Three reasons the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium was so special? 1. It defied lists. 2. It defied lists. 3. It defied lists. Only a fool would try to concoct a ranked roster of the event's thought-provoking lectures and dishes.
But since we have a fondness for numbering around here, we couldn't resist bullet-pointing a round-up of a few of the more innovative foods served at the event. To the SFA's credit, culinary innovation wasn't celebrated at tradition's expense: Symposium attendees made their yearly pilgrimage to Taylor Grocery, the 35-year old fried catfish shack on the outskirts of Oxford, and feasted on pork pulled from a whole hog cooked by Sam Jones in the fashion his forebears adopted back in the early nineteenth century. Dishes new and old were unified by integrity and flavor, which -- as countless tweets have attested -- was extraordinary.
For folks beyond the South, though, it's most interesting to reflect not on the deliciousness missed, but the future possibilities suggested by the menu.
Fancified Southern food is hugely trendy: In 2012 alone, Seattle has welcomed Honest Biscuits, the Seattle Biscuit Company, Bitterroot BBQ, Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen and The Wandering Goose, and is awaiting the impending opening of Matthew "Where Ya At Matt" Lewis' Roux. But many of the Southern restaurants here and in other Northern cities are reluctant to tinker with the accepted canon, or look beyond a small swath of the Deep South for inspiration. It's much easier to track down fried chicken than tomato gravy, pintos and creasy beans, to name a few Appalachian dishes found almost nowhere.
At The Wandering Goose, a new Capitol Hill restaurant specializing in biscuit sandwiches, every sandwich features either fried chicken, fried oysters, country ham or Benton's bacon. Since I like all of the above, I'm not complaining about their local availability. But at the SFA symposium, the breakfast biscuits were topped with pastrami - a fully legitimate member of the smoked meat family - from Neal's Deli in Carrboro, N.C. (The previous day's breakfast brought Lolo Garcia's brisket tacos, another iconic Southern morning dish.) While pastrami may not ring Southern bells with the same ferocity as anything bearing Allan Benton's name, it's a smart, playful addition to a barbecue line-up. In that spirit, a few more dishes from chefs who weren't afraid to have fun:
Barbecued popcorn, Poole's Downtown Diner
Every dish on Ashley Christensen's lunch menu deserves study, but her snacky popcorn was a great example of thinking deeply about the components of comfort. Although Anson Mills' heirloom yellow flint popcorn -- which has too proud a history to be consigned to darkened movie theaters -- would have been terrific without seasoning, Christensen's team concentrated the hallmark flavors of barbecue and threw them in the sack. In a vaguely Modernist twist, the popcorn was dashed with dehydrated vinegar, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic.
Pimento cheese, Poole's Downtown Diner
One of the longest-running pimento cheese debates centers on which mayonnaise to use for the spread. Duke's? Hellman's? For her perfect rendition of the snack, Christensen used neither: Her binder was cider vinegar emulsion. While Southern food's renowned for being salty and sweet, there's plenty of sour to glorify too. Christensen's salute was so persuasive that I hid my table's jar of PC when a server came to claim it.
Banana pudding ice cream, Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Co.
The standard barbecue dessert is banana pudding (Unless it's peach cobbler: Your preference probably has something to do with what's served at your favorite barbecue joint.) Banana pudding is beloved because it's gloopy, soft and sweet, but a pair of food producers showed SFA that the tradition can stand some texture. In Clarksdale, Hugh Balthrop is making rich banana ice cream from Mississippi grass-raised milk and crumbling vanilla wafers into the mix. Memphis chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman also got into the banana pudding update act, serving whipped peanut butter pie with bits of banana and a coverlet of salty, crunchy peanut brittle.
Neckbone poutine, Hog & Hominy
Ticer and Hudman served just one lunch at the symposium, but their new Memphis restaurant emerged as the weekend's obligatory pre-airport stop. Hog & Hominy serves excellent brick-oven pizzas, but the standout of our rushed meal there was a plateful of poutine, a relative rarity beneath the Mason-Dixon. Seattle loves poutine, of course, and many local chefs aren't afraid to mess with it: At The Coterie Room, the fries are tossed with a pork demi-glace, deep-fried Beecher's cheese curds and shredded pork shoulder. But I hadn't yet seen any frankly Southern preparations until faced with Hog & Hominy's version, slathered with salty neckbone gravy and cut with chili oil.
Red-eye sorghum butter, Poole's Downtown Diner
The dishes listed here were selected for creativity, not taste, since nearly every dish presented over the course of the weekend was wondrously good. Still, it's worth noting that Christensen's butter was praised by James Beard award winner Linton Hopkins as "one of the best things I have ever tasted." The compound butter was served with campfire sweet potatoes, sitting bright and fleshy in their cracked jackets. Although red-eye gravy is a longstanding Southern tradition (according to John Egerton's Southern Food, its naming has been wrongly attributed to Andrew Jackson), the brilliant use of coffee is every bit as suitable for Seattle.