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Just what is Southern food -- and where is it going?
Evolution of Southern fare makes for hot topics at Southern Foodways symposium
OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN) -- What is Southern cuisine, where did it come from, where is it going, and what happens when you take it outside the South?
No body knows -- at least not for sure. But at the Southern Foodways Alliance and its annual symposium -- this year entitled "Travelin' On: Southern Food En Route" -- people sure love to talk about it.
Each fall, the SFA, headquartered at the University of Mississippi, sponsors a symposium attended by chefs, authors, food writers, and people who just love to cook or eat. The attendees, limited to about 90 people, attend lectures, eat food, and try to answer these seemingly unanswerable questions.
"Simply put," says the Alliance's web page, "the mission of the SFA is to celebrate, preserve, promote, and nurture the traditional and developing diverse food culture of the American South."
But perhaps Lolis Eric Elie, author of the cultural barbecue travelogue "Smokestack Lightning" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), said it better: "What we are doing here is talking about all them places don't nobody know about that fixes stuff like you used to be able to get."
A messy trail
"What is 'Southern Food?'" should be an easy question. Fried chicken, blackeyed peas and cornbread spring instantly to mind. But back in the lecture room in the Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus, cultural geographer Richard Pillsbury explains the definition can be slippery.
"There is no food that is characteristic of the whole South," Pillsbury said. "Grits are not everywhere. Biscuits are not everywhere. And you have to be open-minded about what you call cornbread."
A good example, he said, are attempts to track barbecue sauces.
To illustrate, Pillsbury displayed a map of the South covered with blotches to represent areas where different barbecue sauces are used -- tomato based, vinegar based, mustard based. It resembled a stained placemat in a roadside diner.
"One of the first things I learned is that barbecue is a mess," he said.
A map of migratory trends doesn't help much more. Branches spread out from South Carolina north, North Carolina southeast and west, and from Pennsylvania into Appalachia and westward to Kentucky.
What is clear, said Pillsbury, is that the South is really a lower South and an upper South settled by different groups with different foodways.
For example, he said, Charleston was not simply English but one of the most international cities in the colonies with 40 percent of its immigrant population at one point French Huguenots. There were also Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and enough Germans so that when two Lutheran churches were established, one fell out with the other over using too much English in services.
Then there were the slaves and many Europeans who came in through the Caribbean and who brought with them foodways, like eating rice.
Those who moved down from Pennsylvania were lowland Scots, he said, many of whom had spent time in Ireland as well.
The result are novelties such as tamales in Mississippi, and liver hash atop rice served with barbecue in South Carolina.
The South, rather than being an homogenous place where everyone eats grits, fried chicken and biscuits, is a patchwork of cultures with the areas reflecting the diverse influences ranging from Native Americans who were there to begin with, to immigrants from widely disparate areas.
What's happening to Southern cuisine?
Most attendants at this year's symposium might agree that the "old South" is still around, but they will also quickly tell you its getting more and more difficult to find.
A stream of speakers and panel participants lamented the loss of "meat and threes" -- the one time staple of every southern community -- a small, family-run restaurant that would serve you a meat and three vegetables at a modest price.
Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree (whose "New Southern Cooking," published in 1986 just out of print after 14 editions) still believes that Southern cooking is still "home cooking."
"You can't go out to eat every night and feel satisfied," Dupree said. "Home cooking is still sought after and viable in the South."
But Louis Osteen, Charleston restaurateur and cookbook author, says restaurants are stepping up to cook the way people once cooked at home.
"There used to be a line between restaurant food and home food. Now restaurants are going to cook those foods," Osteen said.
John Floyd, the editor of Southern Living magazine, believes that the old South, where Mama made biscuits from scratch and lovingly whipped a pound each of butter, eggs, and flour into a dense pound cake, is gone forever.
Of Southern Living's 2.5 million subscriber's, said Floyd, half the readers were not born in the South. That doesn't mean Southerners aren't interested in cooking. Southern Living publishes around 800 recipes a year, said Floyd, most of them submitted by readers of the magazine.
The change, said Floyd, is that the readers of his magazine, regardless of where they were born, are charmed by the Southern way of life. "It's the lifestyle that people are enamored of," he said.
Pillsbury agrees that the South is continuing to shift from what most people have always thought it was.
"The South is marked by vast areas of change." What geographers see is a region where "migrants and immigrants" continue the influx of "outlanders," said Pillsbury, with Atlanta, with its large population of non-natives, the ultimate example.
"Tremendous numbers are coming in and altering Southern food and its interpretation," he said.
Marvin Jones lamented that "meat and threes" are disappearing in his native south Chicago, and with them traditional Southern food.
"I went into what was supposed to be a soul food restaurant, but there wasn't a black soul in the place," said Jones. But, he admits, when asked to come to the symposium, he was in a kitchen on Martha's Vineyard cooking cornmeal-encrusted blue fish.
While some people think that new interpretations of traditional Southern food mark a loss, Jason Girard, who serves up Cajun, Creole and soul food at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago, says change is only natural.
"This is not a bastardization. It's an evolution," said Girard.
Review: "Food for the Soul," by Monique Y. Wells
Southern Foodways Alliance
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