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Talkin tacos at the Southern Foodways Symposium

November 23, 2010

By JAY REED
EATS ONE ATE

My wife has done a study (mostly of me) and reached the conclusion that Mississippians have a natural knack for finding each other.
We have traveled the world together and everywhere we go I find someone from Mississippi. In a European airport I pointed to someone and said, “I think I went to high school with that guy” – and I had. I wore an Ole Miss t-shirt the day we visited the Louvre in Paris, and was flagged down by a Mississippi journalist whose columns I knew well. Whenever I meet a Mississippian on another continent or in another county, it does not take me long to figure out how many degrees of relationship we are from each other. In business lingo I suppose I would be called a consummate networker –in culinary terminology one could say I like to try new people, like trying a new dish.
The second full day of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium gave me lots of opportunity to do both. The vision of the SFA is to “set a common table where black and white, rich and poor -- all who gather -- may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.” We did that on a beautiful fall Saturday in Oxford, around three amazing tables. The networker in me … ate it up.
Breakfast was almost recognizable: biscuits nearly the diameter of a coffee can, available in two varieties (of course I tried both): sweet potato or yam. I still would be hard-pressed to define the distinction between these tubers, but at least I have learned that there is. Sandwiched in each biscuit was a big piece of pork sausage, dressed with pepper jelly. I shared breakfast standing at a tall outdoor table with a social psychologist from New Orleans and a retired couple from North Carolina – all of us simply fascinated with food. I was so enamored with these biscuits that I picked up a jar of Five-Pepper Jelly from the MAFES store a week later, and cannot wait to pair it in a biscuit made with the Vardaman sweet potatoes in my cupboard.
Lunchtime brought another interesting group to my table. A family from New Orleans helped me understand the ceviche I was about to dive into. I knew ceviche involved raw seafood of some sort, but I had envisioned a fishy version of the cold Spanish gazpacho soup. I am thankful to report that I was terribly wrong! It did have a variety of seafood, pickled in a marinade that essentially made it taste cooked, as well as three kinds of corn: roasted kernels from Peru, old-fashioned hominy, and little bits of popcorn sprinkled on top. This was the second time over the weekend that I had eaten delicious, fresh, oil-free shrimp from the Mississippi Gulf coast. The main dish was braised oxtail stew over gnocchi. There was only one problem with this dish: I didn’t have a piece of bread to sop up every last drop of the sauce. I think it would have been rude to lick my plate in front of the professional food writer to my right.
The evening brought the most bizarre taco night I had ever experienced. I happened to pass by the barbecue pit the night before and had seen the whole skinned cow’s head perched on the edge – apparently they didn’t have enough room for that one in the coals. So I learned a little Spanish – barbacoa de cabeza had been advertised and I had not bothered to ask. Barbacoa was enough for me. I didn’t need a long Spanish lesson to figure out that cabeza translates: “head”. I had tasted meat from the head of a goat a few years back, and found it quite tender and tasty, so that did not overly alarm me. The chefs here transformed the cabeza into a terrific taco, and gave me a refreshing glass of citrus-mint sweet tea to wash it down. So far this day was a winner, heads or tails.
Jim and Nick’s Barbecue was serving three kinds of barbecue tacos: whole hog, goat, and tongue. Their slogan was, “First we send him to heaven, then we send you there.” The line was so long, and I was so busy networking with a group of cookbook publishers, that by the time we made it to the end only the whole hog was left. I am certainly not one to complain about having to eat at any level of the pork pyramid, but I was totally disappointed that I had missed the goat and tongue. Thank goodness, my new pal from the local arts council told me about a taco shop down the street and I was able to answer the tongue question a couple of weeks later. Choose your favorite joke here: 1. It was the taco that tasted back. 2. It had me till it said hello. 3. A taco that could lick its own plate clean. The first few bites were great – it had the texture and appearance of a Sunday roast. Then I decided to open it up and take a closer look. Big mistake. Ironically, I had heard Alton Brown say on Iron Chef America the week before that taste buds never really break down, no matter how long they are cooked. He was right. I have not yet decided if I ever need to have another, but I can testify that at least once I have tamed the tongue.

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 eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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