My Weekend With the SFA

October 31, 2011

I got back from the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual Symposium, where the focus this year was on the “cultivated South.” And this is what I did:

  • I hung out with a poet who knows how to spin verses on deviled eggs.
  • I tasted the first olive oil produced east of the Mississippi in over a hundred years.
  • I watched an opera. An opera about collard greens.
  • I drank a Manhattan with the country’s leading cocktail authority.
  • I ate a foot-long, heirloom radish.
  • I made a hard apple cider float, with great cider from Foggy Ridge in Virginia and freshly made vanilla ice milk.
  • I learned about the growth of community gardens in the parking lots of Atlanta.
  • I helped raise $270,000 from some amazing generous individuals.
  • I sang “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with an owner of a popsicle shop.
  • I sipped punch from a bathtub.
  • I had lunch with the original publisher of Spin magazine.
  • I ate a slice of wild boar prosciutto.
  • I saw an amazing set of food-themed photographs from an incredibly talented young lady.
  • I snacked on boiled peanuts while watching a film about, what else, boiled peanuts.
  • I tasted far too many different bourbons than I can remember.
  • I had some of the best fried chicken, while staring in awe at the customer beside me who devoured 8 pieces in 10 minutes.
  • I took home a packet of pimento seeds, which I will plant in the spring.
  • I sadly learned about the demise of the native mirliton, but also was happily informed of one man’s quest to bring it back.
  • I spooned fig and bourbon preserves onto a country ham biscuit, confirming a match made in Southern heaven.
  • I rode on a school bus with a woman who wore a different Elvis t-shirt every day.
  • I had lunch with a fishmonger who brings seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to the West Coast.
  • I discovered that people will come up with crazy variations on common games, such as “Sexual Jenga.” And no, I did not play it.
  • I realized that I would like to have a bento box for lunch every day.
  • I smiled after a talented friend “blinged up” my name tag with Hello Kitty stickers (and more).
  • I chatted with one of the best chefs in the Triangle, only to learn that our families are from the same neck of the woods.
  • I was proven wrong: someone does make a good fried pickle.
That’s what I did this weekend, and this was just the tip of the iceberg. What did you do?

John Fleer — Rock Star — Stir the Pot

September 13, 2011

It seems that VarmintBites has turned into nothing more than a means to publicize fundraisers, but when one is on the Board of Directors of two different organizations having food-related fundraisers, well, you can understand.

So, this Sunday and Monday we’re having another Stir the Pot, those fantastic events hosted by Ashley Christensen to benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance. I’ve attended most of these events, and they’re a ton of fun, but this week is different.

This time, the guest chef of Stir the Pot is John Fleer, Rock Star. Yes, that’s the term used by John T. Edge, the Executive Director of the SFA. That’s a term I’ve heard Ashley Christensen use for him. Could it be because he was the celebrated chef of Blackberry Farm, one of the best inns in the country?  Or that he left Blackberry at the height of his career and notoriety so he could do something that allowed him to spend more time with his familly? Like work at Sunburst Trout or take over as chef at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, NC.

Yes, those are good reasons to call him a rock star (and I’ve had his food — it’s rock star quality). But the real reason to call him a rock star is that he acts like one, and I have pictures to prove it. It’s been 4 years since I took these photos, and at the time I said they wouldn’t see the light of day, but I’m changing my tune. I’ve got pictures of Fleer chugging Southern Comfort. I’ve got pictures of him stealing a kid’s bicycle (OK, he just rode a bike laying on the street). No, I don’t have a photo of him passed out, but I can try.

The problem is, you don’t get to see these photos unless you attend one of the Stir the Pot events. The fancy, five-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by Chef Fleer is at Poole’s Diner on Sunday night at 7 PM.  The Monday evening potluck is at Ashley Christensen’s home (Brunswick stew, beer by Foothills Brewing, a drink by Fox Liquor bar, and wine donated by Eliza Kraft Olander. The Sunday dinner is $150 per person plus tax and tip, whereas the Monday potluck is $35 per person plus a side dish or dessert that celebrates your sense of place, wherever that may be.

Reservations are required and space is limited. Call Poole’s Diner at 919-832-4477 to reserve your spot for either or both nights.

So go ahead and sign up. And maybe these photos will end up on display.

The Global South: 2010 SFA Symposium (Freestyle)

October 26, 2010

Early morning flight, moon still full
Heading off to Memphis and the hills of Ole Miss.
I missed the first night, and lack of head pain thanks me
Driving down 55, wanting to go 90, knowing what’s ahead.

Ah, there it is, I see the Square, and of course there’s no place to park.
Wait, there’s one, just for two hours, but tickets ain’t much.
Into the Lyric, they’re talking ’bout the Gulf
How seafood’s so clean, and ready for your plate
So why’s so few ready to partake?

It’s an hour short of noon, Bloody Mary time
With President Linton reminding us of how we serve the cause.
I’m still a tad bit nervous, being the new kid on the Board
But meeting lots of people, is just another reward.
We are all old friends, even if we’ve not met.
It’s the SFA. It’s what we do.

What’s that, time to eat? Tamales in the heat?
It’s Robb Walsh and I, off to lunch, to the Powerhouse we go.
He tells me all ’bout Houston
And Tex-Mex history
I’m near last in line, craving for some grub
As my last bite was a muffin, at the Starbucks, back home.

Who’s that? Ann Cashion there? Yes my dear, dear friend, we share tales of old and new
It’s folks like her who draw me back, back to Oxford town.
We love the sweet potato salad, and piquant peas
Quail tamales are something new, with dessert just divine.

Talks of masa and rice lead to Geechee, not Gullah
In Philly no less!
It’s cane sugar Coke and domestic rum, refreshing, relaxing for the bus.
To Taylor we go. For catfish we eat, sharing peach moonshine, hoping not to spill.
Fullsteam’s on tap, goes well with the fish, even when it’s fried in a hip-hop wok.

Time for bed. Fuck that shit. I need a drink. Some bourbon and beer.
Pabst BLUE Ribbon.
Time for last call, you’d think that that’s that. But later we stay,
Pableaux and Joe and Snack and me.
Speaking of snacks. Chevron knows oil, even for food
But not at 2:30. No chicken, no stick.

I’m too old for this crap. Stayin up with the moon. Sleep, I must sleep.
But I have people to meet
Friends to see. It’s the SFA, remember. It’s what we do.

Bring on the profs, after Amy and Kev. Talking ’bout talking. And the world, getting small.
Lam tears it up, and then just tears up. We’re in his palm, and he’s in our arms.
“Suck on the head,” Andrea cracks, Viet pride in Cali, expressed in food.
Not sure what he thinks, this rapper called Bling. With swoosh-laden boots
He stands before us, mostly white, over the hill. But he gets us. And we get him.
It’s the SFA. It’s what we do.

Ms. Bernstein gets us, too, with her Miami nice, serving chicken, and shrimp with all kinds of corn
Crunchy and popped and in hominy form.
I learn about lamb, from my new friend Craig, who’s a doc and a shepherd and a Shakespearean fan.
Ox tail. It’s rich, we need some red wine.
It’s called a tian. But to us, it’s something old as something new.
Nanner puddin, that’s what.

More listening and learning and talking and seeing
‘Bout Houston and Charlotte, so distant, so close.
Then how about a nap, a snooze, a rest?
But it’s time to honor those who’ve done it best.

It’s a film about men, Viet men who fish. Through winds and rains and plumes of crude.
They’ve lived thick and thin. And they’re here to stay.
Just like Calvin in Holmes, where they own their own land
And grow their own. And lend a hand.
One more honoree, Christiane’s her name. We’ve dined on her words, oft poisoned by her pen.
These folks are so proud. But not as much as we.
Because this is the SFA. It’s what we do.

Forty-three heads, of a bovine ilk, were buried in coals. Beef crack is mine.
Horchata with whiskey makes the crowd frisky,
Or was that the licks of Neuvo Banda Corral?
It’s corn one more time, but clear as day,
Don’t worry ’bout germs, it’s self-sterilized, that Mason jar rim.
We share, we hug, we laugh.
It’s the SFA. It’s what we do.

One final day, for the SYM-POS-I-UM. Doc Harris sells wares. But no one is buyin’.
The Mississippi Monks, start soft and start slow. And build it on up, making us move, making us believe
In the power of music, and togetherness and reconciliation.
I dance. I cry. I eat. I hug. I laugh. I say goodbye.

I’m in the SFA. It’s what I do.

The Best Community Cookbook Ever — And Two Events to Celebrate It

October 12, 2010

Yes, I love the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Yes, I’m a member.  And yes, I’ve even been nominated to be on its Board of Directors.  So it should be no surprise to you that I’ll do just about anything this organization asks of me — not just because I’m a good soldier, but because there’s nothing this organization does that I don’t support.  Whether it’s a fundraiser for their film or oral history initiatives or for scholarships for burgeoning food writers, I’m going to spread the word.

This time, however, it’s different.  This time, the event is to celebrate a cookbook.  A fantastic, spiral-bound, community cookbook, suitably named, “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.”  The cookbook  is divided into chapters that represent the region’s iconic foods: Gravy, Garden Goods, Roots, Greens, Rice, Grist, Yardbird, Pig, The Hook, The Hunt, Put Up, and Cane.  It’s been edited, written and compiled by some of my favorite people in the world, including April McGreger, baker and pickler extraordinaire of Farmer’s Daughter in Carrboro, Chapel Hill’s great cooking instructor, Sheri Castle,  and Sara Roahen, author of the fantastic book on New Orleans, “Gumbo Tales.”  Heck, I even submitted a recipe for the book — and yes, it is a recipe for cooking one type of varmint.

To celebrate the release of the book, there are not one, but two events planned for this weekend in Chapel Hill.

The first event is this Friday, October 15th, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill (750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd).  This event is a book signing and is free to the public — and, yes, there will be a little bit of food there.

The second event has a lot of food, and this is a ticketed event.  It will be on Sunday at 4:00 PM at Chapel Hill’s 3CUPS (227 South Elliott Rd.).  If you just want to come and eat, it’ll cost you $25.  If you want one of these awesome cookbooks (all the cool kids have them), then that will cost you an additional 15 bucks.  That’s less than the Amazon price!  So, you get a soon-to-be iconic cookbook, lots of great food (with both cake and pie, as there will be a debate about which is better), lots of social interaction with writers, and all on a Sunday evening!  And because it is 3CUPS, there will be wine.  Tasty, wonderful wine.

So, get off your butt and head to Chapel Hill this weekend to buy a book — the best community cookbook ever!  And if you need more information, just check out the SFA’s Blog.

Stir the Pot — Basque Style!

August 5, 2010

I had the pleasure of attending the Stir the Pot event at Poole’s Diner a couple of months ago that featured the cooking of Charleston chef and wonderboy Sean Brock, and what a great event it was.  It was great because Brock and Chef Ashley Christensen put together some fantastic food, mixing the traditional and the contemporary.  It was great because Matt Fern hooked us up with some incredible wines.  It was great because I got to eat and mingle with chefs, food writers, and folks like me who love food.

But it was truly great because this event supported the Southern Foodways Alliance.  I’ve written about the SFA a number of times, but this is an organization that truly understands what food is all about.  It isn’t about adding notches to your restaurant belt, showing how many of the hottest places you eaten.  It isn’t about the hottest or latest trend.  What it is about is the role of food in our society.  It’s about the camaraderie of individuals who care about food.  It’s about what food — and particularly Southern food — means to me and you and anyone else who cares about what he or she eats.  I’ve made dozens of great friends through the SFA.  I know so much more about food because of the SFA.  I’ve convinced chefs that they need to get involved in the SFA, and once they did, they haven’t stopped thanking me.  And even though I’m not a chef or food writer or TV producer, I’m still accepted by those who are.   It’s a non-judgmental organization.

And this Sunday and Monday, you can help the SFA while having some incredible food.  Ashley Christensen and Poole’s Diner will be having their second round of Stir the Pot, featuring the talents of Alex Raij and Eder Montero, the wife and husband owners of New York’s Txikito, the city’s only Basque restaurant and El Quinto Pino, the city’s best tapas place.  These are big-time New York chefs, and just because you haven’t seen their faces all over the Food Network, they’re the real deal.  And we’re lucky to have them.

On Sunday, Poole’s will be hosting Raij and Montero for a wonderful dinner, which will start at 6:30 PM with lots of sparkling wine (Spanish, I’m betting) and creative Spanish finger foods.  This will be followed by a 5 course dinner, with wine accompaniments.  The cost is $150, plus tax and tip.  I know our dining budgets are tight these days, but remember, you’re also supporting an incredible organization with the SFA.  You’ll also get to have discussions with the chefs.

On Monday evening from 6-9, Ashley Christensen will be hosting a potluck at her home.  The potluck is for everyone–restaurant industry folks, writers, beverage enthusiasts, home cooks and people who with a general love for food and its history.  A main course of black cherry smoked beer can-roasted chicken and wine to match will be provided, along with some fantastic beer from my buddies at Fullsteam Brewery and signature cocktails from the mixologists at Foundation.  Just bring a dish for the potluck (I’m bringing some vodka that has been steeping in blackberries for 2 months) and a check for $35 payable to the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Please call Poole’s at 832-477 to make reservations for either or both of these great events.

Vittles from the SFA Symposium

November 2, 2007


After our search for the elusive hot tamale, we arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss and the Trent Lott Leadership Institute (yes, I walked by it every day, which only made a bad hangover worse). I started with a small lecture by Shirley Corriher, who spoke on the “Science Behind Crispy and Flaky.” Ms. Corriher gave a demonstration on making flaky biscuits, which were tasty but much more cake-like than flaky, but it was all fun nonetheless. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Ms. Corriher, who is as funny in person as she is on Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Heck, she and her husband Arch, a WWII veteran, would make a great vaudeville comedy act.


Dinner was a fusion of Mexican and Southern foods: refried blackeyed peas, fried chicken tacos, and my favorite new drink: horchata laced with Jack Daniels. Oh my god, why hadn’t I ever thought of this combination before? It’s a Mexican milk punch! Of course, drinking 6 of these is hazardous to one’s health. Even more hazardous are the late night festivities that follow, typically in John Currence’s City Grocery.

Lots more after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

The State of Southern Food: The 10th Annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium

November 1, 2007

sfa-ole-miss.jpgWhenever 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