Around The Table

The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies and celebrates the diverse foodways of the American South. I recently attended the 17th symposium held in Oxford, MS.  The theme this year was inclusion and exclusion at the welcome table. 

This was my fourth time attending and while they have all been engaging and dynamic, this was absolutely the most moving, thought provoking, and uplifting experience of the bunch.

We heard from Marcie Cohen Ferris on The Hungry South, tracing malnourishment of Americans from The War on Poverty in the sixties to the food insecure living in food deserts of today’s America.

We heard about dignity and shame from Yvette Johnson, the grand-daughter of Booker Wright. Wright was a waiter, bartender and activist who spoke up about the shame and racism he dealt with daily, working at Lusco’s in 1965 Greenwood, MS.

For when we sit together to share a meal, we embrace our commonality and our differences take a back seat.

We watched a film on the late SFA founder and humanitarian, John Egerton. Through his writings on southern food Egerton addressed issues of race, class and inclusion. He sought to use the table as a bridge to one another. For when we sit together to share a meal, we embrace our commonality and our differences take a back seat. When we break bread we can also break down barriers.

Oh and speaking of breaking bread, there was much eating down in Oxford.

We tasted the ‘Nuevo South’, in tamales and silky pork shanks courtesy of Crook’s Corner in North Carolina. Bill Smith and the skilled Mexican cooks in the kitchen at Crook's are blending their food traditions, creating and building upon our ever changing foodways of the New South.

There were plastic lunch trays piled high with specialties from Nashville ‘meat and three’ family stalwarts Silver Sands and Arnold’s, one African American, one white-both nourishing their Nashville community like they were family.

We were wowed by a 15-course Dim Sum Go Kart Race Lunch from Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston, whose restaurant walls honor the Chinese, Indian and Korean cooks of his hometown who inspire him everyday.

The Big Gay Ice Cream boys of New York City, treated us to Salty Pimps and other delights after listening to how food editor Ben Mims, estranged from his family after coming out to them, found some solace in the recipes they once shared.

We listened to a deeply moving oratorio inspired by the life of Booker Wright, and later attended a luncheon dedicated to Mr. Wright, featuring menu items from Lusco’s and prepared by cooks of the Mississippi Delta; Taylor Bowen Ricketts, Stevens Flagg and David Crews.

We were challenged and inspired, our bellies filled, our minds much more so. By the end of the weekend there was lots and lots of ‘hug-talking’ -- a term Mr. Edgerton coined to describe when we huddle into each other, arm around neck, mouth-to-ear, sharing our commonality, our humanity, together, around the table.

Kevin Clay