About a week ago, I sat in on the 16th Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, which is organized and attended by (in my opinion) some of the most fascinating people in the South. It was my first time attending the Oxford, Mississippi-event and I was hooked from the get go: As a first-timer, I was invited for bloody Marys and biscuits at director John T. Edge’s home to kick off the weekend.
I was introduced to a dozen new faces, all of whom were as excited and anxious to start the weekend as I was. The high-octane beverage helped, especially since it was packed with spices, pickled okra, and a hefty pour of Cathead vodka. There were biscuits and souvenir Tabasco go-cups, to boot. That sense of hospitality was carried through the entire weekend. One evening, we were handed a flask filled with a potent bourbon cocktail (to be consumed on a school bus as we rode to fried catfish dinner); the next afternoon, we received illustrated tea towels.
Hospitality and event organization aside (the entire weekend of lectures, meals, and entertainment were executed flawlessly and to the minute), the weekend was packed with informative conversations, both formal and casual. The theme of this year’s conference was “Women At Work” so everything revolved around women and food. It started with the car ride down; I was joined by food writer Jennifer Justus and author Alice Randall (Jennifer summed it up nicely in a recent wrap-up post) and continued once we arrived, just in time to watch the Thacker Mountain Radio program. There was an interview with fashion designer Natalie Chanin followed by a performance from The Gee’s Bend Singers, who are both fine quilters and choral singers. Friday, Alice and her daughter Caroline Randall Williams, presented their newest project, a cookbook, due out next fall. We were entertained with stories about Caroline’s grandmother, Alberta Johnson Bontemps, who left Caroline her massive cookbook collection, which includes a full range of Junior League cookbooks that were once housed in her grandmother’s guest toilet. The speech made me laugh out loud and also crave a cookbook collection like hers.
There was a clever lecture on Eugenia Duke, creator of Duke’s Mayonnaise and a moving documentary by filmmaker Joe York about Alzina Toups, of Alzina’s Restaurant, who also won the SFA’s Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame award this year. Her restaurant will surely be my next food pilgrimage
Between all of this, there were funny and fascinating conversations with people from all over the South as well as other members of the Nashville food world like Karl and Sarah Worley of the Biscuit Love food truck, Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Restaurant, and Lisa Donovan, pastry chef at Husk. It was a big Nashville contingent, I was told. I imagine it will only keep growing.
The meals were spectacular, made even more delicious by the conversations happening over them. One lunch by chef Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill in Atlanta, was the prettiest plate I’ve seen all year.
As a first-timer, going into it, I didn’t know what to expect—and like many I’ve spoken with, still feel overwhelmed by everything I experienced. But driving home on Sunday, I was struck by how fulfilling and satisfying the weekend turned out to be. The food, drink, friendships, takeaways, and knowledge have all sunken into my bones, held firmly in place by the fact that I now have 375+ reasons to return again next year.
—Erin Byers Murray, managing editor