By JAY REED
It was only day one of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, though the fun was well underway with all the hoopla of the night before: food movie, food music, food fashion, food photography, and dinner (also food).
This day would prove to be just as fulfilling. Full and filling. What great words for this day.
We started out with brisket breakfast tacos prepared by Lolo Garcia of Plantation BBQ Trailer in Richmond, Texas and Tim Byres of Smoke restaurant in Dallas. Let’s back up a decade or so.
When restaurants in our area began promoting breakfast tacos, I scoffed. When I found out some folks were putting salsa on their scrambled eggs, I sneered.
Today, I ask for forgiveness.
I have repented from those sins and changed my ways. Now I put all kinds of salsa on all kinds of everything, and if there is a tortilla and an egg in the house, I’m having a taco for breakfast. The only reason I didn’t go back for two — or three — of the brisket versions that morning was because I knew more food was coming.
But it was a hard choice.
As we finished up our tacos, the first speakers of the day took on a panel discussion called "The Politics of Proteins and Tomatoes." Before I really began digging deep into all things food, I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as food politics. But since this is being published during a week when we all may be a bit weary of politics and ready for a respite, I will forgo a lengthy discussion and just encourage interested readers to Google when ready.
Lunch was a lark.
Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer of Hog and Hominy restaurant in Memphis, Tenn. put this one together in honor of fellow Memphian Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner restaurant. We arrived at the Powerhouse in Oxford to find closed shoeboxes at each place setting. Inside the shoebox: more boxes. Truly a box lunch.
On the table among the boxes were Lardo Deviled Eggs with a crispy piece of chicken skin as a garnish, a selection of pickled vegetables, and paper cones full of pork rinds. I could have made a pretty good lunch out of that, but that’s not the way it works at the SFA. Hudman and Ticer have Italian restaurants and Southern roots. They took Mrs. Robinson’s aquarium-smoked ribs, and built sides that reflected both their Italian heritage and Memphis barbecue traditions. Barbecue spaghetti became Chitarra — the flour was cold-smoked and the resulting pasta was cut with guitar (chitarra) strings.
Alongside that were Baked Cannellini Beans with Guanciale (cured pork jowl) and Turnip Greens with Hominy and Ndjua (spicy Calabrian sausage). I feel like I speak a little Italian now. Dessert was also in the box, but out — it was served in a little mason jar. Peanut Butter and Banana Pie with Salted Peanut Brittle. We were scamming unopened boxes around the room for more of this.
As lunch settled, we got histories of the pig and of barbecue joints – appropriate introductions for the barbecue-focused weekend. We also heard from several authors Friday, one reading a short story about barbecued turkey (yes, it exists) and two others reading love letters to their favorite joints. One of the letters was to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, N.C., which has fed me numerous times, and was a part of my summer barbecue tour. I won’t say I got teary-eyed, but I could certainly understand the love.
Awards were given that evening, and to keep us from starving until dinner, Whitney Otawka (a Top Chef alumna and a chef in Athens, Ga.) supplied a couple of tasty bites. Okay, maybe I had more than a couple. Pork meatballs swimming in a muscadine jelly sauce were just the kind of sweet and savory combination I like. Also on the table were spicy (from Tabasco in the batter) fried quail breasts on white bread held together with a dab of Tabasco mayo. Despite the double dose of Tabasco, my tongue could handle it, and for this I was very thankful.
Dinner, as has been the tradition for at least the last three years that I have attended, was fried catfish and fixin’s at Taylor Grocery. I couldn’t say why, but I think this year the catfish was the best I’ve had there, and it’s always good. Truth is, the consistency says a lot.
Another tradition of our night at Taylor is the appetizer selection on the porch before dinner. Or during, or after.
Tenney Flynn of GW Fins in New Orleans, La. took a temperature-extreme approach to his offering. Oysters were prepared by cold-smoking, but served on red-hot oyster shells that had been fired on a grill. As I have written on numerous occasions, oysters just aren’t my thing, bless their hearts (and they do have hearts - I looked it up). But these were pretty good. If I were to put myself on a remedial oyster-eating training program, I would include these.
On the other end of the porch was Okra Chaat, prepared by Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford. Chaat is basically an Indian fast food snack. In this case it was julienned strips of crispy fried okra (no batter here — not needed), spiced and tossed with peanuts.
More of this should be sold at football games. Really.
One might say that this was an expansion day. I had been confronted with the challenges of commercial tomato workers, listened in on barbecue love letters, and traced the roots of both pig and pit. And by the end of it, the waist on my new corduroys was crying out for relief.
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 .