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Southern Foodways Alliance convenes 21st annual symposium

By Jenna Mason

jenna.mason@oxfordmag.com

Kicking off with a Thursday cocktail hour on the grounds of Rowan Oak, the Southern Foodways Alliance will bring writers, thinkers, artists and eaters from all over the South to Oxford this weekend. The nonprofit organization documents, studies and explores the diverse foodways of the changing American South.

A member-supported organization based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, SFA collects oral histories, produces films and podcasts, publishes great writing, sponsors scholarship, mentors students and stages events throughout the year that serve as progressive and inclusive catalysts for the greater South.

The 2018 symposium explores Food and Literature, employing a broad definition of the latter that spans modern soap operas, menu narratives, novels, poetry and narrative song cycles. A diverse roster of speakers from a range of disciplines will expound on the significance of such texts in broader Southern culture. James Hannaham, author of the 2015 novel “Delicious Foods,” will speak on his creative process that marries current events with masterful, fictional storytelling. John Kessler, renowned former restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will trace how the evolution of Southern restaurant menus reflects changing concerns in the region.

Courtesy of a generous donation from 21c Museum Hotels, the art collective Ghost of a Dream will construct a reading room built from discarded food packaging at the Powerhouse, which hosts much of the three-day event. The installation will also be open to the public from Oct. 15-30.

The Old Armory Pavilion, at the corner of University Ave. and Bramlett Blvd., hosts a Saturday evening performance by Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub, which will debut original music based on the life and work of Alabama writer and cultural arbiter Eugene Walter.

While each symposium delves into deep waters surrounding the complexities of Southern identity, the annual gathering also serves as a joyful reunion for a loyal contingent of Southern food enthusiasts. Many regular attendees describe the weekend as their favorite of the entire year, and they relish the time to catch up with distant colleagues over a series of impressive meals.

This year, chef Mashama Bailey will provide the most noteworthy of these meals, the Saturday Tabasco Luncheon. An invitation to cook this meal carries great distinction, and past honorees include Chris Shepherd (Underbelly, Houston), Sean Brock (Husk, Charleston), Steven Satterfield (Miller Union, Atlanta) and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi, Houston). Bailey pioneered “Port City Southern” cuisine at The Grey in Historic Downtown Savannah, Ga., which is housed in a repurposed 1938 Greyhound Bus Terminal.

A few tickets remain for the event and can be purchased at the SFA website. The general public can also get a taste of the event with a series of readings and book signings at Square Books on the Oxford Square. Sandra Beasley, Beth Ann Fennelly will read from SFA’s newly published collection of poetry, “Vinegar & Char,” on Friday at 5:30 p.m. James Hannaham will be in conversation with Sara Camp Milam, editor of SFA’s quarterly magazine, Gravy, on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

To learn more about the Southern Foodways Alliance, visit their website at southernfoodways.org.