The Best Catfish, Bacon, Boudin, and Barbecue, All In One Place
This is what happens when you go to the Southern Foodways Alliance Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, from which I just returned. You hang out with a great bunch of people (some you know, some you don't) you listen to some smart, interesting people talk about Southern food and drink—about placing fried chicken and sausage and barbecue and collard greens in a broader cultural context.
Some of the talks are hilarious (Roy Blount, Jr. reciting his food poems, which are pure poetic genius), others are less exciting, but just about all of them make you hungry. Hungry for what, you might ask? Hungry for all the subjects I would consider majoring in if I enrolled in the Southern Foodways degree-conferring program at the University of Mississippi. I would have to triple-major in barbecue, fried chicken, and sausage biscuits, with a triple-minor in hush puppies, catfish, and boudin, all of which I consumed in ridiculous quantities this weekend.
I arrived Friday right before lunch, perfect timing as I didn't have to pretend to listen to the talks to earn my food (I believe when you come right down to it, that's the quid pro quo at a food conference: You at least pretend to listen, even though you can't get your mind out of the kitchen so that you can eat and drink without guilt). Lunch, served in the grove, where Ole Miss students tailgate on football game days (I'm afraid the Rebels were vanquished by Auburn in an away game), was a typically unbalanced affair: boudin, cupcakes, and Southside Market's absolutely killer smoked beef sausage, which has so much fat in it that it practically spurts when you take a bite. Absolutely dee-licious, and I mean seriously delicious.
There were quite a few talks after lunch, one that I absolutely loved, about collard greens by Gillian Clark, an African-American woman chef-restarateur (Colorado Kitchen in D.C.) who's just written a memoir, Out of the Frying Pan, and Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison gave a moving talk about fried chicken that concluded when he said that fried chicken still made him hopeful.
Dinner was at the Taylor Grocery( a few miles outside Oxford), which serves up the finest fried catfish, hush puppies, and french fries a person could eat. I don't know why the catfish tastes better there than anywhere else. Yes, it was crisp, greaseless, and perfectly fried, and that certainly helps make it delicious, but that doesn't adequately explain it. It's also the intersection of the food itself and the place we eat it in (and isn't that always the way). Taylor Grocery is an old grocery store with wood floors. Next door is literally a garage with walls made with corrugated steel and wood where drinks and appetizers are served. In fact, the place is so perfect I've decided to only eat fried catfish and hushpuppies there, and I urge all of you to head down to the Taylor Grocery to experience the catfish and hush puppies there first hand.
For breakfast the next morning I went on a sausage biscuit hunt. My friend John T. Edge told me about a place on the edge of Oxford, a convenience store, really, with a parking lot filled with pickup trucks, that serves seriously good sausage and ham biscuits. He warned me that they overcook the sausage, and they do, but it's still a damn fine sausage biscuit. I then tried a sausage biscuit at the Bottletree Bakery (923 Van Buren Avenue, Oxford MS 38655; 662-236-5000) just off the lovely square that frames the town, along with the world's biggest sticky bun (6 inches in diameter, no lie) and a pretty good blackberry muffin. Alas, the sausage biscuit was pretty dry and not at all flaky. I even had a sausage biscuit at the Chevron Station, which is the place drunken Ole Miss students end up after a night of revelry to eat fried chicken on a stick and maybe a leftover sausage biscuit (neither of which is any great shakes delicious-wise).
The rest of the day was given over to a whole lot of talks and panel discussions, and beautifully served fancy-pants lunch, the highlight of which was the Allan Benton country ham and homemade bread and butter pickles served as a pre-appetizer bite. I really wasn't very hungry when lunch was served, perhaps because I had discovered that the student union at Ole Miss served Chick a Fil sandwiches and couldn't resist having one at 11 a.m. that morning (I had stepped out for air, something I frequently do at conferences). Serious Eater Alaina Browne has long insisted that eating a Chick A Fil fried chicken sandwich is a deeply satisfying experience. And she is right. That crisp chicken breast served on a lightly buttered soft bun with a couple of slices of pickle and some mayo is a seriously good sandwich.
After two or three more talks I actually went to the gym on campus to prepare for the 2,000-calorie dinner I was about to eat. Actually, it turned out to be closer to be 3,000 calories, but it was so worth it. The great North Carolina pitmaster Ed Mitchell has found some experienced successful restaurateur partners (Mitchell is a world-class pitmaster, but he is less successful as a business person) and is about to open a barbecue restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he cooked his incomparable whole hog barbecue (both chopped and sliced). Also cooking that night were New Orleans' Donald Link (he has two terrific restaurants in the Not-So-Big Not-So-Easy anymore (Cochon and Herbsaint) and Birmingham's Frank Stitt. Link made his justifiably famous fried boudin balls, which are merely one of the best things you can put in your mouth wherever they're served. Stitt, who introduced New American cooking to the South at his first restaurant, the Highlands Bar & Grill, bravely served up fried pig ears. A little chewy, to be sure, but the crunch canceled out the chewiness. For dessert peanut butter cotton candy and peanut butter marshmallows, the latter of which were surprisingly unsweet.
Sunday morning found us listening to Roy Blount Jr. deliver a hilarious benediction and a terrific panel discussion featuring the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson, and Nikki Silva; Alice Waters; and Scott Peacock, the Atlanta-based chef who makes fried chicken so good it could make you cry (alas, he didn't make any at the conference this year).
Following the panel discussion was a brunch consisting of a simple, rich oyster stew prepared by Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan (I know Ann Arbor is not really part of the South, but maybe it's south of Detroit), a pile of excellent local sausage patties, chive biscuits, and as much Allan Benton bacon as one could eat (the answer is a lot), which is simply as good a bacon as there is to be found anywhere.
The conference was over, but I had a rental car and a few hours to kill, so I ended up doing some fresh barbecue research in Memphis, which I will report on at a later date.
I could have taken the SFA Tamale Trail route back to Memphis, but that is a wonderful path I have practically worn out in previous years.
So if your idea of a good time is hanging out with smart, interesting people, first talking about barbecue, fried chicken, and sausage biscuits, and then eating it, think about attending next year's SFA conference. It's open to the public, and spots are assigned by lottery (preference is in fact given to first-timers). It's big fun, you learn a lot, and lord do you eat and drink.