It's always a little difficult to sum up the Southern Foodways Symposium, the annual gathering in Oxford, Miss.
I went every year from 1999 to 2004 and often found myself staring at my notebook, trying to figure out how to make sense of it for people who haven't gone.
One year, we sat on Oxford's picture-perfect courthouse square and watched a documentary about a preacher who had trained his pigs to kneel for prayers before he filled their trough. Another year, a Scottish bagpipe band just showed up – spontaneously.
This year, I went back after a three-year break. The conference had gotten a little bigger and a little better organized. The stores around the courthouse square had gotten a little more gussied up. But other than that, it was the same – I spent a lot of time staring at my notebook.
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There are the people it draws, a polyglot of food writers, food academics, food makers and just plain food fans. Anyone who can pony up the cost of admission – $325, including membership in the Southern Foodways Alliance – and get their application in before it fills up. Even at that price, it always fills up.
There's the setting, around the campus of the University of Mississippi and spilling over into tiny downtown Oxford, where they use a couple of British double-decker buses to haul people around.
There are the presentations, usually a collection of poetry readings, funny lectures and quasi-academic posturing. Founder and organizer John T. Edge assigns an eclectic list of subjects. This year's theme was “The Liquid South, From Well Water to Sparkling Muscadine.” So the lectures had titles such as “Mama, Mama, That Canned Heat's A'Killing Me,” on the drinking of Sterno.
Could you make sense of that? I don't even try.
The real reason to go isn't the lectures, it's the people and the food. This year, dairy farmer Earl Cruze of Knoxville, Tenn., brought pint bottles of his churned buttermilk with flecks of butter large enough to catch in your teeth.
Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Raleigh cooked a mock oyster stew with salsify that made me proud to share the same state with her. Sean Brock of McCrady's in Charleston – where I had eaten just the week before – did a spread of pickled eggs that included toppings such as trout eggs from Sunburst Trout in North Carolina.
Best of all was a lunch made by Anne Quatranno of Bacchanalia in Atlanta. She spent months making pickles – pickled figs, pickled watermelon rind, pickled okra, beet-pickled eggs and potted pork. That was all before you got to the first course, pickled shrimp, followed by quail cooked in a country ham consomme and sticky sorghum pudding with a buttermilk-based boiled custard.
The whole thing finished up Sunday morning with my fellow Observer writer, Dan Huntley, leading Junior Johnson through a talk about his days running moonshine before he became a NASCAR driver.
To cap off the trip in style, I took Bill Smith Jr., the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, for his first visit to Graceland on our way back to the Memphis airport. We lingered in the kitchen to admire Elvis Presley's double-oven Tappan stove.
How do you sum up a food trip like that? I can't even try. Just pass the buttermilk and another pickled egg.