Recently, a young woman named Amy Evans spent a week at Bowens Island quietly observing the reconstruction of the fire-ravaged restaurant. She spoke with employees, family members, and customers about the history and the future of this Lowcountry culinary landmark. To a casual observer she might seem to be just another reporter come to put her spin on the sad tale, but Evans is quick to clarify her role as historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Thus arises the larger question. What is this Southern Foodways Alliance? Among foodies, these are definite buzzwords -- just the sort of talk you might overhear at the second annual Charleston Food and Wine Festival. In fact, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, John T. Edge, will be a featured speaker at this weekend's festival. To many he's the face of the organization with his authentic drawl and witty commentary on culinary topics. But the Southern Foodways Alliance (casually referred to as SFA by those in the know) defines itself not on the personality of one person, but on the many different people of all races, ages, genders, professions, and geographies who make up their membership.
Simply put, the SFA is an institute at the University of Mississippi whose mission is to "document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South." Since its conception in the late 1990s, it has grown from a grassroots effort to a nationally recognized culinary preservation group.
Edge attributes that success to members' common bond -- a love of Southern cuisine. "At the core, people see food as a way to focus on our better Southern selves that offers contributions of black and white together and offers a chance at reconciliation," he says.
Consequently, the SFA is a member-supported organization in a financial sense but also in a larger sense. The diverse membership provides much of the character, and most of the labor for the group. There are only three full-time employees of SFA, and they are Edge, Amy Evans, and associate director Mary Beth Lasseter. They are assisted by freelance documentary filmmaker Joe York. Together, they coordinate such events as the annual symposium in Oxford, Miss., field trips, oral histories, documentaries, and much more.
Charleston happens to be in the SFA spotlight this year as the group will host a field trip here in June. Usually, the field trip ties directly into the symposium's topic, but this year is a bit different. October's symposium will be the 10th annual and consequently somewhat of a "greatest hits" format, according to Lasseter.
Edge says that the field trip and the symposium will look at the state of Southern food -- "where we are today and where we have been." Charleston seemed a natural choice for the field trip, according to Edge. He points to the region's depth of history, especially considering its role as a point of entry for so many Southerners of African descent, and he also sees the possibilities for the culinary future of the city.
"The thing about Charleston is that it's just awakening to the value of its own food culture. Its knowledge and appreciation don't measure up to New Orleans. It's not as mature," says Edge. But he sees it as an ascending culinary capital of the South, and the SFA just might assist that emergence. "We won't do an event unless we can find a way to give back to the community," he says.
Here, that gift will be the oral history of Bowens Island. The organization firmly believes in the power of looking back and exploring roots, and the oral history will do just that for the Lowcountry. Today, SFA functions are centered on documentary work, but such an organized preservation effort comes only after many years evolving from a loosely associated group of Southern food lovers.
The birth of the SFA occurred not on one day or in one mind but rather over much time and discussion. Local food writer Nathalie Dupree played an integral role as a founding member of the organization (the SFA honored her and culinary historian Jessica Harris in 2004 with Jack Daniel's Lifetime Achievement Awards). Like most founding members Dupree found time to devote to the effort despite her busy schedule (she has authored 10 cookbooks, hosted a weekly cooking show, and has been the chef at three restaurants).
Dupree and other notables in the Southern food community, such as Chef Louis Osteen and his wife Marlene, felt that if they did not start preservation efforts soon they would lose a lot of the popular culture. She remembers that for many years there were different groups of people trying to have a Southern food alliance, but various reasons (mostly financial) thwarted their efforts.
When Edge, a self-described "idealistic graduate student" at the University of Mississippi, brought up the idea of a symposium on Southern food there was already an eager audience, and in May 1998 the idea finally reached fruition. The symposium sold out within a month of its announcement, and 75 people gathered in Oxford to discuss "The Evolution of Southern Food" -- with topics ranging from race to poverty to Southern wine.
Due to the overwhelming positive response, noted food writer and founding member John Egerton suggested to Edge that maybe the university could act as an incubator to the alliance. Dupree agrees that "incubator" would be the choice word. "We had a lot of eggs, and nowhere to keep them warm," she says.
The university's agreement to foster the fledgling preservation group proved invaluable, and since then the organization has used the university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture as its base of operations. Upon Edge's completion of his thesis (on potlikker), he assumed the role of director for the group in July 1999 when the founding members met in Birmingham and coined themselves the Southern Foodways Alliance.
There were 50 founding members who ranged from respected food writers like South Carolina's own John Martin Taylor to an organic gardener from Atlanta and a barbecue pit master from Birmingham. Edge believes that the diversity of this original group set the stage for the future of SFA. "The founding members started a conversation about race and food that we're still engaged in today," he says.
The immediate future of the organization came to center on the annual symposium. Here, food lovers of all types gather to celebrate their passion. The events range from intellectual commentary on the ethnographics of watermelon pickles to a pimento cheese recipe contest. Edge describes SFA programming as "intelligent presentations with a funky backbeat," and that certainly seems true. One symposium included a concert by folksy jazz musician Olu Dara, whose song "Okra" details his love of Southern cooking.
As time has passed, symposium topics have become more specific, and ultimately a set format has developed. Each year the symposium focuses on a place or food, such as barbecue in 2002 and Appalachia in 2003. Lasseter sees the fifth annual symposium, "Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce and History," as the turning point for the growth of the group. Attendance soared that year to 150, and an article by late journalist R.W. Apple, which detailed the symposium, appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
This was also the first year that the SFA moved beyond events with the publication of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing. Egerton edited the book, which compiles original and previously published pieces that "celebrate the people, places, traditions, and tastes of the American South."
The following year the SFA tackled its first oral history and documentary film thanks to a grant from the National Pork Board. That spring, York, Evans, and freelancer April Grayson spent weeks in western Tennessee capturing the increasingly rare tradition of whole hog barbecue. At the 2003 fall symposium they presented their work, and the SFA's resounding role as a documentary group fell into place.
Edge believes that herein lies the difference between the SFA and other culinary organizations. When watching York's documentaries or listening to Evans's interviews, it is abundantly clear that the focus is on the people behind the food rather than the food itself. "We have a debt to the unsung heroes and heroines of Southern food that we have yet to repay. Our work is to repay," says Edge.
The SFA currently lists nine documentary films and 17 oral history projects on its website. Members have contributed to these archives through the Founders Oral History Project, which enlisted their help in conducting interviews with the 50 founding members of SFA.
This type of volunteer effort from people who have busy lives and demanding jobs defines SFA; its members are the backbone of the organization. The demographics tell the story in numbers. Yearly, membership ranges between 700 and 800. The group is mostly white, but African-American membership is growing. The majority live in the Southeast, but there are members in Ireland, London, and France. The biggest pocket of membership outside the southeast is in California, and the biggest pocket of membership in the Southeast is in North Carolina. There are 22 members in South Carolina, and eight members in Charleston proper. Lasseter says that about 50 percent of membership is made up of people who are interested in food, but it is not their career. The other 50 percent is divided between writers, chefs, and restaurant owners. Most are middle aged or older, but the fastest growing age group is the younger crowd.
Locally, members range from simply bona fide food lovers to Chef Sean Brock of McCrady's to journalists Matt and Ted Lee. Devoted members Gerry and Rita Wilkie recently retired to Charleston and quickly offered their help planning the upcoming field trip. The Wilkies joined SFA soon after its conception and have been a constant presence at events. Gerry grew up in a family of Carolina grain brokers and consequently felt strong ties to the land. His career in hospital administration did not offer much of an outlet for these interests, but Gerry found a group of kindred souls at SFA.
The Wilkies' dedication goes beyond good times and donations. They recently spent a week in New Orleans physically laboring with fellow SFA members to rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House, a historic restaurant ravaged by Hurricane Katrina that a group of Charleston restaurateurs helped rebuild by donating items, driving them down there, and even installing them.
"It's always been about connecting back to food traditions for me," says Gerry. "I see so much of that going away. They [the SFA] have done a wonderful job of trying to imbed that knowledge in people."
Sean Brock considers himself fortunate to have grown up in the South and appreciates the SFA's preservation efforts. "They are not only opening people's eyes to the traditions but they are also showing the importance of preservation," he says. "Times are changing, and there are a lot of kids who only know Burger King and McDonald's. They have no idea what it's like to plant seeds and take care of the plants in order to provide food for the table. The SFA is making Southern heritage popular, and this can only mean good things for the next generation."
The Lee Brothers, whose eponymous cookbook just came out, consider the symposium a "rallying point" for Southern food lovers. "The one thing that is so cool [about the symposium] is that you go there and you have a total slew of people who love Southern food but come from different perspectives," says Ted Lee. "It's like you speak the same language."
Such camaraderie and good times has led to the overwhelming popularity of the symposium and ultimately to its reworking.
Today, attendance at the event is limited to 250 people and tickets are dispersed based on a lottery system. Board members decided that rather than lose its homespun intimacy by drastically increasing the size of the symposium, they would simply stage more events throughout the year. Thus, if you lose out in the lottery system you can assuage your anguish and expand your horizons by attending another Southern food-related affair elsewhere.
This year's events range from a Potlikker Film Festival in Houston, Texas (which will showcase York's documentary on the rebuilding of Willie Mae's Scotch House) to the field trip here in Charleston. Plans for the field trip are just now being finalized by Lasseter and Edge and through local volunteer efforts led by Kirsten Hindes, a member from Columbia. Hindes became aware of SFA years ago while working as a chef in Washington, D.C., and finally attended a symposium after becoming a regional manager for Whole Foods.
Her work with Whole Foods took her from D.C. to San Francisco to Atlanta to New York, and through these moves she kept her allegiance to SFA. "I have always loved Southern cooking," says Hindes. "After going to culinary school and being exposed to all these different cuisines I still cooked Southern food at home. The SFA takes Southern cuisine one step further. It adds an elegance to what people think of as overcooked vegetables."
Like many SFA members, Hindes enjoys the celebration that is the symposium but believes that the real strength of the organization lies in its bigger message. "It started to dawn on me that it's more than people gathering to eat good food," she says. "We are spreading the word about what we love."
Consequently, when Hindes left her position at Whole Foods to spend some time in her hometown, she eagerly took on more SFA responsibilities. She has helped Lasseter and Edge scout out events for the Charleston field trip and set the tone for the entire weekend. "The goal is to show the food history of Charleston but have it show the whole story -- white and black, rich and poor," says Hindes.
Events will include a presentation by cookbook author Sallie Anne Robinson on Gullah Cuisine and a lunch at McCrady's, where Chef Brock will contrast old and new Lowcountry cuisine.
The juxtaposition of past and future are at the heart of SFA, and the prospects for the organization's own future cannot be ignored. Much funding for the documentary work comes from a growing list of corporate sponsors, and Edge acknowledges the risks that a corporate presence presents. Ultimately, he believes that the members will police such activity.
"If we pander to sponsors or get lazy in the programming, I think the members will call us out," says Edge.
Luckily, thus far the involved corporations seem to join for all the right reasons. Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q of Birmingham, Ala., has provided a $75,000 challenge grant for the oral history collection, and Edge says that they do so because of a genuine belief in the underlying reason for SFA. "Nick says, 'I want SFA to prosper because we need SFA for our company to prosper -- to stay connected to our roots," says Edge. "He [Nick] doesn't ask any quid pro quo out of us. He does the inverse. On the front of their menu you see our website."
Locally, Anson Mills (of Columbia) has been a longtime supporter of the SFA. Glen Roberts founded Anson Mills based on a desire to see a revitalization of heirloom grains, and the SFA actually helped track down an antebellum South Carolina corn that had made its way to Ohio. Roberts estimates that this assistance took half a decade off his research and taught him the value of talking to farmers and food historians as well as scientists. "The Roberts see what we do as means of keeping the old ways alive," says Edge. And from that very statement comes the gist of SFA. It is an organization that firmly believes that the past is the key to the future, and that if enough like-minded individuals believe in that purpose, there just might be hope. Edge sees the SFA as, "a place where we come to understand the culture that under guards the cooking. It is our own kind of cultural church."
To learn more about the Southern Foodways Alliance and fill out a membership application, please visit their website: www.southernfoodways.com which is updated regularly.
The SFA field trip to Charleston will take place June 22-24, and nonmembers are invited to attend. members invitations will be sent out at the end of March.