When at Southern Foodways, eat the catfish
October 20th, 2012
10:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. We'll be sharing dispatches live from their 15th annual Symposium "Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce" in Oxford, Mississippi, over the nest few days. Dig in.

Last night's festivities kicked off with nips and nibbles. What else were you expecting from an SFA symposium?

Whitney Otawka and Ben Wheatley of Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia, served up pork meatballs with a muscadine glaze and fried quail breasts on white bread with Tabasco sauce and pickles. Both of Whitney's creations were riffs on Southern classics - come on, don't tell us you've never had meatballs in grape-jelly sauce served from a crock pot. And of course, the quail breasts look like an extremely cute version of a certain pickle-capped fried chicken sandwich... So, take those two recipes, crank the ingredients up about five notches, serve them with a wink and a nod, and you might get close to imagining how yummy these amuses-bouche were. And did we mention that Whitney and Ben have yet to turn 30?

Greg Best, our trusty guest bartender for the weekend, followed up Thursday night's Ash Wagon Punch with a "Quick Pickle Flask." Made with "whiskey, fortified wines, bitters and proprietary liqueurs," the drink certainly fortified the SFA crowd for the evening. And no, it didn't taste like a pickle.

While we love a good time here at the SFA, we think that our most important job is to shine a light on the stories behind Southern food and drink. As our events maven Melissa Hall told the crowd yesterday, we want you to have a great bite and stiff drink in your hand, but then we want you to think about where your food comes from and meet the individuals who prepared it. More than any drool-inducing photo opportunity, the stories and the people are what matters.

To that end, we presented two awards last night. Poet Kevin Young presented Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with our John Egerton Prize, which honors an individual whose work in Southern food addresses issues of civil and/or human rights. Asbed admitted that he hadn't heard of the Southern Foodways Alliance until we told him that we had selected him for the Egerton Prize. But, he said, "I hope our relationship continues." So do we.

Pitmistress Helen Turner of Helen's Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, won our Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Each year, with the support of the Fertel Foundation, we honor an unsung hero or heroine of traditional foodways by commissioning a short film about his/her work. Joe York's film "Helen's Bar-B-Q' played to a rapt crowd, with Mrs. Turner seated in the front row. When the film ended with Mrs. Turner saying, "I'm Helen Turner, and I am the pitmaster," the audience went wild. Here's a hint: if you make it up to Brownsville and try one of her pulled-pork sandwiches, you'll go wild again.

There aren't many female pitmasters in the business, and yesterday we had the privilege of introducing our symposium goers to two of them. (You might remember that Mrs. Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner in Memphis smoked the knockout ribs we enjoyed for lunch.)

Friday night ended, as it does every year, with a rowdy school bus ride eight miles down a dark country road to Taylor Grocery, the fabled catfish temple just south of Oxford. We gobbled smoked oysters from Tenney Flynn of GW Fins in New Orleans, okra chaat from Vish Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, and plates brimming with catfish, fries, hushpuppies and coleslaw. There was Foggy Ridge cider from Dugspur, Virginia, and Paradise Porter from Diamond Bear Brewing in Little Rock, Arkansas, to wash it all down.

Today's talks are about to kick off, so you'll excuse us while we go grab a Neal's Deli pastrami biscuit for breakfast.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Sara Camp Arnold, the editor of SFA's quarterly publication, "Gravy."

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Texas Eater

    This story has made me very hungry.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  2. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    You know, I never thought I liked cat fish but recently Whole Foods has been serving up CAJUN CATFISH (spiced with tons of stuff) and I cannot keep my hands OFF of it!! DELICIOUS!! :)

    October 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  3. Susan 30A EATS

    Sadly, I should have been there, but tickets sold out in 12 minutes!! Will have to live vicariously via frieds attending and your posts!

    October 20, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
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