Will Travel for Food

Appalachia: The Land and the Larder

Will Travel for Food

Appalachia: The Land and the Larder

Southern Foodways Symposium, Oct. 2-5, Oxford, Miss.

There's something so irresistibly Southern about a collegial meeting that begins each day with poetry invocations and ends each evening in Tennessee whiskey-soaked revels, that pairs scholarly papers about moonshine whiskey or beaten biscuits with a Rick Bragg comedy routine and a Pimento Cheese Invitational, and that serves fresh dairy buttermilk with chunks of savory corn bread for a morning snack and heirloom Appalachian apple varieties in the afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this year's Southern Foodways Symposium on the campus of Ole Miss earlier this month and returned home with a new volume of knowledge. (I also returned home thankful that I got all the "hard-drinking Southerner of melancholy Irish descent" business well out of my system before I ever joined this particular group of people!)

For instance, I learned that some longtime moonshine makers were responsible for saving heirloom corn varietals, and that early moonshine runners were the founding patriarchs of modern stock car racing. I delighted in Frank Browning's Appalachian apple revelations, tasting several varieties I'd never seen before, and I can tell you that eating a Golden Delicious apple grown on an Appalachian hillside will teach you everything you need to know about the concept of terroir.

Along with 225 colleagues, I enjoyed one down-home Appalachian meal of shuck beans, deviled eggs, potato salad, cole slaw, fall garden tomatoes, savory corn bread, stack cakes, peanut butter fudge, and blackberry cobbler (prepared by the culinary students of the Mississippi University for Women), followed the next noonday by a more elegant regional repast of green tomato aspic, raspberry marinated quail stuffed with collard greens, and a delicate buttermilk grits custard, with sorghum pecan pie and buttermilk cream Anglaise for dessert (prepared by chef John Fleer of the Inn at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee). The winning concoctions (of more than 300 entries) in the pimento cheese contest were available for tasting at happy hour one day, and dinner the last night was built around a comparison of three distinctive types of Appalachian country hams. The final breakfast was, as always, platter after platter of White Lily biscuits. I came home with an engraved biscuit cutter and a bound copy of the pimento cheese stories. Yes, there were plenty of learning opportunities for all of the senses.

A recurring theme that weekend was one of connections -- to the land, the foods, and the people -- and I returned home feeling very well-connected. From a personal standpoint, it was uplifting to hear esteemed colleagues Ronni Lundy and Fred Sauceman proudly embrace their "hillbilly" heritage in presentations that addressed the issues of food and class. Many of the guests spoke fondly of their memories of the Austin barbecue field trip in the summer of 2002, and it was gratifying to see Austin restaurateur Hoover Alexander take a well-deserved place on the SFA board of directors. Former Chronicle contributor Pableaux Johnson was in attendance, and I was able to reconnect with him over lunch one day. He's now married to his beloved Arianna, who's working for and attending graduate school at Tulane. Pableaux is currently the SFA webmaster and continues to freelance for many publications in New Orleans, as well as national and regional newspapers and magazines. He was pleased to report that the neighborhood coffee shop where he spends many of his workdays has just added free wireless service. God, it was so good to see him.

In the coming year, the Southern Foodways Alliance ambitiously plans to tackle the thorny issue of food and race. There will be a summer field trip for dinner on the grounds of the 12th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the fall symposium in Oxford. Since bringing the races together at the table is one of the main goals of the organization, 2004 should be a very interesting year.

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