It feels mildly sacrilegious - and, frankly, daunting -- to winnow down the recently-completed Southern Foodways Alliance barbecue symposium into a series of concise soundbites. It's no wonder Mississippians have a knack for winning literary honors: Anyone who can find the words to convey just what it means to pile out of a one-room juke in a Bolivar County cotton field, buy a Styrofoam tray of extraordinary hot tamales from a civil rights activist's son (who runs his late-night business out of the back of a souped-up white SUV), and share a fifth of Jack while rattling down Highway 8 in a school bus deserves whatever prize they're giving out these days.
Even the less adventurous elements of the four-day program, which this year probed the history and culture of barbecue, resist easy description. How to explain the stillness that erupted when novelist Monique Truong read a brutally candid chronicle of growing up Vietnamese in western North Carolina? Or make a plateful of mustard greens with benne-tahini dressing seem half as vital as it did to the fortunate eaters gathered around the tables at which it was served? Removed from the spell that food and fellowship cast, it's impossible to make a Sunday morning pitmaster procession (accompanied by a gospel organ lick, of course) sound anywhere near as transcendent as it felt.
The symposium notoriously sold out in record time this year: It took fewer than 15 minutes for the SFA to unload its stock of 375 tickets. To stave off the disappointment of hundreds of people equally fiendish about savoring their food and the stories behind it, the SFA is now rushing podcasts of symposium presentations into cyberspace. In the meantime, check out blog posts from SFA, Eater, The Tennessean and Garden & Gun for blow-by-blow overviews of what most longtime attendees consider the best symposium in the event's 15-year history.
The food pictures accompanying the posts will surely make symposium-goers nostalgic and stay-at-homes envious. But long after the specific taste memories have faded, the provocative ideas introduced at the symposium - which bravely and willfully pushed the nation's smoked meat discourse down less-taken roads - will persist. Here, six quotable lines that made attendees think:
1. "For generations, there's been good barbecue in Chicago, Detroit and other cities. Can we still call it Southern, or is it just American now? - Lolis Eric Elie
Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist who serves as story editor for Treme, and legendary Southern observer John Egerton engaged in an interlocution on the "State of the Barbecue Union" that consisted entirely of questions. Some of the questions were purposely absurd: Egerton wondered whether it was environmentally sound to burn the wood required for barbecue, and Elie asked if tofu should be considered barbecue. "A lot of us have vegan friends now," he deadpanned.
But the pair acknowledged how much barbecue - and Americans' understanding of it - has changed since the group last turned its attention to the iconic foodstuff. At the SFA's first barbecue symposium, writer Calvin Trillin joked, "You could eat at a white-owned barbecue restaurant, but it's kind of like going to a gentile internist."
"You don't have to be a black pitmaster to serve good barbecue," Egerton said. "And women can do this too."
Yet if defenders of barbecue traditions have relaxed their stance on race and gender, they're still squeamish about the regional expansion of smoked meat practices. What does it mean for barbecue if truly great brisket can be produced in Seattle? And, perhaps more intriguingly, what does it mean for the South?
2. "Raleigh is the Mexican Ellis Island." - Gustavo Arellano
The contention of Arellano, editor of OC Weekly and author of the recently-published Taco U.S.A., wouldn't surprise anyone in North Carolina. But it was a good reminder that immigration and its influence on food culture isn't a story confined to the nation's borders. There are types of Mexican barbecue sold in North Carolina that Arellano can't find in southern California.
Arellano was first alerted to the significance of Mexican immigration in the American South by syndication patterns for his popular "Ask a Mexican" column. He opened his presentation by quoting from a letter he received years ago, pointing out similarities between Mexican immigrants and rural Southerners (Dodge pick-up trucks, country music and cowboy boots were among the proclivities cited.) The standing question is whether their eating patterns will also converge, and how - and if, as Arellano suggested, Mexicans might help keep the South stereotypically Southern.
3. "Lunch by @poolesdiner was the best argument I've heard for somebody to open a great Southern vegetarian restaurant. Preferably @poolesdiner." - Brett Martin, via Twitter
Food lovers who were tuned to Twitter around 11 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday were likely inundated with pictures of kuri squash rellenos with chow chow; coal-roasted beets with horseradish crème fraiche and deviled egg salad smeared on panes of fried sourdough bread. As superstar chef Sean Brock put it, "I feel sorry for the person that has to cook lunch next year at the symposium." Ashley Christensen flat-out cooked the meal of her life.
What made Christensen's feat doubly amazing was her total reliance on the plant kingdom. There wasn't a shred of meat on her superlative menu, which was so astoundingly diverse that it took a course or two before the very savvy crowd realized what Christensen had done.
A few short years ago, a chef probably wouldn't write an SFA menu without bacon. But the region's great talents have fully resurrected the Southern kitchen garden tradition. Now, it's up to the chefs riding the Southern bandwagon through non-Southern cities to catch up. West of the Mississippi, Southern still means fried chicken, fried green tomatoes and porky collards. (Interestingly, when Delta Bistro's Taylor Bowen Ricketts prepared greens for a pre-symposium program in Greenwood, Miss., she deleted the meat.) Putting aside the question of whether such narrowness sufficiently honors the South's rich culinary heritage, such plates are bound to bore eaters everywhere - and assault their arteries.
4. "America hates an eyeball. We don't want our food looking back at us." - Alton Brown
Called upon to explain the science of barbecue, Brown clearly relished appearing before a crowd that wasn't skittish about the prospect of whole animal cookery. Most Americans feel differently, as my husband learned when he showed the above photo of Rodney Scott's pig to a co-worker. The man shook his head and said solemnly: "If people knew barbecue looked like that, they wouldn't eat it."
Since the whole hogs prepared by Scott and Sam Jones were among the best things I ate in Mississippi, I'm genuinely sorry that folks could be scared off by the primal preparation. But Brown's statement doesn't just apply to barbecue: The drive toward a more sustainable food system requires eating different beasts and all of their parts. (The pig's tail is especially delicious.)
5. "We are fighting for our weirdness." - Wright Thompson
Usually, a "Lincoln-Douglas-style debate" means two men stand at opposing podiums and present their views. But SFA took a more literal tack, casting GQ's Martin as Abraham Lincoln and ESPN's Wright Thompson as Stephen Douglas for a verbal fight over competition barbecue.
Barbecue acolytes tend to hate competition barbecue, with its fancy rigs, sloppy standards and judges who are inordinately fond of lean meat and sweet sauce. "They don't even like belly!," exclaimed Thompson, who documented the scandalous Memphis in May downfall of the South's best working pitmasters. Thompson maintained the standardization of barbecue by wealthy white men in silly pig costumes threatened barbecue's future (he also took a number of swipes at Lincoln's sexual prowess.)
But Martin made a fairly persuasive argument, repeatedly returning to the catchphrase, "Mo' barbecue, Mo' better." According to Martin, barbecue can only benefit from new audiences. And he challenged Thompson's charcterization of competitors as robber barons buying their way to victory: "Folks, these are your folks," he said of the middle-class cook teams whose demographics aren't that different from the regular people food scholars celebrate in other contexts.
6. "Magic is real. Food, drinks, people: This can change the world." - Greg Best
Holeman & Finch's Greg Best had just treated symposium-goers to a bathtub brimming with Tennessee whiskey, sorghum syrup, champagne, bitters and nutmeg when he took to the stage to deliver this proclamation. Every person in the room believed it.