John T. Edge hopes participants in the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham on Feb. 9 left the Magic City with “new ideas in our heads and new foods in our bellies.”
As director of SFA, Edge knows the central role food plays in Southern culture.
“We think about food as a narrative. Food is a story we tell about this place, the American South,” he said. “We tell stories about the South, we just happen to use food as a way to do it.”
From the opening reception at Good People Brewing Company to the symposium at Haven on the Southside, there was plenty of food and drink.
Chef John Hall, owner of Post Office Pies in Avondale, served up bites of food at Good People and Rusty’s Bar-B-Q served a proper Southern lunch the next day. Feizel Vallie of Atomic Lounge served up special cocktails both nights of the symposium. Royal Cup Coffee and Hero Doughnuts ensured Saturday morning got off to a tasty start.
But beyond the food that was shared were ideas around food and the hospitality industry.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald talked about how labor built Birmingham and how food helped sustain that labor – centering on the Birmingham hot dog, which he would put up against the Chicago dog any day of the week.
Archibald noted ambiguity and creativity have benefited Birmingham food in the past and present. But there is one thing he is not ambiguous about.
“Jesus wouldn’t put no sugar in his cornbread,” he declared to thunderous applause.
Archibald also reached another conclusion.
“Food has made Birmingham believe in itself again and that’s a powerful thing,” he said.
One of the reasons for Birmingham’s food-based pride is Highlands Bar & Grill.
“For Highlands to be recognized as the best restaurant in America means that the James Beard Foundation finally caught up with what I’ve known and you’ve known for a long time – it’s the best restaurant in America,” Edge told Alabama NewsCenter.
Other subjects tackled at the symposium ranged from leadership roles for women in restaurants, dealing with crisis in the industry, sharing in the prosperity with restaurant staff, to addressing drug and alcohol abuse in the food industry.
“We’re asking tough questions about the South,” Edge said. “The South is both a tragic and a beautiful place. We have to acknowledge that, that this is a complicated place. Food is one way to get at those complications. It’s a way to examine the problems of this place and to celebrate indeed the beauty that we’ve forged together.”
The symposium had a decidedly Birmingham flavor.
Local photographer Celestia Morgan had an exhibit that focused on the symposium’s theme of “Food is Work” and captured restaurant and food workers in their workplaces. That exhibit has been installed at the Birmingham Public Library.
Alabama School of Fine Arts instructor Ashley M. Jones shared food-based poetry.
Ava Lowrey premiered a film on Mac’s One Stop in downtown Birmingham.
The Birmingham symposium is one of three SFA will hold this year. Its Summer Field Trip is set for Bentonville, Arkansas, June 14-15 and the Fall Symposium is scheduled for Oxford, Mississippi, (where SFA is based) Oct. 24-26.
“They’re a chance for a tribe to gather. For people who are interested in Southern food culture, want to understand it more deeply, this is like a boot camp,” Edge said. “We come together for one day and we disperse, but we disperse with new ideas in our heads, new foods in our bellies and a community that moves forward together.”
Edge said Birmingham is a mainstay on the SFA schedule because SFA was formed at a meeting in the Magic City in 1999. That’s not the only reason.
“It’s a place we just love,” Edge said. “We live in Oxford, Mississippi. My wife and I come to Birmingham at least four times a year just to eat. Whether it’s eating at Little Donkey or whether it’s eating at Johnny’s or whether it’s eating at Niki’s West, we love this place.
“We also believe in this place and for the SFA we want to introduce people to the Birmingham we know and the Birmingham we love,” Edge continued. “I want people to go to Eagle’s and walk through the line and get ox tails and collard greens. I want people to go to Johnny’s in Homewood and I want them to get keftedes and chickpeas and spinach. I want them to see the Birmingham I see, taste the Birmingham I taste, meet the people of Birmingham and realize that this is a great town in which to eat but it’s also a great town in which to make sense of the South.”
Edge said food has great power in all cultures and the South is no different.
“One of the things that we share across color divides, across gender divides, across divides of all sorts … is an appreciation for this food,” Edge said. “This food was made together. This is not black food, this is not white food, this is Southern food.”
Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies and explores the diverse food cultures of the South. SFA produces a podcast and a journal both called “Gravy,” collects oral histories and publishes them on its website and produces up to 15 films a year.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)
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