This past weekend, The Southern Foodways Alliance, which documents, studies, and–best of all–celebrates the food of the region, held its annual Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. This year’s theme: barbecue. We ate once-in-a-lifetime meals, sampled A-list cocktails, and listened to speakers with opinions ranging from hilarious to heart-wrenching on everything from how pigs, err, procreate (writer Randall Kenan) to the global history of the pig (Mark Essig). You can check out the whole event–well, except for the food and drink–on free SFA podcasts here. These are a few of our favorite moments from the weekend.
1. The Claw-Foot Punchbowl Cocktail guru Greg Best, of Atlanta’s Holeman and Finch mixed up his specialty cocktail Copper and Cane, made with Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey, sorghum, champagne, and Benedictine in a vintage bathtub.
2. Piedmont Root-to-Stem Harvest Feast Raleigh chef Ashley Christiansen of Poole’s Diner chose a gutsy menu for a barbecue event–an 8-course, all-vegetable lunch that knocked our collective socks off. We’ll happily pass a platter of Coal-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Red-Eye Sorghum Butter any day of the week. As Chef Kelly English of Memphis’s Restaurant Iris tweeted, “It was like a hole in 1 on a par 5. Unforgettable.”
3. First Look, Pride and Joy Resident filmmaker Joe York wowed the crowd with his hour-long homage to Southern food and those traditionalists who keep it alive, from neighbors making Louisiana’s cochon de lait to Apalachicola oystermen. We got to see it first, but there will be more screening events across the region, and an appearance on SCETV early next year.
4. Peppery Pastrami on a Biscuit 9 a.m. lectures came pretty early–thanks to late nights among friends–causing Wes Berry to ask during his presentation on Kentucky barbecue, “Did anyone else get hit by the bourbon bus?” Luckily, a biscuit stuffed with house-smoked pastrami from Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, North Carolina, was there to put folks right.
5. Pitmasters To the Stars–Literally At Saturday night’s barbecue extravaganza in a meadow at nearby Woodson Ridge Farms, Tim Byre’s silky, melt-in-your mouth beef ribs, Drew Robinson’s delicious sides–among them cranberry bean gratin and jalapeño-cheddar spoonbread–and other barbecue delights were secondary only to the glorious night sky (though the tent with fancy chandeliers was pretty stellar, too).
6. Southerners and Mexicans Aren’t So Different Gustavo Arellano said the two cultures have more in common than they might realize, including barbecue, agrarian history, big trucks, and cowboy hats. And guayabera shirts are “the Mexican version of seersucker.”
7. Women Work The Pit, Too Helen Turner of Helen’s Barbecue in Brownsville, Tennessee, won this year’s Keeper of the Flame award, and brought the house down with her simple statement in a video about her work: “I’m Helen Turner, and I AM the pitmaster!”
8. A Love Letter Awards Speech Karen and Ben Barker, owners of the recently-shuttered Magnolia Grill, won this year’s Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. In a lovely tribute, Ben said, “No matter how creamy the grits or how delicious the quail, you really came to Magnolia Grill for a slice of Karen Barker’s pie.”
9. “If You Cook Over Gas, You’re Going to Hell” Alton Brown laid out all you need to know about cooking a whole hog, and why smoldering wood–with its 500 flavor components–is the only proper cooking medium. Cook it right, and you’ll get perfectly cooked skin which he calls, “God’s only true cracker.”
10. “A Chinaman’s Guide to Barbecue” In his hilarious but touching presentation, Taiwanese-born Eddie Huang said not a lot of things made sense to him in the U.S., until he tasted barbecue. When he smoked ribs and turkey on a vertical smoker on his New York fire escape, the homeless people below called him “country.” He says, “That’s when I realized the South had really stuck with me. . . .Sometimes a brother finds what he’s looking for.”
Southern Living: Cooking for 40 of the South’s Biggest Foodies