By JAY REED
I’ve come to the conclusion that the once-a-year symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is akin to a high octane roller coaster ride on a weekend trip to Six Flags.
You stand in line for what seems like years, a bit impatient because you’ve ridden before and have a pretty clear notion of what awaits you at the end of the queue, but willing to hang in there because you know: it’s worth it. At long last you are strapped in, and before you know it, the next-to-last breakfast hill has been crested, a tasty memory, and you want to holler to Brett (from Nebraska, says his nametag) to slow this thing down.
It’s no secret that I like to try new things — on the plate, at least. But more often than not, it’s the simple things that make some of the tastiest memories.
(The tongue taco will never be forgotten, but it doesn’t give me warm fuzzies when I think of it.)
Our breakfast on the second day of the Symposium was a pleasing combination of new and old. Traditionally, at least in my brief experience, breakfast on Day Two is an early morning event, eaten outdoors standing at tall tables with flowing tablecloths and centered on the featured chef’s riff on a biscuit sandwich. In that brisk October air, a steaming biscuit and a hot cup of coffee are always conducive to forming the aforementioned warm fuzzies.
From the outside, this year’s biscuit looked like an ordinary breakfast sandwich. When I opened it up to put on a bit of grainy mustard (Sling Blade, anyone?), the pile of meat resembled something of a cross between country ham and not-quite-crispy bacon. It was my first smoked pastrami biscuit, and it sent my taste buds soaring. I know that’s a little over the top, but it was incredible. This early morning round of ethereality was devised by Matt and Sheila Neal of Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C., and devoured by me.
The Viking Range Luncheon, orchestrated by Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, N.C., was entitled the Piedmont Root-to-Stem Harvest Feast. As implied by the name, this was an all-veggie lunch at the heart of a barbecue meeting. Yet somehow, meatless made sense when all was said and done.
On the table for snacking while we waited for the main dishes were homemade crackers and pimento cheese made from Hooks 3-Year Cheddar, house-roasted peppers, and a cider vinegar emulsion in lieu of the standard mayo. We dared the server to take that jar away before it was empty. The Anson Mills Heirloom Yellow Flint Popcorn was flavored with the dehydrated ingredients of a barbecue sauce: vinegar, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic. The deviled egg salad was presented on little crisps of fried sourdough bread. And with a few jars of pickled veggies of all sorts, we were on our way through the twelve courses. Smoked Tomato Pie with Silver Queen Cornbread and Whipped Corn Cream.
Pie needs whipped cream, right?
Poblano and Kuri Squash Rellenos with Mid-State Barbecue Chow-Chow. Creamed Cider-Braised Carolina Salad. The designated legume was a wide-mouthed mason jar full of Marinated White Acre Peas. The mustard greens, set on a base of Benne-Tahini dressing, were topped with crispy okra and charred onions.
Then we came to two coal-roasted roots that for me were the stars of the show. I have never had a beet that I liked until that day. I had read often that roasting beets brings out the sweetness, but I had yet to find any personal evidence. I even tried to slice them like chips and fry the nastiness out of them — still a beet. But these coal-roasted burgundy nuggets, with the horseradish crème fraiche and bitter orange marmalade vinaigrette, were so amazing that I doubt any future beet will be able to live up to them. The coal-roasted sweet potatoes that followed were also yummy, but I already liked sweet potatoes. What made these fantastic was the red-eye sorghum butter. I heard later that the coffee she used was concentrated by first cold-brewing, then sending the result through a fresh set of beans.
She cared about this butter. Now I do.
Dessert was Pumpkin Hummingbird Cake with Fresh Peanut Custard. The peanut custard sounded awesome. The platter of cake slices brought to our table was heavy, I’m sure — the pieces were huge and the cake looked dense. But I have a sixth sense about these things. No need to ruin a perfectly wonderful meal by accidentally eating coconut at the end of it. So I have trained The Wife to take a bite of suspicious dishes and prevent such tragic accidents. I was not certain of the classic ingredients in hummingbird cake, but deep within my soul I knew there was something in there I was not going to like.
I have since checked with Southern Living, and the original 1978 version, now the most requested recipe in their history, did have pecans, but not coconut. (I like pecans in classic pecan pie, where the Karo has inalterably changed them into candy, I like them roasted and spiced, and I can enjoy them covered in chocolate. But I’m not crazy about them in my cake). The Wife nodded affirmatively – this version had the offending flakes.
So I scraped a spoonful of peanut custard off the plate and ate some more sorghum butter. And life was good.
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 .