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Southern Foodways celebrates work of women

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Women work hard for the money, honey. And the Southern Foodways Symposium, held every October in and around Oxford, Miss., gave us a little attention for it last weekend.

The theme of the 16th symposium was “Women at Work” (and it wouldn’t be at all ladylike to comment on how long it took – after all, barbecue did need to be covered twice). The focus this year ranged from black women and the economics of domestic service to the Gee’s Bend Singers, two quiltmakers who sang gospel music so powerful, the roof of Nutt Auditorium on the Ole Miss campus may still be swaying.

SFA is always a mix of the scholarly, the sublime and the supremely silly. I made a video documenting all nine of this year’s meals, including a tremendous lunch by Vivian Howard of the Chef & the Farmer in Kinston; see it online. But there’s always more to food than food, so here are some of my favorites from the presentations:

• Diane Roberts of Florida State University covered Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes and her famous frozen rolls. Barnes started making them for her church bake sale at St. Mark’s Episcopal in Troy, Ala., and ended up founding a company that now makes an average of 9 million rolls a day in a dozen flavors. (While describing the orange sweet rolls, Roberts came close to a public swoon.)

Next time you pick up a package, notice the green and white label: Sister was a Kappa Delta.

• Durham writer Emily Wallace gave a talk on Eugenia Duke, who founded Duke’s Mayonnaise during World War I, “a successful entrepreneur before she even had a right to vote.”

Duke’s fans are so passionate that the C.F. Sauer company, which now owns the brand, gets paintings that people make of their jars. One woman wrote and requested three jars so she could have her ashes put in them to give her daughters after she died.

• Finally, SFA now has a tradition of a tongue-in-cheek Lincoln-Douglas debate. This time, the subject was Cake Vs. Pie, with New York Times writer Kim Severson taking the side of cake, against Kat Kinsman, the editor of CNN’s food website, Eatocracy, who stood for pie.

Impossible to declare a winner, of course, and Severson struggled mightly. But it’s hard to beat pie rhetoric. As Kinsman noted:

“Cake in its most exultant form is showy, Carrie Underwood to pie’s June Carter Cash. And who would you rather have at your table?

“No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished. Roll pie, my friends. Roll pie.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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