food. With the academic rigor of a university behind it, its annual symposium soon became the premier event of the year for a crowd that ranged from writers and chefs to people who just liked being near serious discussions of collard greens and Mississippi tamales. As the organization grew, branching into oral histories, documentaries, regional field trips, and even cookbooks, the symposium became a hot ticket, often selling out in minutes. Edge and the SFA became kingmakers who put stars like North Carolina barbecuer Ed Mitchell, chef Sean Brock, and California newspaper columnist Gustavo Arellano on the Southern culinary map.

Along the way, Edge and the SFA also started to draw criticism for focusing too much on a tightly controlled vision of the South that didn’t always include roles for female and Black voices. After the complaints, which included an open letter signed by a number of female Southern writers (including myself), the Center formed a committee and released a statement, promising steps that would include a guest curator to program at least one event a year and a guest editor to oversee at least one issue of Gravy, the SFA’s regular publication.

So how did the post-kerfuffle SFA Symposium play out, on stage and on the plates? That depends on what you were there to see.

There were fabulous meals, of course—an all-catfish lunch cooked by Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde in Chicago, a family-meal dinner cooked by Todd Richards of the Soulful Company Restaurant Group in Atlanta, a torta lunch by Paco Garcia of FOKO in Louisville, and a closing dinner by Ronald Hsu of Lazy Betty, an Asian American restaurant in Atlanta. And there were plenty of snacks in between, directed by Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford.

Ronald Hsu of Atlanta's Lazy Betty served
Ronald Hsu of Atlanta's Lazy Betty served "steak and eggs" for the Tabasco Keynote Dinner at the Southern Foodways Symposium (Jai Williams)

That’s one thing that hasn’t changed: SFA has never sent anyone home hungry. Or thirsty. This year’s swag bag included shiny copper flasks already filled by SFA sponsor Maker’s Mark.

Up on the stages, almost all of the speaking parts went to women. Managing director Melissa Booth Hall and associate director Mary Beth Lasseter did the welcoming. Writers like Kayla Stewart, Janisse Ray, Carolyn Finney and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil did most of the talking.

John T. Edge himself, who has always—despite his protests—been the face of the organization, mostly stayed in the audience except for one or two introductions.

There were films on heirloom vegetables, the world of Black fishing and oystering, Black financial institutions, and the end of Birmingham’s short-lived Atomic Lounge, mostly made by Zaire Love. There was a dance that was as beautiful as a flight of the soul, choreographed by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis of the Wideman Davis Dance company in Chicago and performed in front of footage that included their mothers in their kitchens.

It was all wrapped under the theme of “Environments,” but that theme very rarely touched on anything to do with food.

That doesn’t mean the lectures weren’t good and valuable. John Simpkins, CEO of MDC, a Durham-based nonprofit that focuses on economic mobility, delivered a poetic polemic on Black entrepreneurialism and a film on Durham’s Black Wall Street. It was brilliant, but the closest it came to food was a brief mention of barbecuer Rodney Scott. Kayla Stewart, in explaining the difficult life of a Black commercial fisherman, made valuable points about how the Jim Crow era of segregated swimming pools kept generations of Black children from learning to swim. But the only food was a brief mention of the best way to cook sheepshead, a trash fish slowly being accepted by chefs (you have to “serve it on the half shell,” a.k.a. “fillet it”).

Ultimately, if you came to Oxford in search of insight into Southern food and its environments, you may have gone home a little intellectually hungry. In a way, that’s become an SFA tradition, too.

Since the first gathering in 1999, the SFA symposium has always been an odd beast. It draws a crazy quilt of attendees, from all ages and areas of the country. And from the beginning, it has included a mix of meaning and leanings. In many of those years, the actual content of the symposium hasn’t always been clear in its intention or focused on the thought for food.

The Southern Foodways Symposium has always drawn a crazy quilt of attendees for food and conversation
The Southern Foodways Symposium has always drawn a crazy quilt of attendees for food and conversation (Kathleen Purvis)

In the early years, you could always count on SFA to face its topics with a mix of serious scholarship leavened with humor. From one of my own reports from the first five years, when I covered it for The Charlotte Observer:

One year, we sat on Oxford's picture-perfect courthouse square and watched a documentary about a preacher who had trained his pigs to kneel for prayers before he filled their trough. Another year, a Scottish bagpipe band just showed up—spontaneously.

In 2004, when the theme was race and food, presentations included “Possum ‘n’ Taters: Where Have You Gone?” In 2008, when the theme was “The Liquid South,” one lecture was titled “Mama, Mama, That Canned Heat’s A’Killing Me.” (It was on the drinking of Sterno.)

Along the way, the program has included things like a Lincoln-Douglas debate on cake versus pie and a “Family Feud” parody featuring white and Black eaters. It used to send out goofy stickers with your yearly membership renewal with slogans like “Skillet Licker.”

The silliness served a purpose: it eased the discomfort of discussing food in a region where it has contested ownership and often-ugly history. The best way to get comfortable with multiple points of view has always been to eat together or laugh together, and the SFA used to do both.

Lunch on The Grove in Oxford at the 2021 Southern Foodways Symposium
Lunch on The Grove in Oxford at the 2021 Southern Foodways Symposium (Jai Williams)

This year, I missed the laughing. While the meals, toasts and cocktail events were as spirited as ever, the presentations all had a solemn earnestness. Even the bubble machine set off during a tribute to Birmingham’s Atomic Lounge, which closed its doors in September, was a salute to a bubble that has popped.

I hadn’t been to the symposium—the organization’s marquee event—since 2013, the year the theme was “Women at Work” and I walked away with a notebook that was almost empty and no story ideas in my head. A few years after that, I publicly criticized SFA in a piece I wrote for The Bitter Southerner, on how male-dominated both the symposium and the coverage of Southern food had become. Since then, I have attended some of the organization’s other events, including Food Media South in Birmingham and the 2017 field trip to Charlotte.

But I haven’t returned to Oxford in so long that there’s an entirely new state flag flying over the town hall. (If you stand in the right spot, you can see it and the Confederate monument on The Square in the same gaze.)

After everything that has happened, I attended this year for three reasons: When you criticize, you should stand where people can see you, and this was the first chance I’ve had to go back and do that. I also wanted to see what kind of change the criticism has wrought. And, yeah, I missed seeing a lot of friends. The SFA has always been sort of a rag-tag family, even if it sometimes has been the kind of family that put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

The thing I have loved about the Southern Foodways Symposium from the beginning was the way it allowed food to have meaning. For decades food had been dismissed as nothing important—a domestic chore that wasn’t considered a skill, an everyday necessity committed only by women, servants and the poorly paid. Finally a foodways symposium came along and gave it weight and significance, meaning and value. And it gave the rest of us permission to take it seriously.

This year, I left wondering: Is there nothing left in food to discover? Is Southern food really such a thin world that there is nothing left to explore?

About the Author

Kathleen Purvis

Kathleen Purvis is a longtime journalist who covers Southern food culture and travel. She’s based in Charlotte.

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