It Was Cake vs. Pie — and an Homage to the Women of Food — at This Year's Southern Foodways Symposium

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Asha Gomezs Chicken Country Captain with Anson Mills Vattayappam, Kale Thoren, Beetroot Pachadi, Sweet Potato Fritters with Tamarind Chutney, Pickled Vegetables and Peach and Ginger Fried Pies with Cane Syrup and Jaggery.
  • Asha Gomez's Chicken Country Captain with Anson Mills Vattayappam, Kale Thoren, Beetroot Pachadi, Sweet Potato Fritters with Tamarind Chutney, Pickled Vegetables and Peach and Ginger Fried Pies with Cane Syrup and Jaggery.
The 16th annual Southern Foodways Symposium had not officially begun. But after climbing into a car pointed toward Mississippi with Nashville Lifestyles’ Erin Murray and author Alice Randall, it didn't take long before we were scribbling notes.

We talked cookbooks and novels. Art and social media. Music and marriage. Then we stirred up some girl power by car-dancing to "Family Affair" by Mary J. Blige.

This car ride to the University of Mississippi where the Southern Foodways Alliance is based helps sum up the symposium experience more than you might think. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s a party. And it’s the conversations between the lectures and meals that offer flashes of unexpected illumination and connection.

But first, we have the food to thank. The SFA documents and studies the food cultures of the changing American South, so food brings us to the table in the first place to look at issues like gender, race and place. And chefs who cook at the symposium are like musicians playing the Ryman. They come to kill it, melt faces, drop mics and walk off stage.

In doing so, they often prepare Southern food that’s surprising, creative and always with a story to tell. Nashville's Lisa Donovan of Buttermilk Road and Husk prepared desserts for a cake versus pie debate. The dried apple hand pies were inspired by her Aunt Ruby, who well into her 90s, still dries her own apple slices on her porch in Floyd, Va. The coconut layer cake was inspired by Donovan's culinary lodestar, Edna Lewis.

Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill in Atlanta celebrated her heritage in a coconut- and curry-inflected version of the traditional dish called "country captain," — showcasing the interconnectedness of her native Kerala, India, and Georgia (“my two Souths,” she explained).

Each tomato pie or bowl of chicken and rice comes with a story on whose kitchen it smells like and why it matters and what it means to the chef. It’s not all serious either. Benne-fried green tomatoes with curried peach preserves and whipped goat cheese by Vivian Howard of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, N.C., honored “all the kooky female goat-cheese makers I’ve worked with over the past eight years.” On Saturday, we were issued a paper bucket as plate. I had my fried chicken dinner with a plastic cup of Champagne.

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But among the meals, flask nips, late-night gatherings and lectures, the SFA also is kind of like church. It’s not the building, the potluck or even the preachers that matter most, the SFA is its people. And man, does it have some colorful cohorts.

At one dinner, I sat with an oral historian, a well-known food blogger, a legendary culinary anthropologist (Vertamae Grosvenor), and a playwright who had been commissioned to write a piece about Edna Lewis that we would see later in the weekend. Other tables packed in interesting folks, too, in a room gone rowdy with ideas.

This year’s theme was "Women at Work," examining the role of women in Southern foodways. It meant ladies ruled the roost, doing the cooking and talking as we studied epochal moments in women’s food history. For example, we learned about female food entrepreneurs like Eugenia Duke of Duke’s Mayonnaise.

A strong Nashville contingent also represented. Randall gave a talk with her daughter Caroline about learning to know a family member through an inherited cookbook collection. Andre Prince Jeffries drove all night after closing Prince's Hot Chicken Shack on Friday to cook for us on Saturday.

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On the last day of symposium, I had a chance to sit with Donovan. I had enjoyed her pple pie and coconut cake while watching the cake versus pie debate. (Cake is Carrie Underwood, argued CNN’s Kat Kinsman, and pie is June Carter Cash.) I asked Lisa where she falls on the matter.

“Making it? Pie. Eating it? It depends on what it is,” she said. “Nothing makes me happier than making pie.”

But when it came to summing up her experience at symposium, like most of us, she couldn’t yet put it into words. “It’s overwhelming,” she said.

An overview hardly does it justice. It’s more of a magic you process and carry all year. Documentary maker Nicole Lang of Richmond, Va., captured the notion in a final tweet:

"#sfa13 is done, but now starts the requisite thinks, feels, contemplatin’ & reflection…hearts & minds busted wide open as usual."

Next year’s symposium will mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by looking at inclusion and exclusion at the modern Southern table. The SFA also holds events throughout the year from dinners to documentary screenings. For more information, visit southernfoodways.org.

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