Southern Foodways Alliance
Southern Foodways Alliance; maintained by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi; accessed between December 22, 2009 and January 10, 2010.
In the summer of 1999, a group of 50 people met at one of the most celebrated restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama, the Highlands Bar and Grill, which is recognized for its refined preparation of fresh, seasonal Southern ingredients. The meeting at the Highlands was to establish a new organization, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), a group committed to promoting, discussing, and, most importantly, celebrating the South’s distinctive cuisine and foodways.
Since that meeting, the SFA has chronicled the region’s cuisine, celebrated and documented the Southern Foodways movement, and provided a forum for food enthusiasts. Centered at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which was the organization’s original benefactor, SFA is member-supported with over 800 members. The SFA has organized symposiums, produced film documentaries, guided field trips, staged film festivals, showcased food writers, published journals and newsletters, and hosted day camps. One of the ways SFA promotes its endeavors is through its website.
The SFA site reflects the organization’s mission of promoting and educating the public of the region’s traditional foodways. The public is also welcome to join the SFA and participate in events. SFA members are encouraged to contribute their ideas, photos, and oral histories to the website to create an interactive repository for Southern history.
Bright hues of orange, red, and yellow grace the homepage welcoming visitors and signaling to them that this site contains information anyone can enjoy. The site design is simple; a navigation bar is found at the top of the page, and is consistently found on all the page links. There are 15 links that bring the viewer to the primary content pages including the SFA’s history, membership, events, publications, and documentaries.
The site defines Southern cuisine on the “Southern Food Primer” page. The “Primer” (under “Classroom”) is a collection of quotes selected from various publications written by well-respected food writers and Southern cooks such as John T. Edge, Natalie Dupree, and Jessica Harris. The “Primer” also explains that the region’s cooking is more than its dishes; it explains that Southern cooking was influenced by migration and the accompanying influx of new cooking methods. Southern cuisine can also be defined by its use of native ingredients as well as the introduction of new vegetables and spices brought in by colonization and migration. Lastly, the cuisine is also defined by the relationships within families and within communities.
The SFA site is used to educate and enlighten food enthusiasts, but it also serves as a great resource for historians, preservationists, and ethnographers conducting academic research. The “Classroom” section has a link to a collection of bibliographies annotating SFA events—symposia, day camps, and trips—starting with 1998’s Evolution of Southern Cuisine Symposium up to 2009’s Food and Music: Exploring Interdependent Cultural Expressions Symposium. In total, there are 18 bibliographies to choose from, with a broad subject range. The bibliographies provide a comprehensive look at the entire region, but there are bibliographies focused on individual topics such as sugar as a commodity and its production, the nuances of barbecue, and an in-depth look at South Carolina’s Low Country cultural heritage.
The highlight of SFA’s endeavors is the Oral History Initiative, which is located under the “Documentary” heading section. As stated on the Initiative’s page:
Integral to an appreciation and understanding of the diverse food cultures of the American South is the collection and preservation of the stories behind the food. Our Oral History Initiative (http://www.southernfoodways.com/documentary/maps/index.html) seeks to capture stories of Southerners who grow, create, serve, and consume food and drink.
These stories or oral histories are categorized by a particular food item and are cleverly titled to evoke the idea of venturing on a journey onto the reader. Who wouldn’t want to explore the Southern BBQ Trail, the Gumbo Trail, or the Tamale Trail? All of these trails would be interesting to travel, but the Tamale Trail project is particularly fascinating. Because most people recognize tamales as a Latin American creation, it’s surprising to learn of its ubiquitousness in the Mississippi Delta, an area known for its agricultural tradition. From oral history accounts taken by SFA historians, the origin story of the tamale begins at the turn of the century when seasonal Hispanic workers started working in the Delta. The tamale was a convenient and nutritious meal for working in the field. Eventually, the tamale became popular with the local population, and therefore, became part of the culture of the Delta.
The oral history projects are also arranged by state. For example, the Initiative posted a project carried out in Mississippi about the shrimping industry in Biloxi. Listening to the local fishermen, or properly named, shrimpers, reconstruct their beginnings, their views on how the industry has changed, and how the city has weathered destructive storms makes one realize how unique this area is in the United States. As shrimping becomes less lucrative and people retire from the business, it is pertinent for someone to document these stories; therefore, the SFA’s efforts are well appreciated. For those interested in submitting stories to the Initiative, the Oral History homepage has guidelines, resources, and contact information for contributors.
Food is not only sustenance; it is culture. The Southern Foodways Alliance is determined to illustrate that food is a cultural and historical resource worthy of documentation and preservation. Its website is a rich resource for those mildly interested to those seriously committed to studying Southern foodways. The site also helps define the region, as well as showcases the distinctions within.
M. Ricah Marquez
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers