Members of the Southern Foodways Alliance like to refer to themselves as citizens of the Banana Pudding Republic.
It’s a fitting description for this fun group. I’ve had the privilege of attending SFA events in Greenwood, Miss., and Louisville, Ky. And the small but hearty band of us who are SFA members in Arkansas get together on occasion.
The SFA, which is based on the Ole Miss campus and is part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, has more than 800 members. Writing in The Atlantic, Corby Kummer called the organization “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.”
Here’s how the SFA website describes what we do: “We stage events, produce documentary films, publish compendiums of great writing and — perhaps most important — document and map our region’s culinary standard-bearers through oral history interviews. We’re talking fried chicken cooks, barbecue pitmasters, bartenders, ham curers and row crop farmers. … Chefs and academics, writers and eaters: all are active participants.”
I’m neither a chef nor an academic. But I’m a writer. And, Lord knows, I’m an eater. I’ve fallen in love with this organization.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that I recently had the pleasure of sitting next to the great Southern writer John Egerton during dinner at the Capital Hotel. Back in July 1999, John convened a two-day meeting of 50 people in Birmingham. They were there to discuss the formation of an organization that would document and celebrate the South’s diverse food cultures. The name “Southern Foodways Alliance” was adopted at that meeting.
This is how the event is described in the official history of the organization: “That night, the founders gathered for a celebratory dinner of butterbean crostini and rabbit pilau at Highlands Bar and Grill, Pardis and Frank Stitt’s Birmingham restaurant. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi agreed to act as the incubator of the SFA and provided startup capital. … Two organizations with similar aims preceded the SFA: The Society for the Preservation and Revitalization of Southern Food, spearheaded by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. And the American Southern Food Institute, led by, among others, Jeanne Voltz. Soon after the SFA was established, both organizations folded their member rolls and cash reserves into the SFA.”
In the letter used to invite people to the 1999 meeting in Birmingham, Egerton wrote: “The time has come for all of us — traditional and nouvelle cooks and diners, upscale and down-home devotees, meat eaters and vegetarians, drinkers and abstainers, growers and processors, scholars and foodlorists, gourmands and the health conscious, women and men, blacks and whites and other identity groups, one and all — to sit down and break bread together around one great Southern table. We all know that this is the finest regional food in America, yesterday and today and forever. Here is our chance to keep it vibrant and to share it with one another and the rest of the world.”
John T. Edge has done a marvelous job leading the SFA since its founding. Groups known as SFA Skillet Brigades have done work throughout the region, such as helping rebuild the famed New Orleans fried chicken restaurant known as Willie Mae’s Scotch House after it was destroyed by the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.
Fittingly, the organization’s quarterly publication is called Gravy. And, in a nice Arkansas touch, it is underwritten by Mountain Valley Spring Water.
We would love to have you join us. Individual memberships are $75 a year. Family memberships are $100 a year. Student memberships are $50 a year. Corporate memberships are $500 a year.
We need many more members from Arkansas. You can join online at www.southernfoodways.org.
I hope to see you at an SFA event soon.