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Southern food goes beyond grits and gravy
By Mary Jane Park, Times Staff Writer
Published November 7, 2007
OXFORD, Miss. - In 10 years of pondering all sorts of regional eats, the Southern Foodways Symposium has reflected on grits and greens, corn bread and cracklings, biscuits and barbecue.
A multitude of seminars at the University of Mississippi, home of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and sponsoring Southern Foodways Alliance, have generated conversations about food in the South, its history and evolution. They also have turned to issues beyond the plate, taking on race, class and politics.
This year's gathering, held Oct.25-28, was an overview titled "The State of Southern Food." It, too, raised pesky questions.
"Food is never an innocent bystander," said presenter Bernard Herman, an art history professor at the University of Delaware. "Food is always political."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture organized deliberate efforts to put black farmers out of business, said Pete Daniel, a curator with the National Museum of History. Citing additional examples of the federal agency's legacy of discrimination during the 20th century, he also offered research that it suppressed evidence of pesticide contamination in the milk supply.
Jessica Harris, an SFA founder and current holder of the Ray Charles Chair in African-American Material Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans, wondered why there are almost no black celebrity chefs.
Another political issue was posed by Alice Waters, the California restaurateur and writer-promoter of public school food education programs: Can Americans be taught to nourish themselves rather than pull into fast food fueling stations? If so, will working-class and poor people be able to afford organic produce, hormone-free dairy products, free-range poultry and grass-fed beef?
It's a tradition of the symposium and the alliance's occasional weekend field trips and daylong camps throughout the South to include outsiders as members and panelists.
Yet another is for the nearly 250 people who gather at the conference to sit at tables for their meals, some served in the Grove, the fabled site of elaborate Ole Miss football tailgate parties. The idea is that when people dine together, they get to know one another, and the table is set for finding common ground.
It's even more difficult to be disagreeable when you're dining among chefs such as John Currence City Grocery, Oxford, John Fleer (Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.), Scott Peacock (Watershed, Decatur, Ga.) and Frank Stitt (Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon, Birmingham, Ala.).
Still another enjoyable facet is to temper sober reflection with lighthearted fun: First-time attendees at the conference had pink pipe-cleaner pigtails clipped to their name tags, a nod to "the Year of the Pig," the symposium's informal topic. Everybody got rubber snouts with elastic straps attached; some ended up as hair scrunchies, others as necklaces.
The Southern Foodways Alliance blends scholarship with extraordinarily good food and fellowship. Membership is at about 800, and participants in its events range from experts to civilians. Additionally, the SFA has originated dozens of oral histories and films documenting Southern food traditions. Membership is $75 a year. Go online to www.southernfoodways.com.