Monday, October 22, 2012

New York to Mississippi in 50 bites

Sometimes covering food can be a mad dash from one kind of food event to another without much chance to chew it over. Between a book ("Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook"), a volunteer job (chair of the James Beard Foundation's Leadership Awards) and a lively interest in Southern food (well, that's just me), I've been to three cities in nine days.

I went from Nashville's Southern Festival of Books to New York's Hearst Tower for the Leadership Awards to Oxford, Miss., for the annual Southern Foodways Symposium. In other words: More mad dashes  through Atlanta Hartsfield Airport than anyone should have to make in a week.

I'll bring more blog posts and columns out of those activities in the next few days, but in the meantime, a quick roundup:

In the pictures above, the young lady with the salad bar strapped around her waist was part of the hors d'oeuvres before dinner at the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards. Yes, she dropped microgreens into your hand so you could taste the variety of them. I wouldn't want to eat a salad like that, but it was an eyecatching display.

At the actual awards dinner, the honorees this year were Kentucky poet and farm activist Wendell Berry;  Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network; Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance; Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture;  and Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund.

Disclosure: I chair the awards, but my role is procedural. As the foundation's request, I helped to shape and define the award and write the bylaws, and I work with the advisers who do the nominating and voting. But I do not nominate or vote.

Right after the awards dinner, I headed on to Memphis, to rent a car for the drive to Oxford, Miss., for the Southern Foodways Symposium. I've been attending SFA every few years since the second one, about 14 years ago. It's stunning to see how much this group as grown, from 100 people that first year to 350 and not-quite-too-large this year. We almost overwhelmed tiny Oxford, although the people around town have gotten used to us by now.

This year's focus was barbecue and pitmasters, but the real star was the state of North Carolina. That's Sam Jones (above left) of the Skylight Inn in Ayden chopping barbecue at an event on Woodson Ridge Farms outside town. Ed Mitchell also was there with a lovely version of Brunswick stew. But they weren't the only N.C. chefs feeding us. In such a meat-centric gathering, chef Ashley Christensen of Poole's Dinner (et al) in Raleigh managed to bring down the house with an all-vegetable lunch. It was like nothing I had ever eaten: Deviled-egg salad on fried sourdough slices, creamed cider-braised greens, poblano peppers stuffed with kuri squash, coal-roasted sweet potatoes with coffee/sorghum butter, smoked tomato pie topped with cornbread and whipped corn cream, marinated White Acre peas, a mustard green salad with crispy okra and charred onions, and pumpkin hummingbird cake. Seriously, Ashley -- do you ever stop?

One morning's breakfast was the incredible pastrami from Neal's Deli in Carrboro, served on biscuits as big as your hand by Matt and Sheila Neal themselves.

And there were more N.C. folk: Writer Mark Essig of Asheville gave an eye-opening talk on the history of pigs, novelist Monique Truong ("The Book of Salt" and "Bitter in the Mouth") stunned the audience with a beautifully written "love letter:" to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge that also was a rumination on her childhood as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants in Boiling Springs, and UNC Chapel Hill professor and novelist Randall Kenan read his own piece on . . . well, OK, it was on hog sex. But it was great. You had to be there.

Finally, the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award went to Ben and Karen Barker (below), who recently closed their legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham to spend more time with their family. There was a time when fine dining in North Carolina pretty much was Magnolia Grill. From what I saw, ate and heard this weekend, Ben and Karen are leaving our state food legacy in safe and very lively hands.