Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Southern Foodways Alliance, Uprooted

by Sydney Blanchard

Each month, our Uprooted series will highlight local chefs, restaurants, organizations, and farmers who are spearheading the farm-to-table and local foodways movements in South Louisiana.

It would be negligent of me, perhaps criminal, to attempt to write a series about Southern foodways without giving mention and credit to the Southern Foodways Alliance based out of Oxford, Mississippi.

The Southern Foodways Alliance's offices are located in the Barnard Observatory at the University of Mississippi

Founded in 1999 by author and activist John Egerton, the Southern Foodways Alliance aims to document, study, and explore the diverse food culture of the American South while mapping its evolution.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi acted as an incubator and provided start-up capital for the SFA. In 1998, the Center staged the first Southern Foodways Symposium, organized by then-graduate student John T. Edge. 

JoAnn Clevenger: A Girl Scout with Gumption. Owner of Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans. 

Now SFA's Director and award-winning writer and commentator, John T. Edge and his team collect oral histories, produce films and podcasts, publish pieces of writing, mentor students, and stage events to further their mission to challenge the way people think of the South. It's nearly impossible to understand the impact of their work unless you watch some of their films.

Their podcast and print publication Gravy was named Publication of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.

Many credit Edge and the SFA with putting Southern food on the map nationally. Before it was trendy, someone had to make it trendy.

The Gospel of the Alabama Oyster, featuring Murder Point Oyster Company.

The SFA hosts an annual symposium, recently rebranded as Food Media South, where major players in the culinary media world come together to network, hear prominent speakers, and enjoy great food. Last year's symposium sold out in seconds. They've even had to create a summer symposium in order to meet the demand of attendees.

While on a media trip with Visit Oxford, I met with Edge at the SFA World Headquarters at the University of Mississippi. He joined us with a warm plate of biscuits and a story that explains the gap the SFA is trying to bridge.

Edge told us about Biscuit Pit in Grenada, Mississippi, where Earline Hall had been making biscuits from simple ingredients for more than 15 years. Each day Earline would cut out rounds of biscuit dough using a disemboweled tin can and would turn the dough into biscuits that tasted like something your grandmother would make.

After reading Edge's Garden & Gun article about the Southern biscuit renaissance that mentioned Biscuit Pit's biscuits, Don Newcomb of Oxford, the visionary behind regional chains Newk's and McAlister's, decided to open a restaurant concept called MyGuys utilizing Earline's biscuit expertise.

The idea of the homemade-style Southern biscuit being brought into a modern realm is what Southern Foodways Alliance is all about, Edge explained. 

Further, he said, his role at SFA is to complicate people's ideas about the South.

"We all see our work as a progressive force in this region," Edge said. "It’s not an attempt to preserve the South, it’s an attempt to document the evolution of the region and tell stories of the region that change perceptions and deepen understanding."

In Edge's view, food serves as a vehicle for bettering the South. The organization doesn't shy away from broaching issues of race, class, religion, gender, etc. In fact, Food Media South's 2016 symposium is specifically focused on "how race and gender impact which food stories get told and who tells them."

Having these kinds of important conversations through the lens of food can be powerful.

If We So Choose, a short documentary about food's role in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Edge mentioned the taint of slavery on the South, and the love/hate relationship he has with the South many Southerners identify with. The tensions between the joys and struggles of the South is what brought Edge to Oxford 20 years ago, where he hoped he would be able to work out his feelings through writing.

"People who thoughtlessly love the South ain’t paying attention," Edge said. "I think that food writing, thinking, exploring food is the most accessible way to get at some of the issues that really matter in the South...to get at issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity. That’s why I do this work."

In a region so divided, is it possible food can serve as a uniting force?

"The South is evolving for the better in many ways," he said. "We’re taking old ways and adapting them to the present."

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