By JAY REED
Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy Birthday!
Confused? Don’t be.
The weather was superb this weekend, so it could not have really been my birthday (too cool for August) and we know it’s not yet Christmas because the Reese’s Pumpkins have not yet been replaced by the Reese’s Trees. But this past weekend felt a bit like both, because it was my favorite time of year: the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.
The Symposium has been likened to homecoming for the SFA, the membership roster of which runs the gamut of food enthusiasts: chefs, writers, grocers, advocates, farmers, and more — even the occasional pharmacist. Over the better part of a four day weekend, around 300 of us gathered in Oxford to eat well, learn much and appreciate the culture of food.
It was the 15th anniversary of the Symposium, and as everyone knows, the socially appropriate gift to give on a 15th anniversary is barbecue, so that was our theme.
One of the most intriguing things the SFA supports is the bridging of art forms that might not ordinarily be considered food-related. On the afternoon and evening prior to the meeting’s Friday start, a variety of these bridges were built as something of a prelude and framework for the events to follow.
This was my third symposium and this time I brought The Wife along — a good thing for many reasons, not the least of which was her opportunity to attend a fashion show of a sort.
Natalie Chanin, a fashion designer for the Alabama Chanin label, had been given the challenge to create a barbecue-inspired dress collection, and the results were nothing short of fascinating. At Alabama Chanin, they hand-make each piece and it doesn’t take long to see that an immense amount of work goes into each one. But that didn’t stop Natalie from trusting a set of her creations to the pit at Jim 'N Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Birmingham. The finished products, after hours in the smoker, took on an array of color changes in the fabric and beadwork depending on how each garment was folded and placed in the pit.
And yes, even after washing, they smelled like smoke. But since any amount of time spent in almost any barbecue place worth its sauce will lay on a similar scent, that’s not such a bad thing. Who needs lavender when hickory is available?
Sharing space with the dresses were larger-than-life black and white photographs of icons of the barbecue life, made by Landon Nordeman, who won a James Beard award for this work. My favorites were the square shovelful of hot coals on the way to the pit, and the thick, worn, heat-resistant glove speckled with what may have been flecks of white soot.
Next, we headed up the hill for even more expressions of food-related creativity. Thacker Mountain Radio taped its 15th anniversary show at the Lyric Theater, the Yalobushwhackers (the house band) singing about catfish and cookin’, and three authors from the Symposium speakers roster told eats-related stories from their work.
After the radio show signed off, we stuck around to see Joe York’s new film, "Pride and Joy," which highlighted the stories of some of the South’s food culture standard-bearers. If you like films about food (and you will, if you watch just one of these), check Joe’s other work on the SFA website at http://www.southernfoodways.org .
You can be sure that after sniffing the barbecue dresses, examining the tools of a pit-master in extraordinary photographs, hearing a short story about barbecue sandwiches, and watching the food film, we were hungry. Thankfully, we got a snack between the radio show and the movie to tide us over until dinner.
Like many of the dishes served via the Symposium meals, this one was a first for me: barbecue bologna dogs. Dressed simply with mustard and slaw, this was pretty much like it sounds — a rectangular rather than rounded tube steak formed from bologna rather than whatever hot dogs are usually made of. I dig grilled bologna anyway, so I liked it.
When dinner time came, we headed to Boure’ restaurant for a special dinner called “A Florida Sate of Mind.” Chef Vinny Dotolo, a Florida native transplanted to California, put this five course feast together for us.
First up was a smoked gulf mahi-mahi dip with what amounted to hush puppy croutons and shavings of celery. I’ve had smoked mahi-mahi before in Florida, preceded by a smoked mullet dip, so this was a familiar flavor to me, and I will definitely use the crouton idea later.
The next course was a fried chicken liver bahn mi (Vietnamese style sandwich) with smoked pig head. I should clarify: it was just the shredded meat from the pig head. No actual head came to the table.
The third course was sweetbreads a la grecque. I confess I had to do a little research on sweetbreads, which I learned were the thymus and pancreas glands of the chosen animal (usually calves). Glad I tried them. Chapter closed.
The main dish was a take on Korean barbecue: sirloin caps from White Oak Pastures (featured in the movie) over Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills.
My favorite course, which will be no surprise to anyone, was the dessert. Chef Vinny’s interpretation of another Florida staple, key lime pie, was like no other key lime pie I’ve ever had. Probably because it wasn’t pie at all. In the dish was a swipe of toasted meringue along one side, a sweet crumble of graham crackers along the other, and a scoop of frozen lime yogurt in the center.
The only problem was that there were not two scoops of the yogurt.
Day one of the weekend was complete. Despite the bologna appetizer to the five course dinner, we were full but not miserable. We were satisfied, but hungry for more Symposium. Stay tuned.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .