For twenty-one years now, the Southern Foodways Alliance has explored the history and culture of our region through its food—from biscuits and barbecue to church picnics and lunch counters. For this year’s gathering October 11-13 in and around Oxford, Mississippi—the first in ten years that is open to the public—the SFA intends to eat its words. Sort of.
“We’re looking at works of literature in a broad way,” says John T. Edge, director of the SFA and a contributing editor for Garden & Gun. “From modern day soap operas like Queen Sugar to works of literary importance like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison to restaurant menus, we’re looking at the full spectrum.”
While considering menus alongside, say, William Faulkner or Zora Neale Hurston might seem like a stretch, the topic is a natural for John Kessler, former restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “People read menus the way they do pulp fiction,” he says. “Menus do what good literature does, and that is make you feel things. You get hungry, you get interested, you ask questions.”
In his symposium presentation, Kessler will teach attendees what menus reveal—and what they hide. Take the menu at James Beard Award-winning chef Linton Hopkins’s Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, for example. “It says, ‘Best American beef we can find,’ which lets you get into how they source their beef and that they probably don’t trust USDA ratings,” Kessler says. At Staplehouse, another Atlanta dining institution, the menu telegraphs very little. “It tells you nothing but ingredients and makes you ask questions,” Kessler says.
Chef Mashama Bailey, who will be headlining a lunch at the symposium, takes a literal approach on the menu at her Savannah restaurant the Grey. Her menu lists “water” (indicating seafood), “dirt” (vegetables), “pasture” (meat), and “pantry” (preserves and dry goods), telling the full story of the food offerings in vernacular any Southerner will immediately understand.
“There’s usually at least one thing on Southern menus that lets you know they have the bona fides,” Kessler says. At chef Kevin Gillespie’s Atlanta restaurant Gunshow, the banana pudding is, of course, “old-fashioned,” while Staplehouse goes a step further with “Grandma Lillian’s potato bread.”
Catch Kessler’s talk, along with others by writers such as Sandra Beasley, Randall Kenan, and Valerie Boyd starting on Thursday, October 11. “The symposium is a tent revival of sorts for true believers in the possibility of food and drink in the South,” Edge says. “It is a three-day gathering of curious Southerners who want to know their region better.” For all curious—and hungry—Southerners, tickets are on sale now.