The foodies came to town this week as part of John T. Edge's Southern Foodways Symposium, an annual conference on Southern food and culture sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance and held at the University of Mississippi this weekend. An advocate for Delta food traditions, John T. is a friend and frequent visitor to Greenwood, and his organization kicks off their conference here every year with an event they call the Delta Divertissement. Surely, this year's was among the best Divertissements, as the focus was "Southern drinkways." Everything from water and buttermilk to soft drinks and whiskey will be discussed over the weekend, but it seemed the emphasis was on liquor at this early stage of the symposium.
The fun started Wednesday afternoon at the Viking Training Center, where Brooklyn drink master David Wondrich (signed copies here). Wondrich is himself a refreshing mix of dependable neighborhood bartender, booze geek and mad scientist, and we'd pour just about any of his splendid recipes down the hatch.delivered a short history of the cocktail with recipes and anecdotes from his lively book Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar (
Accompanying Mr. Wondrich was One Ring Zero, a terrific band from Brooklyn, who had arranged a ragtime tune to which they sang the mixologist's mint julep recipe. As he prepared a grand punchbowl finale, One Ring Zero serenaded with their unique blend of prog rock and Eastern European swing — or, as it was described by The Forward, "gypsy-klezmer circus-flea-cartoon-music you mainly hear in your dreams."
The foodies (and drinkies) staggered down the street to Turnrow for an official welcome and a hilarious history lesson on the deep drinking traditions of the Delta by native wits Julia Reed and her father, longtime Mississippi political figure Clarke Reed. Martha Foose unveiled catfish cracklins — thinly sliced catfish, deep-friend and served in brown lunch sacks, which should be a staple at all Mississippi recreational events — and we mixed her famous mailbox cocktails, featured in her runaway bestseller Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. That, with the leftover Wondrich punch, put the crowd in a bubbly mood, and the already hilarious Reeds were that much funnier.
Next the glassy-eyed symposium-goers moved to Greenwood's hot new restaurant, Delta Bistro. This is the latest essential stop on any visit to Greenwood. Our friend and head chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts serves creative twists on Southern favorites in a beautifully refurbished cotton warehouse, complete with huge skylights that once served to light the cotton-sorting tables. Taylor had prepared a feast, including an amazing brine-soaked porkchop, collard green and artichoke soufflé, black-eyed pea cakes, a fine crab bisque (already renowned around town), and homemade s'mores to send us all into the night.
Back at the bookstore — where they came bearing ever more s'mores, whiskey and moonshine — the evening's finale was a performance by One Ring Zero. The group is led by Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp, who first made music together while working at the Hohner Musical Instruments warehouse near Richmond, Virginia. Their job was to clean and repair harmonicas, accordions, claviolas and all manner of strange instruments, which they used to develop some haunting sounds and playful compositions.
The Southern Foodways affair was a natural fit for the band, who are currently producing an album of songs based on recipes by famous chefs (hence the mint julep song). This follows the success of their album As Smart as We Are, in which all the lyrics were written by various authors like Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, and Denis Johnson. They even penned a tune around a polite rejection email from Michael Chabon, which they performed at Turnrow, alongside a slew of tunes that showcased their whimsical intelligence and fondness for Eastern European music. It was the first time (and hopefully not the last) that a theremin solo (see photo) was performed at the bookstore, and the band's rousing closer, "sweaty Lebanese nightclub swing," had the audience clapping, dancing and cheering.
So cheers to the food scholars, professionals and casual enthusiasts for giving us all an excuse to step out and perform some field research on our native drinkways. It was a beautiful education.