Whenever I’m getting ready to attend a Southern Foodways Alliance event, I try to explain that I’m going to a “food culture” event. The actual existence of much culture is questionable, but the conviviality and downright festiveness of an SFA gig makes it something that you need to add to your “must do before I die” list.
In many ways, the attendees of an SFA Symposium are not much different than the clientele of a barbecue restaurant, where you’ll find bankers, farmers, sanitation workers and lawyers sitting at a lunch counter. Black, white. Catholic, Baptist. Young and old alike. The SFA is not a trade organization, representing a single type of professional. The SFA’s mission is “to document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South.” Through its oral history programs, films, and events such as the Symposium, the SFA brings a motley crew of foodies together to share in Southern cuisine and drink. Chefs, food writers, historians, anthropologists, poets, ham makers, farmers, and even lawyers and insurance agents are card carrying members of the SFA.
Discussion flows freely, as does the Jack Daniels. The top chefs of the Southern food world procure the finest artisanal ingredients and prepare scrumptious feasts that sometimes reflect a “nouveau” style of Southern food, whereas other dishes embrace the past. Speakers opine on the state of cornbread, fried chicken or collards. Other times, the focus is more serious, on how race and food intertwine or the decline of the domestic shrimp market. Regardless, the SFA is an organization that is one of inclusion.
This year, the SFA Symposium was entitled, “The State of Southern Food,” and folks, the state is quite fine, thank you very much. I’ll write elsewhere about the food that was served; this is about the people who attend and the emotions involved.
The executive director of the SFA is John T. Edge, who is one of the brightest and best food writers alive, but he is also one of the most genuinely nice individuals. Teamed with Assistant Executive Director Mary Beth Lasseter, the SFA has a pair who has served the organization well.
One other person who deserves a ton of credit is John Currence, owner and chef of Oxford’s City Grocery. Much has been written about this man, who has done as much for the SFA than just about anyone who doesn’t receive a paycheck from them. He was the driving force in rebuilding Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans. He coordinates the cooking for just about every SFA Symposium, allowing outside chefs to use City Grocery’s kitchen at any time. He also lets a bunch of louts like us in his bar each year. Fortunately, we haven’t gotten into any hardcore bar fights over the proper way to cook fried chicken, but we are a fussy group. Simply put, John Currence busts his ass, year in, and year out. Why? Because he, like most of the members of the SFA, believes in this organization and its mission. Currence is a “doer” and not a “talker.” He gets things done. I had the fortune of having several long discussions with John, and he is one of the truly good guys – and that was before I learned he was a huge Carolina fan.
But if there is any take-home message about the SFA, it’s that everyone you meet is one of the good guys. Egos are almost non-existent. I met some very big names in the food world, and with the exception of one or two (and no, I’m not going to name them), SFA folks are amazingly down-to-earth and want to share in all that is Southern cuisine. Thus, I was lucky to have lunch with the premiere ham maker in the nation, Allan Benton, who has struggled for years before he was “discovered” by top chefs, I also hung out with those top chefs, such as Ben & Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill and John Fleer, formerly of Blackberry Farm (and John’s prowess at chugging Southern Comfort should now be a thing of legend). I tipped a few at City Grocery with several members of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality team, including Kenny Callaghan, chef of Blue Smoke. I now know more about cocktails in general and the Sazerac in particular because I shared a cab with cocktail guru David Wondrich. I learned the story of Anson Mills Grits from its co-owner, Catherine Horton. I know that Sean Brock of Charleston’s McGrady’s is a big fan of Southern Culture on the Skids. I debated the merits of brining chicken with Shirley Corriher. I witnessed a dirty little skit/joke by the ultra-cool actress Joey Lauren Adams. Hell, I even ate dinner with whom many consider the country’s premier young poet, Kevin Young (and I was joking when I called him an asshole).
After you cut through the pork and the greens and the liquor and, of course, the hangovers, you leave with a whole body sense of warmth that lasts for months or, when you really connect with these great people – a lifetime. I may have been born in New York and lived in Pennsylvania until I was 17, but when I’m at the SFA Symposium, I’m as much of a Southerner as my Mississippi-born dinner companion. And for that, I raise my glass of Jack Daniels in a toast to the SFA.
Profile of a Ham Maker and a Gentleman: Allan Benton