Story by Olivia Terenzio | Photos by Brandall Laughlin
“All the best meals I’ve had in the past 15 years were eaten standing up next to a bunch of trash cans.”
That’s what my colleague Melissa Booth Hall said on the first night of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Fall Symposium. Our heads were bowed over paper plates, warped under piles of catfish curry, Goan pork vindaloo, cucumber salad, and torn crescents of blistered naan. Into our mouths, we shoveled rice bathed in sauces that glowed red and gold and smelled of a potpourri of balmy spices. Less than an hour ago, Meherwan Irani and his team from Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina, had plated these dishes. And aproned servers had whisked them to the dining room. Now, with main courses cleared and dessert delivered, a contented lull settled over the evening.
The annual symposium marks three days of lectures, readings, performances, meals, and cocktail hours in Oxford, Mississippi, home of the Southern Foodways Alliance. As SFA’s managing director, Melissa has overseen many symposia.
But this was new to me. In preparation, I had mapped a double-decker literary tour of Oxford and curated a 1920s juke joint Spotify playlist. I stuffed recipe cards into cellophane bags and wrote thank-you notes for participants. I adorned dinner menus with cat and broccoli stickers and strung a garland of thrift-store book pages from the struts of a tent. Finally, the symposium was here, and we — the aproned ones — ate some of the South’s best food among a sea of garbage.
I mentioned that I’m new to this, but that’s only partially true.
Three years ago, I attended an SFA whole-hog barbecue dinner in Charleston, where I watched a documentary film about Texas pitmaster Robert Patillo and chimed in on an “I’ll Fly Away” sing-along, led by North Carolina pitmaster Sam Jones. At the time, I worked in restaurant marketing in San Francisco, where a team I loved flew me to food festivals around the country.
This SFA dinner, I realized quickly, was no ordinary party. It was a movement, a crusade – an invitation. That same year, I begged my company to send me to SFA’s fall symposium in Mississippi, my home state.
Before that weekend, I believed Southern food was something my West Coast colleagues could enjoy, but I could claim. It was their novelty and my birthright. In Oxford that year, I ate cedar-braised bison and catfish empanadas, tipped a flask of whiskey on a school bus like a giddy teenager, and listened as a biscuit-cornbread debate stirred a crowd. I dined with Georgia farmers, Brooklyn chefs, and Kentucky hoteliers. I talked to artists, photographers, scholars, and documentarians, all working to build the South they wanted to claim. A South, I realized, that wasn’t mine at all. After a decade in San Francisco, I moved back last summer to pursue a master’s in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, where I work with the SFA. When I credit the symposium for my decision, it is not hyperbole.
At SFA HQ, we talk a lot about what it means to be an active Southerner: someone who chooses to live here, raise a family, launch a business, and reinvent the region. This South is no one’s birthright. It’s a stake in the ground.
The first week of school, my Southern Studies professor proposed the notion of place as a palimpsest — something inscribed and erased again and again, infinitely malleable while always bearing traces of its former self. When author Randall Kenan climbed onto the front porch of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s former home, to deliver the first presentation of this year’s symposium — on yams and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — I thought of the palimpsest. I thought about it again when novelist Ravi Howard reconsidered African American cookbooks through a novelist’s eyes, and when Mashama Bailey – a black woman who now cooks in a Jim Crow-era Savannah bus station – earned a standing ovation for her Zora Neale Hurston-inspired luncheon. Together, they suggested that there was something good here worth claiming and evolving. Another layer of ink had set on the South.
Between intense periods of work, I relived past symposia through my colleagues’ tales of tasting unforgettable arepas and assembling 350 suitcase-style lunch boxes. (“Never again,” they promised.) I eavesdropped on artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and activists, who gather here annually to rethink and remake the South.
I did this work while chugging Nina Compton’s cow heel soup from a clear plastic cup, as John T. Edge introduced me to Kevin Young, a Southern poet who is now The New Yorker’s poetry editor. I did this work while showering crumbs from pastry chef Cynthia Wong’s ice cream drumsticks on my lap while riding in a rented pickup truck to fetch bottled water. I did this work, collecting Moon Pies for Paul Fehribach, who muled a bunch back to Chicago, explaining, “I can’t find them at home.”
This work is trivial and momentous, the product of tiny affirmations and grand declarations. It is running plates and scraping them clean — nourish and empty, rinse and repeat, to make room for yet another story of another South.