A Mexican in the South: Notes, Quotes, and Observations from the Southern Foodways Alliance's Annual Symposium
Imagine my surprise earlier this year when I received an email from John T. Edge, one of the best food writers in America and head of the Southern Foodways Alliance, this awesome-ass effort by the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture to preserve, document, and celebrate the food culture of the South. He wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing a presentation on the barbecue traditions of Mexico for the SFA's annual symposium, and how they were panning out in the South, if at all.
I couldn't believe it. I have few writing heroes, but John T. is definitely one of them--and now, he was asking me to present at the SFA's baby? Hell ya!
That was in April; the symposium happened this past weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, and my advice to those of us Southern Californians who claim to know 'cue and love it: you don't know shit until you go to the foodie equivalent of Woodstock, a TED conference (sans the snobbery), a high school field trip, and a family reunion mixed into one whiskey-soaked, food-laden weekend.
Taylor Grocer: The best catfish on Earth
So, with apologies to the much-missed Orange County Register sports columnist Randy Youngman, notes, quotes, and observations from the Symposium:
*Since I'm like an editor of an alt-weekly and shit, I wasn't able to escape to Oxford until Friday morning by taking a red-eye from LAX to Memphis, then taking a rental car for the one-and-a-half-hour trip from the Music City to Oxford through gorgeous forests and traffic-free roads. I unfortunately missed the lecture "The Politics of Protein and Tomatoes" in which my good pal, Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, held court on his group's many righteous fights against corporate giants to pay more for tomatoes picked. I actually hadn't seen Greg in about eight years, so it was wonderful to catch up with him. Asbed was awarded the Eggerton Award for "food-world work on social and environmental justice", which just shows the SFA knows their stuff.
*For breakfast that Friday: Texas-style beef brisket breakfast tacos. The taco rules ALL.
*The symposium itself is a grand mishmash of love: actual love letters, academic histories on how barbecue stands were the original fast food, studies on the differences of barbecue traditions in Kentucky's many counties, poems, a presentation by Alton Brown on the science of slow-roasting a pig, and even actors dressed as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating the merits of competitive BBQ (you had to be there to appreciate the surreal hilarity of that). My humble contribution to this was "Mexican America: Carne Knowledge," in which I argued that the American South and Mexican South were merely brothers from another madre. I did this by reading out loud this ¡Ask a Mexican! column examining the similarities between hillbillies and wabs, by noting Mexican government statistics showed that the majority of Mexican migration from the country's southern states were going to the American South, especially focusing on the traditions of La Huasteca--barbacoa estilo Hidalgo for the food, and son huasteco for the music. I think folks enjoyed it, and you can listen to it below:
*There were next-to-no Californians there, but I was glad to run into the only other Orange Countian there: Jay Cohen, of Laguna Beach. He was one of the few people not in the food industry present, and we spent more than a few minutes talking about our love of Mos 2, the legendary Mexican teriyaki chain of Anaheim and SanTana. Small world!
*The most spectacular part of the symposium, of course, was the food. We got served 12-course vegetarian meals that included everything from tomato pie to squash chile rellenos (again with the Mexican food!), box lunches featuring pimento cheese spread, and pastrami biscuits to gargantuan feasts on farms featuring barbecue, more greens, and some magical potage named Brunswick Stew. Most of the meals were prepared by the South's premier young-gun restaurants. And then there was the catfish served at Taylor Grocery, a ramshackle beauty in nearby Taylor which serves catfish that is essentially a length of fried breadcrumbs that once bitten through, unleashes a gush of sweet, white flesh--some of the best fish I've ever had, period.
*Accentuating this all is that we were driven to Taylor and the farm feast on school buses, adding to the camaraderie of it all. Save for when I was with Greg, I sat in the solitary seat toward the back of the bus, because--like in grade school--I remain a lonely, shy nerd.
*And the booze! Special thanks to Collier and McKeel, whose Tennessee whiskey was flowing throughout the weekend. I actually already had a bottle that I purchased from when I passed through Tennessee in August for the annual Highway 127 yard sale, but had yet to open it. Can't wait to do so, and give it the proper Drink of the Week treatment for its fine, lightning body.
*Crazy Mexican-food note: I found two Mexican restaurants in Oxford, and they both labeled themselves "taco shops." But I thought only restaurants in San Diego did that?
*Funniest weekend anecdote: when I referred to corn whiskey as corn whiskey. "You mean white dog?" one gentleman responded.
"No, corn whiskey," I replied.
"Yeah, that's white dog," he shot back. We laughed--LOVE IT!
*I was able to meet my fellow sisters in food writing, Besha Rodell of LA Weekly and Hanna Raskin of Seattle Weekly. Great, talented gals, and wish I could've hung out more, but this conference is like a bowling ball spinning through nine pins, constantly scattering acquaintances as people talk to strangers for the love of food.
*My personal favorite moment: when, during a lecture, John T. tapped me on the leg and offered me a swig from his whiskey flask. Let's see the organizer of some boring-ass academic convention do THAT.
*Wanna go next year? If you love food, you should go at least once in your life. But be warned: it ain't easy to get in (tickets this year sold out in 12 minutes, even though they cost $595). But it's worth it, for all the magic. Here's the link with details, and see ustedes next year, y'all!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.